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The Slow Train To Enlightenment

Bhutanese temple
Bhutanese temple

The woman next to me curled up in a vertical ball and died. That was rude of her; a vertical ball takes up more space than standing. But there's no "rude" or "civilized" on the unassigned cars of the Indian Railway system, just every man, woman and child for themselves. She wasn't really dead, just waiting like a water bear for the environment to become more hospitable so she could recall herself to life. You do what you have to on those trains. You wind up in those places if you don't have a reserved ticket. Reserving a ticket at the station in an demonstration of beautifully convoluted bureaucracy. Getting a "general" ticket is an introduction to India.

I tried to take the slow and painful approach. The person at the third ticket office I went to told me they couldn't book tickets for today's trains anymore, but if I got a general ticket I could upgrade to a sleeper for the 17hr journey once I was on board. The guy in Seat 61 said "...you can safely forget any pictures you've seen of overcrowded Indian trains with people on the roof or hanging on the side." He obviously missed the local Indian rail experience. I hit bad timing once again: another large holiday was upon me and everyone was going everywhere. Throughout my nightmarish journey I learned that despite being one of the largest employers on earth, the Indian Railways only has one nonuniform attendant per class (many cars) of train.

I also discovered that general tickets don't list the platform, train name/number, or departure time. Nor, as is the case in every other country that's ever had a train in it, do the stations have a marquee denoting the arrivals and departures, the platforms have any kind of markings whatsoever, or the people sitting behind the desk that says "Can I Help You?" speak English (while nearly everyone else in the country does). Suffice to say, I got on the wrong connecting train. The upshot is that they don't check, and really couldn't check, tickets in the general class, so I rode the rails all day for free—not that I would have ended up spending a full US dollar if I paid. But through all the fighting for space and wrestling for air, there was always a super kind Indian person trying to help me.

Lassi, symbolic of my recovery
Lassi, symbolic of my recovery

There's always someone trying to take advantage of you in India for every person trying to help you, and therein lies the rub: there's always someone. After failing to push my way off of the wrong train three stops in a row (mind you that with my pack I'm about twice the weight and 130% the height of nearly everyone in India), I hovered there and cried. I say hovered because you're not really standing in the general admission trains, just being propped up against a mass of people. I found it interesting that the Indians seemed so effected by this sight. They see deformed and amputated people on the streets, they see people dying of hunger and disease, they could see tragedy anywhere they look. But a stupid white guy with nothing really to cry about trying to hold back tears on a crowded train seemed to move them. India gets the best of everyone eventually.

I hung in there and eventually I made it to Bodhgaya, the place that prince Siddhartha sat and meditated so he could become the Buddha. The exact tree he was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment is still there, though they built a giant temple right next to it. I have to say it's surprisingly ugly as far as trees go, and I'm one who loves to see the beauty in trees. There was no peace or enlightenment for me there, just a bunch of people come to pray and worship. Much as in Lumbini, Nepal, where Siddhartha was born, every Buddhist country built a temple in Bodhgaya after their own style. That provides a wonderful opportunity for anyone who hasn't been to nearly every Buddhist country on earth. It gave me a chance to see a Bhutanese temple, which is nice since it's unlikely I'll go to Bhutan anytime soon. It also gave me a chance to pick up something nasty.

Why is it that terrible sicknesses always start just after departing on an all day journey? I'm not certain if I had dengue, malaria, food poisoning or something else, but it felt an awful lot like lyme. 104°F/40°C fever but freezing cold, bones felt like they were breaking, headache, fatigue, muscle ache, delirium. 10hrs on a rickety old bus and no getting off. The local buses never seem to drop you anywhere near where you want to be. This one let off 20km outside of Varanasi. It's amazing that I made it to a place to stay given my condition. I'm not even sure how I did it looking back. The first night passed in a series of hallucinations and trips to the bathroom. The next day I spent in bed. The people at the guest house I randomly stumbled into were kind to me and showed and concern and offered assistance and advice. I persevered. I'm getting better and expect a full recovery by the time you read this. India gets the best of everyone eventually, and I'm glad it got me early.

Soundtrack: You Get What You Give (New Radicals)


November 12th, 2013 at 9:31 PM

First, hope you are feeling okay by now. Good post, glad it wasn't me on that train, though.

November 17th, 2013 at 7:14 PM

you've been thru it all, or havent you? :)
that train sounds worse than one we have here for Lebaran day!
be safe!

March 18th, 2014 at 2:27 PM

I've been a train just like that! In a station just like that! And, yes, tears help.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com