Saturday, August 18, 2012

Disabling adventures

Hello all : )

I wrote something. It can be read in segments or not at all. I know all of you are busy and have jobs and such, but if you are so inclined here is the story of my journey to my Ashram. It was amazing, and I'm having difficulty walking so Mom says I have to stay in bed and off my feet…hence lots of time to write.

I didn't put myself through proper basic training before I attempted the war zone that is train travel in India. Instead of distracting myself with barefooted running and yoga;  I should have been squatting in a box for at least 3 hours a day. I should have found every mosh pit in the greater South East Asian area, and jumped in. I should have sharpened my elbows and borrowed Amanda's man arms. I should't have let myself use the bathroom except in 15 hour intervals, forget a number 2 except but once a week.

I stayed in the small town Chiru took me to for 6 days. I can't tell you what amazing fuel chai and bananas are for running. I'm embarrassed to admit how much time I spent in a small used book store. I was such staple, they started to feed me chai with the employees. My days were spent simply soaking in the beautiful solitude and luscious green landscape. The only people I talked to were helping me stalk the author of the amazing book I was reading. but alas, my stake-outs saw no fruit. Its very hard to make it look like you're naturally bumping into someone, avoiding that awkward conversation as to why you've been hovering outside their door for hours…or why you have those binoculars (j/k, where would I get binoculars in India?).

Anyhow it was time to leave. I had a reserved ticket,  with a reserved seat to a small town three hours away. Then another reserved bed from that town (lets call it the Harlem of India) all the way to Rishikesh (the town of my ashram). 30 hour journey but in style. I arrive for the first leg of the trip. The train pulls into the station and the chaos commences. Those who don't have a reserved ticket (of which there seems to be hundreds) literally swarm the doors/window ruthlessly fighting to get in to get a seat.  Some of the windows of the trains don't have bars on them, so people jump through the window. One man was actually half way through the window, when a larger man grabbed him and threw him back to the platform so he himself could jump through the hole. Myself, I have nothing to worry about. I"m not one of these masses, I have a seat number and a smug attitude.

3 hours later, 8:30 at night, a pleasant first leg of the journey. Window seat and kind people feeding me chapati and complimenting my hat. We get off the train, there is an announcement, and what seems to be a simultaneous groan from all on the platform. All trains canceled. Electric storm. Shit.

Oh well. I'm sure, there will simply be another train, onto which I can transfer my ticket. A delay, but no problem. I"m here for my train, I"ve paid for a seat, this is their mistake. Like the airports, I'll probably get a fancy hotel for the night with vouchers for food. Laughable thought process in retrospect.

The counters are all closed. There are no trains anyway. I'm told to go to "Enquirery". "Enquirery" is a small window, swallowed by a mosh pit of a hundred, pissed-off Indian men. Not only am I the only westerner, but I'm one of a handful of females. I head to the station exit, thinking I'll just get a hotel for the night. I'm overtaken instantly. Dipiyoti Ray, Regional Business Manager for Troikaa Pharmaceuticals Ltd., literally plucks me from the crowd of homeless that are moths to my white face.

"Why are you here? You shouldn't be here. Come on."

The next day, at the ticket counter:
"No reserve seats Mame.  Waiting only, but you WILL get a refund."
"I'm sorry, but I need to get to Hardiwar station, is that possible?"
"Not until August 4th (in 5days), but you WILL get a refund"
"How close can you get me to Hardiwar?"
"New Dehli, but there are no seats either. but you WILL get a refund!"

I'm getting pissed. This refund is the equivalent of six dollars. I don't care about six dollars. I have just spent the night on my yoga mat in the corner of a female bathroom/waiting area, I want to be on a goddamn train.

Non-reserved seating to New Dehli (still 8 hours train from Rishikesh) it is. I am now apart of the fray. Waiting for the train, I draw. I've had a lot of time to draw lately, this one I started last night on the yoga mat, when I was too afraid to go to sleep. An Indian man in his 20s watches me draw for the 2 hours we wait for our train. He names the woman in the picture Lexa. He too is going to New Delhi. He speaks limited English, but he doesn't have to with that perfectly chiseled jaw. Train arrives. It is more frenzied than usual because a lot of people were stranded last night. I'm petrified watching men push old women onto the train to speed their own boarding. Chiseled Jaw (we never exchanged names) grabs my hand he leads me to the disabled car. Here is where I will remain for the next 15 hours.

Only 30% of the people in the car are actually disabled. The rest are poor unreserved people like myself. Those who are legitimately disabled (I say legitimate because there were those whose bandages miraculously switched hands) get choice of seats. The rest of us crowd around them. A crowd it was, but squatters rights eventually come into play. As the hours whittle away, Chiseled Jaw and I move closer and closer to the back of the car, eventually getting a prime seat on the floor under the window. There is a constant ebb and flow of people, sometimes I'm so crammed my knees are at my chin. Other times, Chiseled Jaw and I can both lean on my bag and stretch our legs.

(The car was an amazing cultural study. I could write pages on what I observed, but I dare say this email is long enough. Mostly, I was amazed by the good nature of everyone aboard (with the exception of a harping old woman who refused to take her dirty feet out of my lap). If you got up, you lost your seat (which is why I didn't pee for the entire journey), but no one was ill mannered about it. Everyone leaned on one another. Legs were intertwined to enable everyone to stretch their legs for periods. Peanuts were shared. Water bottles were community property. Babies were passed around. When it was particularly cramped and I had to squat…I almost jumped out of the train. When there was only 20 of us, and I could "comfortably" sit, I felt such a sense of camaraderie and affection for those who had been packed around me for hours. )

At 9:30 PM, after 15 hours, the train pulls into a large station. The air is festive. Countless sellers pass chai and other delicacies through the window of our car. Chiseled Jaw, hands me the food he had bought for the three of us (we had another friend who had been with us since hour 1). He refused money. Our friend hands me a chai. Again offended by the rupees I offer.

At that moment, armed Indian guards enter our car. Intimidating and yelling. I understand nothing, except they are clearly chastising the non-cripples for occupying the disabled car. It is clearly an empty display of authority, because they remove no one…until their flashlight land on me.

"You are not disabled…come with us"

I awkwardly hand the chai to Chiseled Jaw. Our friend helps me put on my backpack. The young boy who had slept on my shoulder in hours 4 and 5, sets my shoes in front of me so I can step into them. Someone else hands me my bag of fruit. I'm escorted out of the train, walked amongst three men with riffles hanging menacingly from their shoulders. I wonder if they'd let me sleep on my yoga mat in jail.

We arrive at our destination…a first class soft sleeper bed. "Sleep!" they order and leave.

Countless hours later, I run into Chiseled Jaw on Delhi station platform. He and our friend were clearly looking for me. I had already given up. The ticket counter had told me the final leg of my journey would be another 8 hours, and the train didn't' leave for another 12. I had my 6 dollar refund in my pocket, and lets be honest, a lot of privilaged American cash. A man was leading me to the private car I had hired to get me to this ashram (only 50 dollars for a 6 hour commute). The boys see me. "You got out…you got sleeper!"

I feel ashamed. They are so happy that I'm ok, no hint of resentment that I was given proper accommodation where they remained crammed on the floor. They protectively size up the man who takes my arm to lead me to the car. I feel embarrassed I got a sleeper. I feel even more embarrassed that I opted for the luxury of a car. As is... I'm limping. I messed up my foot squatting for so many hours. They are shaking my hand as I'm pulled away and put in my transport. The car feels like a helicopter, and I a wounded soldier deserting 'Nam.

I blame my lack of basic training. I was ill-prepared for war and I"m definitely experiencing survivors guilt.

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