I stand in front of the train and admire the rawness of the locomotive as compared to the shiny trains in Europe (Amtrak deserves no praise for anything, the thieves). I wonder how much it’ll cost to bribe the conductor to let me ride with him? I keep a U.S. 20, 50, and $100 bill in bribe money on me for moments just like this. The Engineer squats by the engine like a plumber under a sink, his ass showing. His underwear hangs like he put both legs through one hole of a pair of thong panties.
20 dollars. 50 max.
Maybe I’ll see about getting onto this train and skipping the one I booked. Why bother buying a ticket at all? This is going to be way more fun!
The station clock reads 7:15.
It departs at 7:30. Better find my seat.
I start walking the quarter-mile length of the train, looking for the G5 car and it’s nowhere to be found. A man notices my confusion and offers some help. He examines my ticket, then glances at his watch and gives me a dire look.
“I’m sorry to tell you, but this is not your train. Your train is other station.” He says.
I stand there and blink a few times as the reality sets in. It comes out as an eruption, drowning out the station PA system.
“That SONOFABITCH!” I yell to the side.
Kevin, Benjamin, wherever you ended up, you better not have tipped the driver!
“MAYBE you can make it.” The man says, and faces me, head on. He looks me in the eye to get my attention. “Go OUTSIDE. Take AUTO. Tell him Vanarasi MAIN STATION, and tell him ’FAST!’”
His just-the-facts manner indicates there’s no time for prepositions or pleasantries. I’m already running. I’m already out of the station. I’m Forrest-god-damn Gump.
I hit the street and there’s no tuktuks, only bicycle rickshaws.
How’s this possible? An hour ago I couldn’t take a piss without getting offered a ride!
I turn back to the station and find a dozen tuktuks, none of them attended. Looking to a group of men nearby I wave my ticket in a circle overhead and call out, “Tuktuk?”
One of the men comes up to me and I show him the ticket, pointing. “Main station!” I say.
He looks closely at the ticket and then smiles at me and says, “I no see.” Then he points to the builing I’d just come from. “Station!” He says, satisfied.
I turn to another man whom, at the very least, grasps that I’m intent on going somewhere other than where I am.
With his mouth overflowing with tobacco chew, he mumbles, “Fifty rupeesh.” then walks over to a nearby soldier, and two others join us in their curiosity. Some Hindi is exchanged with lots of hand gestures, none of them at the building I came from. Entire minutes are wasted as they argue over whether or not it can be done.
One checks his watch. It’s 7:22, and the train leaves from the other staton at 7:30.
“Come!” Says the driver, beckoning me to the tuktuk. I emphasize that we need to go fast.
Through his chew he says to me, “Prat-form 9!”
This is good. One less thing to worry about!
“Prease prace yourshef into the sheet,” he says, dribbling a little, and the bastardization of formal English throws me for a moment. I sit, and the driver yells something while he starts the engine. Suddenly a man wearing a lazily-coiled turban takes a seat to my right. Then a fat man sits side-saddle next to the driver. They both smile at me as I sit, nonplussed. How much will this extra 400 pounds slow us down? He starts the motor and we’e off as he pulls the throttle hard, tearing into the street.
At least he understands the mission. Now we just have to make good time.
He passes on the right, taking us into oncoming traffic and flashes his lights, and carve out of our way, honking in anger. This is not cautious salmoning against traffic. This is brute forcing up the wrong side of the street in rush hour. He turns over his shoulder while leaning on his horn. “Shir, my prishe 200 rupeesh!”
“200!?” I yell. “Negotiation’s over, Man! Watch the road!”
“200! Ish very difficurt zshob!” He argues, still chewing, still looking at me and not the oncoming traffic.
Is he ransoming all our lives for an extra $1.25?!
“Fine! 200, but 200 at the train!” I yell. “No train, 100!”
Everyone seems okay with this, all three heads nodding in agreement.
We are passing and weaving, shaving the oncoming traffic. I straighten my leg so I can get at the money in my jeans pocket and nearly lose a foot to a moped.
“Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times,” I remember from childhood. I pull out 200 to show to the fat man while the driver returns his focus to the road. The fat man declines with a wave of his hand. He says, “I no bad thing.” with a look of humility.
My instincts for self-preservation are suspended as I try to deconstruct the meaning, but I give up as horn cuts by within inches. With every volley into oncoming traffic I brace myself for impact and pray.
Save me, Monkey God.
When death doesn’t come, I start watching the bicycles and motorcycles to see which one will go flying. With half our vehicle in the dirt of the oncoming median, they’re forced entirely off the road but manage to stay upright. This is my fault, but my guilt is suppressed by the knowledge that there is zero order to the Indian transportation system. It’s big fish eats little fish, and we’re big enough.
