Your time in India has been colorful. After residing in Pune for a full week with a pair of Scottish ex pats, you’d found your feet in the heat and chaos of the streets. By your first evening in Mumbai, you felt as though you’d conquered the worst of uncertainty—how to take a train, how to find locations, how barter, how to get the most food for the smallest cost. India had lived up to its reputation as crowded, dirty, noisy, and over-stimilating, but for some reason, perhaps because you have been weathered by the toughest conditions of Euro travel, you found the adjustment surprisingly easy.
You opted to Couchsurf in Mumbai, if only to stay with a local person and get authentic experiences. The dishes were translated, the values of things were stated in advance, and the navigation was facilitated by free train passes. You host, Umang, was nothing other than a perfect gentleman, soft in demeanor, and full of useful information.
You were lucky. Not because you managed to get an authentic host in Mumbai, but because the authentic hosts were all friends with each other. You found yourself among five different hosts—Couchsurfing Conglomerate—and were never left with a dull moment. They passed you around, arranged activities, and made sure you were always well fed and well prepared.
After three nights with Umang, you shifted residences, in favor of a better location with two girls, Natalia from Siberia, and Karuna from Mauritius, who had been hosting a 19-year-old French girl, Maeva. There really is nothing nicer than surfing in a house full of women, and though you were never ill at ease with Umang, the conversation was far more relaxed and fluid with the girls. A supplemental host, always smiling Narendra, a 39 year old Indian male with the appearance and energy of someone 15 years younger, frequently accompanied you on outings and dinner and explained everything you could possibly want to know in expert English.
It was too easy.
You knew you should probably leave Mumbai at some point. You had a mere four and a half weeks at your disposal to tour the north of India before you would be due in Goa for, yes, yoga teacher training, which you decided would be a beneficial use of time not only as a professional development, but also an opportunity to fully focus on your physical health (a favorite past time) and a real opportunity to meet like-minded people—something you were unlikely to find at an ashram.
But you didn’t want to leave. Not really. The couchsurf was excellent, and your co-surfer, Maeva, was extremely good company. You toured the city and sights together and talked non-stop about anything and everything. She wanted to improve her English, and you loved teaching. A perfectly harmonious situation that rendered you forgetful of the age gap.
But all good things must come to an end. You ventured to Mumbai’s central station to figure out how to purchase a sleeper train ticket to your next destination, Udaipur. You don’t have anything very positive to say about the ticketing system. Due to a lack of options, you reserved a seat on a sleeper train for the very next day under an “emergency quota” rather than a “tourist quota.” A non-refundable ticket with very odd printing and equally vague instructions from the ticket counter.
Time of departure: 11:25pm. Total duration: 15 hours.
“But why do you leave tomorrow!” Natalia exclaimed with big blue eyes and dazzling energy. She was a force of nature, a person you would loved to have known better. A real strong Russian woman, from Siberia.
“I didn’t have an option. If I wanted a ticket for the next train, I’d have to commute to city and be at the ticket window by 10 o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Natalie deflated, fully understanding the impossibility. Your group had stayed awake many nights until four in the morning, and your days didn’t begin until noon.
You spent your last day in Mumbai touring the Elephanta island caves, a journey requiring two hours of commuting by boat. Your distaste for sea travel was evident. You sat in your seat along the gunwales, splayed open like a starfish, plotting your revenge against your inner ears. Across the deck, an older woman in a green sari projectile vomited into the wind, only to have it splash back into her. Once on land, you griped about hidden costs, peed behind the pay toilets, got reprimanded for doing so, and then claimed you were simply appreciating two tiny, fat-bellied puppies that had wandered after you. A minute later, you shrieked delightedly over the troops of monkeys leaping and hissing at you in an effort to steal bananas, napkins, trash, and cameras.
Two older German tourists accompanied you on your tour, making cynical remarks about the lack of organization and the level of deception for tourists. Fine company. And when the boat returned you to a remote pier far from the city center, they appreciated your unique ability to hail a cab when they had failed, and you appreciated their willingness to split your costs while rains pounded the streets. You had a handful of hours to return to the train station, commute another hour to the suburbs, walk 30 more minutes in the rain, and pack your things.
Narendra kindly gave you a lift to the commuter train, which you took to Bandra before splashing through one kilometer of mud puddles. The central station was quiet, and all around were people spreading thin layers of newspaper over the marble floor, preparing for sleep.
The train did not come.
You waited for one hour, unsure of what to do. Down the platform, a tall, well-dressed Indian man expressed confusion. You joined him and asked where the train was.
“The train has been delayed for 10 hours, due to flooding,” he explained.
“So…” you had to sleep at the train station?
Fortunately, you had your friends across town. After some conversation and explanation, the man kindly escorted you to the ticket counter to confirm the delay, then asked if you needed a place to sleep. No, you didn’t, but the two of you remained in each other’s company long enough to split a rickshaw and take the commuter train back to your neighborhood.
Your friends were happy to see you again, which left you feeling warm and comforted as you spent one final night on the floor, using a yoga mat and a thin pad as a mattress. Narendra made all kinds of suggestions about what time you should wake up, when you should leave, and to which station you should leave. He wanted you to wait for your train further down the line, in order to gain more sleep and cut your commute. The idea left you feeling uneasy—catching your expensive sleeper train from a commuter station crammed with people and platforms and lacking in information—but ultimately you accepted it. Should you miss your train all together, you would take it as a sign that you were meant to stay in Mumbai a bit longer.
