I don’t know where the sunbeams end
And the starlights begin
It’s all a mystery
And I don’t know how a man decides
What’s right for his own life
It’s all a mystery
Our roaming, traveling band split up a few days ago as each of us had a different direction he wants to go in next. But what a run it was, especially with Jeff and Cesar who I met during the first week of my travels in the Buddhism and Meditation course in Dharamsala and have been traveling with for two months now. Jeff is going to see some more of India, starting by seeing some dead bodies burning in Varanasi. Cesar is going to ‘get drunk and party every night, man!’ in Bangkok, assuming he gets his Thai visa. It’s not easy being a Mexican when it comes to getting visas. We’re spoiled as Americans. Just today I realized I need to get a visa before entering Australia.
Conveniently, they have a 10-minute online application that approves you right then and there. But you have to be American or one of a few other nationalities. Not Mexican. One day Cesar. Don’t give up hope yet.
Anthony buzzed his hair off in preparation for his 10 day Vipassana silent meditation course in Bodghaya, India. I had originally planned to join him on this but one evening I got inspired to get on the road to Australia after meeting a traveler who was heading there soon, and after watching Into the Wild. That movie really got me back in the adventure travel mindset. And they have Vipassana classes all over the world, including Australia and so I am planning to do it there in the New Year. If you’re interested in learning more, go to http://www.dhamma.org The courses are always free and everyone I’ve spoken to who has done them says they had a very powerful experience.
Once you get over the physical discomfort of sitting there meditating for hours at a time.
Jim stayed behind in Pokhara when the rest of us came to Kathmandu (something about a lady) and then when we were trekking to Everest Base Camp he had already started in another Vipassana course in Bodhgaya, India, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment.
And me? I’m sitting in the Calcutta airport now, waiting to board flight SQ0517 to Singapore. The trip from Kathmandu to Calcutta was a memorable one but not something I really ever want to do again. Jeff and I traveled to the border town of Sonauli to cross over into India on a bumpy 10 hour bus ride where I had this spring in my seat that would not adjust itself and so every time we hit a bump I’d feel this spring jabbing into me underneath. Fun stuff. But you can’t really complain when the bus ride is only $7, which is actually not super cheap given everything else.
And that was the start of the trip. Once we got to the border around 5 a.m. we took a rikshaw ride for 4 km over to Sonauli. It was mostly dark out and the fog was thick all around us as our rikshaw driver peddled his way onward. It felt like something out of a Harry Potter story as we were passing between homes and trees on either side, shrouded in fog.
It would have been quite romantic if Jeff was a beautiful woman instead. But he does make great company and I’d take that any day.
I had been stressing a bit since I didn’t know how I was going to get to Calcutta once I reached the border. Then I met this guy Dawa on the bus ride who was a savior. He kept telling me ‘relax, you’ll get there’ every time I asked him about something. After filling out exit forms and entry into India forms at the customs office (picture one man sitting outside working on a plastic picnic table), Jeff and I went our own ways. I crammed into a jeep that in the U.S. would typically hold 4-5 people, depending on how cozy you want to get. We got 13 people into this bad boy, with a 14th person hanging on the back. For a two hour ride!
The jeep took us to Gorakpur which is a pretty big city (I’m guessing it is as it’s got a big train station and it’s got a big font type in the Rough Guide; I didn’t see the town at all).
Again I began stressing out about finding a train etc and Dawa just laughed and walked me to the ticket office. Sure enough, an hour later there was a direct train to Calcutta. Only a 20 hour train ride. And because I was booking so late, no sleeper beds or anything decent was left. Translation: I got to ride in the General seating section which I don’t think they ever stop selling tickets for. I had met this other guy Raj in the jeep who turns out was from Calcutta and was heading back there on the same train.
He and Dawa were really my MVPs on this trip. I may have managed on my own but it would have been a lot harder. Dawa went his own way as he was taking a night train to Mumbai where he’s going to work for a year as a chef in a hotel (he did the same thing a year ago).
Then he plans to go back to Nepal and marry his girlfriend of five years and start his own hotel or restaurant.
Before boarding the train, I ran over to the internet café to book my flight to Sinagpore from Calcutta the next day. Luckily they still had the flight at the discount price otherwise I’d be screwed over. I’ve stopped booking stuff way in advance and instead opt for the last second option. I like to keep things open and for the most part it’s worked out well.
Raj and I board the train 20 minutes before it departs and managed to score two seats across from each other next to the window. I didn’t realize then how precious this real estate was. Every station we stopped at one the way, about 15 people would board into our train car, and by the time evening rolled around you literally could not see an inch of floor space. An elderly man was content to just lay out on the ground. Several guys climbed up into the luggage rack and sat there the whole night. When you’re on a train ride like this your body becomes just another piece of furniture that someone else may use to rest their head or some other body part on.
There were countless feet within inches away from others’ faces. But not mine because I had myself a seat. A wonderful seat all to myself. At least for a while.
I was thankful I didn’t have to use the bathroom at all because a) I didn’t want to crawl over people and b) I didn’t want to risk losing my seat. I made the mistake of inching a bit closer to the window at one point which revealed an inch of open, inviting seat space. Before I knew it someone had squatted on it. And there’s no getting it back at that point. You can never recover seat space on the train. You can only hope you don’t lose more.
What’s really amazing is even with all this cramped space all around us, the chai and dal masala vendors still managed to board the train at each stop to sell their foods. Raj would usually get down at each station (I’d guard his seat) and he’d come back with some tasty food. That was one good thing about each stop we made was the prospect of getting food.
Raj was making this same trip for the second time in four days (first time in the other direction). His sister lives in Nepal and he had been to visit her.He’s just 20 years old but provides the income for his family as his father passed away when he was 10 and he’s the oldest of four children in the family. He works as an electrician and makes, get ready for this, $2.50 a day. And the train ride itself was $3. Super cheap for me, but a whole day’s work for him.
And of course because we were riding on an Indian train, there was inevitably delays along the way. I didn’t realize how much delay until we finally reached Calcutta 25 hours later. So I basically spent an entire day, night and day, sitting in my precious window seat, waiting for my new friend Raj to bring me food.
Who needs amusement parks with $50 entrance fees when you can ride a train in India for $3?
I don’t know much about Singapore but I did take a few photos of maps from a Lonely Planet guide I found at the airport bookshop so I should be all set. I believe Singapore is where you are fined for spitting on the sidewalk. I’d love to see them implement that law here in India. They’d make a killing off of the fines.
This is a video from the train ride, taken around 3 a.m.