A mammoth, black skeletal stage and light rig dwarfed one side of the cornered off country club on the outskirts of Guwahati. A surf of middle-aged baldness and paunch washed across the lawns, the occasional lifeboat of a glamorous woman, soaking in the party atmosphere. Saurav, the customer manager at Guwahati Royal Enfield, where I’d purchased an expensive riding jacket – a Christmas treat for myself – had somehow worked us into PragTV’s recording for their New Years spectacular.
Beacons of blanche, Hans and I were expertly choreographed into a hundred shots, from background accessories to local celebrities, nodding appreciation to the stammering artists either unwilling or unable to carry one song uninterrupted, or as the shameless centerfolds of mad dancing. Luckily we’d had plenty of pre-drinks under the illusion we’d be going to a nightclub, but this was weirder, more intense and a lot more fun.
The next day Saurav appeared early – but not so early – to help me weave through the baksheesh and bureaucracy of getting my bike, and myself, on a train to Kolkata. I’d ridden the long section to the Nepal border once before and it had been found wanting. Kolkata was double the distance on similar roads. It was the perfect, perhaps only, opportunity to indulge in a favourite Raj past time along with my bike.
When the fuel tank was drained the bullet was wrapped up like a present, using sleeping bags, hessian sacks and tarpaulin, the right palms were greased for loading, and the paperwork was all set under my general class ticket, that I’d just upgrade when I was on the train. So went the theory anyway.
Like the night before, the selfies came thick and fast as Hans and I sat waiting for my train that was inching towards being five hours late. It starts like a crack in a dam, the occasional drifter wanting a photo with the strange blonde people, then the dam breaks and everyone within ten kilometers wants a photo. Tired, sitting on the cool stone, I leant forwards to feature in yet another selfie, wondering which amusing face I could pull this time. In two seconds my brand new jacket was lifted from behind my back and disappeared into the crowd. I was poorly adjusted to being in Indian train stations, and my jacket had lasted just one day. Merry Christmas.
My only safe harbour in a sea of rage was that it might’ve been much worse had I, as I often did, kept my wallet and phone in the jacket pockets. I reflected that ‘Could be worse‘ should be the official strap-line for the Indian tourist board. I’d broken my wrist, but avoided falling down a ravine. I’d been beaten and bruised during my jungle death-match, but at least I’d not been forced to abandon the bike at night and slog ten kilometers on foot. I’d leaped from, spilled and rolled off the bike more times than I’d care to admit, but escaped with just a broken toe and a few bruises.
‘Could be Worse’. I definitely jinxed it.
Hans left shortly before dark, when I moved to a platform where everyone assured me the waiting train wasn’t mine. Obviously it was, but this was miraculously revealed only when it’s necessary to run, weighty backpack bobbing off one shoulder, and into an open carriage.
With no time to spare, a helpful stranger appeared in the doorway and offered to guide me to the general class compartment – around half a kilometer down the platform. We made it just as the train, a necklace of metal beetles, began chewing their way out of the station and into the night.
A lively halogen bulb painted the inside of the carriage with years of decay and dirt. Prison blue paint peeled away from every surface, stripped and polished with millions of calloused hands and starched trousers. I took a seat on a bench of alternately oscillating men, shuffling like the legs of a centipede, finding a jugaad solution to the lack of elbow room for six, crammed-in people.
It wasn’t really a glamorous place, thrumming with the insane music of chai, water and chaat wallahs, but it was home only as long as it took an inspector to come around and upgrade my ticket. Then I’d get a bed, if only for a stretch of the journey, and recover ahead of a days worth of exploring Kolkata.
Pawan, the helpful stranger wearing the glasses of a 70s detective, knitted jumper and wide collared shirt, had a combed back hairstyle which was bravely unapologetic to the hasty retreat of his hairline. We talked for a while, him being a neuroscientist who loves to travel in every last second afforded to him by conferences and visiting research sites. He was a full power, two-hour-sleep kind of guy, and set about proving this by draining my phone dead with the effervescent, chatty pinning of hundreds of POIs to my google maps. No more listening to the playlist I’d prepared then.
