Misadventure

The Road is Long

Some people come to India in search of themselves. They come for a six week intensive yoga course, or they practice meditation on a mountain top lost in the Himalays, some come to meet their guru and get in touch with their spirituality. For these people I have one piece of advice. Take the train. The train encompasses it all.  It is a practice your meditation, simultaneously you will ask your body to twist in altogether new ways akin to yoga poses, only then to be confronted with at least a dozen would be Indian gurus with advice and opinions on anything and everything from relationships to Indian-American comparative politics. What you will not see of the country side while you are in a meditation conference, you will see on the train. Our ventures by train have been numerous and varied but they all reinforce one common theme that has become a catch phrase during our time inIndia: anything is possible. Anything. You think there cannot possibly physically be any room left in the 50 square foot train compartment that is already full of Indians, on the floor, on the luggage racks, a baby on your lap, an incomprehensible tangle of humanity with a glimpse of rat scurrying under foot... but there is. There always is room and come the next station there will be more waiting to rush into the train than those who debark.  When I first took the train, I had no idea what I was doing. 5 classes, assigned seats, unassigned seats, passenger trains, express trains... The whole thing was completely mysterious. Most simply and efficiently put, the train is a sacré bordel, a French expression translated literally as a holy whorehouse (you see immediately why we can't say this in English, but French being so beautiful of a language seems to allow things to degenerate rapidly in terms of content, how shocking.). I guess the PC translation would have to be: a big mess. Talk about translation loss.  But me get back to get back to the train situation.

Things had been going smoothly by train as we got onto one spacious passenger train after the next: Rameshwaram to Kanyakumari, then from the beaches of Gokarna to Goa. Easy, smooth transitions, rolling from one destination the next: no reservation, no problem. And then it was time to leave Goa, heading again to the mountains, urged on by the allure of ancient temples and natural beauty of Hampi. But this time, to our surprise, we were not met by a user friendly passenger train. In its place was an 'express' that pulled up into the station, which for anyone who had the foresight to plan in advance, was a most welcome sight. For us who lacked said foresight, it meant platform tickets, general class. General class is the lowest of the low, the cheapest of the cheap (I'm talking USD 1.50 for twelve hours on the train). Any and all can buy a ticket as there is literally no maximum capacity, no point at which ticket offices close sales. Needless to say there are not usually a lot of tourists in this class; we didn't see any during any of our train rides in general, which explains the general incredulity at our arrival.  There are usually two wagons of the train dedicated to general, one at the front and the other at the back of the train. This was a particularly difficult concept for Rémi and I, explained to us in hind-glish a befuddling combination of English and Hindi that is purportedly used for communication. We ended up sprinting to the end of the train as it was pulling out of the station, having finally caught on to the signs indicating different classes and the corresponding cars. We jumped on the train, out of breath and still in a state of semi confusion (typical) only to find ourselves practically pushed back out of the train onto the platform!! A solid wall of human mass clogged the trains, feet overhead, an arm appeared from under the seat. It was war. We were going to get onto this train no matter what. Luckily our Indian fairly godmother was with us on that fateful day of our first ride in general class, and we were pulled into one of the main compartments by a helpful hand, steering us clear of all danger of a violent expulsion from the overcrowded entryway. Quickly we set up camp with the Indians, settling in on the ground, on the baggage, wherever there seemed a free space. And it really was like camp. Singing, dancing, merry making. I was requested (read: forced) to sing on multiple occasions to the delight or dismay of all. A baby settled on my lap, Remi leading the group in a raucous rendition of a French drinking song, an Indian preacher perched on the window shaking his hips in dance... their family was my family.. Oops, no they're not actually related at all. We were all family, sealed in dirt as our collective crass became indistinguishable, one from another. Why not! Don't ask why. A family in flux, accumulating new members as fast as we lost them. Seven hours later we transferred trains, back in our groove as we boarded another passenger to arrive in Hampi.

