Waiting Rooms by Sandra Marsh
After six weeks traveling on the web of railway in India, this time the rocking motion and rhythmic noise of wheels on rail provide no comfort. As I look out of the open barred windows, the yellow-hued landscape only looks barren, not mysterious: hills eroding into sand dunes, dried up vegetation, dirt tracks leading to an empty horizon. And yet people, hoards of them, standing along the train tracks in the middle of no where, waiting with huge bundles whose innards strained against brightly colored fabric meant to keep them contained. The train stops to let them into 3rd class train cars, and some continue to move to the roof, preferring to sit precariously in the wind. Because I see no visible landmark or building to differentiate this spot from any other for miles in either direction, I wonder if the engineer does not just stop when he sees enough people to warrant it.
I consider the possibility of the train derailing and being buried beneath thousands of natives, understanding that no one would miss me for some time, my body entangled with strangers, waiting for someone to notice. My insignificance encompasses me.
With the help of David and practice, I had learned the rules for traveling in this exotic place:
1. Pick a destination, then a hotel from a guide book. This increases the likelihood of finding others like you: those seeking company at mealtimes, short-term traveling companions, or rare, but not impossible friendships.
2. Train stations offer familiar comfort. They're all exactly the same: vegetarian and non-vegetarian restaurants, first class men's and women's waiting rooms that western travelers can use, even without first class tickets (unspoken double standard), and men's and women's dorms for the times you just cannot cope with the foray of tri-shaw drivers, beggars and aggressive boys ready to drag you off to some hotel (usually not in your guidebook) to receive their commission.
3. Get used to people staring at you and invading your "western space"—the rules are different here.
4. If anything is stolen from you, it's your fault for not keeping better watch. A camera is worth more than most people make in a year.
This particular side trip had started more than 24 hours earlier. On a bus, I had descended from a tourist spot in the hills of Rhajastan, where locals went to get out of the heat. I then navigated the ugly industrial streets of Bhopal to find the familiar train station. It would take two train rides and another bus to get to Ellora, an ancient buddhist monastery carved from the stone hillside it inhabited. My travel plans were my own now. It had been one week since David and I parted, and while the decision had been mutual, the dimension of the loneliness was frightening.
I was exhausted. Now on the second train, I realized I had barely slept the night before. Despite the luxury of a second class berth, it seemed I roused myself at every stop, making sure it wasn't mine. I was the only westerner on the train car, and without the illusional presence of a travel partner, the eyes of the men were discomforting. In a semi-conscious state, I was unprepared when my stop finally came, and had to hurry to stuff my sleeping bag and gather up my belongings. For the first time since arriving in India, no one on the platform seemed to understand my English, just shaking their heads when I showed them my ticket and said, "Aurangabad." Finally a man nodded and simply pointed to a train, his arm moving at the same speed as the train that had begun to pull out. Running awkwardly with my backpack, I climbed on the train, easily found a seat, and sighed with relief that I'd made the train and that it wasn't night any more.
Again, I seemed to be the only western traveler on the train. Now I welcomed the isolation. I would be left to my thoughts and safe from exposing my emotions to strangers more likely to strike up a conversation. I never would have imagined I would be traveling alone here, in the middle of India. Was it David I missed or just a companion? I reflected on the events leading to our divergent paths. I remembered my anticipation on the plane from L.A., 3 months earlier, flying west to meet him in Bangkok. He had left a year earlier to begin his trip around the world, and had asked me to meet him 6 months later. Perhaps it happened just after we agreed to meet. Had he stopped loving me when he realized how he had changed?
I knew that things were different the first night in Bangkok. Did he realize his mistake when he saw my awkwardness in heaving my backpack on the crowded bus in Thailand? He had been patient with me, allowing me time to adjust to the lifestyle of adaptation, observance, and constant, often confused wandering. He took charge of the itinerary and the process of getting to wherever it was we had decided to go. Did he tire of my dependence?
I eventually learned the travel basics and became comfortable without him constantly at my side. Three weeks ago, I told him that I no longer wanted to split up, that I thought we had found our rhythm and were good traveling companions. I cannot remember if he responded, whether he was gentle in the way he let me know that he would not stay. I reminded myself that I hadn't laughed in his company in months.
My train arrived late in the afternoon. I would catch a bus to Ellora in the morning. I had planned to spend the night at the train station, knowing that I was emotionally exhausted, and had little energy to deal with the chaos beyond its walls.
A man sat at a table in front of the dorm doors, upstairs, away from the station frenzy. He simply said, "No room."
Perhaps he watched as I turned and walked 10 steps to a veranda railing that safely offered a view of the activity below. Perhaps the tears cutting a swathe through my grime covered cheek were too obvious to miss. Perhaps I was not silent in my emotional catharsis. Perhaps he had the sensitivity of a sadhu and knew of my desperate isolation.
He quietly approached me and said, "First class ladies waiting room." The man had already returned to his table when I turned to look at him. The encounter slowed my tears, and I returned downstairs to find the recommended waiting room.
FIRST CLASS LADIES WAITING ROOM was printed on a sign hanging above a door ofTa boarding platform. It was an unadorned room with a couch on each of its walls. It adjoined a large bathroom that was full of seemingly related women and girls who were showering, changing saris and brushing and plaiting each other's clean, wet, thick, blue-black hair.
Finally, it was my turn for the shower. The tears had long-since stopped. The process of removing the grimy, sweat-stained clothes and standing naked beneath water streaming from the 9 inch shower nozzle had a powerful, tranquilizing effect. The drain disposed of the sweat and grit. The streaming water washed away just enough loneliness to glimpse the wonder of this freedom.
With clean body, hair and clothes I made my way to the vegetarian restaurant, where I knew I would order biryani and be mesmerized by the people surrounding me. I watched as they talked with animation, read newspapers or watched me as I watched them. I read a book and ate slowly, knowing I would eventually return to the Waiting Room, fasten my backpack to one of the couches and stretch out atop my sleeping bag for the night.
I reminded myself that I had not laughed with David for a very long time. My travel plans were now my own.
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