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The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

Please Honk

Various photos taken from Clare Murphy’s trip to India.

Clare Murphy | Contributing Writer

A City College student’s journey to India

I sit upright and whack my head against the roof of the train. I glare at the gray metal ceiling and throw off my sweat-drenched sheet.

What is that rancid smell? Oh. It’s me.

My eyes come to terms with the young light seeping through the barred openings where windows should be, and I study the snoring Indian men. I laugh at myself for fearing their strange faces, now angelic with dreams. Warily placing my foot on the tier below me, I fumble and biff it.

Two men on the bottom tier are already awake and roar with laughter. I’m hot with embarrassment, but I  find myself chuckling because
that’s what I’ve got to do in the middle of India on a train packed with men who speak no English.

As Kristin, my travel mate, and I discovered, trains in India are not as straightforward as those we ride to City College.

We are in a second sitting car with no lights, no air conditioning and no guarantee of a place to sit. Ventilation consists of glassless windows and two miniature fans for each section.

While reminiscing about my childhood fantasies of the wonders of India, I am unable to recall imagining such a scene. Unfortunately, backpacking means budgeting, so I find myself 15 hours into a 22-hour commute on a packed sleeper train with only two other women.

The train halts unexpectedly in the middle of an expansive green field. I look at the man next to me for clues. He peers back at me and
shrugs.  The jostling of the train shakes passengers awake and chatter starts as a whisper, then crescendos into a symphony of Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi and other Indo-Aryan languages.

I scoot closer to the window, careful not to make physical contact with my neighbor so as not to be seen as “promiscuous” or “flirtatious.”

The fields are freckled with moving clusters of color. Women in brightly patterned sarees, garments worn chiefly by married women, harvest cucumbers, placing them in enormous woven baskets balanced gracefully atop their heads.

I hear the distant shouting of tiny voices approaching our car and strain my neck to see. Grubby little bodiless arms strain to reach through the grates, and motion for rupees in exchange for pani (water) and kheera (cucumber). As the man next to me purchases a water from the children, he asks something in Hindi.

The children reply, and the man turns to me, stating, “Cows. Moooo.”

Our hour-long standtill is due to a family of cows refusing to budge from the tracks. Everyone here knows that holy cows are queens of the road.

My neighbor crams roasted peanuts into my hand and asks, “You from German?”

“California,” I reply.

He and the other men in my berth canter in unison, “Hollywood! California girls!”

Holy cow, I’m in India. I grin wide and surrender to the unknown.

When I set o with nothing but a beat-up backpack to a country I believed to know quite a bit about — in reality, I knew zilch — I hoped to uncover something outside myself. While I absorbed wisdom from a world unfamiliar to my own, more questions remained than did

I suffer from sometimes debilitating depression and anxiety, causing heart-wrenching, riotous loneliness. Although I am well traveled,
India was the first third-world country I’d visited with a heavy language barrier. I feared impending loneliness, having only one other person to converse with.

Kristin’s a fresh nomad who had never been to another country, let alone one with such rampant poverty. We began at SFO airport and arrived 30 hours later, midday in New Delhi. We were welcomed by hot, sticky, air that stuck to our skin like sap.

Despite her virgin passport, Kristin was a perfect travel companion. She was generous, patient, flexible, ambitious and generally OK with ambiguity. She agreed that we should dress modestly in traditional kameez-salwar, a type of loose MC Hammer-like pants and long tunic
top. We had also decided to act politely by greeting people with the respectful namaskar, which carries much respect and adoration.

I was careful to conceal my “so it goes” tattoo, and I had also been instructed not to make eye contact with men in public. I white-knuckled my money pouch and pretended not to see people staring at me, their eyes examining the juxtaposition of my light skin against dark blue Indian silk.

After what felt like decades, Kristin and I passed through customs, purchased a pre-paid taxi and arrived at the less-frequented Delhi train station where an officer pointed us to the incorrect platform.

We sprinted up and down stairs through floods of women carrying pounds of rice on their heads, men juggling seven suitcases at a time,
children pickpocketing, chickens, dogs, goats, cats, rats and piles of human excrement.

