We have been on this train in India for two days, it is rolling interminably onward, 2500 km from Bangalore to Patna, where our pilgrimage will begin. In the meantime, we were rushed from the airport to a small hotel, and then straight to the train station. As a result, I have no Indian SIM card, and no way to charge any of our electronics. I put my Telcomsel SIM back in my shitty Samsung phone and Edi miraculously got my telepathic message, recharging my phone with pulsa, and allowing me to text with him while we roll on.
I find myself sneaking to the back of the train to hang out with the Chai wallahs and smoke the last of Edi’s Indonesian cigarettes, even though I don’t really smoke, just to pull the smell of Bali with me.
I am truly a tourist in India. What a shock that is.
In Bali, I wanted to learn all I could about the people, the life, the language, the ritual, the passion. I have always wanted to integrate when I travel, I think that’s how you learn to honor the place you are visiting. But I’m having a hard time making the shift. RIght now, I am content to see India from the window of the train, making friends here and there, easing my transition. At night, I am reading about Bali, I can’t seem to pick up my books on India. I’m still curious about the crashing of the Chinese junk in Sanur in the early 1900s that changed the path of Balinese history.
My passion is in Bali. Not just in Edi and his family, but in the life and culture of Bali.
I wonder what will happen to the tiny island. It is being over run by tourists, but still they are in clustered areas. In Edi’s village, they didn’t have electricity until he was nine. I am still the only white face around when I go with him to his home. The change, WiFi, Smart Phones, Facebook, it is there, but it is still so new. The young generation is starting to get stuck on video games, and the painting and carving are dying as a result. But neighbors still sit in the Bale or on the steps and play dominoes and drink coffee and arak until it is late.
I have one more day on this train, Bodhi is happy in his bunk, the Chai wallah passes every five minutes refilling him for 7 rupees a cup. At the last stop, we found Betty and Veronica and Archie comics, 150 rupees each, and he is devouring them, along with samosa and rice. Outside his window, a landscape of poverty and bounty rolls by, shanti towns and fields, cows and water buffalows wallowing alongside the tracks. Goats roam free eating their way through the trash by the tracks, and women in glorious colored sari squat on the platform waiting for the train.
A garbage boy appeared a few minutes ago, crawling along the floor on his hands and knees, barefoot and shirtless. He was not allowed to stand up, he is of the untouchable caste. As he passed us, he knelt at Bodhis feet, and held out his hand. Bodhi gave him 2 rupees, as did the grandfather who is sharing our berth. The face of the garbage boy was beautiful, and three white shirted train officials walked by and over him, kicking his pile of garbage as they went, stepping on him. Because he is untouchable, he is also unseeable. The boy pushed the garbage onward. The grandfather rolled over and went to sleep. Bodhi returned to his comics, his unfinished rice next to him.
I wonder where this journey will take us, as I bring with me in my heart the love of a man so different from me, from everything I have known, but so completely and totally similar to me. Am I seeing India with different eyes already because of my time in Bali?
I was worried that we would fall ill, that we would be in danger, but after six months total in Indonesia, I feel safe in my skin, protected by our offerings at the temple, wrapped in care of Edi and his family, and open to the road ahead. I have changed, after all.
It is true that the men in India are handsy. I read more than one account of the graduate student who went slowly insane from warding off unwanted touch on her trip through this incredibly diverse and incredibly holy land. So far, people have been really nice to us, there is one Chai Wallah who smiles all the time and wants to give me chai every time he passes. He has a beautiful deep voice, a young face, a noble nose, eyes that are clear and sad and young, and the mustache of an Indian business man.
He keeps 1 rupee out of every cup, but he is kind and light hearted and I don’t mind.
Another was on the train for only about an hour, he kept trying to touch my face, I slapped his hand, he would shake his head in that particular Indian fashion, which I think means that is how it is, neither yes nor no, but “Oh, okay.”, and reach in again. Finally he left, or he isn’t in this car anymore. The last slap I gave him echoed, and the grandfather in our berth shoed him away.