Hours ambled by deprived of stimuli but with senses overloaded. By midnight I was concerned by the lack of ticket inspector, or ‘TTE’ in the carriage. I’d told Pawan about my upgrade plan while dashing for the train six hours ago, and would’ve liked a bed by now. But when I asked again, Pawan threw his hands up in theatrical surprise, announcing “They don’t bother coming here!” It would have been nice to know this before my rucksack had been locked in, tetris-style, under the seats by fifty other bags. I was trapped in the creamy, humid air of general class, for the full twenty four hours.
I began to question Pawan’s usefulness in this expedition.
Resignation. Sometimes it can be mistaken for it’s more handsome cousin – determination – but that can’t get you through a good bout of suffering quite the same way a healthy resignation can.
Nothing bad lasts forever. I’d learned this in the dentist chair as a rampant eleven year old, enduring fillings where the anaesthetic hadn’t taken, but had applied the philosophy many times elsewhere. Despite being cramped, hot and exhausting this carriage was at child’s-play level of discomfort. I could move, stare at my hands, return the gaze of my fellow passengers and, for a while, I even top-and-tailed with a cheerful man on the narrow top bunk, trying not to fall off onto a keyboard of knees below while giving myself just enough room to prevent him being basically inside me.
In this waking meditation I wasted the night, with a bright blue dawn booming through the sky and bending the steel bars in the windows. I’d survived the night.
Before long it was back to circumnavigating the platform, bribery and a long walk out, pushing along a badly disguised motorbike.
Caught in a dizzying mixture of sleep deprivation and tri-samosa starvation, when Pawan suggested we team up to explore a local temple, I obliged. Despite just wanting to lie down in a nice hotel room and relax through what was left of Christmas day.
As usual, Pawan had his debonair way of twisting the truth and dragging me along behind him. At 4pm he found me a hotel near the train station. A right shit hole. I should have protested, the room had clearly been a broom cupboard in a past life and the adjoining toilet was worse kept and cramped than the one on the train. Instead, I dropped my bags and embarked with Pawan on what I was told would be just a half hours ride.
Mayapur temple, the headquarters and birthplace of the Hari Krishna movement, was genuinely quite nice – self-described as an oasis from the city. However the ride, with Pawan extending the timescales like a birthday party magician pulling tied handkerchiefs from his sleeves, had been less than great. He had successfully duped me into riding for nearly four hours (one way) and not the thirty minutes I’d committed to, muttering about potholes and spinal fractures the entire time, even concealing a ferry crossing until the point we actually had to board. I felt more than a little misinformed.
Tea stalls and souvenir shops loaded with bangles and statues lined the long road up to the temple complex, and the festival feel pervaded through into the temple grounds. We explored the complex for an hour, visited a museum of semi-realistic mannequins and watched some live music that only had two words ‘Hari Krishna’. It was an interesting place to go for Christmas – if only we didn’t need to leave so soon for Pawan to catch the last onward train out of Kolkata.
My Christmas day had gone to shit – riding through the night once more, shivering in the cold, sharp wind and enduring Pawan’s criticisms of my riding (he came very close to walking). Awake and hungry for two days. Unable to Skype home because there’s no signal in my hovel of a room and the grumpy owner is threatening to lock me out if I go outside.
It was a brutal festive defeat, the likes of which I’d never seen before. I’m not sentimental, but right then I just wanted a turkey sandwich, a glass of brandy and some useless Christmas special on TV. But I would settle for some company to explore Kolkata with the next day. Unforthcoming (there are no hostels to meet people), I cut my losses and began to head South on the East coast highway.
As one cheesy motivational poster once said, ‘If life just isn’t going right – Go left’. Christmas was gone, but new years was right around the corner. Sai, who’d returned to his hometown after riding with me for a couple of months, was only two back to back twelve hour riding days south of Kolkata, in Visakapatnam. If I could make it there, we’d have time to traverse India by train or bus or flight (Sai’s motorbike had been stolen two weeks before), from East to West coast and a blow out in Goa, India’s party capital.
I wasn’t so refreshed from my train, and could certainly have avoided the extra eight hours riding upon reaching Kolkata, but this was a plan I could still get fired up for. Back to back big days are tough, but in this case it was definitely worth the discomfort.
Bring on the party.