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Chicken Biryani for the soul

After spending five days in Goa, my brain fully reclined into a supine state, I realized I desperately needed to start moving again. Thus, similar to walking into a supermarket on an empty stomach, I booked an excessive amount of travel: back-to-back 12 hour overnight bus rides to and from Hampi to see the famous Vijaynagara ruins, followed by a 30 hour express train ride to Dehli.

Hampi is an amazing moment in time, with 500 year old stone temples still standing against a boulder-strewn backdrop. I traveled with an enjoyable lady named Rikke who I met on the bus, and we were both driven from temple to temple by an intense rickshaw driver named Gopi. He secured our business by proudly flashing me his card with the seriousness of an investment banker (since when do rickshaw drivers have cards)?

Hampi

Hampi

Gopi and I

Gopi and I

On the return bus from Hampi I met two Russian girls, Katia and Natasha, who were leaving on the same train to Dehli as I was. They were courageous enough to pack their temporary lives into their backpacks, including a tea maker. “We don’t like Indian tea, so we make our own.” Natasha explained. I nodded in feigned understanding, as I tried lifting their anvil-like bags. After spotting a few other electrical appliances I gave the bags back, and wished them and their kitchens well.

When traveling by train in India, there are several classes to choose from, including Sleeper, which has all the ambiance of a moving crypt, and 3 A/C and 2 A/C, air-conditioned compartments with three or two sleeping slats stacked on top of each other respectively. The big difference between A/C and non A/C, other than the temperature, is the sound. All the windows in the Sleeper class cars are open because of the heat, and when the train shrieks through a tunnel, it has a distinct pterodactyl giving birth sound. When another train zooms past in the opposite direction you get a newfound sense of aural enlightenment as your whole body goes into a sound seizure.

I had booked 2 A/C, thinking it would provide some much needed comfort for the 30 hour journey. As I stepped into my cabin, I noticed immediately the class difference – all my cabin-mates were businessmen who sat with an air of commanding community. One man had a grim, overlord face, and looked like he belonged at the top of a mountain. The others smothered me with an air of indifference. Curious as to how the Russian girls were faring in their Sleeper class car, I teetered over to their coach, only to find Katia overcome with panic. I looked down and saw the source – cockroaches, literally hundreds, were streaming over their bags! As the girls wrestled their bags away, the roaches waterfalled off of them and fell into a festering pool below.

Furious, the girls yelled at the train manager in broken Russian-English, who responded in his own broken Hindi-English. After several minutes of persuasion, I helped the girls get a new coach, leaving the roaches behind with other Indians, who didn’t seem to care, and shrugged, as if to say, “Hey, this happens. We deal with it, why don’t you?” I like hanging with the locals, but in my mind I know that it’s easy to do when you have the comfort of an A/C car to return to. I retreated back to my cabin for dinner, where I wolfed down an uninspired chicken briyani. Within thirty minutes however I felt the first unsettling signs of tectonic movement, and recognized, that perhaps, my ride was only just beginning.

I will never forget the ensuing Battle of March 4, six hours locked in a 100 km/hr toilet crawl-space. On an Indian train, there are no waste tanks - all the waste from the toilets goes directly out onto the tracks below (it was somewhat epiphianic to piss on a train the first time, and look down to see the tracks hurtling by from a small hole in the floor). I will spare the grim details, but suffice it to say you have not lived until you have been on your hands and knees, holding yourself steady against a thrashing train, staring into the abyss and feeling the dry Indian air come up through the very hole that you’re heaving into. On the plus side, I brought my History of India book with me, and intermittently got through the entire history of the Mughal Empire.

Katia and Natasha

Katia and Natasha

Holding on

Holding on

I like trains because they provide you with congruity. The change in landscape happens in real-time, and all you need is a window and a healthy appetite for observation. There is no metallic whoosh, no hiding in the clouds at 30000 feet, on a train you are privy to everything. And everything is what I got.

Of course, in India nothing ever really goes according to plan. I ended up missing the very thing I took the train to see - as the landscape changed I was sprawled on my bed-plank recovering from my own civil war. When we finally pulled into Delhi the next day at 5 pm, all of us stumbled out, Katia, Natasha, and I. I turned solemnly to acknowledge the train that had bested me. She, that many-limbed shrieking beast, was finally free of her passengers, her innards – all of us - now spilled on the gangway of Old Delhi Station. I knew exactly how she felt.

A day later I can finally eat solid food again, and am touring around Dehli. I am also preparing for a 200 km walk to Agra, stay tuned

156 comments to Chicken Biryani for the soul

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