Riding My Inner Water Buffalo

India 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013:

Two days filled with trains, planes and automobiles. Auto rickshaws and toy trains, too. It starts pleasantly enough with an easy ride with Andrew & Jonathan's neighbour, who just happens to be a cabbie. He's a nice fellow with very limited English, but we manage a conversation anyhow, which ranges from "how much does it cost to immigrate to Canada?" to "how much does a Toronto cabbie make in a month?" Not a big range. And my knowledge of both is unfortunately equally limited. I learn that his 'new' Ambassador cab - probably about 1980 - cost him about $10,000, including tax & insurance. I want to know about the Kolkata cab licensing system, but time and language are limited.

We pass by the still unrepaired dangling expressway bridge I had seen on my way into town a week ago.

We leave Kalikapur around 8:30 and arrive at Kolkata's Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in plenty of time for my 11:45 to New Delhi. The flight is uneventful, and I manage to successfully engage a pre-paid taxi (thanks to Prayesh Dewan's lesson last week) to the Old Delhi train station. Once there, I have about 7 hours to kill. I had anticipated all sorts of obstacles and delays, but it's all going way too smoothly. It feels a little ominous, as in calm before the storm.

List of VVIPS AND VIPS. I presume the VVIPS are listed first. At what number is one worthy of one less V? Maybe around 8, I think. Nice that they included the Dalai Lama. But at #20, he's maybe just an IP. And poor Shri Robart Vadra, at #22 is likely just a P, unless he's travelling with the Prime Minister's Special Protection Group.

Travel tip: They have decent bathrooms in the 1st and 2nd Class AC Waiting Room. And if your skin is white, they may not check to see if you are travelling with only a Sleeper Class ticket. The Waiting Room is a place out of the din of the rest of the station. At first sight, the station is alarming, then after a half-hour or so, it becomes kind of interesting - people watching, sign reading - then interesting morphs to irritating and then downright aggravating, and finally plain boring. Imagine that. Here I am in India and I'm bored. We humans can get used to just about anything.

I go in and out of the waiting room several times. Seven hours is becoming an eternity. I take a walk around the neighbourhood - a necessarily short walk because I'm dragging a giant suitcase over streets that are one step above gravel. I come back and sit in the only restaurant in the station - a MacDonalds. I return to the waiting room and this time, some righteous bureaucrat decides to check my ticket. Busted.

I'm tired, but there's nowhere to sleep. Guess I'm just not India-ized enough to join the throngs on the stone floor. I spend an hour on the platform and then 45 minutes on the train. Yes. The Dauladhar Express arrives EARLY. And then, it departs on the dot of 10:10, just like it promised. Good Dauladhar! Good train!

The Dauladhar Express leaves New Delhi at 10:10, arriving in Pathankot (pa-TAWN-caught) at 9:30 a.m.

They post a printout of the passenger list on the side of the car. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal, but I am THRILLED to see my name there among the Singhs and Baljeets.

Training in Rail Etiquette: The Anatomy of a Sleeper Car

Six strangers walk into a little room with a big widow. No door. No curtain. The room's about 7 feet high. Flanking the window and perpendicular to it are two 3-seater benches. Got it? If there were a table in the middle, we could all be at a funky Montreal diner having smoked meat sandwiches. But there's no table. On everyone's ticket there's a number, like 26A or 27C. I'm 26A, which means I'm on the bottom bunk on the left side of the window. In sleeper class the bunks are laid out so that it's not obvious how one should behave, especially if one's brain is not too sharp, but at least I know which bench to sit on. There's an older Indian couple sitting next to me. So they must be 26B & 26C. Brilliant, Sherlock. I smile and nod. The wife looks at me blankly, maybe a little coldly. The husband gives a little smile and I maybe I hear something like hello, I'm not sure. Across from us are three young men, 27A,B,C. Nobody's talking. Just reading or looking out the window.

Only the A and C bunks are down, i.e. horizontal. The B bed is our backrest. So the holder of a C ticket has it easy. Just climb up to the top and go to sleep. This is what the wife does after about half an hour. Hubby tucks her in. Very sweet. He sits back down. Here's where the awkwardness comes in. Scenario 1: If he wants to go to sleep, he's got to communicate somehow to me that I've got to move so he can raise the backrest on it's hinges, lock it into place, and climb up. Scenario 2: If I want to go to bed, I can't just stretch out and lie down without kicking him onto the floor. So we have to communicate. I understand that this is a much bigger deal for me, because I'm the new kid here. If we were both Indian, we'd have a shared language and shared experience of how this is done. So we wait. On my Kobo reader I have Dharma Bums and The Bhagavad Gita and I'm alternating between the two - highly recommended reading for an overnight train trip on the Indian Railway.

