BootsnAll Travel Network

Notes From A Train Journey to Bihar

This is from a journal entry.

I took two trips to the state of Bihar in India–both served as “breaks” from the hustle and bustle of living and working in the city of Calcuta(or Kolkata, depending on who you talk to!).

The first trip was just after Christmas and New Years’, and it was in time for the Muslim celebration of their New Year. The entire week was spent in a dinky village in the middle of nowhere–no tourists had ever been there, nor probably will they ever go there. It was fascinating, a bit rash, and completely different than any other adventure I had been on to date or could have imagined.

To make it a little bit more comfortable, I was accompanied by a male friend of mine, Josef,  who needed some r and r just like me. We hired my friend Kalim to be our guide and it was his village that we went to.

This is a journal entry written on the train, on the way to Bihar for the first time.

Why am I doing this? Why am I on this disgusting train? Maybe I should have just stayed in the city.

Problem is, I can’t breathe there. I’ve lost my voice, I can’t stop coughing at night. No, it’s not TB–it’s the air quality.

So I find myself on this dirty train, going to a place I know nothing about, because I’ve just gotten to the point that I need to get the hell out of the city for awhile and breathe some cleaner air. I’ve made friends with one of the market men–“touts”–is the negative word tourists use–and he’s agreed to take me and my friend Josef to his small village in Bihar.

I don’t know much about the place-in fact, I’ve basically chosen to stay in the dark about it–because otherwise, I’d probably discover it was dangerous and never get up enough nerve to go there. Sometimes it’s just better not to know.

Kalim, Josef, and I met at the market and took at taxi to the Howrah train station. In order to get to the station, you have to cross what is the longest bridge in the world, with the smoke of ghats coming up on either side of the river; swarms of people walking, driving, biking, honking, selling food and vegetables, urinating, smiling, laughing, living.

Howrah station was the most chaotic place I have ever seen in my life. I clutched my bag against my clothes, Josef is holding is backpack tightly, Kalim plows on ahead of us carrying everything else and only glancing back every once in awhile to see if we’re still following him.

Everyone is looking at us–especially me, at 6 ft 3, I’m not blending in. People openly stare and gawk, mouths open, talking, pointing. Oh, God, it’s so tiring.

I’d heard there had been a big “clean up” of homeless people in and around the station, and that certainly rings true–there are almost no beggars and no raggedy childen to speak of.It’s actually cleaner in here than it is out in the street…although I find the word “clean up” offensive to describe kicking people out of the only home they have, it’s the phrase used in India, so I’ll stick to it. Still, I wonder where they all went?

And the noise. The din, the sound of thousands of people eating, talking, laughing, shouting, snoring–it’s unlike any noise I’ve ever heard before.

We get to our platform, and Kalim wanders off in search of oranges for the journey, leaving Josef and I sitting on a scrap of cardboard and and towel I brought along, our feet and legs wrapped around the bags in case someone walks by and decides to take one. We’re so tired, and looking forward to sleep–we’ve paid for a sleeper car.

Kalim wanders back looking morose. The train will be several hours late. Welcome to India. Everything is late. Sometimes stuff doesn’t show up until the next day. People don’t complain, they just bear it. I feel silly being grumpy about it and decide to get more comfortable.

Waiting for a train in a train station is a very uncomfortable experience, but if you go with it and do it Indian-style it’s more of an adventure.

Everyone spreads out a bit of cloth or toweling or maybe some bits of newspapers, and the entire family somehow manages to squish themselves into their alloted space on the platform. Then they bring out snacks–like oranges, like some sweets made with milk, like some chapati and so forth brought from home–and dig in. Chai-wallahs walk by every few minutes offering up chai or “coffee” which probably does have some coffee in it, but it’s not like at home. Babies are brought out and nursed, children play dangerously along the edge of the tracks, pie dogs run around trying to get a scrap of something or other, people chat and stare off into space…

The weirdest thing about waiting..the Indian way of that they seem to be the most patient people on Earth, able to wait through anything. They can sleep through anything too–the classic train station platform is filled with people covering their faces with a scrap of sari, a scarf, or a newspaper, sleeping through it all. This in an environment that is not only loud and crowded, but stinks of urine and has tiny mosquitos that bite whatever part of you is uncovered.

I’m not sleeping–the thought of sleeping on the hard, cold cement is enough to keep me awake. Instead, I’m looking around at the station and at the people.

Well, one thing I notice right away is that there are alot of sadhus–these are supposedly holy guys (only guys can do it, supposedly) wearing bright day glo orange robes and head dresses and they are all asking for money. They are very pushy about it, actually.

