Benaulim was nice but eventually I had to get moving, otherwise: skin cancer and death on the beach.
So I booked a train to Hampi.
Cook and I woke up at 6:00 in the morning to meet the rickshaw we had told to meet us on the football pitch at 6:30. My train was at 8:00 and his was at 7:30. Cook: South Korean, 23. I met him and Asaf (Israeli, 24) on my first day in Benaulim. I asked them if they knew of a good restaurant. They didn’t, but we became fast friends anyway. Cook and I shared my room the last two nights to save precious rupees, and we had the happy accident of having booked our departure trains for the same morning and from the same train station. So it was all very good. Really, it was.
6:35. Rickshaw to Margao. At the train station, give the rickshaw driver 150 Rs. Ask the enquiry booth man about platforms and late trains, drink chai for 5 Rs, and 7:25 rolls in, I wish Cook safe travels, shake his hand, tell him I’ll be in touch if ever I find myself in South Korea.
Then I go to my platform.
Indians walk up and down the strip, offering more chai, samosas, other foodstuffs. The train shows up fifteen minutes late. The white people all board. We’re all going to Hampi. We’ve all got Lonely Planet, and Lonely Planet tells us to go there.
So this is what we do.
I find my seat in the sleeper car. It’s grungy. I sit opposite a young Belgian with a shaved head and a single nappy dreadlock. Across from the Belgian and me are two Swedish families of three, traveling together. The Swedish families will purchase something from practically everyone who walks by selling something for the first two hours of the trip. In that time, I will listen to music, and watch the jungle roll by, take pictures of the train, smoke a cigarette in the bathroom. I will daydream and buy dhosa for brunch. I will think about you. I probably will.
I cannot do justice to the Indian rail experience. You must simply see it to believe it. It is a market on wheels. It is a small self-contained city, replete with beggars, cripples, the middle class, and tourists all living side-by-side. Men and women walk up and down the aisles selling chips and water. Indians and foreigners sit and stand by the open doors at the end of every train car smoking cigarettes and talking to one another. I befriended Shafraz for the first four hours of my trip. Shafraz is a 20 year old Muslim engineering student from Hubli who loves Hollywood movies and would like to one day live in either America or Saudi Arabia. He has eight sisters, five of whom are married. He would prefer if he could marry based on love, but he understands and accepts that his marriage will be arranged. I tell him that I am unmarried, he asks me how old I am, and when I tell him that I’m 26, he looks at me with obvious surprise.
“You have girlfriend?” he asks.
“Sort-of girlfriend,” I say.
“Will you marry her one day?”
I answer this the way that I always do. “I don’t know.”
He is practically green with envy.
Shafraz is the first of ten or so Indians who ask me what my tattoo means. I explain it the way I’ve learned explains it best, by appealing to a cliche that resonates more in this part of the world.
“You give a finger, they take a hand,” I begin. “You give an inch, they take a foot. So, ‘Never give an inch.'” He nods. He thinks it’s badass. He tells me so. I thank him, but I finally understand what Kate meant when she told me that getting a tattoo would invite unwanted conversation, uninvited justification. I ask Shafraz if he has a tattoo. He shakes his head. “No. In my religion it is not allowed.” I nod. Then I remind him that he could always get it someplace that other people wouldn’t be able to see. “Like your ass.” He smiles. He nods back.
He will not get a tattoo.
Shafraz gets off in Hubli. I give him my backup email address, tell him to feel free to write, tell him that if he makes it to America that I’d be happy to show him around. But it’s an empty promise. Shafraz is a man I met on a train. I feel no obligation to him.
This is a new feeling. It has something to do, I think, with the amount of attention you are accorded as a white person in India. “Rickshaw, rickshaw!” “Do you have coin from your country?” “Rupees?” “Motorbike?” “Do you need guide?” “Postcard? Map?” It’s a cacophony of requests for attention. You get used to it, of course, and it turns into background noise eventually, but background noise is still noise–and it’s noise, moreover, directed at you–and there are times when you want everybody to just shut the fuck up so that you can sit down and think for a minute.
So Shafraz got off in Hubli, is my point.
Then I met the German, whose cigarettes I smoked, leaning out the doors, watching the rice paddies and the Indian plains whiz by. The Israeli girl who borrowed my lighter over and over again. The English couple with their children. The man from the Indian navy. The children begging: “Rupees?” “No rupees.” Then, as if the response hadn’t made sense: “Rupees?” And the second time you just ignore them until they go away, because your heart is cold and hard. Your heart has adapted to India. A warm and beautiful place.
In Hospet we get off the train. “Rickshaw, rickshaw!” I bump into Emma, an Australian who I’d met on the train. She and I decide to split a ride to the Bazaar rather than take the bus. We haggle for the price. “150 rupees,” the man who has followed us out of the station suggests. “80,” I say. “No, no, no,” he replies, then adds, “120 rupees. Final price. Emma chimes in, “100 rupees.” He shakes his head. “120 rupees, final price.” Emma says, “All right, then,” and we begin to walk away. The rickshaw man smiles and says, “Okay, I take you for 100.”
We pack our shit in the rickshaw and drive.