A nearly untranslatable voice screeched through broken speakers from which I made out the words “six” and “Agra.” We bolted to our
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I grabbed onto the rail, leaped in and plunked into a concave plastic chair. A little girl stood right up to Kristen and me and gawked for 20 unblinking minutes. It was then I realized I would not have the luxury of being alone.

However, it was not the attention that cured me of any feeling of loneliness, but rather how collectivistic and connected Indians are.

Three days into the trip, we had survived the overwhelming city of Delhi, ogled the Taj Mahal in Agra and arrived in the calmer city of Jaipur. It was late when we came to the station, though the loud bustle made it feel like rush hour.

We waited at the exit for our Tuk-Tuk — a motorized cart on wheels — driver.

A large group of tenacious taxi drivers swarmed us, all practically shouting, “You need a taxi!”

I shook my head in circles sharply, “We have a driver, thank you.”

They shoved one another, stepping on each other’s tattered flip-flops, feverishly competing for our business. Kristin and I weeded out a few drivers by repeating “no” and shooing away the men.

Finally, one young man remained, reassuring us that he would give us the best price. I was exhausted, hungry and hot, so I looked at the floor and, with my fake wedding ring on my left hand, said with conviction that my husband would not appreciate me talking with strange men.

A military guard with a machine gun grabbed the man’s arm and muttered something in Hindi that I guessed was along the lines of, “You
know the drill. Let’s go.”

Not five minutes later the man snuck past the guard and before I could say “no” another time, said, “You know you don’t have to be afraid of everyone here. Rajasthani people are kind. And you’re not in Agra anymore.”

I was speechless. Was I being hateful? Racist even? Or was I just protecting myself from the unfamiliar? I felt enormous guilt weigh on
me and replied with a feeble, “Well, thank you for saying that, but we still don’t need a driver.”

He proceeded to ask me if I was Muslim. “You cover up your body like one.”

I chuckled a little and replied frankly, “I’m just not trying to stand out or offend anyone.”

Again, the guard approached him and escorted him away from the station entrance leaving Kristin and me to sit and ponder all our perceptions shattered by one conversation.

Over the course of a month I have ridden a camel into the desert, camped out in a thunderstorm, squatted gracefully over holes, shared meals with natives, met holy people, offered a flower to the worshiped Ghats, made peace with myself, and made peace with the earth. However, it is not at the Tibetan temple in Darjeeling, amid the stillness of the desert, or during yoga on the coast of the Arabian Sea that I have my “aha!” moment.

I watch the Buddha bobble-head on the taxi driver’s dashboard dance against Calcutta’s strange cityscape. The truck in front of us holds a five-second-long honk, and hundreds of rickshaws, cars and motorcycles echo the sound. Automobiles of all sorts have “Please Honk” painted in bright colors on their bumpers. It’s basic driving etiquette to honk when driving in India, where the traffic functions on its own logic.

Chauffeurs stick their heads out of their windows and shout at one another intensely, waving their arms in the rain and contorting their faces into alarming shapes.  Then, oddly, they suddenly laugh together and wave goodbye.

I cover my mouth with my scarf to avoid inhaling the thick clouds of exhaust, and open my hands to catch the rain pouring in through the car window. Our driver curses at the traffic jam and kills the engine. Fellow drivers follow suit until all that can be heard is the rain pounding on car rooftops.

Kristin finds herself in the desert in the eye of a storm, proclaiming, “this is it. The perfect moment.”

My moment of total bliss is now, in a city I don’t particularly care for during a traffic jam. In this moment I stop caring about being on time, getting stuck, the noise, the rain, the heat. I forfeit my ego and accept ambiguity, invite it even. I find in this peaceful, present moment that there is no way I’ll ever completely understand the inner workings of India, nor myself, nor life itself. And that is okay.

The only thing I feel in this moment is connection to every single atom in the universe, and the outcome is invigorating empowerment
to just be and stop worrying about whom to be.

The cars start moving and horns return to trumpeting. I stick my face out of the window and chant “om” as little orbs of water cascade down my cheeks.  The feeling of nirvana subsides, though residual joy and tranquility remains.

I wonder where I will go next.

Editor’s Note: this article first appeared on December 8, 2014 in the fall 2014 issue of Mainline magazine.


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