He must have been waiting for me, because as soon as I look up from the book, he's right there motioning for me to help him raise the B bunk and secure the straps. Up he goes, flipping out the lights in the same movement. He's abrupt, but pleasant enough about it. He maybe even feels he's being a patient teacher to this greenhorn of the rails.

I'm exhausted but can't sleep. The other guys in our "room" turned out the lights long ago and will sleep all night. Imagine! I lay there reading by the light of my Kobo, back against the window wall. In front of me is a beautiful and heart wrenching sight. Across the aisle are two more bunks, running parallel to the aisle with a window behind. Sitting there well into the night are two youngish men and a little girl with Down's Syndrome. She hardly speaks, but the guys read her very succinctly from her actions and sing-songy moans. They are equal parts tender and firm as they attend to her lovingly. What a beautiful scene it is from my bunk to see their silhouettes against the moonlit Indian countryside which passes by the window like an ever-changing Dharma Wheel in black and white. I later learn that one of them is her dad, and she is actually 17.

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Tuesday, March 12:

Dawn from the Dauladhar Express. It's been a long night. Pathankot is still quite a ways away, I think.

In hindsight, I can now see that I hadn't been taking very good care of myself on this long journey. I hadn't been eating well or often enough - some fruit and nuts before leaving the Kays about 8 a.m. yesterday, a sweet and coffee at the airport, then MacDonald's at the train station topped off with a greasy Indian breakfast in Pathankot after a very spotty sleep on the train - more of a nap, really. I say in hindsight because I see now that's why I made a couple of errors that could have been very costly.

Error No. 1

Walking through the train around dawn as passengers are waking up, an attractive Indian woman stops me and asks where I am from. I tell her and she is quite interested, so we start talking. She tells me she is the principal of a small nursing college in the south of India and she is bringing her eldest students - 60 girls - on a class trip. She invites me to sit down (her bench is one of the ones parallel to the aisle) and we proceed to have a lovely conversation. Soon three or four of the girls come up and start listening in. Apparently I'm quite a novelty and an opportunity for them to practice some English. I ask them why they wanted to become nurses. Student #1 says, in all seriousness, "My father wanted me to become a nurse." Student #2 says the same thing, as does #3. The principal patiently asks for their inner reason, and they all agree that helping others makes them feel proud and happy.

By this time, a few more girls have stopped in the aisle to join in the conversation. One of them casually mentions that the Pathankot stops in 5 minutes. On India Railways, no one announces stops. You snooze, you lose. I quickly take my leave, but after this sweet little 20-minute interlude, I can't remember where my seat (and suitcase!) is. How many cars did I walk through? I start walking up and down the cars, but nothing looks familiar. There's only 5 minutes. I start envisioning myself forced to jump from a moving train. I finally see some familiar faces - the two men with the Down's girl. They're standing in line waiting to debark. I ask them where our seats had been. They look at me blankly. "My suitcase. Have you seen my suitcase?" (Now I envision myself having jumped from the train and lost all my belongings, and I'm in an Indian Railways office filling out forms and talking to police.) A light comes on in one of the men's eyes. "Suitcase! Ah cha cha. Oh, Yes." He points to my seat - about 10 feet away - and there is my big suitcase. And that's Error #1.


Arrived safely in Pathankot. It's a small station, as indicated by the stationmaster's quaint little office.


The little Kangra Express from Pathankot to Kangra Mandir is much more crowded than I had expected. Also, much more of a locally used mode of transport. As in, I am the only white person on the entire 7-car train. Nary a volunteering hippie or an overweight bluehair in sight. This "toy train" is about 60 - 70% the size of its big brothers, and the is seating wooden benches for two, with one narrow aisle down the middle. Since it travels through the scenic Kangra Valley, I had thought it would be touristy.

Error No. 2

Next to me at my window seat is a beautiful 9-year old girl on her mother's lap. It doesn't take long for Mom to get tired and plunk the kid down between us. Three on a seat. As the scenery gets more interesting, they lean all the more toward the window. The girl and I exchange little smiles, but Mom is neutral. I tap my knees, looking at them both, as an invitation for the kid to sit on my lap. Finally Mom smiles, too, and politely refuses on behalf of her daughter.

The train is getting more and more crowded as we stop in village after village, even picking people up where there is no stop. I notice it's a bit roomier over by the open doorways, and I don't mind standing, so I offer my seat to the girl. By this time we are pretty good buddies, albeit silent ones.

