From Our Archives: Hacktreks in India
and Ceiling Fans:
More Chai Anyone?
Todhunter covers the globe
there is ever a nuclear holocaust an Indian Railways employee
will emerge from the rubbled landscape with a shiny urn and the
cry of "Chai! Chai! Chai!" will be the only sound to
Chai! Chai!" came the strangled wail that jolted me from my early
morning slumber. It sounded like the painful cry of a scalded cat, but
it wasn't. It could be only one thing - swarms of Indian Railways chai-sellers,
laden with pots and urns. It was five in the morning, and I was travelling
from some place to some other place - I can't quite recall - in second
class sleeper. At that point, I wished that I wasn't. I would have given
almost anything to be lying in the comfort of my own bed rather than
on an upper berth surrounded by countless strangers and annoying chai-sellers.
I could have quite easily been left in peace for another four hours,
but this was an Indian train. As was usual, people were coming to life
early and by about six, were out of their berths and sitting, eating
or just glaring out of the window. I can't understand why most people
arise so early and then sit bored witless for hours when they could
pass the time by sleeping. Maybe the chai-sellers have a lot to do with
it. They prowl the corridors shouting and screaming as if their particular
chai is the last available chai on the planet, and instil a sense of
urgency by making everyone feel that they must order some before it
runs out. Unfortunately, it never does. There is always an endless supply
of chai and chai-sellers - all day and half of the night - no matter
what. If there is ever a nuclear holocaust I am convinced that an Indian
Railways employee will emerge somehow from the rubbled landscape with
a shiny urn and the cry of "Chai! Chai! Chai!" will be the
only sound to be heard.
It wasn't unusual for me to be annoyed by the early morning chai-sellers.
I am used to them appearing en masse at some un-Godly hour, but that
has never made me any more accepting of them. This journey was like
one hundred others I had taken before. They arrive on the scene just
at the precise moment I am beginning ton doze-off. The whole night is
always spent tossing from side-to-side, trying to ignore the clattering
noise of wheels on track. The train continues to slam sideways and up
and down as it clatters along and I become increasingly paranoid and
preoccupied with thoughts of imminent derailment. I can never sleep
- well not until around five or six in the morning. It is then that
after a sleepless night that I begin to feel mentally jaded and sleep
kicks-in. Alas, the chai-sellers soon put a stop to that.
I decided to order a coffee, working on the basis that if you can't
beat them, then you'd better join them. I wanted coffee even though
the chai-seller only appeared to have tea. But to my surprise he smiled
and pulled out some coffee powder. "Fantastic", I thought.
Then, astonishingly, he puts a spoonful of coffee into a cup of tea!
He has no hot water - only hot chai. I look at him, giving one of my
"Are you stupid?" stares. He doesn't understand. I give him
five rupees, shake my head and make a deliberate expulsion of air -
a sigh of complete and utter disbelief and resignation.
India has made me an expert in the art of head shaking
and sighing with complete and utter disbelief and resignation.
Before I set foot in the place I was a novice. I've come a long way
after years of frustration - a very long way. I lie down once more,
nursing my hybrid chai-coffee drink, and become conscious of the swollen
bags beneath my eyes and a clanging headache, resulting from sleep derivation.
The dawn was breaking. I caught a glimpse of the ugly, scorched land
from the window. I wanted to be somewhere else; anywhere but where I
I began to question my stupidity. What was I doing on this train? Why
was I punishing myself so? Why couldn't I take the easy option for once
and be lying on a beach in Australia or France, or be in a soft bed
in a decent hotel? Why did I yet again have to be in India on some hellish
train-ride in the middle of an all too real nightmare? There was only
one escape. I blocked out my surroundings and pretended that I was somewhere
The beauty of imagination is that it is free and you do not need a ticket.
It can take you anywhere. I was suddenly transported to Sydney Harbour
Bridge, looking at the cruise liners as they passed the imposing Opera
House. "Ah, yes" I recalled; free and easy-going Australia
where deserted beaches stretch forever. A place of rain forests, deserts
and blue ocean scenes. And across some delightful blue ocean scene is
New Zealand with its South Island glaciers, jagged mountains and rolling
New Zealand - I was there in 1994 and I remembered the town square in
Christchurch. There was a man dressed in black; he was known as the
"Wizard of Christchurch". He featured on the city's tourist
leaflets and was quite a famous character. He had even appeared on nation
TV at some point. No one knew much about his background - except that
he was British-born and stood in the town square for half of the year,
giving anyone who would listen the benefit of his wisdom. His logic
was so warped that is was funny. He churned out anti-women rants, anti-northern
hemisphere rants and any other rant about every issue that irritated
him. He was so one-sided that he was beyond help. He gave ignorance
a bad name. You had to take him with a pinch of salt. And everyone did.
They laughed as he stood on top of his step ladder, sporting his black
pointy hat, grey pointy beard, and complaining about the world in particular
and the universe in general.
