Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part II

Samuel Nigro, Varanasi, India

I exit my room at Kriti Gallery for the train station, which is an hour-ish away.

(I find out about a stone conference happening in Bangalore, Monday at 2 pm.
I rush around trying to prepare for a trip that got thrust upon me.
I am acting before I am ready
and this I decide is
a good thing.)

9:30 pm, Monday – the 0th hour plus 30 minutes.

My taxi drives down the main road the residency is on that heads due east toward the Ganga and the Main (and what could be described as the Middle) Ghat, Dasasvamedha Ghat. I am very familiar with this road because I’ve traveled on it almost daily for the last two months, and I am now comfortable to walk back and forth between the river and the residency. It is about 4 km to the Main Ghat and like an obstacle course (subject of future posts). I am familiar with the intersection where the taxi turns north and heads around the city towards the northern most Ghat, Raj Ghat, where there is a highway and from there, I’m breaking new ground. We are on a highway for a very short distance and then we get on backcountry roads, dirt roads, dusty roads, but this last quality sinks in too late. The driver has the window down to let in the cool night air. It feels good, and then, 30 minutes in, I realize I’m breathing all that dust, too. I ask him to close the window. I fear it is too late to prevent some future sinus problems, an issue I’ve been dealing with off and on since I arrived in Varanasi.

10:30 pm, Monday – the 1st hour plus 30 minutes.

I arrive at the station. I’ve heard nightmare stories about taking trains in India and missing trains and late trains. This is my first time in an Indian Train station, and I am already rushed and I want to stack this in my favor however I can; so, I take Olga’s suggestion and ask the driver to come in with me and help me find which track my train arrives on. See: when trains arrive, they stop for minutes and if you don’t get on, that’s it … bye, bye train and bye, bye reserved seat – back to square one, which for me means finding – and negotiating – a ride back to Kriti and not making it to Bangalore in time for the conference. One train to Bangalore a day, that’s it.

The driver and I park and exit the taxi. After dodging a swarm of Indian men who want to carry my bags, sell me chachka, give me “direction and help” and otherwise try to get my rupees: “No,” “No,” “Get away,” “No.” We enter a cavernous station: approx. 60 x 100 ft., and a grid of people sitting, laying and lounging right in the middle of the floor with bedding, baggage, pets and food splayed everywhere. Rough guess: 150-200 people sitting/lying on the ground? I position myself out in the open so I can see the wide expanse of the digital arrivals and departures display. I stand out and I don’t care what I look like. I ask the driver:

“Can you help me find my train and the track it is on?”

I show him my ticket … and … well … I don’t want to fixate on too many details of an Indian Train ticket (there are all sorts of train numbers, car numbers, route numbers and confirmation numbers; the train station is Hindi in text and sound, movement and hustle – and I need to just cut through it all to make sure I get on my train), because I’m sure with some experience this sort of travel can become routine, but if this driver leaves and I miss my train for some reason … well  … I’ll do everything I can to make sure that does not happen. He looks at my ticket and points and rubs the Train number: “This,” and nods his head to mean: “This is what you have to be on the look out for.” English is not going to be our main avenue of communication. He looks up at the board and points, thinking … I follow his gesture … and:

“What are you looking for? Can we help you?”

There before me are two Indian men in their late 20’s, speaking very clear English,
dressed in casual western cloths.

“Yeah, I’m just trying to find my train and my track number”

“Ok. Where are you trying to go? You have a train ticket, right?”

“Oh, yeah definitely … Bangalore.”

A third Indian man comes up, 40’s, clear English and these three fellow travelers explain the track system and the station lay out. They are sincere. They are helpful. I explain this is my first train trip and I need to get to Bangalore – posthaste – and pepper them with questions.

“Yeah, wait at the track and get on your train immediately. In this station, it stops for a few minutes only, then goes.

“Nice. Ok.”

“If you can’t find your car, don’t worry, just get on, you can walk through them all and find the right one. There will be conductors.”

“Yeah, ok, sure …”

“There are a few stations that a train may stay for a while, and you can get off, but don’t wander far … trains won’t wait for you.”

“Which ones … which stations will they stop for a while?”

A naïve question, but I don’t care. I just need more information and appreciate their help.

“You can ask someone when you get on the train. Don’t worry; it will be fine.”

