Tag Archives: train

01 Leaving Switzerland

Friday, 13th June 2003

Writing From the Train : Paris-Bordeaux
I had spent my last night in Zurich in the uppity-up room of the Bernets’ brilliantly restored farmhouse. I woke up feeling tired this morning, not having slept more than 2 fretful hours. It’s been hot. The promise of rain did not deliver. It’s been a week of summer, quite unusual in June. This is Europe, no air-conditioning tradition here. Funny what one thinks about during one’s last night. After 7 years with the company and 5 years living in Switzerland, I am leaving for the unknown of a sabbatical year (hopefully).

Driving to the office we were stuck in horrendous traffic – yes they have those even in Zurich. Saying goodbye at the office consisted of a whirl of tri-kisses, photos and best wishes, and finally storming into my boss, W’s office to inform him that I did not really intend to walk to Bordeaux. He kindly offered to drive me to the airport. A couple of hugs and a couple of tears and it was over. We had a great team, and it was hard to say goodbye.

The apartment in Windlach has been given up (loved that apartment), the car sold (loved that car), the furniture mostly given away. Still my worldly possessions weigh heavily upon me, especially since the French are still working on their railway strike. I’ve been so tired, I don’t think I can heck the going to Plum Village and doing the 5am meditation thing right away. The last week has been exhausting, emotionally, physically and it’s been so darn hot*. I think I need a breather when I do get to Bordeaux. I’ll may be spend a couple of days there just sleeping, and go to Plum Village on Sunday morning.

Zurich to Paris was uneventful.

Vive la France! Aeroport CDG to Montpanasse via Gare du Nord was an exercise in patience: long wait at immigration, disorganized train service, a partial strike, long wait for taxi at Gare du Nord, flying around trying to get a phonecall to Plum Village. I bought a 7Euro phone card to make the one call. The number was engaged and I had to run to the train. Life today had been a see-saw of waiting in line and flying around after being late for having waited in line. And it is definitely true – I am always stuck in the slow lane. Today was after all, Friday, the 13th (and 14th on the Chinese calendar).

Through it all I had the distinct feeling that it was supposed to happen – the cultural clash of the merger and the subsequent drama, what the buddhists term ‘aversion’ came up big time. I’ve been tired of that bs for some time. This was a kick start for me to get out and do what I need to do. I’ve at least manage to protect my team. I am also proud of G, she’s put her dreams on the table with talking to people about moving back to the city (New York City) and also doing some sort of business. I hope to have news when I leave. 6/13/2003 4:37 PM

Writing from Bordeaux: Sanitized for Your Protection
8.30pm and I’m in a 2-star (sanitised for your protection) hotel across from the Bordeaux St. Jean station. They cancelled all the other trains to Begerac for tonight. Just as well. After lugging my bags around, up and down stairs, in the heat, I was ready to call it a day. Dumped most of the luggage in the baggage place and found the Hotel Arcantis at €43++. No aircon, took a coldish shower, going to be a night in the bare buff I think. Might go in search of something to eat, perhaps some type of salad. Or go to sleep now. 6/13/2003 8:41 PM

* It turned out to be the hottest summer in Europe in recorded history. About 40,000 Europeans died.

19 Journey of 1000 kilometers

One does not sit in the south pole and winch about the weather…. One does not travel non-aircon sleeper from Varanasi to Chakki Bank and winch about the distance. People who travel with “unreserved” tickets sit on the floor or perch off other’s bunks when they fell asleep.  All in all the train was 5½ late in pulling into Chakki Bank. I thought that wasn’t bad for a journey of over 1100 kilometers.  It cost Rs369 for this trip of about 36 hours. The almost completely Indian men kept to themselves. The women were very kind, and curious, especially the middle-aged aunties. They kept feeding me , and invited me to stay with them.

On arrival in Chakki Bank, Thomas and I managed to find each other on the platform. We shared a 3 hour taxi ride to McLeod Ganj. The 3 other foreign girls who were also going there went to take the bus. They had a ‘closed sisterhood’ thing going and weren’t very friendly. The prospect of another 5 hour bone-rattling bus journey didn’t quite appeal to me. Thomas and I arrived at McLeod Ganj at 8.30pm to find that rooms were scarce. It could be that we took the only 2 rooms to be had that night. I had the Rs 60 (US$1.50) hole-in-the-wall at the Green Hotel. Thomas took the strastospheric Rs500 (US$12.50) room at the …. hotel. Everything is relative.

18 The Virtue of Incense

Varanasi Station. The signboard reads “Ladies Waiting Room for first class, second class and sleeper ACC”. It must have been quite a beautiful room in its time. The station itself is quite a nice structure in the colonial style. The room is half full. It has plastic chairs, and a couple of coffee tables being used by ladies as day beds. 2 other ladies spread an old sari out on the dirty floor, and curl up. Next to them a pair of once white men’s underwear inexplicably spread out on a suitcase. Some one is eating grapes and dropping the peel and stems onto the floor. An elderly lady chews paan. The lovely old tiled fireplace has been sealed. A slight reek wafts from the adjoining toilet. Hanging off the high ceiling are 4 dangerously wobbly fans spinning at alarming speeds. This reminds me fondly of the fan in my borrowed room in Bodhgaya. It had 2 speeds – “ready for take off” and “dead in the water”. An Indian man and a small boy wander in. May be they are lost?

