Saturday, March 2, 2013


Saturday, February 23, 6:00pm: Charlie and I arrive at Jewel’s house for dinner. Jewel is an occupational therapist from the same batch as Neeraj and Alok. She is posted in neuro for her bond period at CMC. Shortly after moving to Mrs. George’s house we found out that Jewel was pretty much our neighbor. Since then we have used her as a reference point when people ask us where we live… “Do you know where Jewel lives? Well, we are further down that road and to the right.” She and Anumeha, a physio student, invited us to dinner on Saturday. The food was incredible and the fellowship was wonderful. Meha’s friend, Jerry, joined us halfway through the evening to add a small male perspective to our conversations. I had come to dinner packed and ready to head off to the All Indian Occupational Therapy Association national conference in Trivandrum, Kerala. My train was scheduled to depart Katpadi station (Vellore) at 9:30pm. Although not my preference, I ate and ran.

The view from Jewel's rooftop.
Cooking dinner at Jewel's place.
Meha went around spoon feeding us this delicious vegetable salad she made. It consisted of some sort of legume, tomatoes, onion, spices and lime juice. Awesome and refreshing. 
Dinner in the making. This is a Northern Indian dish which is basically little potato patties with vegetables. So good.  So handmade.
The beautiful (and hospitable) Jewel, OT extraordinaire. 
The final dinner meal. The potato dish is served underneath a heaping of chickpeas and then drizzled with a mint chutney and some other incredible sauce.
7:45pm: I said my thank yous and goodbyes, flung my backpack on my back and hopped on Jerry’s motorcycle for the brief ride to the Bagayam bus station. Turns out that balancing on a bike with a backpack the size of oneself while traversing bumpy dirt roads is much harder than it looks.

7:56pm: I settled comfortably on the familiar bus to make the forty-five minute ride across town to the train station. As I rode, I thought about the soon coming day when I would once again board the bus with my backpack only to be leaving Vellore for good. Quickly I turned my thoughts to something else; something that wasn’t so gloomy. Clearly, I’m not ready to leave. Not yet anyhow. I wasn’t exactly sure where to get off the bus, but I had been given brief instructions from Jewel and Meha about what to do once I did. I don’t think they were too excited about my going to the station alone, but I am stubborn and convinced them that it would be fine. And it was. Besides, I was to meet Elizabeth and Divya once I arrived at the station. They would be joining me on the trip. (Or was I joining them?)

8:40pm: The time on my watched suggested that we must be getting close to the station, but since every stopped looked about the same and it seemed like the bus driver had just taken eight consecutive left hands turns, I was half convinced that we were just driving in circles. The ticket handler must have sense my mild concern as he made eye contact with me at every stop and gave me a “no, not yet” signal with this head. I was thankful for his intuition and prayed that my trust was not erroneously placed in the subtle head nods.

8:45pm: I got a head nod that was different than the rest. I figured it was my stop. After disembarking from the bus, I ran through the mental checklist of instructions Jewel and Meha had given me and began to cross items off. “Cross the road. Look both ways first. Once road has been crossed, text them to let them know I’ve made it. Then call Divya. Head down the ramp to the station, following the crowd.”

8:48pm: Got the text from Divya saying they were close, and to stay at the station entrance.

8:52pm: Paul and Sunil arrived on their motorcycles with Elizabeth and Divya in tow. I noticed that neither of them were wearing helmets and debated whether or not to chide them for it. I was leaning towards “Not tonight” when then zoomed off to park the bikes before I had a chance to say anything.

8:57pm: Elizabeth, Divya, Paul, Sunil, and I wandered to the correct area of the station to wait for the train. We met Sanjeev Sir (the Director of Services for occupational therapy at CMC) and two other staff therapists who were also on our train to Trivandrum. We looked at the reader board to determine which platform we were supposed to board from. Elizabeth and Divya were together in Sleeper Car “S4.” I was alone in “S6,” which boarded from Platform 9. I waited with the others until the train crept into the station.

