Sunday, 1 November 2009

Travels through India - Part 1

I waited on the platform to take a train to Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh as the next place where I would conduct field visits for my Fulbright project on women excluded from microfinance loans. It was Friday, and I was supposed to get to Khandwa by Monday, so I decided to explore and head to Omkareshwar for a couple days. Omkareshwar is a holy city for Shiva-worshipping Hindus, located about 40 kilometers away from Khandwa.

As I stood on the platform, I tried to ignore the stares all around. By this point, I was almost used to the stares I received from both men and women, wondering what a girl was doing traveling on her own in India. I knew that the backpack I wore and my Chaco’s sandals attracted attention my way, but I also figured no matter how I dressed, I would somehow still stand out, despite being of South Asian descent. Even the shalwar qurta I wore was probably too loose, or too outdated, or too simple that wearing it hardly helped. People I met were sometimes appalled and sometimes awestruck when I would tell them I was traveling on my own throughout India working on a research project. Girls would ask me if I was scared, since we all knew that India may not be the best place for a woman on her own. Often, I would find myself surrounded by men. Once, I realized that the bus I was on did not have a single woman on it. This particular time I was a bit nervous, since I would have to find the bus stand at Khandwa and find the right bus to get me to Omkareshwar. I also knew that by the time I would finally reach Omkareshwar, it would be dark and I’d have to find a place to stay for the night. I did have what almost every tourist has; the infamous Lonely Planet book and so I tried to put my doubts aside.

As expected, not everyone wanting to get on the train had a confirmed seat. So, as the train pulled into the platform, there was a mad rush of Indians scrambling to get on, some carrying babies and some carrying large sacks of items they had to sell. This chaotic scene was accompanied by those passengers who were able to pay the extra fee and get a confirmed seat for the train ride. They grumbled as they pushed through looking for their seats and shooing away anyone in their way. During this particular rush, when I was finally able to get on the train, I walked past the bathroom, which let out an awful stench. I hoped that my seat would be somewhere away from the bathroom to avoid the smell, although my tiny bladder would inevitably cause me to frequent the bathroom at some point during the overnight journey.

The ‘sleeper class’ in trains is the most popular mode of travel throughout India. To get from one place to another in India can often be done by an overnight journey on the train. The compartments are set up so that there are 3 people sleeping barrack style across from 3 others. And along the side of the train, parallel to the direction of the train are 2 people sleeping. It can get very ‘cozy’. Until 10pm, however, the benches are not put down so everyone is sitting and sharing benches. At 10:00, once the benches are arranged for sleep, one cannot sit up in his or her seat comfortably as there is not enough space to sit up straight.

I found my seat and at most there should have been two others on my bench. Instead, I found a couple and their child, and two others. I pointed to my seat and they made some room for me next to the window to squeeze myself in. I figured the ticket collector would makes his rounds soon enough and those with unconfirmed seats would have to get up. Across from my crowded bench was an equally crowded bench and a heavy set man made it clear his was a confirmed seat. He mumbled as people made room for him to squeeze into rather than getting up. He asked everyone to show him their tickets to prove that the seats were actually theirs. He also had trouble fitting his luggage underneath the bench, as the space had been taken.

One of my favorite parts of traveling by trains in India was the chance to gaze out the window at the scenery. There was something very soothing about watching the Indian countryside, minus the trash that literally colored the entirety of the Indian railway network. On this particular trip, however, the child of the couple insisted that she sit at the window seat. She whined until I let her parents know I didn’t mind moving over. The Indian man across the way was having an obnoxious conversation with the man next to him about confirmed seats and that if people needed to travel, then they should pay the extra fee. He went on to talk about the population of India and how that’s the only way. He was clearly speaking loud enough so that everyone could hear him. He tried engaging me in conversation as well. I nodded sometimes, politely but did not want to be a part of the conversation so took out a book and tried reading.

Once the ticket collector came around, there was an argument between the ticket collector and a few in the section, including the couple with the small child. He got frustrated and finally said if they wanted to stay they had to pay him, which they did not. Apparently they were in the wrong train compartment. The mother kept bickering in Hindi saying that they had a small child and he should be considerate. The little girl was whining as they tried prying her away from the window. They finally agreed to leave and pulled out their many bags from under the bench, grumbling about people being inconsiderate. Once they did leave, the man across started his rant again about confirmed seats. He was complaining about this particular family, saying they acted as if they owned the seats, and took over the space underneath. He was speaking to everyone and no one. I was glad I was back at the window and tried droning him out.

I later learned this man’s name was Rajesh. He would switch off from ranting about something and snoring. Unfortunately, this continued for what seemed like the duration of the 16 or so hour journey. It was one of the many sleepless nights I experienced on India’s trains.

“Coffeeee! Chaiiii! Chaiiii! Coffeeeee!” This was a phrase one could expect at almost every stop and definitely in the early hours of the morning. Men would hop on trains to try to sell as much coffee or tea they could and would hop off once the train started moving again. Often, you could buy it through the windows and many transactions were done as the train was already in motion. My general rule of thumb for any street or train food is if it’s warm, it’s probably safe. I decided to get myself a cup on this particular train ride since it had been a restless night, where I heard a symphony of snoring and I knew it would be a while before I could lay my head down somewhere comfortable. The coffee I bought tasted like really bad watered down Nescafe. At least it was warm. Early mornings in Madhya Pradesh were chilly in January. Since the windows didn’t all shut all the way either, the night had been cold. I had also been, probably unnecessarily, paranoid of someone taking my things during the journey.

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