Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Worst Travel Fail

I have rarely felt more alive, more calm, more in the moment, more close to death. But that all came later that night.

It was October 2011, northern India, Haridwar, one of Hinduism's holiest places. The city is set in the foothills of the Himalayas at mile 157 (253 km) of the Ganges' 1,569 mile (2,525 km) journey to the Bay of Bengal.

I was traveling alone, doing what my partner, Dwight, would call a route march. I loved Haridwar. It was a manageable size, the walking was good, the oppressive heat of summer was long gone, street vendors and beggars generally ignored me.

It was now late evening, I was walking to Haridwar Junction train station to board the overnight Mussoorie Express to Old Delhi.

Vignettes of my time in Haridwar floated through my mind. Walks to temples in the surrounding hills. The jolly, heavily bearded Hindu priest applying a tilak mark to my forehead, then chastising me for not donating more. A monkey lifting the hem of a sari, the woman shrieking when she realized the violation. The wide, slow-moving Ganges, dominating the city. The long series of bridges where pilgrims have died in stampedes, the ghats, the glimpses of bathing rituals.

Candles floated down the Ganges that night. How long could I see an individual flame before it faded and disappeared into the night? Did the flame go out or was it eclipsed? I stood but never did have an answer.

Haridwar Junction Train Station

I was now entering the old train station, anticipating the Mussoorie Express approaching Haridwar Junction. An attendant would serve hot tea. I would stretch out between starched, ironed sheets in my first class cabin as the train jolted its way to Delhi.

The train's arrival time (10:50 p.m.) came and went. I would never see that train. I would not ride any train that night, but I was heading for a journey of a lifetime.

Around midnight I noticed fireworks in the sky above the station. This was the start of the main day of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, one of the biggest Hindu festivals.

But still no Mussoorie Express.

This was a busy junction. Trains came and went, people were hanging from whatever they could grip.

Hundreds were camped on my platform, patiently waiting for my train, or perhaps an even later train, or perhaps no train at all.

As is my habit, backpack on back, I paced the full length of the platform, slowly, back and forth, hour after hour.

Occasionally I paused at a vendor for hot tea or a little packet of cookies with a brand name I recognized from my childhood in England. McVitie's provided little comforts for me, as it had for my maternal grandfather over 100 years before on a plantation in Burma. McVitie's fruit cake, shipped in tins, a brief taste of home as he worked to save enough money to get married.

I meandered around family groups, their spaces defined by tarpaulins and blankets. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, sleeping, eating, chatting. They appeared to be legitimate travelers, suitcases stacked, dressed to suggest they had some means. I have read people can wait like this for days.

There was no information about the train, the digital signage was dark, not functioning, not unexpectedly. By now I was used to the daily minor inconveniences that would be crises for some in the West.

But few Westerners were here to experience this. As far as I could tell, there was just me and, sitting off in a corner, four western backpackers, twenty-somethings. We did not acknowledge each other.

I kept walking. It was now 1:00 a.m., but I could not allow myself to sleep. My camera had been stolen a few days before, I did not want my passport to suffer the same fate.

I followed monkey families as they ran between the people. Moms, dads, babies holding tight, riding on the backs of their parents. Monkeys were everywhere: the roof beams, the platform. Some were copulating, all seemed to be on a mission.

I was careful not to trip over stray dogs. The dogs were either sleeping or taking their cues from the amorous monkeys.

It was now 2:00 a.m. I found an empty bench close to the end of the platform. This area was not under cover, more exposed, less attractive to the masses camped further down the platform.

It was slightly chilly, which I welcomed. It might help me to keep my eyes open.

Two drunken brothers, Indians in their 20's, came over and sat beside me. They were happy drunks, so I initially welcomed this Falstaffian interlude. They seemed harmless, and I needed to stay awake.

Haridwar is a conservative, religious town where it is illegal to buy or consume alcohol.

One spoke in impossibly slurred English, the other interpreted for me in slightly less slurred English. It was comical, but nothing made much sense. They were cheery enough and I was not hearing a hard-luck story or being asked for anything.

I spotted one of the backpackers heading in my direction. He came up to me and spoke with ease, as though we were continuing a previous conversation.

I was glad he was there. By now the drunken brothers were grating on me, it was good to have a normal, low-key conversation.

It was now 2:30 a.m. Marco was from Italy, the North, I would bet, judging by his serious demeanor. An official had just told him the train had broken down two hours up the line, but it would be repaired soon and would arrive at 3:30 a.m. This was not credible.

The backpackers had decided it was time to get moving. They had found someone with a jeep who would take them to Delhi. Would I like to join them and share the cost?

I hesitated. I did not know Marco, nor the other backpackers, nor the jeep driver, nor the road-worthiness of the jeep. Besides, I already had my ticket to Delhi.

But I did not want to fall asleep in that crowded station, and I did want to be on a flight to Paris the next day. The train could be stranded for days. Once it got going, the delayed night train would have to yield to higher priority day trains. It was Divali, alternative transport would be difficult to find. I would rather walk than hang off one of those overcrowded trains.

I found myself declaring the jeep to be a fine idea. I bade farewell to the inebriates as we left to join the other backpackers.

The Journey

Marco introduced the other backpackers: Carlos from Spain, Shira from Israel, and Maria from Brazil. They welcomed me as one of their kind, the conversation was easy. This was a group of poised individuals.

We hoisted our backpacks, walked out the station, and crossed the square to meet a young Indian who was standing by a jeep.

