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India Part II / The one where I set off alone

I could hear a voice coming through the carriage. Opening one eye I saw a young boy walking through the train with a metal container strapped to his back. It was almost as big as he was. He was seven, or thereabouts, but had a confidence of someone far older. He was shouting something, repeating the word over and over as he made his way towards where I had curled up on the dust covered bench. The heat of the train and my exhaustion had allowed for a few hours sleep. The sun was now beating down through the open window onto my back. I had somehow managed to sleep on my front on the upper bunk of the train carriage, my legs pulled tightly into my body. There was a firm imprint on my left cheek where the handle of my bag had pressed onto my skin as I slept. My mouth was dry, no doubt caused by the dust that blew constantly through the carriages. The particles had blocked my nose and it felt as though a light grit had covered the inside of my mouth.

The young boy was now standing directly beneath me. I had seen him pour two cups of a watery brown liquid from the container he carried and realised he was offering up much needed coffee to those of us waking in the hot, overcrowded carriage. Turning over onto my right side, I was faced with a dry, cracked foot just inches from my face. I moved forward to the open window and looked down at the rich green countryside that stretched for miles ahead. Two children in immaculate uniforms were making their way across a field. There were no clear buildings in sight and I imagined their long walk to school each morning.

I lowered myself from the upper bunk to see Charles still sleeping on the bench below. I hoped he would stay asleep so as not to ruin the morning by saying something derogatory about our surroundings. The strong smell of urine began to rise up again as the sun penetrated the metal floor. The train was dirty and the smell was one I hope never to encounter again, but there was something magical about travelling through India this way.

The Danish couple were no longer in our carriage. I didn’t know if there had been a previous stop and they had got off. Perhaps they had found a quieter place on the train in which to sleep. The three Israeli men appeared to have drunk themselves to sleep, the bottles of whiskey now lay empty on the floor by their feet.

I walked to one of the open doorways of the train. As I stared out, I smiled at the warm sun rising over the untouched countryside. A disused rickshaw sat by the side of the tracks. The piercing light that hit its metal shell forced my eyes closed until we passed. I held on to two rails attached to the doorway, letting the weight of my body fall forward outside of the train. The feeling of the wind on my face and the sound of the imposing steel train on the tracks will stay with me forever. It was one of the only times that I have ever felt truly free.

I couldn’t gauge from my watch what time we would arrive in Goa. In the rush to board the train in Mumbai, I hadn’t checked what time the train had departed and now my watch had stopped. I guessed that the sun would rise at around 6am, meaning there couldn’t be many more hours until I could escape the pungent smell not only of urine, but of the stale sweat that emitted from the surrounding bodies. I looked around and realised that, other than the Danish girl, I had been the only female in the carriage that night.

A train guard entered the carriage and announced the destination of the next stop. The only non-Indian passengers were seated in my carriage and none were any wiser as to the details of the station we would soon arrive at. In a second announcement, delivered in broken English, I made out that this was the first stop in Goa. A note in my guide book said the first stop was the lesser populated area and to disembark here. I had booked our first hotel not far from the station. I prepared my bag before leaning out of the window to brush my teeth with a small amount of water I had left in a bottle.

The hotel I had found was a two minute walk from the station. I could still hear the engine from our train when we reached the small yellow building where we would stay that night. Chickens ran freely outside the front of the property, never straying far from the main entrance of the hotel. It was basic, but appeared clean and after the night on the train, anywhere with a proper bed would be an upgrade. The room had been booked for three nights, but I knew I would be gone by morning.

We were handed cans of Coke while the receptionist wrote down the details of our passports in an old leather-bound book on the desk. Charles looked under his can, commenting that it had expired some months ago. The receptionist, clearly embarrassed, apologised before walking off to find alternatives. I hated Charles for making this point. I hated him for being so closed off and arrogant. I questioned why he had travelled to India if he wasn’t prepared to accept the way of life here.

As the hours passed, I found it unbearable to be in Charles’s company. Every word he spoke grated on me. The situation caused my stomach to tighten and I was unable to eat the dinner that had been proudly prepared by the wife of who I assume was the owner of the hotel. I felt rude that I was not eating and excused myself, saying I had been feeling unwell all day and had to rest. When Charles opened the door to our room some hours later, I pretended to be asleep. My bag was still packed and I was sleeping in a t-shirt and loose shorts so that, should I need to, I could leave in these clothes in the morning.

Knowing I would be continuing my trip alone the next day meant I woke constantly through the night in anticipation. When I found myself awake at 5am, there didn’t seem a better time to leave. I had placed my bag close to the door so as not to create too much noise as I left. Once downstairs, I used a small communal bathroom to quickly wash and change before walking back upstairs to the room. I pinned a folded piece of paper to the door. It was a brief letter of goodbye.

Pitch black outside, I could see the chickens moving on the ground and tried to find the steps I had taken on the pathway the previous day. Once on the gravel road and outside of the fence surrounding the hotel, I looked back. No lights and no movement from the window of the hotel room I had shared with Charles. I would now go forward alone, experiencing the India I had wanted to see.

I sat on the platform of the train station, the dull glow from an overhead lamp creating just enough light to read the notes in the guide book. The Mumbai I had witnessed didn’t compare to the one I was reading about. I hadn’t seen the beauty and the warmth that was described on the pages. Getting up from the platform where I had left the train some 18 hours before, I walked across the weathered bridge to the other side. I would wait for the next train to Mumbai. I had travelled all this way with the wrong person and needed to start from the beginning. I needed to reset my time in India.

On my return journey to Mumbai, I spent most of my time people watching or reading one of the handful of books I had brought with me from London. A quiet man opposite occasionally passed me sugar coated biscuits without saying a word. He was travelling with a small briefcase, his head down for much of the journey as he wrote entries in a fraying notebook. The movement of passengers on the train was as frenetic as the overnight journey. It didn’t seem to matter the time of day, the people of India were not content with staying in one place.

I appeared to be the only non-Indian person on the train that morning. I had walked through the carriages to pass the time, but hadn’t seen anyone other than Indian passengers. Listening to the language was mesmerising, the words spoken like a lively song. Immersing myself in the culture was something I wanted, but it was impossible to decipher even a word and as the hours passed, I felt isolated. Although I never spoke to the Israeli men or the Danish couple, just hearing a familiarity in the sound of their words felt somehow comforting.

With nothing else to do and tired of the book I had been reading on and off for almost six hours, I reached for the guide book. I tried to flatten the corners, which had somehow been forced back and now resembled a small accordion. In the rush to pack the previous night, I hadn’t noticed the book in the bottom of my bag and had carelessly thrown everything on top of it. I began reading the handwritten notes.

With each page I read, I felt I was getting to know the personality of the traveller who had taken the book through India before me. The descriptive notes were peppered with humour and I was sure I would have had a far better time in India with this person instead of Charles. The pages had yellowed in colour and I wondered exactly when the book had been taken on its last tour. I could see from the opening page that the edition had been updated by the publisher in 1988, but a handwritten reference to an email made it clear the book had been used more recently. I was taken along on an imagined journey by the vivid descriptions on the pages. Sights, tastes, smells; they were all detailed in the lightly penned blue ink that covered most of every free space in the book. I wanted to see everything that whoever had written the notes had seen before me.

That’s why I had found this book at the market. I wasn’t looking for it, but there it was at the front of the stall outside the falafel place on Portobello Road. It was so clear to me that I laughed out loud on the train. I would take the exact route through the country that was described in the book. Their time in India would now be my experience too.

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