Chameleon Chapter 4 - Poorly Made Plans

I’ll start at the end of this story, which involves me being ushered out of a crowded train by the passengers around me in New Delhi while five Indian men berate another man who leaned in to touch the scarf around my neck while trying to chat with me after staring at me longingly during an eight hour train ride.  This was luckily a bad move on his part.  I recoiled from his outstretched hand and the other men that were surrounding us proceeded to get in between us while yelling at him and pushing me off of the train – putting as much distance between us as possible. 

Six days before that I took an overnight 15 hour ride in a bus with no air conditioning from Rishikesh to Dharamshala.  A few highlights of the trip: 1) I sat next to a woman from Israel with the exact same undercut but on the opposite side of her head. 2) I successfully dehydrated myself and only peed twice in the 15 hours – a legitimate record for me.  3) I didn’t sleep much for the first eight hours of the journey, but when I finally did manage to fall asleep I woke up in the middle of the night to 12 Tibetan monks and our bus driver attempting to patch a broken window with cardboard at a shop on the side of the road.  There were a lot of directions being given and a lot of shushed chatter and hand gesticulating 4) Being completely overwhelmed at the sheer number of people that we passed.  It didn’t seem like we could cover more than three or four kilometers at a time before we were driving through another town with people everywhere, no matter the time of evening or night.  5) Falling asleep so hard for the last four hours of the trip that I missed the entire harrowing part of the drive through winding mountain passes.  6) My hair twin having to wake me up at 7am from a dead sleep when we got to the final stop where I found myself to be the last person still on the bus.  I couldn’t believe I had slept through the final leg of the journey so completely.  As soon as I stepped off the bus I was immediately bombarded by taxi drivers. 

Five days later, I took the stupidest walk of my life.  It all started the day after I got to Dharamkot (the town right above Dharamshala), when I went to book my return ticket to Delhi.  The internet was basically nonexistent in the mountain town, which was overall a blessing, and resulted in one of the most disconnected and peacefully blissful few days that I had during the entire trip.  But it also presented me with the challenge of figuring out where I could book this trip, and deciding which mode of transportation I was going to use.  First I went to make a copy of my passport, which I needed for our trek in Nepal.  I really liked the process of finding a store that had a copy machine, some offered only printing.  I would wander around until I found one of the stores which were usually wedged in between other, larger shops.  Shop employees always seemed so shocked to see me, and I found that I enjoyed knocking these young men off of their game.  Eventually I walked into a convenience store that had a copy machine and also booked trips.  After copying my passport, I sat down in front of a clean shaven, heavy-set Indian man with very good English.  We started discussing my trip to New Delhi and as he was pulling up options for the train – it would require a three hour bus trip to get to the train station, but that was the best way - a woman came in speaking rapidly to him in either Hindi or one of the local dialects (Kangri or Pahari).  He abandoned his search and directed all of his attention to her as she stood directly behind me.  For about five minutes I sat there quietly as they conducted a heated exchange over my head.  Eventually, an older woman came and sat down in the chair next to mine, in front of his desk as the younger woman paced back and forth behind us.  The man then made a call and appeared to be relaying a message to whoever was on the phone.  When he hung up, he looked over at me, startled that I was there, and then quickly switched to English to apologize.  Turns out the older woman was his mother and the younger woman his sister.  He was mediating a family dispute.  The person on the phone was his brother, who was grown but wasn’t acting like it and who had done something to upset the entire family.  It was up to him, the second brother, to try and fix it all.  I nodded meekly, trying to be as polite and un-intrusive as possible, which did not exactly pay off for me in this case.   

Instead of going back to discussing my ticket purchase, or asking me to come back in a few minutes, he turned back to his mother and sister and an older man who had entered while we were talking, his father, it turns out.  For the next thirty minutes (which felt twice as long) my guy was intermittently yelling at, or placating his brother over the phone or his family huddled us.  I was wide-eyed and felt completely unseen.  No one made eye contact with me except for the younger woman, whom I tried to exchange supportive, exasperated looks with, “brothers! What are we going to do about them?!”  I kept debating whether to leave and come back later – but I just couldn’t stomach being that rude Westerner that didn’t know how to wait her turn, or demanded something immediately, plus it was fascinating – so I just stayed. I started imagining what each person was saying, “translating” it into a language and with circumstances I could understand based on the tidbits my guy was providing me during lulls in the debate.  Witnessing the dispute in this tiny Northern Indian town made me feel so foreign but it was also oddly comfortable, familial disputes are universal, aren’t they? And if they didn’t have a problem airing all their dirty laundry right in front of a stranger, maybe it wasn’t just because they correctly assumed I didn’t know the language, maybe it was because I didn’t seem that foreign to them after all… That’s clearly a lie I was telling myself, that is obviously not how they saw me.  Everyone in the room knew I could not understand a word that they said.

