Friday, March 19, 2010

The Midnight Train to Kerala

Trust. It's one of those words that feels heavy, like the thick layer of condensed milk that waits at the bottom of a Vietnamese coffee cup. One knows, in taking a single sip of liquid bliss, that the amount of sugar and calories being consumed may or may not be something worth checking into, depending on dietary persuasion. Some would prefer to drink away never knowing the contents, the bliss trumping the potential consequences; some need to read the label, and some, like meth addicts, know that a mere sip would keep them pumping Vietnamese cocoa-crack into their bodies for life.

Not everyone will face a battle with the "Weasel Chon" variety, but how you take your trust is an evolving, universal issue. Do you tend to drink it black, indulge in all of the cream and sugar that life brings your way, or spend your life sticking to water or decaf?

I didn't know what the next 5 days would look like, smell like, or feel like when I boarded the Trivandrum Mail en route from Channai to Kottayam, but I knew in my gut that the universe would take care of me. Whether it is God, myself, or sheer stupidity, I had trust. Despite the warnings against single women traveling alone in India, especially blonde American ones, I took my coffee black with a side of soy. I emailed a few people ahead of time, made some loose arrangements that I forwarded along to Chris in the event of an emergency, and threw on my backpack full of clothes and good will as I set out to explore the Kerala region on a spiritual journey of sorts.

With an unanticipated line of students at the gangway and a 30 minute walk out of the port, I was covered in dirty sweat when I jumped into a rickshaw and bolted to the Central Madras train station. He said 100 rupees and we quickly settled at 70 though I would've paid whatever he wanted to get me there on time. I managed to pick up a Dosa and a coke while running through the station to platform 5 and climbed into my upper side bunk at around 19:55. It was plenty big for a small girl of 5' 2," though I can't imagine where an extra foot of person might fit -- length or width wise.

My vision of sipping on chai tea while staring out at the Southern India landscape didn't quite come to fruition -- I didn't have a window, and was only passed by the coffee man in the morning who, for 10 rupees, would fill a plastic cup of joe from his metal jug. Instead, I spent the night reading Paramhansa Yogananda's autobiography, listening to Indian businessmen's phone calls and shivering beneath the AC fan. As I stared up at the rusty blue ceiling, which was about 10 inches from my head, I tried to envision the manifestation of other people's fears that had surrounded my decision to travel alone. Someone could steal my bag, sexually assault me, or even worse, I suppose the train could roll off the tracks, but I must confess that outside of feeling a little chilly, I felt nothing but safe. Yes, I'm in a foreign land that is filled with dirt, poverty and bouts of male aggression, but there's a slice of that anywhere you go. When I awoke, I was met with dozens of smiles. An Islamic man handed me a pamphlet about God, another offered me his window seat, and yet another explained that our train was running a little late and gave me a personal notification upon reaching Kottayam.

My journey through Kerala was as much a philosophical quest as it was an exploration of India's lone communist state and the people that reside within it. Without trust, I wouldn't have met Matthew, Asok and all of the people I will soon write about. And without faith, in something, I wouldn't be back on the ship, a few days later, drinking my Trung Nguyen and blogging about it.

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