Highlights from Hampi include the heat (stifling), the super strange geographic formations, and an incredibly refreshing mountain lake. Five days passed in a flash and yet again we were found in that predictable situation: ready to take the train with no reservation. Bring it on general. And let me tell you, general brought it. This time we were in for a full night and somehow people seemed that much more reluctant to cede a precious seat to us, the weaklings who were naïf to this sink or swim world. Yet we were lucky and we boarded a relatively empty train. We smirked at each other, feeling on top of the world. That didn't last too long. India laughed at us: Dream on kids! More and more indians piled onto the train, stuffing us closer and closer and it was not the first time I realized that "personal space" is a Western concept and a luxurious one at that. Somehow the night passed, between fits of hard earned sleep without an inch of free space, sitting stiff upright, an Indian teenage boy cuddling up to Remi's inviting shoulder, an indignant older woman instructing me to please, hike up my shirt to a more appropriate high-neck level.  But that night was nothing in comparison with the next day when without rhyme or reason the train pulled to an unexpected stop. And, for the next seven hours, advance we did not. Why? The Indians appeared utterly unfazed by this series of events. They didn't seem to be desperate for explanations, ready to pull out their hair or wriggling in discomfort and overheated. No, quite to the contrary this seemed to pass as an acceptable and perfectly normal phenomenon. Whereas Rémi and I were displaying signs of all three of the above, feeling more and more claustrophobic by the minute. India had never been so hot as it was in that train, without an inch of room to spare where even a breath of fresh air is an impossibility (yea, this is where the meditation part becomes really critical, when your choices are quite simply meditate or panic). So we opted for the meditation option, seeing as its not really an option at all but an imposed element of life here. We wondered again about the tolerance threshold of these people and then, so slowly at first and then faster still, movement. Oh blessed, sweet Jesus, or Shiva or whoever! Turns out, we would learn later on, there had been an accident on the tracks ahead with a freight train blocking our way forward. You know, an average day on the train. 30 hours later and there it is! Mumbai! Our stop! Oh life, we fling ourselves into the station, out of the train, finally free.

Arrival in Mumbai: It is pure ecstasy. For three days we ride out our post-train high, pulsing with renewed life and just so happy to be free from the train.  Sweet freedom! Our impressions of this mega modern Indian city are surely flavored by our delight to have gotten off the hellish train. We loved Mumbai.

In India, space is always earned. Either you pay or you fight, claws out, teeth barred, no mercy. Sound hardcore?  Taking public transportation is a physical activity. The bus will throw you around if you don't make a concerted effort to hold your own. Yet it is a place where the full spectrum of human life assembles; 80 year old grannies toothlessly smile, as incredibly calm newborn babies are soothed to sleep by their mothers in even the most chaotic of circumstances. That's my theory about why the Indians are all so zen; they have been conditioned to this madness from infancy! (Think of those gurus I was telling you about).

With all of its trials and tribulations, being in transit is one of the most intense pleasures that I have know on this trip. It's that feeling of being in the in between, neither here now there, but always advancing, nearing some unknown destination and leaving the past behind. It is the full sky, the horizon always nearing and yet eternally suspended in the distance. It is the ultimate freedom: to evacuate the body and let the mind soar with unlimited thoughts that let the boundaries of time and space lapse away. It's an escape. I put on my headphones, zone in on the sound and the visuals, the stunning scenery. The music is a simultaneous transport, bringing back distant, forgotten memories: I could be in my parents' van, on an unending road trip across the United States, in the semi-unconscious state of childhood. And then it's onto dreaming up plans for the future, halfway colored scenes that I have yet to create, just a fleeting idea for the time being. This is the time when I really rejoice in what I'm doing, in the craziness of it all, the unpredictability and the beauty of the world. This is the time when I feel it all.

A New Year

Obligatory picture with Big Ben, magnificent at night
Obligatory picture with Big Ben, magnificent at night

And so it begins! Nearly a year after my first visit to this anglophone capital, I have returned to London, this time with a raucus band of Marseillais. I reunited with my French cheri and his very French friends (the irony does not escape me that London also effectively marks the debut of an intensive French immersion, I hardly spoke any English there). On my last trip to London I was with Anna, my steadfast travel companion during our time abroad in France (I missed you this time around, Anna!). Indeed, my third day in London, was the one year mark of my depart for France the year before. Needless to say this visit was a little bit different in comparison, read: revelry of english tea and endless hours in museums, replaced by debauchery in english pubs, and taking to the streets for New Years celebration for music and fireworks. In the place of terribly obnoxious German adolescent bunk mates from a hostel, we slept 5 to a bedroom, in an apartment 9km outside of London, thank you our hosts, Greg and Marine!

London is beautiful at night
London is beautiful at night
The Marseillais in all their glory. I have never spent quite so much time in public transport, how do you deal Greg?
The Marseillais in all their glory. I have never spent quite so much time in public transport, how do you deal Greg?

