The beach: hot, sunny, salty, sandy. Booze and smoke. Hangovers and lethargy.
That about sums it up. It’s no secret. You were not made for beaches. Your beloved Katie, having grown up in San Diego, might have had the time of her life sun-bathing, sipping cocktails, and absorbing as many UV rays as possible—you could have used her there, for sure. Someone to wrap yourself up in, obviously, but also someone who deeply understands your difficulties in oppressively hot, happy weather.
Make no mistake. Your month of beaches was time well spent. You saw and experienced new things and, most importantly, learned some very critical lessons about yourself—how you relate with others when you’re feeling needy, how you handle a lack of privacy in said state, and how you handle your compounding stress in social situations (read: a couple people you know were diagnosed with stage 4 cancer; your mother’s face suffered second degree burns in a grease fire and your kid sister was hospitalized for smoke inhalation; had to do your taxes; had several bad back days; had a few too many hangovers; and your girlfriend reported a what-would-have-been-an-extremely-serious-medical-condition, had she not had the foresight to seek medical attention immediately).
Had a ton of bad news and emotional baggage not been dumped right on your chest, you might have been more pleasant and you dimly regret your frequently-less-than-enthusiastic demeanor or, as Angus likes to call it, your “allergy to fun.”
Swimming? Too salty, too seasick.
Sun bathing? Too hot, to destructive to the skin.
Paragliding? Much like para-sailing, except you were woefully sick and retching in the sand upon landing.
Wanna get high? Makes you too sleepy.
Wanna get drunk? Wrecks your sleep.
And so on and so on.
Jesus, Maria. Get it together.
It was a struggle. By the last week, you started to turn your shit around after unloading some compounding feelings, and after taking the time to Skype your girlfriend and—what the heck—even your family.
“Maria! You called!” your aunt Lorelei exclaimed, brother in the background.
“It’s been a long time.”
“What are you talking about?” Head scratch. “I called you guys a couple months ago when I was in Portugal.”
“That was in May.”
What month is it? Hell, what year is it? Oops. Ok. Guilty.
You got your shit together in time for the Indian wedding and literally had a blast. Good clean fun. Then punctuated your time on the beach with a couple shots of Jameson and a series of thank yous and goodbyes.
It was time to get back on the road. Or really, the railway.
You’ve decided that riding on Indian trains, in General Population, is just about your favorite travel past time.
“Two tickets to Jhansi,” Maeva said at the LTT ticket counter, after the two of you parted ways with a Mumbai-based new friend, Gustaf, who kindly lent you his flat for an evening. Goa to Mumbai: 13 hours, after all. You were trying to bust a move across the country in two days.
“Sleeper?” said the ticket man.
“No. Gen Pop.”
“Gen pop?” incredulously.
“Yes, Gen Pop. Normal Indian ticket.”
What can you say? You and Maeva are proud of your India legs: the bargaining skills, the no-bullshit no-excuses with rickshaw drivers, the beetle pan, your rock steady bowels due to super-powered gut bacteria.
In a previous entry, 24 Hours In Gen Pop, you detailed two back-to-back train rides—what was probably your toughest travel challenge. That was then. This is now.
Mumbai to Jhansi: 21 hours non-stop.
It was 11:45pm. You hopped into your first Gen Pop Ladies Only car (somewhat smaller than the other cars) and found yourselves among half a dozen women and a couple of little children. Large luggage racks above the benches were all occupied, but the high-hanging narrow luggage rack remained completely vacant.
Bam, down went your bag. Clip, clip, and out went your mats: Maeva’s, a foam hand-me-down from Federico; yours, a blue yoga mat purchased for actual independent yoga practice in Goa. You laid them out on the narrow rack, owned your space like you’d done it a hundred times, and then proceeded to do the rest. Shuffle, ruffle into just about every article of clothing you own—Indian trains get fairly cold at night. Stuff your pants into a pair of wool socks you’d requested Angus dig out of his closet in Ireland. Pop went your head through the hole of your wool buff—a useful gift from a generous stranger in Norway. Click, snap and your deflated backpack was cable-locked under the train seat. Then… hoist! You braced your arms and legs against seats and flung your legs into the air, squirmed into the tight space between the luggage rack and the ceiling.
You smiled back at the Indian ladies who watched with admiration and amusement. It’s a rare thing to see a person sleep on the high luggage rack, much less a couple white foreigners, one of which was rather over-sized for the space.
You wrapped yourself in your pashmina and were asleep within the hour—not without minor chills and goosebumps. Every time the train stopped, you listened carefully for “Pani! Pani!” You didn’t have any water and the notion of going the entire night without it made you uneasy. When you did hear it, you frantically flung yourself off the rack, landed on the train floor with surprising grace, and then lost all of it while clamoring to the train door and failing to open it. The train started moving and you hastily stuffed 40 rupees through the bars of the window and then tugged at the cold, condensation-splattered liter bottles smashed back through them.
“Varapao!” Maeva whined from around the corner.
“Varapao! I’m huuungry!” Whaa whaa.
An Indian lady pointed to another vendor running alongside the train.
“Varapao!” you barked, waving a 20 rupee note out the window in exchange for some fried croquettes, a bread roll, and two chili peppers on a classy square of grease-stained newspaper. You slammed the window shut and delivered Maeva her midnight snack.
Now you can sleep in peace.
Rattle, rattle, rattle, thud, thud, screech, shift, bump, and slam. All night long. You wondered idly if the train might derail. Thought about the catastrophic train accident outside Santiago de Compostella earlier that year in Spain. When you’re half asleep, your mind plays tricks on you. When you’re half asleep, ass looming ominously over the heads of very small, fragile ladies, you fear that the pull of gravity might send you sailing off your narrow rack and bombing to the ground. Maybe some child dies. And so it goes.
