Saturday, 28 November 2009

Lessons in Gratitude...

...on the 33 hour (if it’s on time) train journey from Haridwar to Calcutta...  
India, I have decided, enforces a constant practice of gratitude.

When I step in a cowpat (holy shit, quite literally), I am grateful it’s not dog. Or human.

If I get constipated, I am grateful it’s not diarrhoea.

If I get diarrhoea, I am grateful it’s not dysentery.

I am grateful not all the books that have come my way are as pompous as the hagiography on Swami Vivekananda I have spent most of this day ploughing through.

I am grateful I got a berth on this train. I have discovered that it requires a small miracle to get on anything other than a waiting list for an Indian train without booking at least two months in advance. Not great news for a traveller who can’t make up her mind and is working on spontaneity (not my strongest suit). I was number 2 on the waiting list for this particular journey. All the Indians I spoke to said that meant I would get on, no problem, but still, I have a wedding to get to... So when the man at the counter told me I had a seat, I could have kissed him, and was quite happy to listen to his mild flirting (“You have a beautiful name.” Which he can’t pronounce).

I am grateful for the kindness of strangeness, namely, the man who helped me find my seat and get my bag on the train. Unusually here, he smelt of alcohol (mildly). He had missed his train and was waiting for the next one and wanted someone to talk to – so he found me. He told me twice I was beautiful, asked three times if he was disturbing me, only took a couple of deep breaths when he discovered my age (they all ask here), and helped me find my train and my seat. I have never been so grateful for a chat-up.

I am wondering if it was the best idea to get my laptop out just as we’re entering Bihar.

I am grateful most of the world is not as (reportedly) fearsome as Bihar. All the Indians I have spoken to have cautioned me against travelling through it, apparently the land of looters and bandits. The very nice trio who spent the night in my section of the carriage and got off at Lucknow warned me to keep an eye on my belongings as we pass through (a bit challenging when I need the loo). So far, so good, but not the easiest start to days-long Indian train journeys. And it’s given me serious reservations about hanging out at the Bihar School of Yoga, which was a possibility...

I am grateful not all the small boys (they look about eight) of the world are belly to the carriage floors as they sweep them at train stations (one with what looked like his t-shirt, his very ragged trousers barely holding up), covered in filth, and then begging for a few rupees payment. They are the only children to whom I’ve given money so far. In Rishikesh, they start at a very young age (the youngest who approached me was barely toddling). It’s a very simple equation: you look white so they ask for money – often children whom you watched playing perfectly happily before you arrived and have no need to beg. They are not vicious, but it becomes impossible to walk quietly anywhere (forget a meditative stroll along a ghat on the Ganges). They bring out the Cruella deVille in me, and it’s as much as I can do not to chuck them in the rapids, let alone give them anything.

I am grateful there are places in the world where rubbish is collected, where municipal rivers are not thick with trash and faeces, where you can walk without the danger of stepping on someone defecating or urinating anywhere and everywhere.

I am grateful for the possibility of walking down a street without having to put all your faith in divine intervention not to end up run over by bus or rickshaw or cross cow. I am grateful for the intimate lesson on my ever-oscillating adrenaline levels.

I grateful for the rickshaw-truck that took me to the bus stand and the driver who flagged down the bus to Haridwar and was so keen to help me and my bags onto it that he forgot I needed to pay him (until I reminded him).

I am grateful for the nice man who helped haul me and rucksack onto the bus and who accommodated me on his front seat. I was grateful that the vomit down the window was my fat rucksack distance away. I am grateful for his pointing out the sights in utterly incomprehensible (to me) Hindi.

I am grateful that I have not always had to shut a part of myself off at the sight of mutilated beggars.

I am grateful not all the train companions of my life spit on the floor (though my placing of a small rubbish bag seems to be having some minor effect – though not entirely the desired one. For example, I think they took the last one when it was full and just chucked it onto the tracks). I am also grateful not all my carriage companions have spent entire journeys loudly burping (for hours on end).

I am grateful for the generosity and encouragement of the swamis at the Dayananda ashram. I am grateful for the haven the ashram provided from the craziness of Rishikesh and the beauty of the river and the chanting.

I am grateful for the lessons in corruption. Really, it makes the dodgy west African semi-dictatorship I grew up in look quite functional. Below follows a typical series of events from yesterday, at Haridwar station:

I went to pick up my bag in the left luggage and was told “fifty rupees”. (It’s amazing how people speak enough English to demand money but not enough to answer questions.) This seemed rather steep a cloakroom charge to me and would have used all my change – not a situation I wanted to be in before boarding for a 33 hour journey. Apparently the uniformed official had no change for a 100 rupee note. Undeterred, I stomped out the cloakroom on a hunt for change. I stopped at one of the little shop counters, said I wanted a chai (5 rupees) and only had a hundred rupee note – was that ok? After a little roundaboutation (no, I didn’t want the American flavour chips, hot or not hot, and if he couldn’t give me change for the chai, then I didn’t want anything, thank you), he served me the tea.