The only beggar I see is a man with leprosy, his hands and feet stumps, his face rotting off, his nose and lips gone. It occurs to me that what I once looked at with shock and amazement now seems like part of everyday life to me, and the man’s features soften to me as I realize this. He’s got a special can with a lid you put your donation in, so you don’t touch him–Kalim puts some food in it.

The strangest man we see is walking along the train tracks, dressed in a uniform of sorts and acting very oddly. It’s hard to say what he is doing exactly, I can’t put my finger on it. We’re watching him for a few minutes before we realize he’s killing rats

He walks along the tracks until he sees a rat( it doesn’t take long, as they are everywhere you look.) and he stops for a brief second, takes out a sling shot, and calmly and precisely aims, killing the rat.

Then he goes and retrieves the pebble he used–and the dead rat–putting the dead rat in ths funky shoulder bag he’s carrying.

The guy is fantastic–he catches six rats while I watch him in utter fascination.

Other people watch him too. I say to an Indian man, “Is he paid to do that?!”

Everyone’s wondering. In India, anything is possible. But even if the man caught one rat every five minutes, he wouldn’t make much of a dent in the rat population.

We finally decide he is insane.

I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Always, always, a bad idea in India. India is the only country I have ever traveled in where apparently women do not pee. Ever. No matter what. They have bladders of steel.

Men, on the other hand pee everywhere. Everywhere. Any direction you look in India, it is very likely that there will be a man peeing there.

Train stations are especially disgusting. Men jump down onto the tracks to pee before the trains arrive. They pee against buildings, in doorways, by posts. And, because they are men, they get to squat and defecate wherever they want, and at the train station, that’s usually right on the tracks too. It’s a stinking mess.

Women have to pay to pee. I make my way to the bathroom, and pay a ridiculous 2 ruppees for the privelege of peeing in what is one of the filthiest bathroms of my life. It is so dirty that you cannot touch anything, nothing. It’s an Indian-style squat toilet and I, in spite of having been here for months, can’t get the squatting thing down. It’s either painful or I feel like I’m going to fall in.

I make it back to the platform and our train is here. It’s old and in a more romantic mood, I would say it has “character”. In my current mood, I’ll just say it’s really, really old and loud and beat up looking.

Kalim says, “Go!”, and we scurry to follow him–he’s already drilled us that we must make sure we stick to him like glue, that we must get on the train and we must fight for our seats, other wise others will take them. I feel like I am at odds with this, but this is not the moment to stop and say politely, “No, really, you go first.” to the man digging his arm into my bag or the woman who just hit me in the face with her suitcase as she shoved past. No, this is first things first, and that needs to be me and my bags.

It’s surprisingly uncomfortable, being that pushy.

We get to out compartment with is the size of a tiny bedroom, or possibly slightly smaller than my bathroom at home. It has 9 beds in it–if you could call them beds. I’d call them hard, uncomfortable platforms hanging from precarious chains or so close to the ceiling that you can’t sit up.

Which gets me to my next point. The three beds we’ve been assigned are:one very top bunk which I can’t even contort my frame to climb up the ladder, let alone try to squeeze into it–(or get out again!); a middle bunk, which apparently can’t be opened until the person under it has decided to go to sleep; and a bottom bunk, which is half the length of the others, and which is impossible to stretch out on because a group of drunk obnoxious men have spread out a smelly meal of some kind and it doesn’t look like they are going to vacate any time soon.

Instead of calling them drunk obnoxious men, I’ll give them names:

Let’s call one “Long Pinky “, because , for whatever reason, he’s got a long pinky nail. It’s like an inch and a half long. Is it to do drugs? Is it a status thing? It’s a mystery.

The second man, let’s call him “Obvious Toupe “. He’s wearing one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen, and in India you see alot of wigs, falls, toupes..because people don’t like to walk around bald, and it’s the usual solution here. But what’s really weird is he’s dyed his wig with henna, so it’s bright orange, while his real hair he has left is gray. Must be some weird cultural thing, some different idea of beauty, because I’m not getting it. He’s probably looking at me and thinking the same thing.

Long Pinky and Obvious Toupe have spread out a feast on two entire seats, and they stretch their legs lazily across the cabin, not caring that they are taking up the entire space. They refuse to share their seats with anyone else, eaing the rest of us squished together on the remaining bottom bunk or doubled up on the ones by the roof.

The food they are eating smells awful–some kind of curry and it looks like goat meat(not my favorite, by far) and it’s oilyness leaves dribbles on the floor and the seat.

I feel sick. The bathroom was so gross in the train station that I was hoping the one on the train would be better, but it’s not. It’s worse.

My friend Josef crawls up to a top bunk and falls asleep. I decide to stick it out on the bottom bunk.