In spite of a somewhat different approach, the city had the same effect on me. London is a city that has made me dream from my first visit. It fills me up with ideas for the future: plans, projects, and wanderings. I can see myself here, for a year of studies, a year of work; the reason itself remains unimportant to me, what counts is really having the time to really absorb this city for its daily rythms. It is a city that excites me with these daydreams for the future. The only drawback, if I can even call it that, London is huge which means endless hours on the underground, the train, or the bus to navigate the city. It was at least an hour commute into the city from Greg and Marine´s apartment and I was tired of public transport after the week.

The london that makes me dream, in the middle of the city you find this gem of a park
The london that makes me dream, in the middle of the city you find this gem of a park
A merry-go-round next to the Thames
A merry-go-round next to the Thames

All in all, it felt fitting that this New Years in London I found myself much more oriented towards the future, rather than in reflection on the past year. Later, plus tard, when I did take the time to reflect at least a little (it was New Years afterall..), I realized that the best resolution I could formulate would be to continue living as I have been in many ways, with continued curiosity, excitement and opennness at all this life has to offer and teach, to revel in the things that may be the most simple and not to fear the beauty of things that are more complicated, to learn as I go and to invent as I see fit. The past year had brought my semester in France and the return to Harvard when all I had learned became so evident. I finally felt at home in this institution, relaxed enough to make of this experience what I wanted and to enjoy, yes actually enjoy, this process. It was a year where I loved my studies, I loved my friends, new and old, and I loved life in general. I relaxed into a new type of travel; I accepted and even enjoyed the messy parts, when things go wrong, since in the end these are really just opportunities to find a new friend.

This became especially relevant upon my arrival this year in London. I was exhausted after the flight, especially since I hadn´t slept the night before, due to a missed flight I had spent the night driving to New York from Washington, arriving just in time for my early morning flight. And then, Remi wasn´t there... I double checked the message he had sent me the day before, Victoria train station, I was sure that was where we had agreed to meet, I had the message saved in my phone that proved it was true. I had already accounted for his lateness, previous meetings (Remi. is. always. late.) had prepared me for that, but when he still hadn´t shown up by 10:30, 3 hours after my plane had landed at Heathrow, I knew something was wrong. The search for wifi was useless, all the cyber cafes were closed and there was somehow no public network that I could access. It was only in striking up a conversation with a local Londondien who lent me her phone that I could have seen Remi´s message about the changed meeting place. The couple that I met while I anxiously waited in the line to buy yet another underground ticket did me more good than they could have possibly realised. My nerves frayed, exhausted from lack of sleep, it was their friendly words that got me through that line. And I made it! The night I thought would never end finally came to a close; I found him at a bar at Hammersmith, I was more relieved than mad (he had been on time afterall, he just hadn´t realized I wouldn´t have received his message in time). For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of travel is that it renders you in need of other people, and therefore open to so many encounters that you might otherwise avoid, or at least not actively seek out.

I know he looks innocent, don´t believe it!
I know he looks innocent, don´t believe it!

After this misadventure, the rest of time in London passed without calamity to speak off. We visited Buckingham palace, a huge tourist site, but a must see, and we got pretty silly in the presence of all this royally (excessive) monument.

"C´est royale" thanks, Regis at Buckingham Palace where it was truly "royal". And ok, I admit I trust him afterall
"C´est royale" thanks, Regis at Buckingham Palace where it was truly "royal". And ok, I admit I trust him afterall

Another favorite of mine was the Bogough Market, although I didn´t eat there, the smells alone seemed to comprise a meal: cheese, suasage, sandwiches and I did sample some hot wine, which was surprisingly delicious. Or not? Heated wine throws me off my game, I wasn´t quite sure what to think. Turns out its about the same idea as hot cider. If you haven´t tried its worth a shot.

My food, captivating as always
My food, captivating as always

We also visited Covent Garden, which was a first for me. We got an impromptu opera sampling, thanks to a woman singing on the street. The christmas decorations made for a really festive ambiance, which almost made up for the terrible London weather.

On se regale, the crazies themselves at Convent Garden
On se regale, the crazies themselves at Convent Garden

One other lasting highlight: on our last day, Remi and I visited the Tate Museum which is now among my favorite museums. THe modern art was stunning, and in constrast to the surprisng (at least to me) collection of more historic (classial? art terms escape me at the moment) art on display. I found many new artists to my liking and a few I recognized. Visit if you are in London!! We were lucky as well; we visited on a Friday and the museum exceptionally stayed open until 10pm, (22h for those who prefer).

The next day we were in the plane, god bless you RyanAir for your shitty quality and affordable fares. Next stop: la France.