I have made friends on this train, where we are stuck for 24 hours, with this grandfather who is sharing our berth. It is night time, and he is singing quietly to his friends, a beautiful Hindu song of praise and sadness. They have been talking late into the night, and his voice is sweet and low and full of emotion.
He has three daughters and three sons, all of whom are well settled in marriage except his youngest son, who has been accepted into Business Services. He is seventy four years old, wears a sarong to sleep, and warns Bodhi against the cold of the air conditioner.
The Bedroll Manager sleeps all day, and when I sneak into the adjoining cars to smoke a cigarette, he wags his finger at me, and says “No smoking”. Then he grins and holds out his hand. In this manner, I have gone through my last pack of Sampoerna Mild in 24 hours, sharing the sweet Indonesian blend with all the workers on the train one by one. Because of this, tonight I have an extra blanket. The smell of the Sampoerna reminds me of Bali, of Edi, and almost like incense, it makes me feel like I am carrying a piece of that magic island with me, even while I am gone.
Now, the grandfather is holding court below me. “When I see the god, I will ask him, why the suffering? Why this test? The old man is a very impertinent fellow. He leaves and I say Come Back!” He is talking about the cycle of life, about Samsara, about not knowing if tomorrow might be the luckiest day of your life.
He was a primary school principal, and his speaking English is very good, sometimes he breaks into English to make his point. His understanding English is not so good. He wanted to know all about me, why am I traveling alone? Bodhi and I agreed before we left that I would say to everyone that I am married, that Edi is my husband, as it is safer. I have a picture of us together, dark and light.
I struggled to explain to him that I have a husband who is Balinese, and that I am on this trip on my own with the blessings of my husband. I showed him Edi’s photograph, and he exclaimed on the difference of our complexions. He is intrigued.
I have also just discovered that I left my stash of Diazepam on the plane. In a country where you can get just about any drug you like with a casual suggestion, I’m not that worried, but it took a little doing to come by it in Indonesia. A little valium with a stiff neck on a 48 hour train ride goes a long, long way. I use pain killers judiciously, but over the last two years I have learned that if I’m going to sit still in cramped quarters for more than seven hours, one valium and 15 minutes of yoga on arrival will keep three weeks of pain away.
We will get to Patna in the morning, where I will have internet, and I can call Tom and tell him we are safe, and I can call Edi, who spent a month’s wages refilling my Telkomsel pulsa so we could text occasionally. The fact that I can be on a train for 48 hours is difficult for him to wrap his mind around, since you can drive from one end of his island to the other on a fast bike in four hours or so. “How can you still be on the train? I don’t understand.”
I have never been so well fed, I’ll tell you that. And endless parade of Chai, Coffee, samosa, chopped vegetable, and other delicious food goes marching down the aisle without interruption from 6 am to 2 am. Because there is nothing to do on the train but eat and visit with friends, the vendors do pretty well.
Bodhi has finally settled down for the night, he has stopped climbing the berths like a monkey and is reading, again. I ordered dinner for us hours ago, but in the Indian fashion, it is late and I am not sure it is even coming. At this point, we don’t need it, stuffed as we are with samosa, but in a country full of hungry people, many of whom are packed into the last three cars on this very train, I hate to waste food.
Day three on the train... so much for pulling in at 9am. But the Manager of the Bedroll has cleared an empty berth for me to plug my computer in, and while I now know exactly why Indian men have a reputation tending towards the pungent, smelling like one myself, I have not met a kinder soul yet on my journey.
Our grandfather has invited us to “accompany me to my dwelling” on our arrival in Patna, and we have accepted. The words of my lovely friend Dylan Bernstien come to mind... friends from the road make the best friends.
We will meet our guide when we roll into Patna (which was, when I woke up, 2 hours away, and now, from that last stop, it appears to be two hours away...), and introduce him to Grandfather, and make arrangements to go for luncheon. It is interesting to me that it is very very difficult for our friends to understand us.
