Holy Cow: The Travels and Trials of a White Girl in India, Part 4
The wedding would be held in Dehradun, a city tucked away in the northern border of India’s Himalayan Mountains. Gaurav’s bride, Neha, and her family lived in Dehradun, and because of its scenic location surrounded by mountains, it was the ideal location for their nuptials. Gaurav’s father booked us four tickets on a sleeper-train from Lucknow to Dehradun. I was thankful when I realized I wouldn’t be traveling on another miniature plane, and that our journey would happen closer to the ground. I was less thankful when I realized that the train ride between the two cities was fifteen hours long, and that the car we would be traveling in was third-class.
I understand that mentioning the class of ticket Gaurav’s father had purchased for us makes me sound like an ungrateful brat. Before I proceed any further, I would like to formally state that I am extremely grateful for Gaurav’s family and for their unquestionable generosity. Also, allow me to acknowledge that while yes, I am a brat, in this case my hesitation was justifiable.
During the short amount of time I had spent in the country, the large disparity that existed between the Indian upper and lower class (castes) had already become extremely apparent. I knew that while I had woken up that morning and enjoyed the most decadent “continental breakfast” at the most decadent Best Western hotel in the world, somewhere not so far away, in the same city, a starving boy and his younger brother wandered the streets, begging for scraps of food that in all likelihood would never come.
I stood on the street in Lucknow, clutching the third-class ticket in my hand and absorbed the scene that surrounded me. Women dripping in diamonds clutched the skirts of their saris in order to avoid the heaps of men and women that lay on the ground, lifeless from hunger. I saw an elderly man stand by his fruit cart and thrash the air violently with his walking stick, as a swarm of local beggar boys descended upon him and his livelihood. A rickshaw driver wasted his weight in sweat as he carted around a couple that used a parasol umbrella in order to shield their light skin from the sun. I was nervous to find out where my “third-class” ticket would fall in the wildly unbalanced spectrum that I witnessed before me.
Gabby could sense that the train ride ahead was causing me some anxiety, and she suggested that we purchase some games to use as distractions during the trip. Before we left for the train station, we stopped in a convenience store that carried toys, and bought a book of Mad Libs and a pack of Uno cards (they didn’t carry a standard deck of house cards). We also bought four large plastic cups that we filled with wine from our mini-fridge at the Best Western.
The train station in Lucknow isn’t so much a station, but rather a meeting place of four tracks with adjacent platforms. Men, women, and cows wander in and out of the space aimlessly, and it is difficult to tell where the city street ends and the station begins. When we arrived at the track, we learned that our fifteen-hour train ride would be delayed an additional four hours. This was the second time I regretted my decision to over-pack for India. Seeing as we had already checked out of our hotel, there was nowhere we could store our massive luggage, and therefore leaving the train station to further explore the city wasn’t a realistic possibility. Our only option was to remain tethered to our bags, amidst a fluid crowd of Indians, who may or may not have also been waiting for the delayed sleeper train.
From an outside perspective, it would have seemed as though we had foreseen a substantial delay in our travel plans. But the truth was that Gabby and I were masters at overcoming shitty obstacles, and we always prepared methods of creating fun, even where fun naturally did not exist. Our solution to our four-hour delay was to drink the wine we had disguised in large plastic cups and play endless rounds of cards and Mad Libs. I, of course, would have preferred that the train arrived on time, but all things considered, this was an agreeable way to bide the time. Even Rael, who would normally maintain cool indifference, indulged our silly games and praised us for our childish resourcefulness.
As we played, an audience of Indian men began to form around us. They were captivated by Uno, a game they perceived as having very high stakes. It was clear they had no concept that in actuality Uno is a game played primarily by children. In their eyes, we weren’t just four American hooligans waiting for a delayed train; we were also experienced card sharks playing in the Poker World Series. We fed into their assumptions by holding the cards close to our chests, and shooting suspicious glances around the circle every time there was a big move in the game. I smacked my gum and sipped my shitty red wine from a plastic cup, and I could sense my celebrity rising every time I won a round. Once again, the Indian people were bestowing us with a false sense of importance. I thought about how disappointing it would be to return to New York, where nothing I did was cool and nothing about me seemed to be photo worthy.
We were so dedicated to maintaining our disguise as world-class poker players, that we had hardly noticed that a cow had been slowly pacing the length of the platform behind us. Ezra had just relinquished his second to last card and was gearing up to claim his fourth victory that evening, when the cow broke through the crowd of Indians and pushed its head into the center of our circle. The animal had no interest in the intensity of our game and had been lured to our corner by a bag of pretzels that we carelessly left open in between us. I didn’t realize just how big a cow’s head is, and I was incredibly shaken by the interruption. I threw down my cards and pushed back out of the circle. “HOLY SHIT,” I said. No, “Holy cow,” Gabby corrected.
When the train finally arrived and we boarded the third class sleeper car, I was sufficiently buzzed from the wine and remained unbothered by our subpar sleeping arrangements. I had never seen a three-tier bunk bed, and I was impressed by how efficiently the train company had utilized the space. Rael, Gabby, and I would all sleep on top bunks, and Ezra would sleep the level below. Gabby offered to switch with him. He was by far the largest person in our group, and it didn’t seem fair that he be stuffed between the top and bottom bunk in the bed that visibly had the least amount of room. However, Ezra refused Gabby’s offer, insisting that he wouldn’t be able to see each of us if he was on the top bunk. He was flexing his man muscles and protecting his hens from any fox that might try and steal us in the night. It was very chivalrous, and whether or not his concerns were valid, his valor made him even more attractive than he had been before.
We made our bed using the disposable sheets and blankets provided to us by the train company. I was about to climb into my bunk when the wine that had finally made its way through my system alerted me that it was time to pee. I walked to the back of the train car and found a room that had been falsely labeled as the bathroom. I said it was falsely labeled because this room did not satisfy the short list of qualifications that a room necessarily must satisfy in order to be rendered a bathroom. There was no sink, no mirror for nose powdering, no toilet paper, no trash for sanitary napkins, and most notably, there was no toilet. No, this was not a bathroom. This was a room with a hole in the ground and a half empty dispenser of hand sanitizer on the wall next to it.
I would allow the Indian culture to misunderstand what a Best Western hotel should look like, or what ingredients were required to make something called a veggie burger, but the basic constitution of a bathroom should, in my opinion, be universal. When I told Gabby that there was a hole in the floor where our toilet should be, she explained that the public bathrooms in China also didn’t have toilets. She said something about how squatting is healthier for the body than sitting is, while performing one’s business in the loo. Maybe, I thought to myself, but I bet they have toilets in first class.