Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By Elephant or Indian Rail

On Sunday, after having hired an elephant for the morning to walk across the Raj Ghat corner of New Delhi, and after a four-hour, Moet champagne brunch at the Oberoi hotel, I boarded a third-class train car from New Delhi train station. I was bound for Lucknow, the capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. UP, as it's shortened, has a population near 200 million people, and is one of the most complex regions of India to govern. It spans some of the most densely populated land on Earth, and combines a complex mix of topographic, linguistic, and religious differences. As I was dropped at the station by my driver, a man who explained to me last week how he had named his son after Saddam Hussein, the typical chaos ensued.

With a Moet-induced calm, I traversed a piling of bodies and bags outside the station, ducking my way under street lights buzzing with mosquitos, and shuffling past the burning metal of passing rickshaws and motorcycles. Once inside the station, having passed through a two-by-four 'metal detector,' I descended to the train platform upon which I was lifted and carried by an inching smash of human arms, bobbing heads, and fabrics. It was a festival weekend, and as a Bihari man explained to me on the concrete steps, everyone on the platform was bound for Patna for the long weekend. This man, the owner of a hot air balloon company explained to me how I could buy a second-hand Indian military helicopter, and then quizzed me in my minimal Hindi.

I was the only foreigner on the platform, but as I scampered over legs, past rice bags, under dupattas, between shoulders and through the heavy summer air that pinned me between bodies and a low ceiling, many helped me along my way. I managed to throw out a few high-fives before jumping onto my moving train, as my seats had inevitably changed and I boarded the wrong car. I eventually found that I had been upgraded, thanks to the Rail Minister Lalu Prasad's initiative at the helm of a million-person organization. Nine hours later I arrived in Lucknow.

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