Friday, December 29, 2006

Chaos bringing people together

Making friends amongst travellers in India is really easy. For a traveller who arrived here alone, such as myself, the thanks is owed to the Indian railway system. I think it is the fact that we all feel so much at the mercy of this cumbersome, confusing, congested and often unreliable system. This results in independent travellers feeling so joined together. Not that I am complaning. I understand why the railway system is like this - it is a huge country, largely poor, and it is heavily populated throughout.

As I said, the upside of the railway chaos is that it draws travellers together. I had arranged to meet my pen-pal for the first time on Sunday evening. As a result, I decided that I would try to book a ticket to Goa for the Monday night. The overnight train from Mumbai to Goa departs Mumbai at 11pm, getting to Goa about 12 hours later.

In Mumbai, there is a special queue for travellers applying for tickets on the tourist quota. My first task that Sunday morning was to find that queue (ticket window) - the central train station in Mumbai is massive! I saw two very attractive European looking girls in the station, and I approached them to ask where the tourist counter was. They were very friendly, and told me they had just found the tourist counter and bought tickets, so they related to me exactly where to go. They told me they were from Argentina (from memory), and on closer inspection, they appeared to be identical twins. Damn it, i should have asked them that - it would have kept the conversation going longer.

On finding the tourist counter, i joined the queue, which was not very long, but very slow moving. The noise levels in the station make it very difficult to communicate with the ticket officer behind the plexi-glass, and the strong Indian accent only makes it more difficult when the customers are non-Indian. It should be noted that there are many Indians who appear to speak perfectly good English from a vocabularly and grammatical perspective, but the strong accent (often far stronger than the normal Indian accent of Indians who live abroad or work in call-centres) can literally make it seem like they are speaking a different language altogether. In front of me in the queue were couple about my age. The guy (Aaron) was from Austria, and the girl (Sandra) was from Peru. They are both doing their masters in "peace studies" somewhere in Austria, and are trying to work their way down to the south where they have some project to do related to their studies. Apparently, they are to me mediating in some conflict. But for now, they have their own conflicts to deal with. Firstly, with the Indian railways system. And secondly, like myself, Aaron is suffering from a bad sore throat. They hold my spot in the line, and I go to look for throat lozenges for both Aaron and I. I also go to enquire about buses, in case we can't get on a train, which are often full. I return with both western style menthol lozenges, as well as these curious tiny black Indian pills in a green vile. Aaron tries really likes the Indian pills, vowing to buy more.

Aaron and Sandra discover that it is not enough to have money and passport - a tourist needs proof that they have acquired Indian currency legitimately. Either a receipt from a legitimate money-changer, or an ATM receipt. They have neither, but I have fortunately kept my ATM receipt, on the advice of an Israeli I had met at Chabad. They give me the cash for their tickets, and I buy tickets for all 3 of us using my ATM receipt. Unfortunately for me, they are wanting to leave that night, but I can't leave until the following night as I don't know what time Sarita and I will be finishing our evening. Nevertheless, the friendship struck up in the queue led to us going out to lunch together as well as doing some browsing in the markets. They had just arrived in Mumbai, while I was already a veteran of a few days, so I was acting as something of a guide to the Colaba area. They had flown in to Delhi, where they had a day, and then a flight to Mumbai. They told me that Delhi was far worse than Mumbai (well, at least Colaba and Churchgate area) in terms of poverty and dirtiness etc.

Not long after this conversation, we came across the body of a man lying on the sidewalk. The body was covered up except for the head and feet. There were flies all over the body, and I asked Aaron and Sandra sincerely “Do you think he’s just asleep, or is he dead?” Sandra reflexively replied “No, I don’t think so, it couldn’t be, he’s just asleep.” But Aaron and I moved in for a closer look, nodded to each other, and then Aaron looked back to Sandra, who had maintained her distance, to indicate that he did think the man was dead. No longer being our first day in India, we all pretty much took the discovery of a corpse in our stride, and moved on, without giving it too much more discussion. Context is everything. I doubt if the same thing had happened in Australia or Austria for that matter, that we could have been so casual about it as to continue on our way to find a nice place to eat lunch.

When I say goodbye to Aaron and Sandra that afternoon, it was really quite heartfelt considering the brief amount of time we had known each other. We said to eachother that hopefully we will bump into each other in Goa, but I know realistically that probably won't happen, as neither of us has even decided what part of the Goa region we are going to.

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