Standing by the door is great. Nice breeze. I can see better and take better pics. I'm having such a lovely time, I forget that I'm going on about 2 hours sleep, and hardly any water or nutritious food in the last 28 hours.

I notice people in other doorways sitting down, so I do the same. A little dirty perhaps, but extremely comfy with my feet planted on the outer step. Occasionally we go through some narrow passages, but there is no question that there is plenty room for my feet and protruding knees, even when there are people or animals walking by.

Footpath running along the tracks with plenty of space.


A shot of my left hand and the countryside taken from a sitting position on the floor.

At some places "plenty of space" turns into a plenty-tight squeeze.

At one point I think I hear a bump, turn to look in the bump's direction, but see nothing. Somewhere in the back of my tired brain, it registers that the train must have hit something. Well, unless you are as dull-witted and I was at the time, you can probably see where this story is heading. Yes. In one narrow pass, a big fat water buffalo - which range in weight from 300–550 kg (660–1,210 lb) - is sauntering alongside the tracks.

How can fate be so painstakingly precise? It's really a miracle when you think of it. The exact moment. A train travelling east at a speed of about 35 kph (fate knows the exact speed, not me) and a water buffalo travelling west, swaying in a lateral movement of + or -8 inches from centre, and at the meeting point: the knees of a 159 lb human with an awareness of 25% LESS than the water buffalo. bang. Time stands still. The eastbound knees head rapidly west, pivoting at the hip and driving the thigh full force into the blue metal door jamb. Fate says that the jamb is not sharp, so there is no puncture; fate says that contact is made by the beast's big gut, not by the sharp curved horn which may have hooked the knee, pulling it and the attached human out the door, slamming them against the stone retaining wall and bouncing them under the grinding metal-on-metal of track and wheel; fate says that the speed is such that the femur will not break, fracture or otherwise splinter; and I believe - though I don't actually hear it - that fate whispers, very softly but very clearly enunciated, I only want to slow you down, because I want to help you help yourself to stay safe and be happy, but not wildly or recklessly so. Not only is fate a Physics genius of Einsteinian proportions, but like Einstein, shows great wisdom and compassion.

I lay on the floor of the car slowly and painfully flexing my knees, feeling for breaks, while Hindi erupts all around me. I understand it perfectly. Are you o.k? It is broken? Let me help you up. You must be trying to stand. You there! Get up and let him have a seat. Water, sir? I have pain killers. He has ointment. Give me that ointment. Where does it hurt?

The man has a tube of white cream that says MOOV on the label ("Moo with an V," I say and he laughs at the joke.) starts rolling up my pant leg. I point to my knee and he starts rubbing it on. The mom is especially empathetic. Maybe she feels bad that I gave up my seat to her now sleeping daughter. A toothless old man with crazy bulging eyes is shaking his head and saying "Too many photographs. Too many photographs." The ointment man wants to know where else. I don't want to point to my upper thigh because I know the pants won't roll up that far and even if they would ...

So I motion toward my suitcase and they pull it out from under the seat. Four more people have to stand up to accomplish this. I unzip it and pull out a tube of Arnica homeopathic pain reliever from my shaving bag, zip it all back up and limp to the bathroom where I can slather and rub in privacy.

It's two more excruciating hours before we pull into Kangra Mandir Station. Hobbling down off the train and waving good-bye to my friends and supporters...

Mom & daughter - my original seat mates.

I spent quite a long time chatting with this grandson, grandfather & family.


Here's Dad. Three generations were going to spend some family time at the big temple at Kangra.

On the platform at Kangra, I go up to the kiosk to get a bottle of water. I ask the vendor about a bus to Dharamsala. Pointing directly at the train tracks he says "Main road." There's no road in sight. "Dharamsala? McLeod Gang? Bus?" Same response.

As fate would have it, there is a man travelling with his wife and 5-year old son. "Follow me. I'm going to Dharamsala, too," he says in perfect English. Fate also has it that that the way to the bus is over the tracks, up one hill and then down another, over steep, rocky terrain, and just about as far as I can possibly drag my suitcase without it, or me, breaking down.

Only two vehicles remaining: A clunky bus winding up mountain roads for 1½ hours deposits me at the Dharamsala bus station for a much needed pee, and finally a taxi climbs even further up and drops me at the Hotel Ladies Venture, McLeod Gang, Himachal Pradesh, India, Asia, Earth, Milky Way. I left the Kays' in Kolkata 38 hours, two taxis, a plane, a bus, two trains, 1,948 km and one water buffalo ago.

Happy Reading!

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Bonus movies:

Kangra Valley Walla

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Sights from the Kangra Valley Train



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