So it only took me about 1.5 months to get around to writing about the rest of my journey, but I will chalk it up to starting a new job in a new apartment in a new city. More to come on that soon…
So, here I was on an overnight train from Delhi to Pathankot; at around 11:30p finally assured that I wasn’t going to get kicked out of the train for having an unconfirmed ticket and left to the mercy of whatever evil forces come out to play on a hot summer Indian night. I got up on my bunk, setting my alarm for 5am and revelled in the air conditioning to catch up much needed Zzzs.
Finally, after much anticipation and a sensational few hours of sleep, I pulled into Pathankot. After all the trouble I had gone through to get there, I was unconsciously expecting some sort of fanfare to announce the arrival of the destination. But the railway station was much like every other I had passed along the way- flies swarming around the open plates of “breakfast” food (I don’t know if I can really call fried, oily potato bhajias breakfast) and masses of families piling out of the train onto the platform. I realized soon after I descended the train that I had 3 hours to kill and a growling stomach to satisfy. So, with the idea that I would explore Pathankot along the quest for a fantastic meal, I shouldered my backpack and headed out of the station.
A couple of miles in and sweat dripping down my face (my backpack felt like I was carrying a dead person in it) and no good food to be found! How could this be possible- I was in India! But as excited as I had been about reaching Pathankot, Pathankot wasn’t exciting at all. Dejected, I trudged back to the railway station resigning myself to the fly-infested potato bhajias (it was actually very good) and a couple of hours of reading until the train came for my next destination.
After three unbearable hours, the train finally pulled in! The train from Pathankot to Kangra (my next destination)was what they called a toy train, and the name was well-suited. It is about a 6 coach train, each with an occupancy of about 45 according to the signs posted. Thankfully, there was a women’s compartment, which meant I didn’t have to be pressed up against sweaty, staring men for the 4-hour journey. The ladies compartment was on the very end and as soon as I entered and grabbed a seat, I realized that the occupancy sign was completely nominal. There were easily about 80 women and girls shoved into every corner of the compartment. I was pressed up against a large lady sharing my seat; my backpack served as a handrest for a girl. Again, I marveled at how different the concept of personal space was in India; it was non-existent. But I could see how this increased the feeling of community. Women who were seated had someone’s else’s children on their laps so they didn’t have to stand; people hung on to each other’s luggage to provide stability. It was definitely a feeling of “it’s a long journey and we are in this together!” In a train compartment full of strangers, I didn’t feel so alone.
The reason I had chosen to take this ridiculously long route from Delhi to McLeod Ganj was for this leg of the journey. All the reviews I read online had told me that the Kangra valley train was a great experience because of the views it offered. As it snaked its way through the hillside, you had breathtaking views of the valley and the Dauladhar ranges in the distance. This part was definitely true; although the scenery-marveling was mitigated by the intense heat and dryness that decided to plague us during our entire journey. As physically uncomfortable as I was with my feet and arms lodged in between women with their butts in my face, and the intense sun beating down on my face, I quite enjoyed the ride. I was surrounded by dozens of women and children from the various town and villages in Punjab, spiritedly and loudly exchanging stories in a language I only marginally understood. Punjabi, while it has some resemblances to Hindi in its vocabulary, is not easy to understand when rattled off at a million miles a minute. I was also constantly on edge watching the little kids who were seated right by the train coach door, with their legs dangling off the front into the depths of the valleys surrounding us.
Watching this happen, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of risk-taking in different cultures. Indian, and Asian cultures for that matter are traditionally more risk-averse. They like to marry into their own castes to avoid the risks of different beliefs, they save their money rather than put down credit cards and enjoy the safety and security of having family members around them throughout their lives. American families, on the other hand, buy houses, cars and education they can’t afford, and separate from their families latest by 18. But any parent that allowed their child to dangle halfway outside of a train would be charged with negligence and deemed to have a Britney Spears-esque parenting style. Americans shield their children from every bacterial source and violent show possible, something that’s hardly a cause for concern in Indian culture. Watching the kids happily dangling their legs singing while the toy train chug through the hillside, I was struck once again by the relativity of cultural norms. There really was no way to apply the logic and standards that govern one culture to another one to determine what is right and wrong.
Anyways, after an incredibly hot and sticky 4-hour journey and about 30 stops in tiny Punjabi towns, I finally got off at my stop- Kangra. After I got off, I had to trudge downhill to the street below to find the bus that would take me to Dharamsala. Of course, there were no street signs to guide me, so I ended up following a pack of boys down to the bus stand. Luckily the bus was pulling up right as I reached the station. I literally tripped my way into the bus under the weight of my ginormous backpack (I clearly should have researched more about “how to pack light for a backpacking trip”). I was nearing the end of my journey…
The bus dropped me off at the bus depot where I was to catch the bus to McCleod Ganj, the light at the end of the 21-hour tunnel. I collapsed into a chair and waited for the bus that was clearly behind schedule. Near me, I noticed a commotion emerging from a group of what looked like a bunch of schoolgirls on a field trip. In the middle of the gaggle of school girls, I noticed two white women politely posing for the twentieth photo with an awe-struck local. Noticing the backpacks they were shouldering, I wondered if they were headed the same way that I was.
Normally, I am the last person in the world to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But something about traveling alone in an unfamiliar environment makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do. So I walked up to the girl who had managed to detangle herself from the group of photo-takers. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned that Tammy was from Australia and was volunteering in a nearby village but was spending the night in McCleod Ganj before heading back to Delhi to wrap up her volunteer work. She and Carrie (who she had met during her time as a volunteer) welcomed me to join them to look for a hotel room in McCleod Ganj. And to think I almost hadn’t struck up a conversation with them…
An hour later, as I finally stepped out of the last leg of the journey onto the central marketplace in McCleod Ganj, I realized that as long and arduous as my journey from Delhi to McCleod Ganj had been, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.