train log, Delhi to Pune
So here I am, once more on a bumpy night train to a new and somehow different aspect of India. This time? South India, or my version of it, my final (well..) destination of Pune. I will have ten days before my program (autumn quarter!) begins and I don’t know what I’ll do. I may succumb to the travel bug and check out either the southeast (Chennai, Pondicherry) or the southwest (Kerala), depending on which place I decide not to go on the week off in October or November or whenever it is. I’d like to see both areas.
But I’m not much for solo travel, as it’s harder to buck off the more tenacious individuals alone. Take this train trip (a rousing ~30hrs, oh my!) on which, at some point earlier I’d decided to slip on over to an empty berth with a window view, clutch my blanket, and listen to music. I even had a little curtain to draw! Solitary bliss.
But it was not without a struggle, as a quite-older Punjabi guy who’d seen me earlier ducked into the seat across from me and insisted on a conversation. It was the usual (I’m in India to learn Hindi/civ, I’ve gone herehere and here) except when he asked about a boyfriend I invented one in the states. I was obviously a little agitated and disinterested in conversation, but he just sat there. Finally I put on my headphones and five minutes later he gave up on friendly exchanges and left (although he did insert a strange little palm-stroking thing during the handshake that creeped me out).
I don’t hate and rudely banish all conversation, obviously, but sometimes I’m just not up for it and refuse to carry politeness past the first several minutes. I had looked for my own seat to wrap the solitude around me. My own compartment, which I’ve again escaped from (I’m like the pathologically wandering foreigner), contains three fat women who spread themselves out along the bottom seats such that I really only have the top berth–I can’t sit upright. They talk a lot and burp audibly and frequently, which disgusts me. To think I’ve seen so many things (innumerable people relieving themselves in public places, for example) and what revolts me is the loudly burping women in my train compartment.
I was happy to leave Delhi. I don’t much like Delhi, for whatever reason. After seeing the refreshingly green countryside of Punjab, the glistening Golden Temple, the cool and winding Himachal foothills and the candles lit inside shops during power outages, the simple and peaceful image of Tibetan prayer flags strung above a waterfall, the sand dunes of the expansive Thar desert.. Delhi has little to offer in the way of charm. It does offer Kamal (meaning “lotus flower”), the most adorable budding hospitality professional I have probably ever met, who had some actual conversations with me, and flashed that smile, and wore a twin red thread around his wrist, like the one I got in the Ajmer mosque and have worn almost every day subsequently. Oh, Kamal.
I’m sorry to report that the night of the bombings that seemed to have been meant for me was only strange and surreal and sad for one night. The next morning it felt like a detached fact of the previous day, like my breakfast or an afternoon purchase. This is the fourth major attack of terrorism this year, all within only the past five months, three of which have happened while I’ve been in the country. As horrible as it sounds, it has begun to feel like some kind of norm. There is a routine to it. A few days of media coverage and public discourse, a condemnation from the prime minister, and then a quiet slip into the background. The glass is swept up, people get back into the markets, the police stand around, trying not to look like they don’t know what they’re doing.
This talk about not liking Delhi and terrorism and irritating conversations has me thinking about something Matt (one of my travel companions, and now, friends) and I were talking about. He mentioned that he thought it was unfortunate when people gave a negative impression of the country in which they were traveling (via blogs, information to friends, etc). Given that the country isn’t “ours”, it seems unfair to waltz into it and judge everything according to our biased standards. It just promotes a bad image of the country.
It struck me, the way he was talking about it… he sounded actually concerned. I said I found it even more obnoxious when people traveled and delivered only a glowing and glittery impression of their destination. To mention some of India’s best qualities and turn a blind eye to things like pollution and sexism is, frankly, unrealistic. Still, dwelling on these things without making note of how culturally ingrained and therefore difficult to both understand and conquer they are–that’s also pretty unrealistic.
And the conversation made me wonder if I’m portraying India poorly, with some of the negative things I say. The negative often requires more thought than the positive, which is maybe why it slips much more easily into writing. But if it’s the case, I’d like to establish that my view of India is overwhelmingly complicated but nuanced by so many positive things I have yet to touch on and have trouble explaining.