Wednesday, February 23, 2011


            Our train back to New Delhi wouldn’t be leaving Jhansi train station until early evening, which gave us a long, relaxing, lazy morning at Blue Bull Campsite.  I’m not sure if I’m alone in this, but as a traveler, it only takes me a couple of days to feel like a local.  So much so, that I actually bristle when a shopkeeper suggests that I’m from out of town, or worse, out of the country.  Can’t they see that I’m one of them and not a mere tourist? Like a chameleon, I quickly adopt clothing styles and patterns of speech in an effort to blend in with the populace.  In India, I used the palms-together “Namaste” greeting, took to winding scarves around my neck, and tenor of my voice became softer and more deferential. Past mutations have included calling everyone “Love” in a cockney accent in London and chain smoking in Kiev. 
            Given the remarkable speed at which I adapt, it wasn’t surprising that I teared up at the thought of leaving Orchha like I was one of the sisters in “The Cherry Orchard” having to quit their childhood home. I had to refrain from throwing my arms around Vinod, the trusted family servant, when he challenged the children to one last game of Carrom. 
             By mid-afternoon, we were packed into the van to go visit the Jhansi fort before arriving at the train station. We said goodbye to the Snow Leopard staff and Vinod and the driver came with us. 
            The Jhansi fort was built in the early 1600s and has all of the antediluvian features like underground prison cells and gallows, that set young boys’ imaginations afire.  Monkeys skittered along the walls as Spencer and Murphy ran around pretending to hang traitors. The adults followed Vinod, carrying Zoe. We must mean a lot to Vinod, I thought, watching his easy charm with the kids.  He’ll be devastated when we leave.  Who knew when the next guests would arrive?  My chest tightened as I thought of the staff carrying on in the vacant campsite for months on end, Vinod miles away from his wife and son. 
            “It’s so much easier coming the fort this time,” Vinod told me, shifting Zoe from one hip to the other.
            “Oh, yes?”
            “Last time, I came with Brad Pitt and there were many photographers,” he smiled, remembering.
            “You brought Brad Pitt here?”
            “Yes.  He came to Snow Leopard for the river rafting.  Angelina was pregnant so she stayed at home.”
            Angelina, he called her “Angelina”?  Of course he would. What else would he call her?  Ms. Jolie Pitt?  And then I couldn’t help myself.  I have less than a passing interest in the Jolie/Pitts but one simply must ask, “Was he a nice man?”
            “Very nice,” he responded, adding an observation that I’m sure was shared in confidence.
            I stuck my hands in my pockets, savoring the confidence like I had been given special knowledge that even ‘Star’ magazine couldn’t access.  You only needed to know the right people, I thought.  Then I wondered who else Vinod had passed time with in Orchha.  Clearly, we weren’t the only people who had enjoyed his ministrations.   I had been imagining us as the stars in Viond’s movie about his life.  If Brad Pitt had preceded us, who knew what our billing would be like?  We might be left on the cutting room floor or, at best, be relegated to background extras referred to as Family #1 and Family #2. Fortunately, the practicality of having to make the train and get back to the van stopped me from confronting Vinod about what exactly our friendship meant to him. If the raft on the rapids was about to tip over, who would he save first?  Me or Brad Pitt?
            Trains almost never arrive on time in India.  In fact, you can receive texts as to exactly how late the train will be by accessing a phone number we never managed to access.  We had no choice but to arrive promptly at the Jhansi train station, even though experience had taught us that it could be a long wait. Standing on the platform, I thought of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Faith who believes what he believes completely, in spite of all earthly evidence to the contrary. It took this kind of faith for us to stand on that platform.  In fact, the whole scene felt Scandinavian – two pale families, shivering near the track.  Both resigned and resolute.
            It’s possible that Vinod was prepared to wait with us for hours but we assured him that we would be fine on our own. We all hugged him, and I tried not to linger.  I had gotten his address earlier and had already started a life-long correspondence with him in my head.
            As soon as the kids and moms secured a bench, Keir and Pat went to get further information on an arrival time. Next to us, a family gathered on a blanket stared at us openly.  Several groups stopped to take pictures of us.  People were particularly interested in snapping Zoe’s photo.  Used to this kind of attention, Zoe expertly dipped her head, discouraging more pictures.   Murphy, on the other hand, enjoyed it, giving his best “charming the grandparents” smile. 
            As soon as a train pulled into the station, crowds of people started running toward it, jumping on before it stopped completely. Passengers would toss bundles to people already on board.  Robyn told me that this happened because third class passengers did not have reserved seats.  Ticket-holders would rush the train in order to secure the best spots on the wooden benches in the cars. 
            Pat and Keir returned to tell us that they had heard that the train was running two hours late.  The kids flopped onto the pile of backpacks and Robyn and I pulled out our chocolate bars.  We looked around the station. I watched men hauling a huge hose up to a train and then easing it in through a window.  Several older, turbaned gentlemen walked by us in bare feet, carrying staffs.  Passengers leaned out of train to buy chai tea from vendors.  I spotted a few European backpackers. 
            “I can do this,” I said to Robyn.  “At home I barely have enough patience to stand in line at the bank without weeping.  But when I’m traveling, I can access some deep, still part of me. Like right now. I can handle it.”
            “I can do it too,” Robyn said as Zoe climbed into her lap.  “Something goes quiet in you.  And you just watch.”
            “And wait,” I added. 
            “Because the train will come, eventually.”
            “Right.  It will.  And we know that.”
            Of course, at home, I knew that the bank line would move and that I would eventually get to the teller.  But at home, I didn’t derive the same kind of peace from that knowledge.
            As it turned out, I would have to go to that quiet inner place and dredge up even more peace.  We would wait on the platform for five hours.
Jhansi Fort

Jhansi train station

Hour five.  Zoe sits on Keir's lap

1 comment:

  1. Oh how beautiful they are! I gasped. Thank you for the reminder of the still space and of that faith that ignores all physical evidence contrary to belief. Useful in many situations, and obviously at Jhansi train station. xx