No such thing happened, though it should have. The man at the inquiry window at the station told you to wait on the wrong platform. 45 minutes passed, and you feared you had missed the train all together. Back at the inquiry window, you complained about having been misled and that no train had arrived. He then explained that the train would arrive in ten minutes, and that you were to stand on a different platform.
Little droplets of sweat rolled down your belly and along your sides. The heat from the city, the crowds, the exhaust, and the sheer number of bodies milling on the platform rendered you damp and sticky. When the train did finally arrive, you saw no indication that it was yours and thrust your ticket under the nose of one of the trainmen, who bobble-shook his head in a manner suggesting that it was your train, even though you couldn’t be sure he had nodded at all.
You leaped onto the nearest car, which happened to be yours, and heaved a sigh of relief when you identified your seat and twenty-something white girl sitting in it. Another traveler. She was beautiful. Your excitement mounted at the notion that you would have someone to talk to, and if she happened to be going to Udaipur as well, that you potentially had someone to share the mental burden of navigating to a hotel upon arrival.
Her name was Sienna, she was 23 years old. A tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired Danish girl. Smart. Animated. Social. Excited.
And she never stopped talking. Withing ten minutes, it was evident that she felt compelled to fill all empty sound with words. She talked incessantly, at an inappropriate volume, and you feared your fellow passengers might become upset that you continued to engage with her and promote the noise. But then you remembered… it was India, and country in which the citizens has no regard for many forms of pollution: particularly noise pollution.
It she hadn’t been so damn beautiful, you would have found her insufferable.
She invited you to join her when the train pulled into Udaipur. She had a friend there waiting for her, and the name of a quality, cheap hotel. You smiled gratefully, “Thank you. I will. Because we are going to arrive so late.” At two o’clock in the morning. When everything would be closed.
“I hope they have enough space,” she said. “Last night, when I slept on the floor of the train station, I met another traveler. A Kiwi boy. He’s on another car, but I said I would meet him as soon as we arrive in Udaipur.”
Another traveler. The day was getting better and better.
The train rolled on, and because it had departed so late, many of the passengers had canceled their travel plans, leaving you with ample empty seats and beds. You sprawled on a sleeper bench next to the window and watched the sticky green countryside unfold before your eyes. You opened you big book on poverty and began to read, thinking fondly of the two hours you’d spent in that tiny book store with Maeva, discussing untold authors and literary words. Every hour or so, the chai man made his rounds, the samosa man, the ice cream guy, and others, supplying the passengers with ample junk food for the long journey. You stuck to your snacks of bananas and dates, and only when you felt very hungry did you leap off the train during on of its halts and shell out ten rupees for a spicy plate of rice.
You remained awake for the entire trip, let Sienna sleep for an hour or so. She wanted to make sure neither of you missed your stop. So you lie there with your eyes closed and closely monitored your fatigue, lest it best you into sleep. Stop by stop, the passengers filed off the train; the left you and Sienna entirely alone.
You arrived silently. In fact, you had no indication that you’d reached Udaipur. It was merely a feeling, You confirmed your location with someone on the platform, then hustled past the urine-soaked toilets to rouse your companion. She awoke with a start, immediately began talking again, and gathered her things.
The Kiwi boy had been searching for her. He was a slight man, in his late twenties. Very skinny. Meek. But with a formidable coat of body hair. His name was Ollie, and he seemed practically indifferent to his whereabouts. Perhaps because he’d spent the past eight months traveling around Southeast Asia and India. Or perhaps because he was so quiet in general. The three of you ambled out of the station and confronted the gang of late-night rickshaw drivers, all in cahoots, all unwilling to deliver you to the city for less than 100 rupees. The negotiation, or lack thereof, took 15 minutes, and Sienna was so tired she made the decision for everyone and selected a driver who in fact had no idea where the hotel was located. You drove around in circles through abandoned late-night streets glowing pale orange from the street lamps. Packs of stray, deformed dogs littered the corners paid you no interest.
It took two smart phones and considerable walking to locate the hotel, and when you finally arrived at three o’clock in the morning, the place looked abandoned. Sure enough, however, a chubby, sweet Indian opened the gates. “You are three?” he was surprised. He had only one room. Nobody cared. The bed was large enough and the three of your shared it for the next six hours.
You were pleased by your luck—that you had managed to link up with Sienna and Ollie, if only in shared suffering of misfortune brought about by a late train and an even later hour. They were fine people, but you were disenchanted. Sienna talked so much and so often that even her beautiful features took on a quality of irritating grotesqueness. Ollie, so quiet, so uncommunicative, so somber seeming, offered little to the group dynamic. You found yourself wondering how rare it might be to meet a fellow traveler who not only traveled alone, but with whom you could actually feel a connection
The streets were crawling with tourists, most of them near to you in age. But there was always something about them that made you hesitate to get to know them: here, a pair of chubby, rosy-cheeked German youngsters, pampered by their budget. There, a girl from god-knows-what country with nappy, blond dreadlocks and crooked plastic glasses, beads, feathers, and hippie shit dangling from everywhere. And there, a tall, wiry, handsome man with a prodigious beard, who strolled slowly, completely barefoot, in traditional Indian clothing, looking rather underfed—like a person who’d been in the country unspeakably long and had relinquished every part of his former Western self. He was a type, for sure. The type that becomes India. His pulse lowers and his veins rise to sit on the surface of his browning body, unencumbered by former layers of pinchable fat, suggestive of a life of plenty. He moves slowly and deliberately, as though time has no meaning. He moves like eternity and his eyes are cool, calm, and vacant. Attentions drawn inward.