Left Turn

The framers of the Geneva Convention forgot to include one very important definition of torture: travelling in the unreserved compartment of an Indian train. As the train pulls into the station you stretch your hamstrings and get on your marks, backpack slung in front of you as a punching bag, preparing to do battle with sharp-elbowed old ladies and their sons and grandsons who block for them (and who are themselves shoved off by other old ladies’ sons and grandsons). Before the train comes to a stop the crowd on the platform starts climbing into the carriage, of course fighting with the people trying to get off the train. Once you manage to ram your way on you are unable to move more than three inches either way, sweating profusely and realizing that it is actually possible to be crushed to death by a mob.
And yet… once on, everyone bears it not just stoically but even pleasantly. Heavy bags are passed overhead until they find a luggage rack not occupied by sleeping men; children are passed the same way to open floor space or somebody’s lap, anybody’s will do.

Riding the train is a nerve-wracking experience in the first place, as no effort is ever made to call out station names and I haven’t yet managed to procure a copy of the elusive ‘Trains at a Glance’ so I never know how many stops there are before mine. When I think the time is approaching for me to get off I start calling out the station name I want, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, until someone takes pity on me. I haven’t missed a stop yet.

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Still reading Freya Stark I find myself jealous of people who travelled before travel was commonplace, who saw other cultures before the advent of globalization. Not that any culture has ever been ‘pure’ – cross-pollination has always occurred – but before television and the internet exponentially sped up its rate. Stark’s descriptions of empty Syrian hills with ruined Templar castles (and no souvenir shop in sight) make me wistful. I’m also envious that she traveled and worked in traditional cultures before television gave men all over the world the idea that western girls are easy and that they should therefore treat us differently than they do their sisters and neighbors.

Ran across an interesting paragraph of hers: “Truth may be compared to a building whose general symmetry does not depend on the substances of all the separate bricks; their quality must be good but it would be foolish to subject every one to a chemical analysis before setting it amid mortar. Since it is easier to be accurate than truthful there have been many cases where pedantry about single facts has resulted in a perversion of the whole…” I’m still mulling over whether I agree with her. Part of me thinks her talent for analogy may have gotten the better of her, but I think there’s truth to it.

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Arrived at Vijnana Kalavedi this afternoon and heaved a sigh of relief. It is a splurge given my budget, but I think it may be worth it. The staff is friendly, the premises very nice, and the other women (all women except one older couple) mostly seem on my wavelength. It’s located in a small town called Aranmula which is a mixture of agricultural land and beautiful houses, mostly owned by people who work in the Gulf and send home remittances. The center is scattered in houses around the town: a reception in one house; the dining hall with a dancing pavillion across the road; the yoga and martial arts pavillion a few blocks away; and a couple of residential houses a bit farther away. I am housed in the farthest one, down a road that is very dark at night, so it’s fun to go flying home on the borrowed bike able to see practically nothing.

Dinner was extremely tasty – ate too much – and conversation great. Two English girls complaining about how they keep getting grabbed; I must have just been lucky so far. Being here is completely changing the pattern of how I perceive India, which is what I had hoped for: no touts, no other tourists, and something interesting to do in a peaceful, beautiful environment.

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