Vacation India, part 1

Nepal to India, days 1–3

Our first destination in India, Goa, was a long way from our homes in Nepal. There were nine of us meeting March 28, 2003 (day 1), coming from various parts of Nepal: Bhaktapur, Rajbiraj, Biratnagar, Birtamod, Bhadrapur, and of course Birganj.

In Bhairahawa, we pose before departing

In Bhairahawa, the Goa-bound holiday makers pose for a group shot.

We were leaving Nepal overland from Bhairahawa, through Sunauli at the border, and beginning our train journey in Gorakhpur, India. After living one km from India for a year now, I was finally crossing the border and seeing what was on the other side.

In Birganj, the city in India just across the border, Raxaul, is revered with an intense hatred and disgust by people of Birganj. Folks in town always amended any praise of the beaches in Goa with statements like, Your shoes will be stolen, or, Taxi drivers may kill you in Mumbai.

Regardless, we were all excited. From Gorakhpur our first stop was Mumbai (aka Bombay), only a mere 1,700 km away, which mean three days and two nights on a single train.

From Mumbai we caught an overnight train to Goa (Maupse was the terminus), another 600 km. The round-trip journey required the use of two taxis, one jeep, five trains, several autorickshaws, and a couple of rented motorcycles.

Gorakhpur

Gorakhpur seen through the eyes of volunteers living in rough Terai towns in Nepal for the past year was better than it should have been.

Flyovers, train stations, people in lines (almost)—suddenly we were in Paris. Well, Paris through some cracked looking glass but still, it was more urban than what we had become accustomed to in Nepal.

Crowds board/exit the train in Gorakhpur

Once the train arrived, a mass of people just appeared, boarding and exiting.

What little of what we did see in Gorakhpur made us appreciate the relative peacefulness of our homes in Nepal. The train station was beyond my descriptive abilities. Signs in Hindi and confused English seemed to be composed in hopes of spreading misinformation. Indians, Nepalis, and the odd bull walked about in the hot heavy haze.

We had gotten to Gorakhpur a few hours early since we weren’t sure how long the jeep ride would take from the border (Sunauli). Just inside the terminal, the group (Andrew, Dave, Laurel, Liz, Kara, Trey, Ashley, and Tony) crashed and guarded the bags while I went to try and figure out how to confirm the tickets, find out our platform number, et cetera.

The tickets were confirmed only after I stood in two different lines and realized that the sign reading, Please form Q actually meant, Fight your way to the front.

Andrew and Liz had wandered off into Gorakhpur in hopes of calling the US Consulate to register with the US Embassy in Delhi. Kara and Dave were amusing themselves while standing guard over the bags, throwing banana peels at a bull inside the train station.

The bull began encroaching on the bags, possibly thinking, Where there are banana peels, there must be bananas.

A bull sits inside the Gorakhpur train station

Near the ticketing office, a lone bull made itself at home. David was nearly gored (by his fault).

Dave, mellow and unworried, called the bull over to him. When the bull had gotten close enough Dave stuck out his hand to pet the bull on the head.

While most might consider this behavior as strange, keep in mind that this is a feral bull that lives in a train station in Gorakhpur. Well, Dave had hardly touched the bull before it swung its head and quickly lunged forward.

Dave quickly jumped up and to the side, avoiding the bull’s half-hearted charge, amusing the locals in the terminal greatly.

A couple hours later we had gathered on the platform to wait for our train. By this time, I was reading the Times of India, Dave was smoking beedis, Andrew was speaking broken Hindi, Liz was eating goeber balls, Laurel was asleep, and Kara was being relentless harassed by one particular beggar girlchild.

This girl, perhaps 11 years old, had taken to Kara. For hours, this little girl had tailed Kara up and down the lengths of the train station. The girl would corner Kara, drop to her knees, press her forehead to Kara’s feet and then knees, cupping her hands and using the international beggar sign for food. This went on for hours and hours, Kara never budging.

Only after we had left the main building and were waiting on the platform did the girl leave. Or so we thought. While Kara was looking at magazines just before our train arrived, she was ambushed by the girl, smiling broadly as she knew it was payday.

The sun was mostly gone when our train arrived. After some initial confusion about which coupe was ours, we boarded the train and found our berth.

The first thing I noticed about the berth were the burglar bars on the windows. In an adjacent berth, we watched–no, we studied—a businessman carefully chained his briefcase to the wall. Paranoia sat in.

That night I slept on the top berth with my bags wrapped around my body. Eventually I fell asleep, though the continual stops and traffic moving through the train, not to mention to chai wallahs that never ceased to pass through the cabins, calling, Chai! Chai! Garam chai! awoke me more than once. Tony awoke to see the guy in the berth across from his getting a cup of tea at 3:00 a.m.

Then, in the middle of the night—we think we were passing through Lucknow–I awoke to a loud commotion coming from the berths below mine. Dave was yelling, I lost my glasses! Awww, $&*@#!! I lost my glasses!

In the middle of the night, while the train was stopped, someone had outside of the train had reached in through the burglar bars and tried to snatch the waist bag that Dave was using for a pillow. It had almost passed through the window when Dave was able to pull it back inside.

While Dave didn’t lose his bag, his glasses that he had stuffed in an open side pocket, had fallen out in the struggle; it was the first night of our vacation, and Dave had been blinded.

Sleepingly

Basically, train travel in India works thusly. The fanciest is first class AC, then second class AC, third class AC, second class sleeper, and then second nonreserved (also called ‘the cattle car’).

From Gorakhpur all the way to Goa, we had tickets for second class sleeper, meaning we had reserved seats/beds, but nothing else.

The two nights and three days in the train to Mumbai flew by, mainly because something bizarre was always happening. Occasionally transvestites would come by the berths, demanding money in lieu of not exposing themselves. While some may refuse the conventional beggar, others will pay heavily for the sudden luxury of not having a penis wagged about or the mutilated remains thereof.

Later, a group of Bihari vagabond minstrel children began performing a song and dance routine through the coupe. Or maybe it was a chai wallah who accidentally dropped scalding hot tea on some poor bastard’s crotch—then the shouting.

Waiting on the train station platform

In Gorakhpur, we spent a lot of time waiting for the train. Oh, the people you meet.

Time flew by with new scenery that seemed endless. We rushed off the train on to train station platforms with forgotten names, looking for food that wouldn’t make us sick like the India Rail curries.

The first night, I had the standard rice and lentils with curried veggies on the train. The next morning, before I had the chance to look out the window, I was staring at the train tracks through the whole in the bottom on the train, i.e., the toilet, vomiting last night’s meal on to the moving tracks below.

All of this was coupled with a now crippling paranoia that everything we had would be stolen from us before we even reached Mumbai. In an anonymous train station somewhere between Lucknow and Mumbai, I bought a chain like the Indian businessman’s and slept a little better the second night.

In the early morning of our last day on our first train, we were rolling through the outskirts of Mumbai when a woman dressed in less than rags and with whiter hair than I’ve ever seen busted into our berth.

In one hand, she had a plush tiger and in the other she held a large plastic Colt single-action revolver.

She sauntered up to Laurel, wide-eyed and gap-mouthed, and shoved the plush tiger a few inches from her face, squeezing it to emit a sequence of squeaks.

She then swung her other hand holding the plastic gun, pulling the trigger to rattle the gun in Laurel’s face. The woman did not smile and nor did Laurel.

After a moment, the woman walked on. We were in Mumbai.