In the end, during a lull in the familial turmoil, my friend rapidly made decisions on my ticket while barely consulting me – the train tickets had basically sold out so there were only sleeper car seats available.  The sleeper cars (which I literally could not picture until I actually saw them) where the one tier of train tickets that my friend Asha had warned me not to book.  She told me not to get tempted by the price, because while it was very cheap, the price for first or second class was also ridiculously inexpensive and much more comfortable. But I let him book it anyway, I was tired by then and worried about how I could make it back to New Delhi for my flight to Nepal.  Plus it appeared as though I didn’t have a choice.  Compounding this, the only train that made any sense for me to take left at 10 am from a station about a 4-5 hour bus ride from McLeod Ganj which was the larger town below both Dharamshala and Dharamkot, where I was staying.  Which meant that I would need to leave my guest house at 3:30 am and walk about twenty minutes down the mountain into Dharamshala in order to wake up a taxi driver who would be sleeping in his car to get a ride further down into McLeod Ganj to the bus station where we would depart from.  It was going to be a lot of steps.  I left feeling apprehensive but naively excited about the all-day travel adventure in my future.  Plus, it felt so far away to be worried about it yet and I told myself at least I would get to use my headlamp!   

Now skipping ahead to the morning of the trip… I woke up at 3:15 and gathered my things.  I was wearing these new, light pants that I had just purchased for the equivalent of $3.  I first had tasked myself with dropping off the string of my new friend Elisa’s hooded sweatshirt that had ended up in my backpack after our hike the day before.  Please, please don’t ask me why I felt this was necessary, because it truly wasn’t.  Elisa is not the type to care about something like that, plus it was a god damn string.  The simple fact is that I just had no one around to tell me how unnecessary it really was.  So I went slightly out of my way because I just couldn’t seem to throw out a perfectly good string and wound it through a gate that lead to her guesthouse (fun note – she eventually got the string, but it would sit there for two months before she grabbed it).  After dropping the string off I started the truly stupid portion of the journey, walking down into town to catch the taxi to drive me to the bus station, to catch the bus, to ultimately arrive at another town but to be dropped off at the wrong train station, to then take a tuk tuk to the right train station all before my 10 am train left on its way to Delhi before my Sunday morning flight.  Yes, I had a very, very long journey ahead of me and I started out at 3:30 am delivering a string from the hood of a sweatshirt – the additional time which I had factored into my walk. 

Welcome to my world. 

I was not unaware at the time that during this 30 minute walk my greatest fear was not a dangerous man lurking, or a wild animal – although an aggressive monkey attack hadn’t NOT crossed my mind – or  stumbling off the road down a cliff (I was in a mountain town after all).  My greatest fear was stray dogs.  Or to be slightly more precise – being ruthlessly attacked by one of the stray-like dogs that serve as guard dogs throughout town. 

I’m pretty sure all of the guard dogs in the area were trained by the same person, because they all looked alike and they were all mean, but very good at their jobs, which appeared to constitute being aware of territorial boundaries that I couldn’t even recognize in the daylight, let alone at night.  At the start of my walk, I took myself through some attack scenarios, which resulted in me looking for something to defend myself with while walking.  I knew my aim with a rock would be terrible and I figured I would only get one shot, so I found a plastic bottle that I clutched in one hand.  The problem was I also was nervous about time and although my phone had no service, I was clutching it with my other hand, like it would also protect me from the night’s dangers.  So there I was, walking down the mountain on a rocky path-like road in the pitch dark with my hands full of useless tools that served no present purpose, when I checked the time on my phone out of habit without stopping, and tripped.  I fell on a downhill, unpaved road wearing my huge backpack and my messenger bag with a plastic bottle in one hand and my stupid phone in the other.  Miraculously, I didn’t hit my face, or break my wrist, or tumble down the hill, or get pounced on by an aggressive monkey.  Instead, I popped up immediately, brushing myself off and thinking of my cousin Alex falling when she was little.  “I’m fine, I’m fine!” she would chirp as she dusted herself off and run off, her hair sticking out at all angles.  I was a bit shaken, but I didn’t want to look weak in front of all of those dogs that I was sure were watching me from the woods.  Plus there was no time for self-pity! I looked down and saw that my new pants now had a hole in them (thin as a piece of paper they were) and my right knee was bleeding (but just a little).  I then proceeded to cautiously walk past two mean looking dogs whose eyes shown menacingly in the light of my headlamp, but who let me pass undisturbed (minus some unenthusiastic barks).   