“You very clever ,” he said. I handed over my hundred rupee note. He gave me a 5 rupee coin.

“Where you travel?... Oh, Calcutta very far... You travel alone? [a big novelty for a woman to almost all Indians I have so far met] Why you travel alone?... I come with you to Calcutta... We travel together...” This went on for some time, very charmingly, a very fine attempt at distraction. How fortunate that I can be single-minded at times.

“Could I have my change please?”

“You very clever. What you do? I come to Calcutta with you...”

“That’s 60 rupees. You need to give me 30 more.”

“You very clever. You very beautiful,” but my money, of course is more beautiful. Nonetheless, I walked back to the cloakroom with 95 rupees in my hand. Outside I happened to see a sign: cloakroom charges not fifty but fifteen rupees. I handed over 15 rupees exactly, without a word. Nothing was said and I collected my bag. I am sure that had I handed over fifty, nothing would have been said either. Or am I being too cynical? Did I just hear wrong?

I am grateful I occasionally have my wits about me and manage to avoid (possibly) two attempts at petty theft in a row.

I am grateful that there is a possibility of actually getting my laptop fixed in Calcutta (please oh please let it go online again and be cured of any parasites!).

I am grateful there is also the possibility of getting my legs waxed there.

I am grateful the toilets on this train are bearable.

I am grateful the cockroaches in this carriage are very small dainty ones and not Gabonese monsters.

I am grateful for the intuition that tells me it’s really time to put this laptop away, as we cross Bihar and Jharkhand.

On the railway website, when I was checking to see if I had a seat and all it could say was that the lists hadn’t yet been prepared, it listed Shiva as in charge of the computerised bookings. I decided to take this as a sign and travelled hopefully to Haridwar. May Shiva be watching over the second night of this journey to Calcutta. In fact, I’m quite sure he is. Whether or not he intends it to be easy is another matter entirely...


The above was written a few days ago and I am now in Calcutta discovering the impossibility of getting anything fitted during Eid (all the tailors in Calcutta, it would seem, are Muslim). Oh well, I guess I'll have to improvise for this Bengali wedding I'm going to tomorrow night.

I am grateful the horrors of going through Bihar by train were over-exaggerated. Absolutely nothing untoward occurred. Perhaps the worst testament to the state of Bihar is that everywhere you go, the people doing the most horrible jobs and living in the worst poverty are immigrants from there. And I mean really horrible jobs and living in really horrible conditions.

And I am grateful all the horror stories of Calcutta were grossly exaggerated. Astonishingly, it's the cleanest and greenest city I've yet been to in India. That doesn't quite make it Switzerland, but it's fun and the people are softer round the edges than they were in Rishikesh - and the attempts to swindle you not quite so fierce. I've yet to see any public defecating here, which is a bit of a relief, though there is no apparent diminution in phlegm propulsion or urination. Calcutta does, however, smell less like a urinal than London's Soho in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Apologies for the lack of pictures this time. I've been having great technological problems. It took me 3 days just to get online. And alas, I have discovered that the only places my computer can be fixed under warranty in India are Bangalore and Delhi (each about 1000 miles from where I currently am). I'm not holding my breath as I've not been fantastically impressed with Acer's customer service so far (be warned, if you are considering a purchase!). But at least it helped me decide where to go next.

And I believe in miracles (to quote the song, though I can't remember which one; feel free to enlighten me). Yes oh yes I do.

I went to the foreign tourist booking office of the Eastern Railways today and was served, even though it was the official lunch break. Of course, there are no tourist quotas for trains to Bangalore. This should generally mean I didn't have a hope in hell of getting a ticket within a month. But lo, the gods were smiling upon me and the nice man miraculously found a berth on a train that only runs on the day I want to travel. So off I trot, on another 36ish hour journey by train, two nights and a day, next Tuesday. That'll be four nights out of twelve I will have spent on the rails...

But before that, there is a wedding to attend and trousers to attempt to make fit. And I'm still working on getting my legs waxed.

Wish me luck!
Lucy xx


  1. Aaaaah... India!!! Brings it flooding back!!! Good luck with getting your computer fixed and enjoy the wedding, I bet that will be fantastic! Lots of love, Candy xxx

  2. I am grateful that...I don't have to see your legs before they get waxed! :))
    Seriously though, your trip sounds pretty challenging. I hope you get to the wedding with trousers made up and legs smoothly waxed! Big kiss, Anna x