The Mahanagari Express

12:30 AM Friday March 17, 2000

On a train. Mahanagari Express. Unbelievable. Literally. I sat still for about 5 minutes and just stared at the swaying curtains over the sleeper berths. I couldn't believe we were on. We. Not "I". "We". I want to explain the frenetic maneuvers that got us on this train but first I must explain the "we". It's normally "I" but I just couldn't deal with writing "I" when it's really a "we". The person who's with me doesn't want to be mentioned in a stupid travelogue website and I understand completely. But I can't edit that well so we decided that I would be able to include her only under the pseudonym "Mystery Woman". I'll abbreviate MW for short sometimes. This is what you write when you're on a sleeper car. AC sleeper this time. Mystery Woman figures prominently in all that happens. But I'm not Henry Miller and she's not Anais Nin. You'll get no such gory tell-all out of me. I've been traveling for 5 days with Mystery Woman and that's about all you really need to fill any decent-sized journal if you like to write gory tell-all's. But I don't. I pick some stuff and write until my shoulder spasms out.

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So I'm on this train to Varanasi. It is the same train that was wait-listed 260 back in Bombay that I was supposed to get on last Sunday. What I did instead was get on an Indian Airlines flight from Bombay to Varanasi with the Mystery Woman and spend a couple of days there. Ronald helped us with the travel arrangements and we went to Kajuraho and stayed there a couple of days. Short review: except for that time I spent staring at the temples and/or Mystery Woman, the place sucked. Right now we're trying to get back to Varanasi. What should I write about? The excitement of trying to jump on a full train in the middle of the night or the excitement of trying to jump on Mystery Woman in the middle of the night? Well, right after I wrote that the train saga played itself out a little more so I'll tell that part. MW and I were in Varanasi and we wanted to go look at the temples in Kajuraho and we wanted to go to a wild animal park in Madhya Pradesh so we decided to drop for the plane ticket from V to K. Time was short 'cause MW only has a week to travel and we figured we should come back by bus and train regardless. It's nice to knock 11 hours of travel down to 1 just by spending 60 dollars but I wanted to do real travel with the MW, where you're dirty, tired, bored, frustrated, amused and confused. That's why we're not flying any more. The only way out of Kajuraho, besides the plane is by local Semi-delux bus. The Semi-delux bus fare works out to about 25 cents per hour. There is no cheaper way to travel. We bounced down cratered desert roads for 5 hours to Satna where we had to get on one of the trains going to Varanasi. The good old 1093 Mahanagari Express.

What just played itself out was me giving a huge wad of cash to the train conductor for his berth. I gave him the cost of two AC sleeper tickets, about 1200 Rupees and he's gonna do some ticket magic. The train is full. I repeat, the train is full. He breathes on me in an alcohol breath that by my guess is 1 1/2 Kingfishers approximately thirty minutes ago and says, "You, very lucky man. The woman in berth 5, she your wife? sister?" "Wife." Ok, more official mumbo-jumbo, scribbling things in boxes on forms that no one ever reads and I grease his palm with 100 bucks and boom, I'm lucky. As I write this, I'm looking at MW's sleeping butt bouncing to the rhythms of the tracks. Did I mention that I'm lucky? I asked the train conductor, "Where you sleep?" and he says, "No sleep." and counts the money. I realize I'm six rupees short. Instead of giving him another 50 like I could have, I short him. He doesn't seem to mind. Hmm... I don't think he's supposed to sell his own berth. I don't think I need any ticket magic. I think baksheesh is kind of redundant at this point but I act like it's all on the up-and-up out of a weird kind of respect for the games of the trainwalla and slip him a hundred. We're all smiling. I return to my sleeping MW to write what you write when you're in a sleeper car.

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When we get off this train at 5 in the AM at Varanasi, hopefully I will have slept a few but if I don't, no biggie, the MW is snoozing and I have a room reserved at the River View guesthouse. We scouted it out earlier in the week and frankly, we can't wait to move in. The place is beautiful, right on the Ganges. Our room has a spectacular sunrise on the river view, we're out of "old town" the seething pit of tourism and there's another guy living there that we met who is writing and doing collage art - basically the same thing I was doing in Bombay. We'll be the only tenants. So that's Varanasi for now. There's more to write of course, about sunrise boat cruises and wacko run-ins with the locals but there's also the Mystery Woman waiting, and there's the matter of sleep...