Chapter 141: The Malabar Express

My peaceful slumber was shaken by a slow droning noise. This noise wasn’t the train wheels noisily and steadily going along the track as we sped along the countryside. No, this noise is almost more pervasive in the Indian train system. A simple soundtrack to bring you straight from a fantastic dream into the reality of the present.

“Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai! Chai!”

Indian chai salesmen have developed a droning announcement as they walk through the train cabins. Other train salesmen, such as coffee, vegetable cutlets, water, other beverages, each of them have a somewhat distinctive call as they wander the length of the train. However, none are as otherworldly as the droning, monotone “chai-chai-chai-chai” of the traveling chai salesmen.

I must have leaned out of my bunk to watch the salesman approach my end of the sleeper car, because as soon as he made it to me, he stopped and asked, in perfect British English, “Would you like some chai, sir?”

Indian sleeper trains are everything I was told Indian train travel wasn’t. They’re clean, friendly, reasonably safe, and have reserved seating. Outside of the fact that you have to book train travel somewhat in advance (compared to Europe), the sleeper trains are the ideal way to travel medium to long distances in India. There aren’t any cabins or closed doors; each sleeper bunk is open to the aisle, and this makes for quite the lively atmosphere at times.

Hot cup of chai in hand (and 6 rupees poorer), I climbed down from my bunk to find Dave engrossed in Lonely Planet India. We had the aisle seats, so there were two levels, a bed on each, with the bottom level folding up to form two chairs and a small table. Across from the aisle seats was the 6-pack: three bunks on either side of a small shared space, the middle bunk folding down to create the backrest of the bottom bunk, forming three seats on each side.

When I had started my mid-afternoon nap, the entire train was deep in a mid afternoon nap. However, within the 5 minutes after I woke up, the 6-pack across from mine had become THE party destination for a large group of traveling Indian businessmen, with no fewer than 12 men crowded into the space for six. They were holding newspapers and talking in a continuous stream of loud Hindi or Malayalam.

After a while of trying to mentally compete with the businessmen by reading books, we eventually gave up and decided to play a game of cards. But these weren’t just ordinary cards. These were Barack Obama playing cards, the backs of each card emblazoned with his smiling mug, purchased in the patriotic insanity of Dulles International Airport. We started playing a variation of Crazy 8’s called crazy eight countdown, where instead of winning when you run out of cards, you draw 7, then 6, and all the way down to 1 before you win. Not quite an intellectually intensive game, but its an easy way to pass the time. Across the cabin, much note was made of our card playing, with constant stares and much banter centered around the isolated recognizable word “Obama”.

After a game or two, we put the deck down and returned to reading guidebooks and/or staring out the window towards the moving Maharashtra countryside. The man opposite the aisle from me was staring intently at the deck, and eventually asked if he could look at it.

Each card has an associated Democrat or Democratic supporter caricature, such as Hillary, Al Gore, Jon Stewart, Oprah or the Big B himself. The first businessman rifled through the set, occasionally laughing at one he recognized and passing the card to a friend. Eventually the card perusing occupied all six of the remaining businessman’s attention.

I noticed one man with a peculiar expression holding one card. He looked a mixture of hurt and confused, and turned to me and asked, “Why did they make George Bush a joker?!” He was holding one of the two jokers, the first being W, the second being John McCain.

“A lot of people in the US don’t really like George Bush.”

“Well, I like George Bush!!” he stated as defensively and as conclusively as he could. Several of his friends stifled some, but not all, of their laughter.

I was leaning into the aisle at this point, and turned to my right to see two girls staring at me from the next compartment. They were around my age, and were wearing deep maroon and red saris, respectively. I turned to my left to see if they were looking past me. Empty hallway. I turned to the right again to find the same stares, this time with smiles attached. I repeated my left-right head turn routine several more times, to ever increasing smiles, before they finally got embarrassed and disappeared.

Dave had entered into a guidebook discussion with the businessmen about our future plans. They had been interested in the Lonely Planet descriptions of Fort Cochi, Kerala, their home town, but had moved quickly onto critiquing our planned route south. We were going to Arembol, one of the larger hippie beaches in Goa. We had booked the train further south than we needed, and they told us to get off at a more northern station so as not to waste our time. However, since we didn’t know what time the train was scheduled to roll through the station, we waited for the next stop to find out what station we were near, and therefor how many we had left.

The train slowed into a small station, and neither of us could see a station sign from our side of the train. The train doors normally stay open on either end of each train car, so I got up and walked to one end of our car to try looking out the other side of the train. When I came to the door, I was greeted by a very confused Indian man, a closed door, and loud pounding and unintelligible shouting from the other side.

The Indian man was trying to open the door, but something was blocking the way. I noticed a little latch at the top corner of the door that falls down when it closes, and motioned to the Indian man to let me try. I managed to get the latch up, and pry open the massive door, to find a very angry 60 year old British man holding a large bag.

“Bloody hell! Thank god we have focking caucasians around ‘ere or this focking country would fall apart!”

He climbed up onto the train and pushed past the somewhat stunned Indian man and myself to the compartment next to mine. I managed to spurt something about “To be fair I didn’t know what I was doing either”, but I don’t think he heard me or cared. I leaned out the door, confirmed the station, and started to return to my cabin, sharing a raised eyebrows head-bob with the Indian man.

The Brit had booted one of the Indian girls from his reserved seat, and had forced the family they were traveling with to massively reorganize their belongings so he could have his bag directly underneath him. When I started to pass through the cabin, most of the family and the two girls looked at me with expressions ranging from “Help us” to “I would not judge you if you punched him”. I gave them the most reassuring head-bob I could, and managed to parlay a bump in the track into a good shoulder jostle of the Brit.

Less than twenty minutes later, the train started to slow, and Dave and I picked up our packs and headed to the end of our train car. I opened the door, and we spilled out into the cool air of the train station. Alongside us, and with the apparently sole intent of seeing us off, were half a dozen business men, one of the chai sellers, several children, mothers and fathers, and the two girls from the next compartment. We shook multitudes of hands, received last minute directions, advice and fingers pointed at maps, and as we walked away caught several blown kisses.

The key to Indian train travel is remembering the main mantra about travel in general: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

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