That was the wizard. And that was Christchurch. He was out of time and
out of place in both his views and his dress-sense. But "out of
time and out of place" is the essence of imagination. It is increasingly
what people want to experience. The real world can sometimes be a little
too harsh or mundane and imagination at least allows for some sort of
escape. The great tourist sites of the world are both out of time and
place. They stimulate our imagination. I once stood inside the Forbidden
City in Beijing, surrounded by crowds of Chinese tourists (not so forbidden
these days). I imagined former emperors and concubines of times long
gone. It was a world away from the tourist attraction that the place
has now become. At that very instant, I was somewhere else - in another
time, at a different place. Hundreds of other sites and monuments across
the globe inspire us to engage in imaginary time-travel. We stand, gaze
and soak in the atmosphere, imagining their time and place within history.
But imagination is not confined to the past. The Statue of Liberty with
its ideals of freedom and a better tomorrow, conjures visions of a new
society - of a place where few have ventured before. Many have tried
to coerce humanity toward a new tomorrow but have failed dismally. Yet
monuments that look to the future and light the way with a hand held
torch offer a new hope, an image of what may be, and a belief in what
That is all well and good, but problems begin when imagination, someone
elses imagination, merely results in deeds that bury decency and
hope - all performed in the name of decency and hope. Some sites may
seem macabre. Indeed, they are not meant to be tourist sites as such.
But they should at least be visited, if only to appreciate how things
can go so terribly wrong.
once stood in a field not far from Phnom Pen in Cambodia, staring
into a glass-fronted monument that housed thousands of human skulls.
It was the end-product of someones warped imagination. It
was the result of some power crazed tyrant and his attempts to coerce
people into what they were not supposed to be - what they couldnt
be - all done in the name of his vision.
It was a monument to Cambodias
recent history - a monument to what is and what should never be:
wasted lives in pursuit of a false dawn. There are many such-like
sites across the world. Northern France is littered with cemeteries
of thousands upon thousands of symmetrical white crosses; each one
representing some young man from Britain or America who died while
trying to curb the excesses of Hitlers Germany (or The Kaiser)).
I have never visited those cemeteries, but have met many who have.
They tell me you cannot imagine it until you have visited in person.
I guess that some things are unimaginable.
my train pulled into the final station and a thousand passengers alighted
(or should that be a thousand chai-sellers?). On the adjacent platform
another train was about to begin its journey. It was jam-packed with
passengers and, of course, bursting to the seams with - yes - chai-sellers.
My destination was their departure point. I had arrived at my anticipated
future and they were on their way to theirs.
As I checked into my hotel and entered my room, I was greeted by swarming
mosquitoes and an overflowing waste bin. I switched on the ceiling fan
and the mosquitoes fled to the far corners of the room. The fan was
the noisy type: it was a highly effective mosquito repellent but made
a constant rattling sound, which kept me awake for half of the night.
It was either that or switch it off, leaving the way open for the mosquitoes
to swarm. Anyone who has ever slept in a mosquito-ridden hell-hole will
know that it is no fun whatsoever having mosquitoes annoyingly hum past
your ears all through the night. In my case, when this happens I start
to think that Ive been bitten here, there and everywhere and spend
too much time scratching imaginary bites and itches. Paranoia once again
sets-in. So on this occasion the rattling fan is a necessity. The journeys
end is often more hard-bitten than what we ever imagined or hoped for.
It then struck me that compared to my hotel room, India trains arent
so bad after all.
Perhaps what is should be treasured because it can be a
whole lot better than what may be. The new tomorrow can be worse than
the old yesterday. You dont have to go to Cambodia or to France
to appreciate this. But we all keep on trying for and believing in a
better tomorrow. Where will it all end? Surely not with more of the
same: a future of tyranny and monuments to the murdered. I hope not.
I guess that coping with mosquitoes, ceiling fans and chai-sellers is
a small price to pay, considering what others have been forced to sacrifice.
Maybe my future is destined to be one consisting of endless dreary hotel
rooms, noisy ceiling fans and sleeper trains. I suppose its not
so bad. But, then again, all of our futures are intertwined. There is
not so much that I or anyone else can do about that. So hold-on tight
- we could be in for a bumpy ride.
One day, someone may build a monument to world-travellers. If they do,
I hope it is modelled on, of all things, a ceiling fan. Then all travellers
who visit the site will be transported in thought to a hot night in
Asia lying in bed, tormented by the sound of some noisy fan, pesky mosquitoes
or the cry of Chai! Chai! Chai!. Then, at that point, they
will get the inexplicable urge to do it all again and hit the road.
The human desire to keep striving; to keep moving on; to keep journeying.
Itchy feet and wandering minds. Or should that be itchy minds and wandering
feet? It doesnt really matter. Its all about travelling
through life, scratching those imaginary itches, and hoping they will
get better - imagining another time, a different place where the tomorrow
is better than the yesterday. More chai anyone?
© Colin Todhunter August 2003
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