Friday, September 11, 2009


Yesterday marked the beginning of the end of my travels, as I took my last train in India. Training has been my most basic form of long distance travel. Not only is it faster and cheaper than buses, but it is also more comfortable. As a Foreigner, there are a certain number of seats reserved on each train (or they would otherwise be sold out far in advance). While one could travel "upper class" that is to say, in the AC car, I have only had one voyage in such a car, and found it to be far too cold! In fact, so cold, the train automatically provides blankets for you. You do have the advantage of less people, as there are only 4 people to a row rather than 6, but this is also because you are paying at least twice as much. No, for the long term traveler, the 2nd class sleeper is just fine. To travel a distance of over 300 kilometers, I paid about 200 rupees, roughly 4 dollars. You have a reserved seat, so it is a step above the chaos of general class, but knowing that I have a place to lay my head at night is worth the extra rupees. Of course, for all the reasons I remember the train rides, I will not forget them. I had the worst chapati and dall of my life on the train. I often never slept through the night. When in monsoon struck areas, i was often visited by the spitting rain on my face. Often having the lower berth (closest to the window and the floor) I had to wait till 9:30 before i could ask people to move from my bed (the bench) so I could set up the bunks and go to bed. I had the misfortune of spending a number of nights next to people who would wake up at 4 am, turn on the lights and get their things to leave. The chai and coffee sellers start coming on at about 5 am, and if you weren't awake already to desire chai, their loud shrill voices would ensure that clients would be awake and in need. I felt a bit of anxiety in my first few train rides with a constant hand on my luggage below my bed, but thanks to elsa, I had a chain to secure my things for the rest of my journey. Still, for all my complaining, the train has been one of the best ways to move across the country. It cuts indiscriminatley across the country side, through fields, valleys, towns and mountains. sitting in the 2nd class has often assured me a seat next to an open window staring out into india's natural heritage. The train berth becomes the great equalizer. Your neighbor is anyonmous at first, but upon exchanging glances, all the possibilities are open. Often, despite hinderances of language, people will reach out in interest. I met 4 muslims from Kerala on their way to Dubai for another year of work this past trip. We could not really communicate in depth, but even on the limited topic of marriage (in addition to "how many brothers or sisters do you have, a constant topic of conversation), after the 2nd or 3rd time of being asked why I wasn't married, I said, "why do you ask, do you have a sister?" The entire group burst into laughter, and slapping my hand with low fives. I could have just as well been with american friends, though I think my jokes are probably less funny at home.

My final journey took me from Goa to mumbai. I was only in Goa for two days, and aside from the beaches, felt like i had visited the whole of it. That is an exageration, as I only saw two cities, but on the surface level, it was hard to know what else to do. We (a french man named fabien who I met on the train and I) had planned to stay in Old Goa, thinking, like Assisi, that there would be less crowds in the evening and it would be nice for walking. We arrived at 7 am and was lucky to be given our room earlier than check in time. After a long journey on the train (16 hrs), we were able to shower and rest before starting at it again. Upon walking into town, we began to realize that there is no real town and hardly any people to count for a "crowd". While at the outskirts there are an assortement of shops and restaurants worthy of a truck shop, close to the center, all one finds are churches. We visited perhaps 5 churches, most dating back to the 15th century, when old goa was the capital of portuguese india. It was abanadoned at one point due to an epidemic, and the capital moved 9 kms away. The whole area has now been declared a world heritage site, probably stifling any efforts at creating a larger urban center. Most notably, Old Goa houses "Bom Jesu", the final resting place of most of St. Francis Xavier. I say "most of" because I have already seen his right arm/hand in Rome and have heard that his feet are in japan. St. Francis Xavier was one of the uncorruptibles. When he died en route to china, his body was covered in lye to speed up the decaying process, anticipating the call to return his body to Goa. The man who started this noticed after a few days than nothing happened. His body remained incorruptible for about a hundred years, during which time he was canonized. (I read that before his canonization, however, a number of "relic hunters" already got ahold of him.) Sometime in the 1600's the body began to deteriorate, so I think they took some sort of steps to preserve him. Now the body is set above a giant golden altar in a crystal coffin, and is taken down once every 10 yrs for an exposition. It was strange for me to visit a pilgrammage sight which seemed to have so little life around it. Aside from the constant stream of local tourist buses, one wonders whether this is a place of devotion for the locals. After a night in Old Goa and a mass at Bom Jesu, we headed to Panaji. Here the Catholic portuguese influence is heavily felt from the names of people, to the old colonial buildings, to the food. It is the first time I have eaten pork since arriving in India! It was called Old Goan Sausage, and it tasted like extra spiced, slightly overcooked, hot dogs. While I know for many of you this sounds gross, but having missed every BBQ of the summer, this hot dog like speciality was well recieved.My days in Kerala before Goa were by far the most expensive of my trip. After leaving the abbey early one tuesday morning, I caught a bus to Kottayam and leisurly waited for 2 hrs for the public ferry. This 10 rs boat ride took me through the canals of kottayam and across the lake, through the backwaters to allepey. This lazy 2 1/2 ride was a fantastic transition from monastic life in the mountains back to the tourist travels that would characterize this last week of my voyages. I was able to grab some rather decent cheap fish masala (far better than all the other expensive fishy dissapointments I have had this trip) and caught another bus to Fort Kochin. Fort Kochin has had the longest constant interaction between europe and Asia, starting with Vasco De Gama's maiden voyage here. I even visited the now protestant, formerly franciscan church where De Gama was buried once upon a time. I met two lovely french ladies named lola and camille with whom I would spend the next 3 days. I also had a chance encounter in the street with Alex, the american with whom I chopped vegetables while talking theology at kurismula Ashram. Alex, the french girls and I visited the oldest standing synagogue in Kerala, dating back to the 15th century. It was a nice living reminder that while the european "discovery" of asia was limited to the 1500's, largely due to the overland obstacle of muslim held territory, that there had been in fact a long tradition of exchange between asia and the middle east going back as far to the times of christ. With Alex, we had another chance encounter, this time with a couple he had traveled with earlier in the summer, named Franz and Melissa, who had first met each other in portland. Franz declared it the best city in america, and that, with matching me in REI adventure pants and Chackos, became an instant friend. We also learned in the first five minutes that we both had a mutual friend who will be at chicago this coming year. The world is round indeed! That evening we visited some local keralan traditional theater. As the actors don't speak, and the story being sung behind is rather sparse, the majority of the story has to be told through facemovements. The demonstration before hand was perhaps some of the most dynamic eye movmements I had ever seen on an actor. It was truly fantastic. Kerala was by far my favorite of the states I visited. Not only did it have a diverse scenerey, ranging from mountains to beaches, and it had a true plurality of religions, but even its food showed a greater diversity in the types of vegetables and flavors used. Course, it could be that after 10 weeks in india, I was mostly satisfied because here i ate the closest thing to minestrone soup! There is a large keralan population in chicago, such that there is a separate syrian-malbar catholic diocese there. Perhaps in visiting a few, i can find somewhere where I can eat keralan indian food in chicago!

Lola and Camille, two french ladies who i visited kochin with

Outside the synagogue in Kerala
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