At 1 pm I heaved my backpack onto my back and strode through the main tourist street of Mammallapurum past the shops selling ali baba pants, embroidered shirts of the thinnest cotton, mirrored sling bags, and all varieties of hand-carved trinkets from palm-sized to big enough to fill a palace. I turned left at the major intersection and made my way to the cement slab of a bus stand.
Then the fun and games started.
"Trivanmiyor," I said to a man standing by an empty bus, and pulled out the slip of paper on which I had someone write it out in Tamil. He waggled his head from side to side which I was just beginning to conclude signified an affirmative, but the waiving of his hand toward the other end of the urine-saturated bus lot led me to believe he was telling me "No."
Another man, an older man with close-cropped gray hair and a bushy mustache quickly shuffled over to me and began speaking a language I thought may have been English, but sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. He repeated a word which I thought may have actually been the name of the town I was heading toward, and insistently pointed to the bus on his left.
"Thank you," I said looking around and finally spotting the "Enquiries" booth. Three officials in khaki-green uniforms and pan-reddened lips and teeth stood around laughing and talking and spitting red pan juice onto the red-spotted earth. One finally motioned to me. I told him I wanted a bus to Trivanmiyor. He leafed through a wel thumbed-through list of time schedules and told me to take the #559 at the corner.
Meanwhile my diligent caretaker had followed me over and seemed very agitated at this piece of information given to me. With authority he spoke to the official who had told me to take the #559. The official looked up at the gray-haired man, consulted his two colleagues and said: "Take this bus. (The one originally indicated by the gray-haired man.) It leaves in fifteen minutes."
The gray-haired man trailed me over to the bus and continued with seemingly the very best of intentions to try and impart further instructions in a garble of unintelligible jabber
"Thank you. Thank you," I said as I heaved myself and my pack up the incredibly steep first step of the bus.
The bus filled and in fifteen minutes it pulled out from the original spot but then was ordered to stop next to the another bus at the main street. The bare-foot bus driver pulled both his legs up onto the seat and sat cross-legged until one man in charge blew his whistle and we were off with a lurch and bounce and a jostling of passengers.
For two and a half hours I rode in relative comfort sharing my seat with only one lady as was the intention for this small two-person seat, but which in the past has had to seat three. I got off at Trivanmiyor and stood among a mob of waiting passengers on a busy inner-city street corner.
When th A1 bus to Chennai Central Railroad Station arrived, passengers hurled themselves in the open side door. I should have been suspicious about why nobody sat on the slightly raised seat just inside the back door of the bus, but it was the perfect height to slip my backpack onto while I perched on its edge. Male passengers looked over at me, but then again most of the time I'm the only non-Indian riding local busses and tend to get a lot of curious lookers.
The ticket seller took my money, handed me my print-out, said nothing, and blew his shrill whistle two times indicating that the driver could take off.
At each stop more and more people jammed into the bus and suddenly the ticket taker motioned impatiently for me to get the hell out of HIS seat. I swung my pack off the seat and squeezed it through the crowd onto the floor of the bus where its padded waist belt straps sprawled out like huge crab claws across the feet of the standing passengers. Everybody leaving had to step over it. Everybody entering had to step over it. Everybody leaving and entering looked from it to me and back again several times as I smiled apologetically and repeatedly made redundant efforts to do something to alleviate its intrusion.
Finally "Central! Central!" was called out by the ticket taker. I lifted my scuffed and foot-printed pack and made my way into the railway terminal.
My train- The Chennai-Mangalore Express" was listed as "on time," which was a great relief as in my last sleeper train experience two years ago, my train from Margao to Kochi was delayed six hours, stranding me in the "Good Ladies Special Waiting Room" where I sat among the mothers and children and watched a group of good ladies play charades.
The Chennai-Mangalore Express slowly chugged onto platform 3 at 4:30pm. I reread the car and berth number on my print-out but had to ask a young man which car to board. With smiling good manners he showed me to my car, wished me a "Pleasant journey, Madame," and I heaved myself and my pack up the steep narrow steps and into the train.
I found #57 while Indian families rushed aboard as if finding their seat was a competitive sport. A short, thin Indian man with a short-cropped beard and mustache, kind black eyes, a plaid button-down shirt, and brown trousers sat by the window with three iron bars across it on the faded-blue seat across from #57. I showed him my ticket and he gently assured me I was in the right place--the non-AC, 3 tier sleeping car, seat 57, lower berth.
Next, two men in dazzling white came and sat down on the end of our benches, across from each other. Attired identically they wore pure white linen short-sleeved button-down shirts, ironed with a crisp crease across the sleeves, and bleached to an eye-searing whiteness. They both wore slightly less white longyis--an ankle-length sarong wrapped around their waists. Both were white-haired, their hair cropped short. Serious men, they spoke little and spent a good deal of time gazing down at their thick hands that lay on their white-draped laps, fingertips touching.
Then a mother and university son sat opposite each other, between me and Mr. White and the little Indian man and the other Mr. White on the faded blue benches.
Meanwhile Indian families strode through, looked at numbers on the wall, looked at us, shouted, questioned, and moved on as hawkers sallied through announcing their goods: children's books, toys. games. bottled soft drinks. Canisters of sweet milky tea and coffee were carried through and touted. Women beggars, babies astride one hip came through making the universal gesture for food: fingers and thumb pressed together, their hand going to and from their mouths.
A loud "thunk," a lurch and at precisely 5 pm the train groaned in the first chug of its sixteen hour haul across Southern India.
Several hours later, when the "biryani" man made his appearance in our car yelling: "Biryani! Biryani! Veg! Chicken!" he was welcomed with orders from all of us.
One by one as my fellow passengers finished their meal, they left their seats carrying their aluminum and cardboard biryani containers with them and returned empty-handed, wiping their mouths. When I had eaten all I could, I too got up and walked in the same direction. Below the sink, where in other trains there had been a a trash container, there was only empty space. I walked through to the next car but it also lacked a trash receptacle. I cautiously opened the latch to the "Western Toilet," and found only a western toilet and a sink. I did the same to the door merely marked "Toilet," and saw only a hole in the floor of the train with two metal runged foot slots on either side and a sink.
I stood holding my biryani container staring around in bewilderment when the university son came up to me.
"What is wrong, Madame," he asked.
"I can't find a place to throw this, " I said holding up my biryani container.
He looked all the places where I had already looked and found the same thing I found. There were no trash receptacles.
"Usually there is a place under the sink, but this train hasn't got one," he said.
I continued to stand, biryani container in hand.
"You must throw it out the door," he said.
I looked at him in dismay.
"Yes, Madame. No other way. Just do it, Madame." He was starting to sound like a Nike ad.
Still I held back from littering and adding more rubbish to India's piles of trash.
"Madame, you can do it," he urged me. "Throw, Madame, throw!"
I suddenly felt infused with his eager encouragement. It had become an Olympic event, and I could do it! My companion was urging me on to new heights.
"Throw, Madame, throw!:"
In a burst of enthusiasm I hurled the biryani container out the open door of the chugging train watching its aluminum catch the moonlight and momentarily shine like a hurled discus riding the wind.
"Very good, Madame," my companion commended my sterling effort at littering.