I don't travel enough by train. That was the unlikely conclusion I reached after a 14 hour trip from Mumbai to Goa. Not because it was luxurious - far from it. No, it was because of a conversation with a remarkable lady.
(For those who read 'Menagerie Express', the story of the 20 hour trip to Kolkata, this is a Pauline conversion. . . )
We boarded from a busy, 30 degree plus, platform at 9.45pm and claimed our berths in the 'air conditioned' coach. The pungent odour of disinfectant was suffocating. I consoled myself that the odour it displaced was probably worse.
Lying on the upper bunk bed, I realised that the air conditioning was to operate only while the train was moving. In the meantime, a small fan provided scant relief from the oppressive heat. Oh well, only an hour and a quarter to go. In no time, the coach took on an uncanny resemblance of a sauna.
No reason, so far, ever to want to do this again.
At the appointed hour, the train jerked into life and began the long, twelve hour journey to Goa (well, that was the promise). A blast of cold air burst forth from the ventilation panel. I wanted to kiss it. Soon, though, I was crawling under the flimsy blanket trying to avoid the relentless icy blast. Why does India insist so vehemently on such contrasts?
Carefully enclosed in my blanket, the gentle rocking of the train and a relaxation exercise quickly released me into the arms of Morpheus.
I awoke around 5am and contemplated my options. Jump down from the top bunk, don my sandals and confidently seek out the loo - or clench my face (and more besides) and hope for a second date with Morpheus Man.
Morpheus had done a runner.
The less said about the trip the better. That, also, is what India is about.
I settled back into the bunk and dozed fitfully for the next couple of hours. Around 8am I conducted a furtive reccy, scanning the passengers who had taken residence below us. An Indian couple, in their 60s, I estimated. She detected my surveillance - "Would you like to sit down here?" she said, beckoning to the lower level. I demurred as politely as I could.
After an hour or so, I clambered down from the upper bunk and smiled the awkward smile of introduction. She was delightful. I got her life story in jig-time, in that wonderfully educated-Indian, English accent. Late sixties, widowed, two children (one in New York, one in Toronto), late husband a senior government official, herself now a dyed in the wool traveller, after suffering a stroke a few years earlier (husband and mother having died within a week of each other). Ah, stern stuff here - no doubt about it.
She regaled me with stories of India: economics, politics, foreign direct investment, tourism, food, flea markets and more. All she needed was the slightest encouragement and the next topic was seized upon with enthusiasm:
- how she had discovered Spanish roots after her husband died (land he owned without title deeds prompted her to unearth the family tree back to a quintessentially Spanish Grandee) in her efforts to secure title and sell the property
- how most politicians were corrupt - salting government money, bribes and more to Swiss and other off-shore accounts
- how she had found a cure in Kerala for symptoms of her stroke (especially for slight paralysis on the left side)
- how to bargain in Goa: take the suggested price and offer one third, settling (reluctantly) for one half
- how to understand the relative purchasing power in India versus New York and the chasm between the two (treat each Rupee as a dollar. . . a bit extreme, I thought, since the current exchange rate is about R50 to $1)
- how she had bought a property in Goa in 1971 for R14,000 and how it was now worth 4.5m crore (an increase of about 300 times)
and lots more besides.
Even when I learned our train was running nearly two hours late it still didn't give me enough time to talk to this remarkable lady.
No two ways about it - I need more train journeys.
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