The Train: Exit Limbo
The train ride to Agra prepared us for some aspects of our encounters there. Specifically, when the train stops to let people off and on, the cultural phenomenon is ten times worse than the American airplane culture. By that I mean the habit of entire planes of people unhooking their seatbelts and standing up immediately, even though we can not all disembark at once and most people have to stoop to avoid hitting their heads as they stand in their place at their seat (not so for me!). Sometimes this scenario is followed by looks of annoyance or pressure if a person is either struggling to get his bag or if his bag is further down the aisle than his seat.
Here, the train stops. People begin pushing to get on immediately, even though other people are actively trying to get off the train. There are suitcases clashing against each other and people shouting in different dialects. As passengers not getting off but having to change seats, we find ourselves doing “train acrobatics.” I stand on the seat and swing my leg around to the next compartment, stepping over dozens of suitcases and sliding past several passengers stuck in the bardo of exit limbo. From a bird’s eye perspective, this scene would resemble the behavior of small mammals at birth wriggling over and around each other, with their eyes not yet open, in seemingly chaotic fashion.
When it’s time for us to get off, we prepare ourselves to push out of and off the train before people start to push on. Ineffective at first, a Seik that befriended our group sets the locals straight and we exit like those small mammals wriggling into the world for the first time.
I think back to one of my original hunches about travel in India…that it would be chaotic and crowded and I would benefit from actively surrendering any notions for it to be different. (At the time, I referred to the possible urge for this all to be “more organized” as an urge that arises from my One nature.)
I’ve often said, “Suffering is resistance to what is. Freedom is radically accepting what is. And liberation is acting in accordance with what you then know to be true.”
Hopping the train seats was my action in accordance with the situation. Rolling my eyes, loudly exhaling, making gestures of flustered annoyance (which weren’t arising tendencies for me in this experience) would all have added to the seeds of separateness that end up only isolating me both from other humans, ourselves and God.
So, join in the merriment of the moment. This is what is!
The Train: Vendors
At first, I was impressed by how many times the chai wallah came through offering us chai. It almost seemed like he was doing laps or trying to assure every passenger that the chai would be piping hot. He was walking so fast! Then, I realized he wasn’t the same he every time. The wallahs were getting on and off the train at different stops. How naïve I felt! I’ll confess, the naïve notion ran pretty deep – I also thought he was brewing the chai on the train somewhere (just like Amtrack!).
After enjoying some train chai, tomato soup with croutons and a Thali lunch, our group amused each other by guessing what we thought the wallahs had been saying all day long…. They repeat these phrases so frequently and so quickly that it really does sound like gibberish. But this is what we thought we heard:
Chow Mein (passing through local Indian villages, I can’t help but wonder what their variation on this Chinese dish would be)
Soup with Noodles (I have yet to see a noodle in India)
Dark Beer, Dark Beer (clearly a hallucination!)
Cutlet Bread Omelet (whatever that would be!)
Colli Colli (was he offering “coca coli?”)
Chai, Chai, Chai… (Which started to sound like Sarahjoy, Sarahjoy, Sarahjoy – no joke!)
It’s always good to laugh with your fellow travelers through life experiences! I love the shared camaraderie of these silly moments with other humans!
The Children and The Beggars
Having been smooshed into too small spaces in those train stop moments, I was prepared for being smothered by children begging for coins or food. However, I wasn’t prepared for how dirty and rag-a-muffin-ish they would be. The National Geographic photographers did not have to search out those sad faces of the poor children of the world. They probably walked right up to them.
This was a turning point for me in how India would impress herself upon my psyche.
The sight of these children was truly heartbreaking. They’re dirty, toothless, shoeless, and carrying infants on their hips, which their families give them because the begging is more effective that way. They’re wearing rags. Some have cleft lips; others distorted leg joints. They smother you and ask with only their hands and eyes. They repeat the universal gesture of fingers grasping food and putting it in the mouth. I took out three coins and as I handed them out, the three children turned into nine (as expected). They swarmed our van as we were loading and beginning to pull away. A girl of about 8 years old tapped on my window repeatedly. Her eyes captured mine. The other children looked to her for hope. She tapped again. After several moments of despair, I reach down to my bag, pulled out a small stash of roasted pistachios, rolled down the window, and passed this food to the filthiest, most grasping hands I have ever touched.
The van pulled away and I exhaled.
We pulled into our hotel a short while later. This would be our one night in a luxury hotel…a swimming pool, queen sized beds with down feather pillows, all you can eat restaurant buffets, marble floors, and landscaped grounds.
What a contrast to the homeless and hungry children at the train station!
The restaurant served beer, tenderloin, chocolate and coffee, among many other delectables! While I satisfied my earlier cravings, I did so with less playfulness than I had anticipated. My satisfaction in this regard was a bit overshadowed by the reality outside the hotel.
The next day, as we approached and exited from the Taj Mahal and Fort Agra, we were swarmed again: this time by children, adolescents, and adults trying to sell us bangles, postcards, camera batteries, souvenirs, and trinkets. One young man said so repeatedly, “Memory cards. Memory cards. Memory cards,” that one of the men in our group finally said, ”My memory is fine!” (Which really was quite hilarious considering the cards are for digital cameras!)
In this encounter, we were told by our guide, “Just keep walking.” Which did not include saying No; or No, thank you; or even, No, sorry. This was hugely difficult for me at first. Basically, you had to pretend that these humans did not exist.
Once the guide explained to me that engaging with them (even by saying No) encourages them and that encouraging them keeps them in this system (if they earn money doing this, they will keep doing it instead of ever going to school), I was able to shift my perspective…
In one of my previous journals I noted that one of my social justice commitments is to observe my purchasing and consuming habits. Not making a purchase from them, even when the man with the baseball hat, who harassed me for 10 minutes while I walked into and found my seat on the van, was willing to drop his price from 1500 rupees to 200 rupees (quite a desperate drop), was my social justice action step. Honestly, it was not easy. Not easy at all. I had to release my urge to help-in-the-moment with my knowledge of the larger problem facing these children.
Sometimes we may not know the impact of our actions until we educate or inform ourselves more thoroughly. (Our guide was a huge help in this regard. This causes me to consider more deliberate pauses before acting.) While we may readily trust our instincts and heart’s intuition in our familiar, well-grooved settings, as we widen our experience of the world through travel, political or social engagement, or dissolving our personal blinders a bit more and more, it will serve us well to pause before acting. In the pause, we can reflect on the larger circumstances, consider how Love wants us to respond, educate ourselves through others with greater experience, and observe the results of our actions in ourselves and our environment.
I mentioned that the required “dismissal” or non-engagement was not easy for me. What I experienced as going against the grain of my own heart was actually more balanced social action, but I was in new territory.
How true this is as a metaphor moment for the many other possible discomforts we may face along the path of our evolution!