Grandfather explained to me that it is because my speech organs are formed differently than his, and that I can not speak English as it should be spoken, like someone with his speech organs, and so therefore I am difficult to understand. In my best Hindi accent, I repeated what he said, and his friends spent the rest of the morning teasing him and laughing. Apparently, I was actually easier to understand with a bad Hindi accent than in my plain American English.
It helps also if I use words like “conveyance” rather than “car”, and “Dwelling place” rather than house. I am listening closely to Grandfather so I can try to figure out what his vocabulary is. In Balinese, there are four forms of speech, from low to high, according to your caste. While we don’t have those separations in English rigidly, I suppose that is how grandfather talks, with very high, or polite words. He lacks the low vocabulary, and therefore doesn’t understand me when I speak plainly.
This morning, Grandfather woke me as the sun came up, or just before, calling me daughter. He told me it is not good to sleep to long, it makes for a lazy mind, and my husband will not appreciate that in me.
Our discussion fell to what it meant to be a learned man, and Grandfather emphasized that a learned man can understand God. We discussed the nature of God, and I leaned heavily on all I have learned from Edi, who was very close to a high priest in his village, about the Hindu view of God. I pressed Grandfather that one can be close to the nature of God without possessing letters from a university. He conceded, but only on the grounds that one must have a sharp mind and the desire to learn, and the humility to realize one can never know what one hopes to know as God is unknowable.
At the last train station we passed, there were three large white cows on the platform, grazing on leftover lunch. They were placid and sweet looking, so close to the train that they looked like they were waiting to board, along with the businessmen and the students. I saw the garbage boys run from wherever it is that they hide on the train to the water station, drinking greedily from the fountain and filling coke bottles up with water before racing back to the train. The boy Bodhi gave some rupees to was there, waiting his turn to fill his water. He is unseeable, but I can not help but see him.
The caste system is very much alive and well in India, as it is in Bali, but in Bali, you can break out of your caste, marry up, work up. There are government workers who are of the Sudra class, whereas before that would have been impossible. The grandfather and his friends in my compartment are high caste, my husband is Sudra. I asked grandfather if this elevates Edi or brings me low. He was reluctant to answer, but as the caste system does not apply to me in any way, I don’t mind.
We are finally rolling through something familiar, outside the train are rice fields, miles and miles of them. I must be prejudice, they are not as beautiful, as evenly planted, as well irrigated, as the rice in Bali. They lack the small temples that dot the landscape of the sawah in Bali, and the foot paths between them are not as interesting or as inviting. Ha, I have developed Balinese pride in my six months on the island, my four months with my lovely man, and in the two minutes in which I was questioned about his caste, job, and education. Interesting how loyalty to a person can bring pride for all they represent as well.
There is something almost shocking about the thought that for thousands of years, Edi’s family has been pure in its lineage, in its work as wood carvers and caretakers of Barong and Banjar.
I wondered what his mother would think of me, after all, Edi is the first person in his family to speak English, the first person to have a girlfriend who is not Balinese. I am a novelty in his household, the women laugh at him and pinch me. The men admire my tattoos, the women tell me I am like a man. Edi laughs at this, this was his great pick up line to me, as I got off my motorbike one day in front of his cafe. “You have a body like a man.”
I had to stop writing because all the train workers I have been sharing cigarettes with clustered around me one by one and were watching me work over my shoulder. We ended up closing the computer after I showed them pictures of Edi, Gede, Tom, Ethan, Aspen and Bali. There was momentary confusion about the number of husbands, but as the Chai got passed around, Grandfather stuck his head into the compartment, admonished them all for being lazy and not working, for bothering me, and told them in plain English. One husband! First marriage, second marriage! Not so complicated, I should slap you!
The workers laughed and scattered, and in their wake, a mouse crawled out of the hole in the wall, over the sticky chai covered floor, and ran under the berth. At least so far in India, the cockroaches are a manageable size. In Bali, they look like they could steal your motorcycle if they wanted to. Guess how long until we get to Patna? You got it, two hours...