9:26pm: Sunil escorted me to my platform and double checked my ticket to make sure I had read it right and found the correct seat number. Once the train stopped, he boarded with me and made sure that I found my place. With a quick handshake, an “Enjoy your time,” and a flash of his infectious smile he disappeared, leaving me in a sea of unfamiliar faces and with a bunk to climb into that seemed about four feet over my head. Sunil returned briefly to let me know that if I wanted to, I could walk through the next two train cars to find Divya and Elizabeth for some company.

9:32pm: I awkwardly tossed my too-large-for-just-one-week’s-travel backpack onto my sleeping berth and scrambled up after it as the train slowly lurched forward. I sat for a moment taking in my surroundings while acclimating to the sway of the train as it rolled out of Vellore. Divya showed up shortly after to make sure I was ok and to wish me a good night. Then she, too, disappeared.

9:43pm: I pushed my backpack up against the train wall and decided that I might as well lie down and get comfortable even if I wasn’t tired yet. Sitting upright on the upper berth of an Indian train isn’t exactly comfortable even for someone as short as me. By the glow of the fluorescent lights that lit the train car, I sent a few text messages out to those who were wondering whether or not I had safely made it to my train. Safe I was, and safe I was to remain. There was something surreal about lying there on that train being gently jostled around by the uneven tracks below. My mind drifted back to a moment in time when my grandfather retold a story of when he traveled part of India in his navy days. Would this become a story I would tell my grandchildren? “Once upon a time, your grandmother spent the night alone on the upper berth of a muggy train in India…” Hummm… maybe not.

Brief description of the train car: There are nine “bays” to a train car. Each bay has eight bunks- two on the one side of the aisle and six on the other for a total of about seventy-two bunks per car. I was on the upper berth on the side of the aisle housing the six bunks. Our car was non-A/C meaning the windows remain open for air circulation. Three large fans suspend from the ceiling in each bay as well. When sitting upright on the upper berths you look directly at the fans. In the morning, the middle berth is disconnected and dropped down to form the back of the seating area for passengers. The lower berth then becomes the bench. Per railway regulations, the middle berth is reconnected to the chains from the ceiling around eight o’clock at night for sleeping.

My berth
The view from my berth.
10:02pm: Fatigue resulting from the busy day began to overtake me as I lie with my head uncomfortably propped against my backpack. The deep vibrations of the train wheels flying across the rails gently calmed me. It calmed me almost enough so that I no longer noticed the screaming child that occupied the berth below mine. I did not envy the child’s parents.

11:34pm: I was pulled from my sleep by a sharp pain in my neck. The spine of a poorly packed book was the culprit. I shifted my bag and attempted to sleep again, noting that the screaming child had finally dozed off. Now I was jealous of the child and her parents.

11:55pm: Apparently an overstuffed backpack makes for a poor pillow no matter how you pack it. Awake again, I shifted it aside and curled my arms around my camera case hoping for a little more comfort. I tried sleeping again. It didn’t come as easy this time. An eternity passed before I finally fell asleep.

11:57: I woke again eager to see the time. Shoot dang! Only two minutes later! Apparently an eternity had not passed. I got ready for a long night.

Sunday, February 24, 12:13am: Awake again. Not sure if I’m tired or delusional, but something needed to change. I rummaged around in my backpack for a sleeping sack I knew I had packed. My hands found it, but I didn’t have the right angle, leverage or energy to free it from the bag. I gave up; the bag won. I zipped it back up and tried to get comfortable with my arms folded under me.

1:37am: Hoorah! I had slept for over an hour’s time. Things were looking up… that is, until I couldn’t fall asleep again. I began to write this very blog in my head. Minute. By. Minute. Being too tired to sleep, yet too tired to stay awake is indeed a frustrating predicament; especially when you are rather uncomfortably perched on the upper berth of a muggy train in the middle of India. I fought sleeping thinking that if I got myself good and tired maybe I would stay asleep for longer. I fought long and hard before surrendering.