Kalim, my Indian friend/guide/amazing superhero (he will prove to have superpowers later on) sits near me. He’s exhausted, just like me: we’ve both been working all day. But we’re both equally stubborn, and I’m refusing to sleep tonight. So is he, because he’s worried men will bother me if I am asleep.

I’m worried about that too. Long Pinky and Obvious Toupe are glancing at me alot and seem, well, kind of sleazy.

It’s not just them–there is a constant parade of men coming through our compartment. Well, some are actually coming through our compartment, on their way to the “bathroom” (read:hole in floor); but most are just coming into our compartment, standing in the way, staring open mouthed, at the white woman (me) . I am trying to read a book and daintily cross my legs in the tiny space alloted to me, which is impossible as my legs are almost as long as the tiny Indian people that are sharing the compartment with me. And I am not dainty. I am an Amazon.

I’ve prepared for this journey, by the way, and I’m wearing a shapeless sack of a salwaar kamez in bland black, complete with headscarf..but it’s to no avail, because the black material makes me look even whiter. I am white, white, white. Day glo white, even. I am a breathtaking sight, apparently. I am the center of attention at the moment, but I’m thinking that perhaps when they’ve all looked enough and gotten enough photos of me with their cell phones they will go away.

Kalim insists that I take a nap. He insists he can stay awake. And he may be right: he’s got a secret weapon, a sticky ball of what seems to be tobacco and white powder, which gets rolled up together in his palm before he pushes into his mouth, where it stays for a good fifteen minutes before he needs to spit out what remains of it and make another one. I don’t know what it contains exactly, but whatever is in it, it keeps one awake, suppresses appetite, and is terribly addictive.

Fine. He chews, I nap. Napping proves awkward and he’s perched on the end of my bed, obviously uncomfortable but unmoving in his idea that if he moves, I will be molested.

I finally convince him to move and take the berth above. He somehow falls asleep, and I consider that in spite of my exhaustion, I am in for one of the most uncomfortable and sleepless nights of my entire life.

People talk all the the time about taking the trains in India, about how it’s a experience worth having(and one you won’t forget!) but I definitely, 100%, believe I could live without it.

It’s cramped. Nine people to nine berths? Oh, if only we were so lucky. No, not only do we have  nine people, we also have the mother /daughter who insist on sleeping in the same berth; we also havethe man sleeping on the floor; we also have all of the latecomers who don’t even have proper tickets and just squeeze in wherever. There are, in fact 17 people in a space for 9.

It’s bright. They don’t turn off the lights. Ever. It’s brightly lit, with flourescent bulbs, the kind of lighting that makes people look bad and pallid and bruised. The only way to not see the lights is to cover your head with your scarf.

It’s loud. The train is loud, but the people on it are louder. There is no such thing as whispering nicely to one another on an Indian train, oh no. People holler out as if it’s the middle of the day, they talk long into the night–well, basically all nightlong–even playing cards, arguing and eating. Food is provided by the constant tea wallahs that hop on the trains at every stop, calling out loudly, peering down into your sleeping face ,”Chai, chai, chai”.

It’s really, really uncomfortable. Whoever designed these trains was not thinking of comfort, they were thinking of Hell. Really, this is what I think the seats would be like on the train ride to Hell–hard plastic, only a foot and a half wide, too short for any one but  a midget to stretch out on, windows that don’t open..and it’s freezing cold. Really cold. Kalim did not prepare me for that ahead of time, so I’ve bundled myself in what I’ve got with me, with is nothing. So I’m cold and uncomfortable as hell.

It smells bad. It smells like a cross between a latrine and something–or someone–that has never(or rarely) been washed. Actually, I’m not sure the car I’m in has ever been washed, at least not well. It’s littered with trash and there are those little cockroaches crawling around on the floor.

It’s busy. There’s hustle and bustle all night long–our car is by the bathroom and the end of the train, which means men have to walk through our train all night to spit out red betel nut juice or whatever that stuff is Kalim is chewing. All night long, these guys do it every half an hour.

It’s dangerous. Leave your bag unwatched..and don’t be surprised if it disappears. Or your pockets are emptied. Even leaving your bag by a slightly open window, and watch and child’s hand nimbly reach in during the stop, searching for your wallet.

What’s really bothering me right now, though, is that Long Pinky hasn’t stop staring at me. I’ve tried everything: ignore him; stare back at him; read a book (reading a book by V S Paul on Islam at the moment); cover my entire face; stare out the window at some speck in the darkness with rapt attention; and, now I’m going to try falling asleep. I’ll just lie down and face the wall, that should do the trick and he’ll leave me alone…

Ok, I’m back. That last method failed miserably. Or rather, Long Pinky stopped staring at me, that is true. But them he got up out of his bed and fondled my behind! He did it just quickly enough that I had no time to do a thing (being half asleep and all) and then he got back into his bed and laughed silently with Obvious Toupe.