Shira was naturally take-charge, and I was glad of that. Later I wondered if she had recently completed her military service. She finalized the arrangements, firmly, respectfully, equal to equal. We were going to pay a total of 3,000 rupees (about US$10 each) at the end of the ride. The driver was going to bring along two friends to share the driving.

I looked at the jeep, wondering how it could hold seven twenty-somethings, one sexagenarian, and five backpacks. Eight people, six nationalities.

At 3:00 a.m. we stowed our packs in the cargo area and piled in. Three drivers up front, Marco, Shira, and me in the rear, Maria and Carlos lying on the backpacks.

We lurched forward. Maybe this was the first time the driver had operated a stick-shift. All night, the drivers would be hard on the drivetrain, brakes, and suspension. To this day I cannot fathom why all this was not hard on my nerves.

The three drivers chatted among themselves as we backpackers relaxed, chatting about our travels. Every now and then we would shriek happily as we accelerated over a speed bump, or swerved onto a sidewalk to overtake a line of traffic.

Marco talked earnestly about trekking from village to village in Nepal, staying in homes, observing the importance of yak crap to the rural economy.

Maria, atop backpacks, fulfilled my preconceptions of Brazil with her vivacity and her various piercings glinting in the dark. Carlos, piled beside her, did not have so much to say, maybe because he wasn't so fluent in English.

The pleasant conversation trailed off, heads started nodding, the scenes flashing outside faded.

I woke at a filling station. I had noticed the gas was near zero when we started, so I was not too surprised. One of the front-seat guys asked for gas money, which I supplied. Marco tried to pay, but I suggested we'd all settle up at the end of the trip.

I dozed and woke. This time we had pulled up to a smoke shop where the drivers stocked up on cigarettes. We were not asked to pay for this transaction.

Maybe the next stop would be a quiet place where we would be robbed. I could see on my GPS our heading was straight for Delhi, and that seemed to be proof enough the ride was on the up and up. I was irrationally free of anxieties.

My crumb trail. Interactive map.
Sleep continued in fits and starts. Periodically I would wake then raise my head to take in a new scene. Lights, strings of Diwali lights, oncoming headlights while overtaking, ignored red traffic lights, cues to drive faster. And always sounds. The horn, other drivers ignoring us, pedestrians jumping out of our path, cyclists peeling off on both sides. Blaring music, each track starting as rap or rock, then morphing into Bollywood. Washboard roads, speed bumps, abrupt changes of direction, hard acceleration and braking.

The seating order of the drivers seemed to be different each time I woke. One time I thought we had lost a driver, but then I realized he was slumped over, fast asleep. At least he wasn't driving at the time.

I laughed, I felt strangely fatalistic, I knew I could die, or worse, at any moment. But I believed the guys in the front wanted to live, too. In those moments I was very alive and relishing it.

At 6:20 a.m. we pulled up outside Old Delhi station, over an hour and a half ahead of the scheduled arrival time of the Mussoorie Express.

I paid the balance, refusing contributions from the protesting backpackers. We waved cheery farewells. We had lived the moment, no lifelong friendships, no exchange of emails, no final breakfast together. Lovely people. The backpackers headed to one of the backpacker hostels clustered around the  train station and I headed to my hotel.

The Worst Travel Fail

I decompressed as I walked the mile to my boutique hotel, Hotel Palace Heights. It was good to walk, alive, the frenzy of New Delhi all around me in the early morning sun.

At the front desk, an old duffer was asking how many English-speaking channels were on the television. At breakfast most of the guests were westerners, ordering western breakfasts. I overheard an American woman being asked: "toast: white or brown?" to which she responded "wheat." The waiter repeated the order: "white toast," but the woman did not notice. I half expected her to giggle patronizingly when he brought her the white toast.

The backpackers were maybe sitting in some little cafe, filling up on paratha and dal, chatting earnestly about their travels.

I was having my paratha and dal in a hotel restaurant surrounded by people seeking ersatz India. No, I would never be a young backpacker again, but it was good to share in their adventure and easy camaraderie for one journey. No, I don't want to be them, full of hopes and fears, facing the responsibilities, compromised values, and disappointments of a career ahead. I really don't.

Some of the people in the breakfast room were in India for A-list sights, souvenirs, and familiar food. They were about to drive off in air-conditioned chauffeur-driven cars to be whisked past the inconvenient or unpleasant. Traveling in bubbles, expectations and sensibilities somewhat intact.

In my own way, I was also traveling in a bubble. I knew there were others in the breakfast room more adventurous than me: they were probably speaking quietly, trying to be invisible.

It was time for a quick freshen-up before heading outside, back into India. I would do one of my route marches, I would take a crowded metro train, then a bus filled to more than twice its official capacity. I would end up in an outer suburb far from A-list places, I'd be introduced to an engineer who would show me his research on affordable sanitation.

My mother-in-law once asked what was the worst thing that had ever happened to me on a trip. It was a good question, but I could not think of an answer. I had flown over one million miles, hiked many trails in remote places, but I had no answer.

The worst travel fails are often invisible, they're opportunities missed, a preoccupation with the wrong problem.

That night at Haridwar Junction I could have declined the jeep ride and thought no more of it. That would have been one of the worst things that ever happened to me on a trip.

Ultimately, I may never know the answer to my mother-in-law's question.

The painting at the top of this post is Magritte's "L'Image Parfaite" (1928).
I changed the names of the backpackers. Everything else is my experience as I remember it.

No comments:

Post a Comment