Saturday 31 January 2015

The Mandovi Express

I don’t know how many people were on the train today, but let’s assume it was a lot more than any other train I've taken in my life. I’m all for slumming it with the locals (the theory), but an eleven-hour train journey is not the place for that, and in a lucky twist I end up with a first class sleeper cabin all to myself (the practice). RESULT.

However, my first thought when the cheery guard slides the door shut is of the words of my friend Max, who spent five days straight on a train from Beijing to Moscow: “Now I know what prison must feel like.” Trains and prisons: they both have guards....

Such gloomy thoughts, and it’s still dark outside when the old iron beast shudders itself from its slumber and reluctantly rolls out of Victoria Terminus like a long, lazy snake. As night turned to day, my breakfast arrived (although I’d already devoured an erratically acquired bag of crisps and some inappropriately named “Happy Happy” biscuits). And as I tucked into delicious spicy potato fritters wrapped in slices of buttered white bread, I was treated to my first ever sight, there in the hazy light of dawn, of a grown man defecating in public.

There are 115,000kms of railway tracks in India, and shitting between them, or simply throwing your rubbish onto them, is apparently considered a public duty. 115,000kms of railroad - that’s nearly three times round the equator - linking up this vast country and transporting over 8 billion passengers a year, and every last inch of it is heaped in shit. Maybe everyone figures that since the toilets flush straight on to the tracks anyway, they might as well join in. If only they treated this sort of behaviour with the same severity reserved for travelling sans ticket which could net you either a £10 fine or six months in prison.

Breakfast precipitates an immediate need to sleep. I lay there, train rocking from side to side, the chassis of the carriage rumbling over the tracks just a few feet beneath me, a nineteenth century air con unit vibrating itself to bits in between, and faltered in and out of slumber. In one of those moments that straddle the boundaries of consciousness, I became aware that I was just a body.

One body, on a train filled with bodies. One train, in a country filled with trains. One country, on a planet filled with countries. And somehow the fact that I am foreign, and a long way from home, seems completely irrelevant when you look at it like that. I imagined my carriage as a bird might view it, far up in the sky, looking down on the train, but getting further and further away as we rolled on, perspective widening and the thin finger of metal seeming less and less significant the further away it got. And inside, I was still just a body, huddled in some corner. Baggage.

This didn’t depress me remotely, but when I woke, I was in a lighter mood. Day was in full flow and the sun was shining bright. I stretched my legs at a few stations, and hung out of the open door to let the hot wind bake my skin as the most beautiful countryside tumbled by.

I read, and wrote, and ate and slept. If there had been bars instead of a door I’d have played chess with the guy in the carriage next to me. (Actually, having spoken to him later, maybe not). And then I thought of the Simone Weil quote about the two prisoners in adjacent cells who learn to communicate with one another by tapping on the wall; “The wall is the thing that separates them, but it is also their means of communication,” she writes, “Every separation is a link.” 

And then I stopped thinking because I think I’d been in there too long, and anyway day had turned back into night by now, and it was gone half past seven when we arrived in Madgaon. I felt sort of intoxicated by the journey, so I made my way to the beach, drank a couple of very cold, very large beers, before collapsing in my hut where the sound of the Arabian Sea crashing into the sand sent me quickly off to sleep....

Friday 30 January 2015

Bombay Mix

I was about to begin describing Mumbai as a place of complete extremes and stark contrasts, but then what city isn’t? Bleurgh.

Mumbai lies on Salsette island, the most populous in the world, and at its southernmost point the city reaches out into the Arabian Sea like a claw. The money has made it's way down here over the years, so the closest you get to real poverty is what you glimpse through the taxi window on the way from the airport to your budget hotel.

The Taj Palce Hotel, Mumbai
The first impression on that journey is one of a developing country. The houses, when they are houses and not slums, are stained and crumbling and crammed together. The sidewalks are alive with noise and activity; people of all ages buying, selling and carrying things, negotiating their way through stray dogs, men and other animals. It is noisy, dusty, dirty and smelly (but not as smelly as one might fear). I gazed out of my squat little taxi, in that strange post-flight trance, and felt ever so slightly enthralled. 

The second impression, is that they drive like maniacs. There are no rules. I instinctively like places where they ignore the lines on the road. Why drive three cars abreast when you can fit four? Why not have people undertaking, pulling out in front of each other, ignoring red lights and persistently reminding each other where they are by sounding the horn?

The world's most ignored road sign
At 6:30 this morning I took a cab to the train station, and the driver, a man of indeterminate old age (or youth, impossible to say), was honking the horn the entire way, despite ours being the only car on the road. He drove his battered old Hyundai as fast as he could, probably faster than he’s ever been able to, and we were tossed around from pothole to pothole as though we were driving across the surface of the moon. Driving like a maniac is in this guy’s DNA.