Well, there’s no choice, I’ve got to wake Kalim. He’s had a rest and so have I, but I don’t want to risk another fondle session with the creepy men on this train, so Kalim can stay awake and stand guard.

Kalim wakes up. I tell him everything. This is not easy as he is Muslim and he is a man and I am a woman and I’m pretty sure behind-fondling is not something he normally discusses with women. Or anyone. He spends the next hour or so glowering angrily at Long Pinky.

The train stops and loads of armed soldiers get on. And I mean, armed. These guys have everything from AK-47’s to grenades. They sit on my bunk. They don’t even ask to sit, they just do.

I sit there for the next few hours, pretending to read my book on Islam and being stared at by the soldiers under florescent lighting, with Long Pinky and Obvious Toupe snoring loudly and being entirely unable to stretch my legs. I can’t move them because (a) they fell asleep long ago; (b) there is a man lying on all of the floor space, sound asleep; and (c) I sense that if I did actually stretch my legs it would cause chaos. Women do not move here. They get into one spot, and they stay there, unmoving, until the following day. They dont get up to use the bathroom, or wiggle their toes, and they certainly don’t stretch their legs.

I feel annoyed. Actually, I am more than annoyed. I am the most uncomfortable I can imagine being, and we’ve hours to go.

On top of all of this, I have to pee. Badly. But if you’ve never peed into a hole that serves as the toilet on a moving train in India, it’s hard to explain why it’s not something I really wanted to do. All I can tell you is, it isn’t fun. It takes all of your concentration to keep your balance(since you’re not going to touch anything) and forget about managing to not pee on yourself. Then there’s the germ factor, which is ..ah..pretty high. We’re talking every microbe known to man is living in that small space, and they’d love, just love, to go home with you.

So I’m going to hold it. Yep. After weighing the risks, I actually figure out that it is healthier to hold it than to use the toilet.

Kalim decides that the only cure to my misery is chai. Cup after cup of it. I try to explain the state of my poor bladder, but perhaps he doesn’t understand my desperation or perhaps sees this as normal. Who knows?  It doesn’t slow him down–if anything, he becomes more intent on his task, which seems to be insuring that I always have a hot cup of chai in hand. He orders one from every single chai guy that comes past, which is about one every 15 or 20 minutes. His theory is that chai gives you energy. My theory is that if it’s not boiled, it can give you something alot worse than energy. It can make you as sick as dog. Besides, my bladder can’t take much more.

But it’s mind over matter.

I carry on, smiling crazily, and drinking chai after chai, agreeably throwing the cup out the window when I’m finished. (Yes, even the plastic cups. Not just the nice pottery ones, but the plastic ones. I threw them out the window. At first I was just handing them to Kalim who apparently was quietly taking them to the window out of my sight and throwing them out onto the moonlit landscape. Then I figured it out and decided to go with the program, much to Kalim’s relief. The let’s litter the Earth program. In my defense, all I can say is, there were no trash cans or trash pick up or recycling, and unless I was going to bring all those chai cups back to the USA for a fun and PC DIY project, I made the best choice in the moment..)

My bladder numb, my legs asleep, my behind sore from sitting on hard plastic, my brain swirling with what disease I might be getting, being stared at by 6 heavily armed men who are fascinated by the size of my feet..I suddenly realize that I’m actually having a very good time. I love adventure, I say to myself. I’m not a boring person and I never will be. It’s moments like these that make travel worthwhile.

The light’s coming up, the sun is rising, and I am getting my first taste of the landscape of Bihar. Hmmm..looks a bit like some parts of Panama with palm trees and green marshy bits ….now looks ashen and dusty, with not a green field in sight…skinny cows and water buffalo dot the landscape, and tiny sheds and shacks line dirt roads.

Kalim’s just pulled out some of his wife’s homecooked chapati, and fills it with some yellowish potato mixture–I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s my favorite, and his wife made it especially for our journey. He hands it to me, smiling, wiping his hand on his shirt, then gesturing grandly at the landscape out the window.

“Well”, he says, smiling broadly, “what do you think?”

I look out the window. I’ve forgotten all of my discomforts, the daydream I was having for the last few hours of a pristine white toilet; the random thought I had for a while about whether or not I could disguise myself as a man so travel could be easier; the guilt over littering plastic chai cups out the window;even the soldier who stares at me unblinkingly as I write this.

I take a bite of warm chapati and potato. I look out the window.

“It’s perfect, Kalim. It’s really, really perfect.”, I say to my friend.

I look out the window, sit back, relax, and allow myself to melt into the landscape.



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