Riding Grace

West India 019, originally uploaded by linseyis.

Photo: Me and my scoot after my first-ever ride. Note that I am saturated!

I’ve ridden three trains, two buses and short stint of bad luck, but I’ve managed to make my way to India’s idyllic Goan coast.

My hair’s still soaked from my first scooter ride between Anjuna, the beach town where I’m staying, and Baga, where the ATM is located. The scooter—which costs $2 a day to rent—has reinforced my idea from way back in Entebbe, Uganda: I’m getting a motorcycle when I get home. Granted, I spent the first fifteen minutes cursing while my friends shouted, “LEFT! LEFT! We’re in India!” as I steered toward the oncoming bus on the other side of the road, but two wheels prove way more fun than four.

I’m sitting on my bed, watching the afternoon monsoon pour down, thinking that the tree right outside my open door is a passion fruit and wondering what to name the gecko that keeps creeping down my wall. All’s quiet on the eastern front save the sound of the rain, the cow mooing in the field behind me and the bird up in the eave settling into his nest. Thank god I skedaddled from India’s hectic cities.

But I have to tell you, it was no easy feat. First, in Mumbai, where the humidity and my cold exasperated me, I narrowly escaped a “Pretty Woman” scenario. An innocent friendship during the day turned into batting eyelids and talk of old lovers over evening drinks. I sat in the opposite chair, espousing all of my darling, Nik’s, wonderful qualities and wondering how to breathe out of my nose without making snorting noises. My companion may have been harmless, but my imagination was not, and I, hell-bent on remaining safe, ran out of the most expensive hotel in Mumbai with a wet head and hastily packed bags somewhere around midnight.

Not to worry though, as I had a train booked for Pune the next day, and I’d spend the morning sleeping off my cold in my new hotel room. Except that when I arrived at the train station at 4:30 for my 5:30 train, I found out that my ticket had me scheduled for a 5:30 a.m. departure. I scanned the huge terminal without an idea of how to rectify my mistake. A train sat on the tracks in front of me, ready to run to Pune; I had to get on it, and I only had twenty minutes to figure out how to change my ticket. I hoisted my bag—which seems to weight more daily—to my back and slung my other bag over my shoulder. Best bet? Find the Information Desk. But after waiting in that line, I was told I had to 1. refund the ticket, and 2. purchase a new one. The man pointed in the direction where I had purchased my ticket the day before. Dodging people left and right, I scurried across the station to the two-story building. Somewhere along the way, my toe caught a lip of concrete and I bailed, head first, onto the ground. With the burden of my pack on top of me, I couldn’t get up. I mean really, I can hardly do a push-up, and here I was, splayed out on the train station floor, my body weakened by my full-force cold, with a 35 lbs. bag sitting on me. Tears formed in the corner of my eyes as I struggled to get up. Finally, a woman security guard came to my assistance, and I rushed off before pity sat on me too.

Up two flights of stairs and sweatier than a gaggle of middle-age gals in a sauna, I found the ticket window. Nope, downstairs, I was directed. Into the third line to buy a ticket—I didn’t even bother to consider getting a refund for the first—and there too, I was told I stood at the wrong window. Door number four found me handing over another $5 for a train ticket, and I booked it as fast as I could, without tripping, over to the waiting train. I settled in just a few minutes before it departed.

I was in no mood for a four hour train ride, let alone arriving in a new city after nightfall. My shoulders ached, my head throbbed, plus, the snot in my nose clung thicker than the city’s humidity. My first Indian train ride—as I gathered by the moss-colored windows and the dilapidated, uneven seat—would be a nightmare.

But the couple next to me offered me a piece of their candy and answers to each of my questions. Zadmal and Diane even walked me out of the train station and pointed the way to my hotel.

The next day, Zadmal rang my room and invited me over to their house for dinner. Promptly the next evening at seven o’clock, the couple picked me up in their little car and took me back to their house. Zadmal’s mama and niece labored in the kitchen; his 90-year-old father sat on the sofa chatting with his nephew; I had been invited to a family affair.

On the train, I learned that Diane owned a race-horse farm and that Zadmal trained race horses. At their house, I found out that the whole family was in on the business: Diane bred and raised the horses, Zadmal trained them, the nephew had just been appointed the handicapper of the Pune-Mumbai circuit, the father retired as a jockey in 2001, after having won the Thousand Oaks, one of India’s preeminent races not once, but EIGHT times, and Zadmal’s mother, well, she used to press rupees into Zadmal’s palm on his way to school for him to take to the bookie. She still followed the races, and apparently, can read a race book despite the fact that she can’t speak or write English.

The family provided a wonderful home-cooked Indian meal, fascinating company, and demanded at the end of the night that I place my head in a facial steam bath on their coffee table to clear my stuffy nose. It was a trifecta of grace.

The next day found me on my second train, headed to Goa. It would take twelve hours, and I was booked for the “sleeper” train, and despite the proximity of the berth to the ceiling and the mouse that darted across the floor, the steel horse managed to lull me to sleep for a few hours at a time. I woke up in Goa.

The monsoons and I will hover here for a bit, taking in the Portuguese remains of an otherwise exotic seaside city. And in a few days time, I will ride the rails again to the home of Mother Teresa, Kolkata.


1 Response to “Riding Grace”

  1. 1 Nikolai
    September 11, 2008 at 4:53 am

    You match the scoot but where is your pillow helmet?

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