4:32am: Well, that was better. My plan must have worked at least a little. Although my sleep was disjointed, I was feeling fairly rested. I drifted in and out of sleep for the remainder of the morning.

7:26am: I decided to wake myself for good this time. I sat up and grabbed my camera. I was not sure what the rules were for taking photos on a train, so I covertly snapped a few meager shots before slipping it back into the case. Divya sent me a text inviting me to come join them for breakfast. I told her I would be there shortly, but fully intended to wake up completely before gracing them with my disheveled presence. The muggy night had clung to my skin and left me with an uncomfortably stickiness. “Grin and bear it,” I told myself, “we’ll reach our destination shortly.” A chai wala passed by calling out “Chai tea! Chai tea!” hoping to elicit a response from the weary travelers he passed. I climbed down from my berth just as awkwardly as I had climbed up, pulled my bag down on top of me, and followed the chai wala down the train car, desperately craving his brew.

7:31am: I took a seat across from Divya and Elizabeth. I was comfortably wedged between two smiling Indian ladies who were happy to have me join their small company. Elizabeth and Divya officially welcomed me to Kerala as sometime during the night was had crossed the border into the Indian state that claims to be “God’s own country.” I was still a little groggy, but happy to be with friends again. Elizabeth told me that her mom was staying with family a few hours from Trivandrum (where she is from) and had agreed to make us breakfast. She would be meeting us at the next station to deliver the goods.

First of all, it is unfair that Divya looks so incredible after a night on a train. Secondly, what she is holding is a Kerala traditional treat: a sweet banana, battered and fried. Delicious. In typical railway fashion, we purchased them through the window of the train as it slowed down at one of the stations.
8:15am: True to her word, Elizabeth’s mom met us at the station and delivered a hearty breakfast of scrambled egg sandwiches, juice, oranges and Snicker’s candy bars. It was perfect. Nothing like a little Indian spices to liven up a scrambled egg sandwich! I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until I took a swallow of the ginger lime juice that was provided. Had I not been obligated to share it, I probably would have downed the whole bottle. Oh it was so delicious!

Elizabeth's beautiful mother waving farewell as our train pulled out of the station. The timing was so that this fabulous woman also provided us dinner on the return trip.
9:30am: My alarm went off. It was my cue to call my sister who was attending a wedding back home that I was most unfortunately missing. If I couldn’t actually be there, I wanted to at least call and wish the bride and groom congratulations. Hearing their voices and those of my other friends and family was music to my ears. A piece of home! The call was short as it was to be an international roaming charge, but it was enough to satisfy for the time being. (Matt and Katrina, if you chance to read this, congratulations and mark my words, we will celebrate again when I return… gifts and all!)

11:24am: Fourteen hours after leaving Vellore and right on time, our train pulled into Trivandrum station. Since breakfast, Elizabeth, Divya and I had been playing cards, peacefully dozing, discussing the scenery, or chatting about life. It was an anticlimactic morning on a train. Once at the station, we again met up with Sanjeev Sir and the two others before parting ways to our final destination. Elizabeth’s father was to meet us outside the station and take us to the home where she grew up. I was looking forward to the opportunity to rinse the train atmosphere off my skin in attempts to feel more human.

Playing cards.
Passing scenery in Kerala.  
I was happy to have arrived safely in Trivandrum for the week, but I already missed Vellore. I missed the crazy traffic. I missed the bustle of people. I missed the dust and the dirt. I missed the cacophony of life that can only be found in a place like Vellore. But mostly, I missed the people that made it my “home away from home.” I looked forward to the end of the week when I would ride the rails back to the little town in India that has stolen a piece of my little heart. This I now know: leaving Vellore for good will be a very difficult day for me. 
Safely in Trivandrum. Divya on left, Elizabeth on right.
Our train in Trivandrum
The Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) Mail

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