This trip has been emotionally uplifting, but also somewhat draining. In between stories of persecution and poverty, there has been plenty of levity and laughter. A ton of “firsts” dot my agenda from the past week.
We took an eleven-hour trip from Lucknow to Damoh. It involved an eight hour train ride and a three hour drive. The train was quite a sight. Walking down the stairs to the platform, I was a little surprised to see cows mingling among the passengers. It wasn’t so much that there were cows with us–in India there are cows everywhere. I just don’t have any idea how they got into the train station, across the bridge, down the steps, and onto the platform.
As we waited for the train and dodged potential pick-pocketers, it was less than encouraging to see rats scrambling about on the train tracks below. With plenty of litter and feces to munch on, this was a rodent’s paradise. On the way to our car, one scampered across our path. A few of our female team members woke up every housewife in Lucknow with their shrieks.
The train ride was uneventful. By “uneventful” I mean that there’s not much you can do when you are stacked like sardines in a sleeper car. And don’t even mention the bathroom. I will have nightmares about the bathroom for decades. I did sleep better than I thought I would. At one point I think I slept two hours straight. For the rest of the evening my slumber was interrupted by a ringtone that sounded like to jackals were let loose in our car and told a bunch of funny jokes. Mercifully, the old man to whom the phone belonged finally picked up. Either he was hard of hearing or he was being pranked. All he ever said–and by said I mean shouted–was, “Hel-LO!” about eight times each call. And he received about forty-seven calls. That’s a lot of “Hel-LO’s.”
We all kicked our shoes off and breathed a sigh of relief when we got in our vans for the drive to Damoh from the train station. Except for those of us who had to go to the bathroom. as it turns out, there weren’t any in the 300 kilometers we drove from point A to point B. I thought about joining the masses squatting on the side of the road, but resisted the temptation. Truthfully, I did not need to squat. Just stand. But my driver spoke no English, so I just held it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go very bad, what with using the train bathroom just a few hours prior. That experience was enough to make me never want to go potty again. Pass the catheter and the urine bag, please. I’m never stepping foot inside that thing again. Think port-o-potty except from last year’s carnival and going seventy miles an hour and waving back and forth like a flag in the wind.
We almost all wet our pants, though, when we had to dodge a rogue cow that saw fit to lay directly in the middle of the highway. And then there was that one time that a mob of Hindu youngsters stopped our vans in the middle of the interstate and would not let us pass. I was cool with the whole thing until our guards rattled off something to our driver in Hindi and our driver immediately locked the doors to our Land Rover. I was pretty relaxed when we came upon the group, or they came upon us I should say, but when I realized they were on all four sides of all three of our vehicles I started thinking of all the ways I could potentially Chuck Norris my way out of the mob. My plan got as far as me slipping my flip-flops back on–you know, so I could run better–and then they let us pass. As it turns out, they were the equivalent to the Hindu Lion’s Club, and instead of the four way stoplight in town they had chosen the middle of the highway to collect their fundraising dollars. We did not donate and they let us pass, even smiling and waving as we accelerated.
As I switched back to my bare feet I said a silent prayer of thanks that I did not have to roundhouse kick any of them with my $2 Old Navy sandals. I also marveled at what a crazy American I am and how little I know of international customs.
We finally made it to Damoh. We toured the Children’s Home and the hospital (where we saw an appendix being removed from a woman’s body…no joke) and the nursing school and the other gazillion things this crazy good ministry has here. Then we ate chicken and apple pie, naturally. Typical Indian cuisine.
And then we saw snake charmers!
No joke. It was just like on television except there were a bunch of easily-entertained preachers watching in plastic lawn chairs the whole time. There was an old man and a pipe/flute kind of thing and about five baskets with five cobras that seemed a little irritated until the dude started busting out their jam. Then they all got pretty mellow. Oh, sure, they struck at the dude a few times, but n-b-d. He’s a snake charmer, after all. He just kept playing his flute and before you know it the killer snakes were swaying back and forth like a clumsy seventh grader at the Jr. High dance. Then a few of us crazy Americans let the snake charmer guy put the cobra around our neck and we took pictures!
And by “us” and “we” I do not mean to include myself. The cows on the platform, the all-night, scuzzy train ride, and the Hindu Lion’s Club were enough firsts for me for one day. I’ll have to wear a venomous snake for a necklace on my next trip.