Knee Deep in Humanity

Aren’t you scared to travel alone in India? I suppose I am. I try to find a woman to sit next to on the train. I keep my passport close at hand. I walk quickly in dark deserted roads. I hide my money. My heart beats a little faster in each new, unfamiliar, and unpredictable situation.


It’s the same feeling that led me to keep bearspray within reach when random camping near the US/Mexico border (for the murderous villains surely stalking the tent) or my hiking boots on while sleeping on a volcano in Hawaii (in case I needed to run away in the middle of the night, again from those murderous villains).


And it’s the same feeling that made me check for monsters under my bed. It’s the fear of the unknown.


It’s difficult to gauge, the line between reasonable precaution and unfounded, ridiculous worry. In reality, you can never know where the line actually laid until it’s over. It’s all chance. Wander in a dark, deserted alley in the world’s most dangerous city and you can be home without a scrape. Out for an afternoon picnic in the park and something terrible could happen. Worrying wouldn’t have changed the outcome.


When I find myself entertaining thoughts of worst-case scenarios, of what could happen, I find I almost always fear people. I fear hypothetical murderers, kidnappers, rapists, thieves, and general thugs. And at the same time, I am seeking out people to ease my fears.


With these thoughts running through my head, I was in the train station in New Jaigalpuri, West Bengal, and I was faced with a choice. I was tired, dirty, swollen, and sunburned, and trying to get home to Varanasi with a wait-listed ticket. I was told repeatedly that it was “not possible” to get a reservation on the train I wanted. “All full.”


I couldn’t help but feel a rising desperation inside of me, a feeling of being trapped.


In a strange peculiarity of Indian bureaucracy, I was eligible for a last minute VIP ticket, should it be available, on a train eight hours later. I was told to wait and see.


Just wanting to get on the move and not really wanting to be treated with any more reverence just for being a westerner, I bought an unreserved second-class (the lowest of the low) ticket for about three dollars (a 14 hour train ride) and decided to take my chances being a foreign woman traveling alone at night. The guide book calls second class “not recommended” and “only for the especially hardy or exceptionally poor.”


There are many, confusing, classes of rail trail in India. There’s the air conditioned, upper class cars, where people sleep on reserved fold down beds (which convert to seats in day time) in compartments for 2–6 people. 1AC, 2AC, and 3AC – all give you reasonable comfort, quiet, and good service. Then there’s the chair car, for shorter distances, where there are typical row style seating, and again, comfort, quiet, and service.


Below all these is sleeper class, where one can experience the full gamut of the Indian spectrum of realities. There are reserved beds (6 per compartment), open-air windows, generally a lot of staring and questions, and seemingly endless vendors, beggars, and people offering services for a fee. In ten minutes one can be offered to buy chai, beans from a big bucket (served on newspaper, with a newspaper spoon), a screwdriver set, sari fabric, toothbrushes, toy guns, cell phone chargers, bottled water, English books, and pirated DVDs, in addition to being solicited for money from men with no legs, young boys sweeping the floor, women singing, blind men, and children with babies on their hips. It’s an onslaught on the senses.


I bought a ticket for second-class, which is the lowest, cheapest (and unreserved) class, below sleeper. I had no idea what to expect. I knew I didn’t have a seat, and that the train was going to be incredibly full. The usual fears ran through my head. Was I scared of people? Scared of men?


In the end, it was people (and men in particular) that wrestled on to the train for me when it arrived, found a three inch spot for me to sit, instructed everyone on the car to make sure I was safe, and appointed someone to make sure I was ok and that I knew when to get off.


In a compartment that seats six people in sleeper class, we were eighteen. Fifteen men, one mother and child, and me. There were people on the luggage racks, on the open door of the train, hanging outside in the breeze, and every square inch of the floor was occupied. To move from one place to another, one had to literally wade through humans – and wade they did; the chai wallahs, the food vendors, the beggars, the singers, and, in one particularly strange episode in the middle of the night, the eunuchs.


Eunuchs, I’ve been told, are good luck in India. People generally give them money. They makes appearances at weddings. The translation varies between castrated man and transvestite, depending on where you ask.


And in the middle of the night, I was accosted by one. I awoke to a rather large woman stomping through the masses of people. She climbed into our compartment, hitting and beating everyone in sight and climbing on me to reach the people above on the luggage rack.


She beat, lambasted, danced, strip-teased, mocked, and lectured until people gave her money. Some were annoyed, some scared, some submissive, some laughing.


In the midst of my still half asleep stupor, I found myself wondering if I should be scared. I wasn’t. Perhaps incredibly naively, I felt I had a little community in my overcrowded train compartment. The man who spoke English above me, who had offered me the ‘more comfort’ spot on the luggage rack, the mother sitting across from me who spent a significant portion of the night with her head resting on my lap, the man squeezed into next to me who spoke in hindi and offered chai; they were all my new, albeit temporary, community.


Something about the sheer population density of India makes me feel comfortable. Perhaps it’s just probability. I’ve done a little subconscious mental math about the proportion of ‘bad’ people out there, extrapolated to the crowd around me at any give point, and decided are that chances are in my favour that someone will be ‘good,’ that they’ll stick up for me.


But more than that, I feel like the idea of a temporary community, of camaraderie of experience, is more prolific here. In our hot, crowded compartment, the 18 of us were sharing an experience. There was an understanding of mutual discomfort. Somehow that’s more bonding than mutual experiences of comfort and ease.


Of course, I don’t blend in. I can’t claim to be ‘one with the masses,’ I’m simply too blatantly obviously different. This also contributes to my feeling of safety. I left my awkward and heavy backpack with a couple of guys I was chatting with on the train platform, and returned to find them in a conversation about how if they failed to protected my bag it would be ‘bad for all of India.’ I am fully aware of the privileges I enjoy as a foreigner. I may pay higher prices and be badgered relentlessly to ride in rickshaws, visit  ‘my brother’s shop’, or drop a few rupees in a begging pan, but there is a subtle respect for visitors that overcompensates for the monetary hassles.


At the end of the day, I find traveling alone here to be thrilling. It’s a challenge; it constantly shatters the boundaries of my comfort zone. I got hit by a transvestite on a night train, for pete’s sake!


With the risks come the new experiences, the unexpected and the unpredictable, that I have come to find are the driving force behind changing perspectives and deepening appreciation.


Not to mention, it’s just plain fun!

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