I managed to successfully navigate all of the aforementioned modes of transportation on the way to the train station, plus haggling with my cab driver, disinfecting my knee on the bus – I just left my ripped pants on for the entire journey with my five-month growth of leg hair poking out of the hole in the knee, telling myself maybe it would make me look tougher…, getting a tuk tuk to the right train station three hours early with all my stuff, eating at the train station restaurant without getting sick, etc.

Eventually, I found myself in a sleeper car sitting facing an off-duty military man in his 50’s who took me under his “wing” and only tried to massage my feet once during the entire eight hour trip.  Initially, it took me a bit to figure out the seating. If you haven’t been in one, the sleeper cars have little inlets with three levels of benches facing each other and then two levels of benches that sit perpendicular across the aisle.  When you initially enter, usually there is someone laying on the top bench right next to the ceiling, the middle bench will be folded down like a backrest, and the rest of the passengers that would be assigned the middle and the lower bench are sitting facing the other line of benches.  During the trip, at some point someone decides they want to sleep on the middle bench and then everyone has to lay down on their respective benches. I was on the two-level perpendicular bench side and I was sharing the bench with the foot massager, who also bought me chai and helped me order food when the seller came around.  I knew I had accidentally dropped myself into a very authentic traveling experience in India, but like many things,it was sensory overload and I couldn’t quite relax.

At every stop, non-official train vendors would come on to sell things or ask for money.  This was painful and raw and heart-wrenching – elderly persons with disabilities being carried, young kids with glassy eyes following behind their mothers, all with hands outstretched.  But the most haunting were two girls, no more than four and six years old, dressed in ripped clothes, with faded clown makeup on.  They came to the aisle together with a metal ring that they used to slide through and do other acrobatic tricks.  The looks on their faces were so disassociated, so vacant, it was awful, and I also couldn’t look away.  I watched as the young boy who had been passed around our inlet like a community child, look intently at the two girls and then not quite understand that they were asking for money and try to take a rupee bill out of the hat the younger girl was holding.  She looked firmly at him and pulled it away, but said nothing, like she knew her place so well to know that she couldn’t tell him no directly.  The two children, the boy traveling with his mother on the train and the little girl dressed in dirty, ripped clothes, looked like they could have been the same age, but the difference in their faces was extreme. I knew that girl had seen more hardship, violence and trauma in her four years on this earth that I would most likely experience in my whole life.  More than I could even imagine.  I felt paralyzed.  I gave them some money, even though I knew that it would do little to change anything about their situation and fearful that they probably wouldn’t see any of that money at all.  She looked at me with dead eyes.  With none of the curiosity that all of the other children I saw looked at me.  It scared me in a way that I felt ashamed by.  But I didn’t look away.   

So there it was.  That in-your-face reminder of the inequality.  Those reminders that I rarely get at home, even though the inequality here is arguably just as bad, albeit in different ways. 

But that wasn’t the only thing that I experienced on the train, there was also a sense of community within the inlet.  People sharing food and stories (in a language I didn’t understand) with the strangers around them.  I stood out of course, but in a quiet, non-disruptive way (or at least that what I was telling myself).  After a couple of hours, people appeared to get used to my presence.  And overall, everyone was very kind.  I also found myself appreciating finally being in close quarters with other women, which made me feel safer.  I exchanged a smile with any woman I saw and pretended that not every man in the car was staring at me.  I left the train in a rush of fear and a desperate need to pee, with the knowledge that I would never see any of these people again, feeling lucky to be who I was, and feeling just slightly more aware of what was going on around me.  This feeling would ebb and flow over time, but this journey gave me just a small indication of all of the intense, mundane, desperate, complicated exchanges of humanity happening all around me at all times, only very few which I was even aware of.  It was humbling and fascinating.  I was starting to glimpse into just how little I understood anything.  I was hooked.