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From Our Archives: Hacktreks in India

Mosquitoes and Ceiling Fans:
More Chai Anyone?
Colin Todhunter covers the globe
'If 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 be heard'.

"Chai! 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 was.
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 else.

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 fields.

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 could be.
That is all well and good, but problems begin when imagination, someone else’s 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.

I 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 someone’s 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 couldn’t be - all done in the name of his vision.

It was a monument to Cambodia’s 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 Hitler’s 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.

Eventually, 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 I’ve 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 journey’s 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 aren’t 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 doesn’t really matter. It’s 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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