Chai, Cockroaches, And Permanent Sunburn

Asaf and I left Hampi for Bangalore.  Took a bus from the Bazaar into Hospet, out of the ruins and the rocks, into urban decay and the smell of sewage in the canals, women washing their families’ clothes in shit-water, stray dogs laying in the evening heat.  To the train station.  To other places.  To southern Karnataka.

At the train station in Hospet, our train is delayed by an hour.  As if it could be any other way.  I spend most of that hour standing outside the depot, smoking cigarettes, drinking rum, and fending off small beggar children.  Or, rather, no:  I fend them off–at best–half-heartedly.  For the most part, I mess with them.

The list of questions and requests posed by the beggar children should, by now, be familiar.

“Coins from your country?”




“Rupees?  Five rupees.”


School pen?  No.  Cigarette?  No.  Rum?  No.  Are you married?  No.  Do you have girlfriend?  Sort-of.  Will you marry her?  Don’t know.  Rupees?  I’ve already told you no.  Stamps?  No.  When will you marry?  When I find the right woman.

And then a French woman, probably my age, comes outside to smoke a cigarette, and I’m briefly in the clear while the three of them–nine- and ten-year olds–subject her to the litany of standard beggar children questions.

The one who doesn’t speak English, and who will stand by my side until I board the train (silently asking me for swigs of Old Monk, and cigarettes) nudges me.  Then he pokes me.  I look his way.  He’s seated between me and the French woman.  He indicates her, grins big.  “What?”  I ask him.  He points at her, pokes me again.  I get it.  Laugh.  Play dumb.  “What?  What do you want?”  Again, points, raises his eyebrows, pokes.  “You want me to ask her to marry me?”  He nods.  Yes, of course, white man–ask her!  This is repeated a few more times, as I feign slow learning.  “Ask her to marry me?”  Yes, yes, yes he nods.  “This is what you’re telling me?”  Yes, yes, yes!  Okay, I say.

“This kid won’t be happy until I ask you to marry me,” I tell her.

She laughs.  She doesn’t know what to say.

I tell the little boy who doesn’t speak English that if a woman laughs at a marriage proposal in the West it’s the gravest insult a man can receive.  He doesn’t understand.  “She said no,” I assure him.  I take one last swig of rum, tell him again that he can’t have any, and wish him farewell.

(He’ll be with me until I get on the train, as I mentioned, but at the time I thought I was done with him.)

Then Asaf and I board.

The train, it turns out, is called the Hindi equivalent of the Poor Man’s train.  Asaf and I have a side berth, overnight to Bangalore.  We are the only white people who board in Hospet.  We are the only white people on our car.  We’re the only white people who get off at Yesvantpur eight hours later, too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

First I must tell you about this train.

Ah, but first I must preface this by telling you that having a bottle of rum on a sleeper car for an overnight journey on a train called the Poor Man’s train might be the most solid recommendation I can offer at this juncture for traveling in India.  Here’s why:

(Wait for it…)


Cockroaches everywhere.  Lots and lots and lots of cockroaches.  Crawling on your seat, on the ground, on sleeping people, your bags, the windows, the doors, the bathrooms, the walls, the handles.  Everywhere, cockroaches.  Big ones, medium ones, small ones, baby ones.  Cockroaches.  Fucking shit tons of fucking cockroaches, dude.  No fucking joke.  I sit in my seat after we board and notice a couple, thinking “Okay.  No big deal.  They’re just cockroaches.”  I stomp on a few.  Crush a few more.  But really, it’s all to no avail, obviously, as the car is absolutely teeming with them, spontaneously generating them, birthing them from every seam and crack.  I give up, but I slap every itch I have.  I give up, but I tuck my shirt in.  I give up, but I say Shit a lot.  I give up, but I go to the bathroom, smoke cigarettes and drink rum.  Then I do this again.  Then I do it again.

By midnight I’m drunk enough to sleep in the filthiest fucking place I’ve ever slept.  And so I do.  For a few hours anyway.

Four-thirty in the morning, we arrive.  I wake Asaf.  “We’re here.”  Asaf is catching another train to Bangalore Central; I’m taking busses to meet Aliya in Yelahanka.  His train comes and we part ways–probably forever, since that’s how travel works.  And so it goes.  I piss onto the tracks, because the bathrooms aren’t open yet.  I get a chai, because the chai men are out and about.  Then I go outside to smoke.

Rickshaw drivers, naturally, follow me on the way out.  Offer me rides to Yelahanka.  I get another chai from another chai man.

“I take you Yelahanka for 400 rupees,” one says, the one who’s been following me longest.

“Too much.”

“How much your friend say to Yelahanka?”

“She didn’t,” I tell him, “but if you’re offering 400, it can’t be more than 200.”

No, no, no, he lies.  “The price is 400.”

I fuck with him a little bit, act interested–like I might be sold, or on the verge.  I scratch my beard, pretend to mull his offer over–pretend that I am still the man I was three weeks ago.  But I’m not.  I finish my cigarette.  Then I turn around and abandon him.  I ignore whatever it is he says to my back.  I walk to catch the bus to Majestic, the central bus depot, from where I catch another bus to Yelahanka.  The wrong bus, but it’s going in the general direction of where I need it to go.  At the final stop, the bus driver tells me how to get to Aroma Sweets, where Aliya is (hopefully, oh God, please be there) waiting, and I walk the kilometer there, smoking a cigarette again, lugging my pack again, thinking about chai again, and scratching at my permanent sunburn.



4 responses to “Chai, Cockroaches, And Permanent Sunburn

  1. Hi Tom, it sounds absolutely awful. Hope you checked every crevice of clothing and bags for the nasty bugs to make sure you aren’t brining them with you.
    Love you.

  2. Sounds like a real adventure to me my friend come home safe buddy i miss you!

  3. Sherry told me about the blog last night at Trivia. I’ll be reading it all. I can’t wait to hear it in person soon. Godspeed, Mary

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