Teaser 273: Train Trips to India

From Munich I rode to Budapest, Hungary and switched trains. From Budapest I rode to Curtici, Romania, and switched trains. From Curtici I rode to Sofia, Bulgaria, and switched trains. For obvious reasons, on this leg, I thought about a certain little Mexican actress and her adorable little girl, who would soon be a teenager with raging hormones...or maybe not. You can't always predict it. From Sofia to Dimitrivograd, in the heart of Bulgaria, with another switch of trains, and on to Istanbul. I made it in two days, some with sleepers and a reasonable level of privacy, which at times proved helpful since I wore my traveling robe and turban and they were recognized as the clothes of the man who caused an entire nation to back down, Al-Barrak. I heard my name several times on this leg. I considered it a distraction but it eased any worry I might have.

The next leg was relatively easy and carefree, from Istanbul to Tehran. I kept to myself, bowed and clasped my hands frequently, and aroused no suspicion. There was a layover in Tehran before the train to Zahedan left the station. I booked a night in a hotel and stayed inside the hotel, venturing outside only during the day for a sightseeing walk or to visit certain embassies.

During the train trip through the remote areas of Iran, each stop seemed to empty the train of the more respectable individuals and invited the more suspect types. I had one altercation, more of an intervention, involving four other men in the car meant to serve as the dining car. It was, most times, anything but a dining car. They were looking for trouble, or foreigners, as they seem, in this part of the world, to be equated, but one spoke and understood English reasonably well, recognized the name “Al-Barrak,” had even seen the video of Deep As You Go, since he made a particular gesture with his hand buried into his crotch when he mentioned how “attractive” the woman was in the video, so we negotiated a trade. I liked the colorful sash he wore around his waist, not because it was something I wanted. I thought, since I couldn't avert my eyes from it, that it was something which couldn't be ignored due to its outlandish ridiculousness, so, since we were “bonding” I should spare him further humiliation and embarrassment and trade him Mildred's crazy hat, which I promised him would become famous from our encore. Of course, I never wore the sash and burned it once I got to India and was outside any burn restrictions. In my opinion Mildred's crazy hat would provide much less humiliation and embarrassment. It was either the trade or fighting, in some way, shape or form, out of the dining car and I wasn't in the fighting mood. There was also the small matter of being outnumbered four to one. I liked the odds Mildred's hat possessed.

Hundreds of miles from the border, as I wandered occasionally around the train, I kept noticing this young man, probably under thirty, who also seemed to be traveling alone and had his eye on me. We would exchange nods and once, as we passed in the hall of one of the cars, I said, “Hello.” The young man immediately responded, “Hello.” Other than this exchange we never engaged in any other interaction besides occasionally noticing the other and nodding politely to acknowledge. As we barreled along on the train near the border, closing in on Zahedan, I sat in the dining car tolerating another meal when the young man approached the table where I sat alone and asked, “May I join you?”

I smiled at his smile and replied, “Of course. Sit and be comfortable.”
“Thank you,” he said as his smile widened and he sat in the seat opposite me at my table. I introduced myself and he introduced himself as “Khalid.”

The young man was a student at university, in Budapest of all places, focusing on a master's in mechanical engineering. Hungary was rabidly trying to attract exceptional students from all over the world, perhaps to convince them to stay in Hungary and help build their country, but I never thought of Hungary as attractive to mechanical engineers. It didn't surprise me. By this time, I had been out of touch with almost anything, and the process had been accumulating for twenty years prior. I hadn't heard of Crowded House until about 2010. They had numerous top twenty hits in the mid-1980's. Didn't register on my grid, even though I recognized several of their songs when I finally heard them knowing who the band was.

Khalid was one of the top students in his study in Pakistan, didn't really want to pursue higher education outside Pakistan, but the competition was fierce for the few positions available, and when he heard he could earn an essentially free ride in Hungary, he applied, wrote a compelling introduction and expounded on his goals, aspirations, and, with great embellishment, what he liked about Hungary. They accepted him, full ride, housing, meals, everything. He had finished his first semester for his master's early, since he had no final, and had traveled by the same trains to Istanbul and now to Lahore and eventually to Islamabad. He was quite cordial and extremely conversant, once he got started. I hardly said a word. He ordered breakfast when he sat down and talked often while chewing on his next bite. I liked him and I got the impression he liked me. He knew who I was. It was a given.

“I've seen your movies, Al-Barrak,” he told me, smiling while he was chewing, “the uncensored versions. You project a very intriguing sexual persona.” Khalid laughed. It was a joke, to him and me. “Three guns and they all shoot bullets.” Now he really howled. When he got a grip, he became very serious. “Truly, Al-Barrak, what you did in Gaza, most can never forget.” I knew when he said it most would. It's the human way. One's mind is kind in this manner. It allows one to forget so one can get on with what's important: one's present.

We sat at the table for quite some time, long after breakfast was served and consumed, chatting about this and that. When we deemed it time to leave the dining car and surrender our table to other diners, Khalid made a suggestion. “You are American, Al-Barrak, and this is not of much benefit in Pakistan, and in several places where trains travel before you reach Lahore. It would, perhaps, sway things in your favor if you had a travel companion.”

I expected this turn in our conversation would take some time. I rose from the table, saying, “Will you join me in my bunk, Khalid? We can continue this conversation with a little privacy.”

We talked in my bunk into the afternoon, dancing around the subject at times, throwing out expectations at others, but what Khalid proposed was to be my companion and interpreter for the rest of my journey to Lahore, and catch the next train to Islamabad. His suggestion was I should never leave my bunk until he arrives, that whenever I left my bunk he would always be in my company. The bunk itself was safe since it could be locked from inside and the curtains were always drawn. It was the size for a family of four but it was one of the few left which were private bunks left on the train when I booked. If I agreed, Khalid promised he would never leave my side.

