After emerging from a night’s rest in the hell of Gorakhpur without any visible damage, I decided to give India another shot. If I was going to spend the next 3-4 months there, we’d have to become friends. And I’m happy to say we did rather quickly.
Walking into the train station for my first ride on the very famous Indian Railway, I quickly learned about the very inquisitive nature of the Indian people. There were times when I feared some part of my body was on fire as all eyes seemed glued to me as I walked around and between the sea of sleeping bodies wrapped in blankets on the floor of the station. Tourists seem to register somewhere between celebrity and freak on the Indian spectrum, depending on the area. Most days it felt like the former, thankfully. At least that’s how I chose to view it. Otherwise, one could become paranoid..
In a move I’d come to know and love in India, a group of young students shyly moved themselves closer and closer to me, peaking glances and smiling until one of them worked up the courage to ask where I was from. We quickly got to know each other and before I knew it, they gave me my first experience with the social glue of India – chai. They handed me a small handmade red ceramic cup (a ‘culhel’ in hindi) full of the sweet milk tea and we toasted each other. After downing it, I watched as they chucked the disposable cups over their shoulders, landing in a rain of ‘clinks’ on the rocky rail line behind us. I started to hear the sound up and down the platform and realized everyone was doing it. Something close to the champagne flutes in the fireplace idea – but at $0.07 a cup, you could do it all day.. I started to wonder who made all those little cups and how many ended up in pieces all over the country. I think they’re biodegradable..
The celebrity status continued on the train. After scoring a window seat in one of the communal seating cars, I settled in to take in the view on the way to Varanasi, the top of my must see list in India. Almost immediately, I could tell that when locals would walk by my seat, they’d slow and steal a glance at the white guy. Before long, a group of 12 university students crammed into the berth smiling and poking each other (I later learned that the nearby berths were nearly empty). Raja, appointed ambassador and probably one of the most animated/energetic human beings I’ve ever seen/watched, introduced himself and the group. Apparently, they didn’t get many tourists in those parts and they could hardly get over themselves that an American was in their midst – and the grilling began. Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you married? What’s your job? First time in India? How much money do you make? Will Hillary Clinton be the next president? Basically the same conversation I’d have for the next 2 months all over the country. Raja must have heard something he liked because he quickly asked if we could be best friends. And he was dead serious. He wanted my address and couldn’t wait to tell his family he had a friend from America. He was nearly gushing. Lesson number two in Indian culture. These people are FULL of love. They love each other, their country, their communities, and apparently in some cases, tourists. Coming from a place where people can be a bit closed off.. it was an amazing experience. And thankfully one I’d encounter nearly every day in India.
But that’s not all. The rest of Raja’s crew were eager to show how glad they were that we’d all met. A smile bursting on his face, Raja told me that they wanted to sing to me. All twelve of them wanted to sing – to me. Suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation, the guy that initiated the idea suddenly got nervous. Raja translated the Hindi and told me that they wanted me to start instead. They wanted me to sing to them.
What does one do in a situation like that? With twelve sets of very eager Indian eyes upon me, in an overstuffed rail car not yet 24 hours into India, I burst into the first thing that came to mind – ‘Ring of Fire’ by Mr. Johnny Cash. As the words came out (loud and proud – I was after all representing all of America), I had one of those moments I wish I could save on disk. It was crazy. As I finished, they stared at me for a second in disbelief and then burst into applause. I’d broken the ice for them. And that was all they needed. For the next 30 minutes, one after another they belted out song after song with the other 11 joining in – none of which I could understand. But they were all amazing – completely heartfelt and full of pride. Looking at each other and smiling, laughing.
Before I knew it, with their stop approaching, one of them pulled the emergency stop cord (a big no-no on the train – but the only way they could get off at their school without a long walk) and they filed off, each shaking my hand and smiling as they left, and waving and shouting through the window as they ran down the road.
And just as quickly as I’d started to condemn it after crossing the border the day before, I was starting to fall in love with India.
P.S. Kicking myself for not getting a photo of trhe sing-along, I snapped the photo at the top as they walked up to their school.
P.P.S. If you’ve read this far, you deserve a treat. I’ve since heard from Raja a few times. Don’t read too much into the salutation. I think it must mean something different in India..