A Land Cruiser appears from nowhere, the crescendo of horn and lights coming at us head-on. The driver cuts off another tuktuk to avoid the impact.
“JESUS CHRIST!” I scream.
The driver looks back at me and my bug-eyes, spraying juice as he comforts me with a smile, “Do not worry, Shirrrr!” he sings. Tuktuk drivers are magical creatures, and it is not my place to question their decisions, but this one is far too enthusiastic.
At a fork in the road, a solitary policeman waves a stick to pull us over, our all but drunk-driving not going unnoticed. We slow down just enough for the men to all lean out and scream things in Hindi as we blow past him.
It seems like the entire security apparatus of this country can be bypassed by just saying, “Nah, it’s cool.”
I get the two-minute warning from the fat man. I check my gear get ready to tuck-and-roll at the drop zone. I pass the two minutes, thinking of World War II and Easy Company soaking flak as they wait for the green “jump” light over occupied France.
Up ahead is a massive archway. It’s the Varanasi main train station, and we carve a hard left into the drop-off area, the three-wheeled machine barely staying upright. We are the only tuktuk inside the station, and I wonder how far he’s willing to take me into forbidden territory.
I give 250 to the fat man and jump from the moving tuktuk.
Currahee! That was Easy’s war cry.
I hit the ground at a jogger’s pace and charge into a sprint, my bag strapped tight and jiggling. Bobbing and weaving through pedestrians, I’m approaching a permanent barrier made of a heavy pipe railing. Not a fence, just a long horizontal bar, waist high to guide foot traffic and block motos.
Seconds count, so I lunge forward, grabbing with both hands. I swing underneath like I’m going for the gold on the double bars and everyone turns to watch my Indiana Jones impression. It’s high-speed limbo and there’s a loud “SCHHHHHK!” as my bag grinds hard on the ground.
That’s probably the last I’ll see of my wind cheater.
The main hall is a mess of sleeping families and their blankets. I hopscotch between them all, dodging cook pots and children and piles of feces, scattering the flies from all three. This must be what a FEMA relief shelter looks like. A bored-looking soldier is ambling around and I jump in front of him. “Nine! Platform nine?” I say. He stares at me for a moment, trying to process where I came from. “Platform Nine!” I say again, holding a ticket up to drive the point home.
Now he gets it, and sensing the urgency points his hand towards the escalators. “Is maximum platform!” He says, drawing his hand in an arc.
He means the one at the end.
“Maximum platform!” I yell out, turning full sprint towards the escalator. Mercifully, it’s empty, but for a crowd at the bottom. Some kind of blockage.
Time to go full India. I ram and wedge my way into any eight-inch gap that will fit my elbow. This is how things are done here.
I’m at the bottom of the escalator with just one more obstacle. It’s an old woman. Mother-Theresa old.
This can’t be real. This is the Truman Show and Cristoph is up in the sky, scrambling extras anytime it looks like I might get where I want to go!
She’s being helped by some porter who is holding her up by the arm and balancing her luggage on his head, occupying the whole width of the escalator. I stand there doing the pee-pee dance while the blur of the crosstown sprint grinds to a halt. I’d check my watch, but what’s the point?
At the top of the escalator comes round-two of the crowding, this time to make sure she gets off safely. My adrenaline is half-cocked, but I’m not about to knock Mother Theresa off an escalator just to catch a train.
The porter has one of her arms, and a samaritan at the top reaches out for the other. I know this is not going to go well, so I reach out to keep her steady in case she falls my way.
She doesn’t fall my way, she falls straight down, and all three of us manage to catch her, inches above the ground. We gracelessly help her to her feet by lifting whatever handles of bone or flesh our hands can manage through her sari. She’s back up, and I’m running.
I take a ninety-degree turn sliding on my heels like a rally-driver, narrowly avoiding the spectators at the edge of the track. The cross-bridge when compared to New Delhi, and I take the home stretch in full sprint.
Something is wrong with my right foot. I’m limping a little.
A deafening whistle cuts through the station. The sound of a train leaving. At the end of the cross-bridge I slingshot around the banister and take the stairs five at a time.
If I miss the landing, this trip is over.
I hit the ground hard, but upright. I catch sight of my train as a final whistle blasts through the station. It’s about to leave, and a man smoking a cigarette in the doorway sees me coming right for him and clears the door. I sail through it and crash into the wall, hugging it to stay upright in the corridor.
The train starts to move, and I start to catch my breath, stabilizing myself as my right leg seems to drop out from under me.
It’s now that I finally notice the pain. I limp to my seat and surprise five Indian men as I collapse into it.
My ankle is screwed. My right shoe, too. But I made it.