“Why would you offer me this, Khalid?”

“Because you do not understand the situations which may arise during the trip to Lahore, Al-Barrak, when being an American, able only to speak English, will not avail you to talk your way out of it. I, then, will talk your way out of it.”

“Why would you be willing to do this, Khalid?”

“I like you, Al-Barrak. You are a good man, and what I'm offering does not come with an unreasonable cost, does it? I help you a little. You help me a little.”

It wasn't unreasonable, what Khalid proposed. I would buy all his meals, pay him a small amount for each day of his “company” and give him the money for his train from Lahore to Islamabad. This would start when we arrived in Zahedan, when we would switch trains to a very backward passenger and freight train and no private bunks at all.

Khalid was late meeting with me before we disembarked, apologizing profusely, but he arrived at my bunk with all his baggage. I had mine packed since I only carried two bags and we left the train as it had arrived at the station. We had quite a while before our train left to Quetta, so we ate at a small restaurant not far from the station and picked up some food from vendors in the area. There would be no food served on the train. This was the most dangerous part of the trip. I could see it all around me when I stepped off the train but I spoke only to Khalid and in a low tone and he always stayed close.

Fortunately, once we boarded the train to Quetta it was first come first served for seating, and we sat next to each other with baggage on racks above. Each car had a bathroom with its door visible almost anywhere in the car and we hardly spoke. No suspicion was aroused and I smiled frequently at all around me. Often I pretended I was deaf and smiled even wider. There were a large number of men wearing simple robes and turbans. I certainly didn't look out of place. If anything Khalid looked out of place in jeans and a simple cotton shirt. There are always warnings about bandits and the like in this part of the world. On this day they chose to be elsewhere.

Arriving in Quetta we had an overnight delay until the train left for Lahore. We left the station for a hotel in the more urban, downtown area of the city. Through Khalid we told the taxi driver to take us to the most expensive hotel in the city and he did so. It wasn't cheap but it had everything, food, drinks, and two great beds.

All along the way, every step of the way truthfully, Khalid was right beside me. He intervened in every circumstance, conversation, interaction, and always eased the most distrustful we encountered. Pakistani officials inspected my passport, asked where I was headed, through Khalid, I answered, through Khalid, and each left with a single nod. Even the two times when we happened to enter the purview of a gang of whomever or whatever, Khalid engaged all in conversation, I played deaf and dumb, and they left us alone. Once we reached the train station the next day it was almost an anticlimax, despite being in the very heart of Pakistan. The train provided full service for passengers and I had a small private bunk with two beds. Khalid was booked on a shared seat. He stayed in my bunk instead.

We reached Lahore without further incident. Once we arrived in Lahore we both had many hours until either of our trains departed and we disembarked from the train. “Come, Khalid,” I beckoned my traveling companion, “let us visit Data Darbar and pay tribute to Daata Ganj Bakhsh.”

Khalid smiled widely. “The resting place of the great one known as Ali Hujwiri.”

Now I smiled widely. “If you haven't yet discovered, my friend, you shall discover the world all over has many names which mean the same thing. Words mean nothing to me, only the essence.”

“You are a Sufi, Al-Barrak?”

“When you immerse yourself completely in the Way, Khalid, you understand the futility of all other human endeavors. Not one will reach where you stand at any moment.”

We crossed the Ravi River by taxi to the site and wandered about for two hours in reverence, discussing between ourselves many thoughts. Khalid himself had been to the site several times and was quite familiar with the Great Master, but I provided for his consumption some of his sage wisdom. Khalid asked if I had studied him. I responded I was guided to him by my Master, that there was much left behind by Hujwiri which was worthy but could only be understood after a great deal of preparation, all of which must be performed by a worthy guide.

“How would one find such a guide, Al-Barrak?”

I laughed. “My introduction to my guide was unusual, Khalid. Masters never seek the student. It usually occurs the other way, but you need only ask another, and this other will ask another, and another until you discover your guide but this is only the beginning. Your guide will determine whether you are a worthy student. Most are not, Khalid.”

We returned to the train station and waited for the train to Amritsar. I paid Khalid for everything in Pakistani currency, and gave him a little extra. “Once I reach India I won't have much use for it, whereas you will.” His train would leave later so he stayed with me until my train boarded.

“You will have to show your passport. They may search your baggage before you board. Do so and they will allow you to board, Al-Barrak. Before you cross the border, the Indians will board and you must show them your passport and state your reason for travel to Amritsar. That's it. Soon you will arrive.” Khalid dropped his head for a moment, lifted it to stare unblinking into my eyes. “It has been a pleasure to meet you and ride these many miles at your side, Al-Barrak. I will never forget this.”

We stood and I hugged him hard. “I will be in Amritsar for quite some time, Khalid. Contact me through my web site via email. Use your name, your full name, Khalid. I will remember and I'll contact you. You shall always be welcome in my home.” Khalid hugged me again.

The train stopped at the Indian border and, as Khalid predicted, Indian officials boarded and reviewed everyone's documentation and reason for travel into India. When my turn came the official was satisfied with my visa, passport, but insisted on looking inside my bags. I unzipped all the pockets of my computer bag and he pulled my computer out a little and glanced in each pocket. I unzipped my bigger bag and flopped it open and he pushed some things around, looked in my face suspiciously, and said, “Thank you. Welcome to India.”

- Just Desserts, Segment Thirty-ThreeJourney to India” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021

contact me, as always: schussprose@gmail.com