Varanasi has been amazing – teeming, overwhelming, bursting at the seams, yet so much history, culture, spirituality. That river, I can’t really do it justice. It is beyond my competence of expression to describe. To appreciate India, one needs to perceive without prejudice, with fresh eyes free of fear, with more than the physical senses. India is a journey into your psyche. She’s the best guru if you let her be.

A sweeper drags a foul smelling broom around. I begin to see the function of incense. I light one. 

A couple with a small bare-bottomed baby come in. “5 months old”, says the proud father. 

“For your kind attention, train number …. Is now running late…” The only white guy on the platform had asked me for clarification. He had a Germanic accent. On striking up a conversation we find out that we were both going to McLeod Ganj. Thus Thomas and I decided to meet up at the end of the trip, i.e., at Chakki Bank and share a taxi to McLeod Ganj. The train journey of over 1000 kilometers across northern India.

I come back to Ladies Waiting room to see the 5-month old being dangled, over the coffee table, now technically a “public convenience”. I light another stick of incense 

14 Leaving Bodhgaya

A very flustered Japanese man with a small towel slung round his neck came to ask if I was “nihonjin-deska?” I said “sorry, no” and he nodded apologetically and strode off. He went up, down and across the platform several times, his face getting redder. The Japanese tourists I mused, as I stand there with Amrish  guarding me, are so abused. In India there are always 4 price levels: an Indian price, Isreali price, western price and Japanese price. Even in Singapore there is a special Japanese price at tourist places. In Bodhgaya I was routinely asked by young men in the streets if I was Japanese. By my lack of politeness, they get that I’m not. “Korean? Taiwanese” They would ask. 

All in all I spent 10 days in Bodhgaya with very good memories of the kids, and a few ideas of what I can do for them. Something with craft, folk art, fund raising, sponsorship…. But whatever it is, they gave me more than I could ever give them.

The train was late so Amrish and I chatted sparsely about the India-Pakistan cricket matches and his family. Amrish was a taxi driver in Patna before he came to drive for the Maitreya Project in Bodhgaya in 1997. His English is surprisingly good. He’s a medium built guy with olive skin and enigmatic eyes. Blue-jeaned,  ear-ringed and a George Cloony haircut, he would look at home from London to La Pas. The Indian ethnicity is really quite varied. The cook who is a Sherpa from Darjeeling, even though technically there are no Sherpas from Darjeeling, Dick tells me, looks Chinese. He serenades us with Hindi songs when he’s working in the kitchen.

The Gaya station is not a very nice place. A number of beggars approach us, but not quite as many as if I were to be standing here alone. Ahead, a man is waving a red kerchief at a cow that’s gotten on to the tracks. She’s serenely eating the garbage that’s been tossed down. I watch her swallow 2 plastic bags. She missed the papaya peel that the papaya-wallah had just thrown, stupid cow. At 4.50pm the impossibly long train pulls in and there was a general scramble. My coach was of course at the other end. 

Amrish finds my seat and evicts the portly chap who was occupying it. The train begins to pull away. Who but the flustered Japanese should have the seat next to mine? He too was going to stay at the Hotel Surya. I decided to adopt him. It later transpired that it was his third trip to Varanasi and he was the one adopting me. We managed to pay only 10 rupees (US 25 cents) to the auto-rickshaw wallah to get to the hotel. I am pretty sure that that was the Indian price.

3 Traveling East

The New Delhi station, at 4 in the afternoon, as expected was chaotic. Full of sights, sounds, smells, and touch to engage every sense. But my eyes failed to detect any indication that said that the Poorva Express is on this platform. I asked a reasonably dressed gentleman on the teeming stairs. I don’t know how he knew, but he got it right. Point to note: never be fool enough to go against the flow of the teeming masses on the stairs of a major train station, and if you do, follow in the shadow of the only other fool.

So here I am sitting somewhat comfortably with all body parts intact. We are moving in a south-easterly direction towards Gaya. This train terminates in Calcutta. It is not quite the Orient Express but it’s civilized enough. The 2nd class Air-Con coach is apparently the preferred mode of travel for many middle-class Indians and business people. I like taking long journeys by train. It’s a respite, a state of animated suspension. I’ve got a lower side berth with a reading light and picture window. Unfortunately the bulb is missing, but the window, although quite streaky offers a rural green India under a soft golden sunset. And just for punctuation, a few smoke stacks and some random garbage that had been chucked out of moving trains.

The flask of hot chai, fragrant and sweet is very good – 5 rupees. The train attendant just brought the bedding. Someone else will bring a thali dinner. I again am able to wax lyrical about the romance and adventure of India. “Happy Holi” people are wishing each other. So far, so good.