If you’re not careful though you might never get beyond the soundtrack of the traffic, and you need to. Once you’ve tuned out and the cacophony is reduced to an irritating background squeal, you really start to notice that the city itself is actually quite peaceful, and most of the people in it rather sedate and serene. There is a natural pace and rhythm to life here: a soft, slow, lilting calm.

Horniman Circle, Mumbai
I stepped out of the madness of a main road into a small fenced park on a roundabout and sat in the shade to read my map, waiting for someone to come over and start hassling me. Hawking something I neither want nor need, or encouraging me to take a tour, taxi or daub red dust on my forehead and throw a garland round my neck. But they didn’t. Not here, not anywhere. (Actually someone did do that to me – in the lobby of the Taj, but that’s what you get for staying in the Taj).

In the side roads where there are no cars, the tranquility resumes. In Oval Maidan, there must be ten separate cricket matches going on, watched by countless people from the shade of the palm trees. Groups of men loiter outside buildings or huddle around street stalls, eating, talking and smoking. But mostly eating. At times it feels like the whole place is on a permanent lunch break, or that the city just held a simultaneous fire drill and everyone's standing around waiting to be allowed back in to work.

Cricket at Oval Maidan, Mumbai
When I went for a run yesterday morning, the streets were still empty, but the Maidan cricket pitches were full and the long curving promenade of Marine Drive thronged with people of all shapes, sizes and dress senses; stretching, doing yoga, balancing, walking, chatting, jogging. There was a wonderful sense of joy and contentment - that this was a part of the day they were having for themselves.

The cab I got last night pulled over after 100 yards and the guy asked me to wait a minute while he went for a piss. Maybe he wanted the extra 5 rupees this bagged him, or maybe everyone's not actually in such a hurry, and when you’ve got to go, you’ve just got to go.

Thursday 29 January 2015

The Gateway of India

Home. Taxi. Airport. Aeroplane. Airport. Taxi. Hotel. And that's it - you're in India. Except there's a problem, because somewhere in amongst all that, I have lost the will to live, let alone the will to walk out the hotel room door.

I've been here before, and it's not an easy place to drag yourself out of - a sort of micro depression that completely cripples you. Your room, in a very foreign country, after an oppressive, sleepless flight. It cradles, it protects and it imprisons. The longer you stay in it, the harder it gets to leave. The softness. Then within it, you retreat to the bed. Softer still. Warm. A clock ticks away somewhere. The hour hand slices through the numbers, and with each one that falls to the floor, another opportunity to free yourself is missed. Excuses, excuses.

The irony of all this is that the only part of India I can actually see, if I'm bold enough to peek out from between the curtains, is this:

It's called The Gateway of India. If only I could muster the strength and energy to walk through it, I wouldn't have to lie curled up under these sheets trying to figure out whether I'm here because I'm running away from everything, or here because I'm running towards it.

This morning I woke early and watched the sun rise over the giant arch, looking a lot smaller and a lot more orange than I was expecting it to. I laced up my trainers and got the fuck out of there before it got any bigger. 

After three miles or so, somewhere along Marine Drive, I emerged from the shadow of the city to find myself bathed in the sanguine glow of that little orange disc, and I swear I have never, ever, felt more alive.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

The Last Place in the World

I'm going to level with you - I have believed, strongly, and for as long as I can remember, that India is the last place in the world I would want to visit. 

And in case you're wondering why, here is what I posted on Facebook as I sat at Heathrow on Monday night:
I feel what's really missing from my life is prolonged exposure to relentless pestering from every living being within a five mile radius, an assortment of vile and inescapable digestive problems and the persistent stench of human waste. So I'm off to India for a couple of months.
I was joking of course, but it's not far from the truth. I don't want to watch grown men shitting in the street, or stray animals feeding on their waste. I don't want to be commodified by every person I encounter or targeted by those looking to exploit my foreignness, gullibility or good nature. Or sadder still, lose my good nature because I come to expect the worst from people. And I don't want my intestines laid to waste by a plethora of undetectable bacteria; to have perhaps the greatest pleasure of all, eating, hijacked from the inside and turned upon itself.

But I'm here anyway, and I'm here because I want to be. Because the last place in the world you want to go to should be the very next place you do. Because life is never more rewarding than when you challenge your preconceptions, reach beyond the limits of what you find comfortable and comforting, and throw yourself headlong towards the things you fear the most.

Most of the time, those things are in our heads. In India, I think a few of them might be on the streets as well....