And so it goes. The Slaughterhouse Five, read beautifully by Ethan Hawk, lulls you to sleep. You dream of alien locations, time travel, and meaningless death.
The chills run down your spine. Your toes, stuffed into two pairs of socks, feel numb and icy. You breathe hotly, heavily into your woof buff—marinate your face in exhaled steam—and your silly nose perches just above the material like the top of a cherry snow cone.
Fuck, fuck, it’s getting pretty cold.
No worries. Whatever. You’re tough, and you asked for it. You didn’t want sunny, warm beaches. 5 degree temperatures were the trade off.
The car remains brightly lit the entire night. You squeeze your eyes shut against its harsh light. Only to have them snap open at—what time is it?—4 am.
You are shivering uncontrollably. Oh dear god, it’s so fucking cold. The chilled metal wall of the train mercilessly leeches your body heat. Your body is wrapped in a tight little ball and you squirm incessantly to generate more heat. It doesn’t work. So you sit up, defeated, and dare to glance at Maeva, whom you suspect is sleeping.
But she is not. Oh no. She’s staring right back at you with wide and pathetic eyes. “Mariiiia! I’m so coooold!”
Down on the benches, the lower luggage racks, and on the floor is a mosaic of women under blankets—lying, crouched, curled, contracted. Everyone is cold. Except for the children. They sleep like the dead, bundled lovingly, enshrouded protectively, embraced by their freezing mothers.
You tell Maeva stories of the cold. Of your previous winter in Europe with Katie, wandering the streets of Ghent in -7 degrees. Of your travels with Alexis in Italy in 2009, during a December snowstorm, camping in equally cold weather. Of the pneumonia you caught.
“We used to wake up around this time every night—around four o’clock in the morning. It was so cold, we couldn’t sleep. We would light the camping stove just for the fire, boil water, and then dump cayenne pepper and cinnamon in it—drink it like tea, hoping it might warm us up.”
“Yeah. But it never worked. Just gave me a haneous case of the hiccups.”
The train stops and the familiar nasal sound of “Chai! Chai! Chai!” alights on your ears like an angel. You lurch off the rack, run to the window, and order two chais for 10 rupees. The man passes you two thimble-sized cups of milky sugary goodness.
“Maeva!” you rasp. Her face is buried in a heap of curls and fabric. “Take this. Take it! Drink this precious, teeny-weeny cup of warmth.”
The mini plastic cup had already begun to warp, melted by the heat of the tea. It is enough to defrost your fingertips. You and Maeva scowl jealously at one woman, who’d had the foresight to unpack a thick, plush train-travel blanket. It looks like clouds in Heaven. It looks like a warm bath. It looks like hugs and cuddles and love.
“I want that fucking blanket!” Maeva whispers harshly. The two of you fidget with your thin layers of clothing.
Three hours pass before sleep begins to overtake you. You shiver, wiggle, sigh, twist, and turn. And so on and so on.
You hear noises, shouting, shoving, the thumps of baggage. What time is it? Seven, nine, eleven o’clock? You are barely aware that the daily commuters are piling into the car. Every time you glance through your baggy, sleep-laden eyelids, you see more people. And more. And more.
And more people than you ever thought could fit into a train car.
So many people that even a dozen men have jumped into the ladies car, theoretically, because no space remains elsewhere. People sit on top of each other, bags are jammed under your head, your outstretched legs. You realize that you need to pee. You realize it is impossible. You cannot descend from the rack. There is no place for you to go. At least nine Indians are installed outside the bathroom, sitting on the urine-tracked steel floor, holding scarves over their noses to fend against the smell.
You search for a glimpse of your rucksack, praying its still there. “Green bag? Hello! You see green bag?” Head bobble. Then you peer down at the floor near the door and see no sign of your shoes. “Black shoes? Black flip flops? By your feet?” Sorry Madame, no shoes here. Sonofabitch. They’ve been kicked out the door by the stampede, lost forever.
You start to panic because you realize you would never be able to get your bag unlocked and out from under the seat, let alone your body off the train, in time, were you to arrive at your stop. Maeva’s bag, too, is buried deep in the sea of people.
By this point, you’ve been on the luggage rack for—oh, who knows? Roughly fifteen hours—and both of you desperately need to move, stretch, shift, do something. So you devote the next three hours to an intricate series of tiger-and-ninja tactics, moving around the car via racks and bars, hovering over heads, dipping here, swapping there, until you manage to use your senior “I’ve been on this train since Mumbai, bitches!” clout to secure better seating on a mid-range luggage rack. And you perch there, like a hawk, watching the crowd, timing the tides with every train stop. A hole emerges. You dive down to sea-level. Shove and elbow your way past bodies, and then lean face first over a child and into the black depths below the seat, where you find your bag. It’s stuffed tightly into a corner, its cable lock stretched to the max. You start tossing other people’s handbags left and right, into the aisle, onto laps, dial the cable code, and start to pull. The extraction is tedious. Turns out all those nifty straps and buckles just love to snag on everything imaginable. But you are victorious. You hoist your trophy over your head like a heavyweight boxing champion and place it where your old bed used to be, then rejoin Maeva. Then it takes another god-knows-how-long to get your bag from there over to your new perch with Maeva.
9pm. Your train pulls into Jhansi, and you and Maeva cry out delightedly. After riding out a human landslide, your feet hit the concrete platform. Then you jump for joy. Dance, twist, wiggle. Freedom!
It feels really good to be back in action. You literally cannot wait to be a disagreeable bastard with the first rickshaw driver who tries to lure you into his vehicle.