“And track changes? I’ve heard they can change them
at the last minute without any announcements…”

“Hmm… Maybe… That would be very rare, I think … Look your train is coming soon, so the likelihood that they will change the track is low.
Just listen to the announcements … watch the other people.”

“Ok. Thank you for you help.”

“Sure. You’re set?”

“I’m set. Thanks again and have a safe trip.”

“You too …”

The older man and the taxi driver speak in Hindi, and the driver looks at me, satisfied. I give him a big smile and lead the driver back out of the station to a marginal place so I can pay him. He is another friend of Kriti and at the last minute showed up to take me to the train station. I couldn’t make this trip without him; and, thus I am grateful for all the help to make this last minute trip possible.

We do an amalgam of a good-bye in Hindi-English.

“Thank you for you help. Thank you for the last minute ride.”

He says something in Hindi and gives the Indian Head bobble. I bobble back and bring my hands together to the prayer position, directly in front of my chest and give a slight bow while maintaining eye contact. He does the same but with one hand. I try my darnedest to say “Dhan’yavāda,” which is thank you in Hindi:


Ugh … a complete butchery of the pronunciation, I’m sure. He smirk/smiles and gives a deeper head bobble.

“Ok. Good-bye”

and – another double-bubble bobble.

I breathe and walk back into the train station and stand right where I was before. Seems as good of a place as any, I make no pretense to conceal myself or fit in … I have very little experience with this rhythm, and I don’t care: I’m getting on that train. Young kids running around: some probably just hanging out nowhere to go; some just bored waiting for their train. There’s bare feet everywhere, dogs roaming around, people well prepared with containers of hot food for their trip and their favorite blankets wrapped around them or folded up under their arms; and then, let’s be real, lots and lots of people traveling, some in groups, some as families, just trying to get themselves and their luggage to their destination. They all have their own logistical problems and routines: people just making their way to point B.

Pay attention, Sam. Yellow warning flag at half-mast.

 There’s a man in a turban and dirty dhoti and shirt, whose been circling and hovering ever since I entered the station, sometimes from a far, sometimes just without the perimeter of normal, “western” conversation. I picked him out of the crowd moments after I entered the station. He is very thin and has deep lines in his face, like many men in India, making it hard to tell how old he is, brown teeth from sucking on paan. In another country with his mild herky-jerky movements and directional changes, I’d guess he was a heroine addict, but 40% of India’s population don’t get their daily nutritional requirements, so that could be it … I don’t know … doesn’t matter … still don’t know what I’m looking at most of the time … then, what happens next is important: He turns and walks directly towards me speaking what I think is Hindi and makes to take my bag … I can speculate about his motivation, but decide, again, that it doesn’t matter. I aim for his center of mass, and boom:

“NO. Get away from me!”

He stops and we lock eyes. He hesitates and walks away never to approach me again.

All right, so I’m not standing in a good place. Let’s think about this …

“Stay out of the flow of traffic, find a place populated with people with your same needs and motivation, that’s best … avoid transitional areas and boundaries – that’s where clash and action happens; the marginal and dark are no good, either – you want to be in this mix, not hidden; and you’re in no mood for liminality – that’s the stuff of a Shakespeare tragedy and mythic transformation, too much to handle at the moment … “

or so you think… Wait: what are you talking about, anyway… would you just move somewhere else …

Yeah, right, ok:

“… Ah, ha! There’s my place.”

I stand off to the side – a handrail, which creates a right angle used as a guide for lines at an unused ticket counter, protects a little corner from the flow of traffic and creates my eddy of calm. I move among a hand full of people, who all look like they are doing the same thing I am: waiting, some sitting on their luggage, some standing, motionless; waiting for time to click by because it seems too early to go to the Track. I wait and watch the currents before me.

1:33 am, Tuesday – the 4th hour plus 33 minutes.

The Train arrives, two hours late.

(I eventually moved from my eddy of calm to the designated track, where I’ve been standing since 11:15 pm. The train was supposed to leave at 11:30 pm, but it was only at 12:30 am that the Train Station Authorities acknowledges this with the digital readouts along the track that displays my train number and “2 hours late.” – an announcement that itself was late. I continued to stand and watch, and I wandered with lukewarm motivation.)

When the train arrives, people scurry to find there assigned coach, the numbers of which are displayed along the digital readouts, and I am amazed and heartened that everyone boards in an orderly fashion. We are all tired and just want to get on the train, and the collective feeling is that there is no reason to make this more difficult by pushing to get on. I realize the wisdom of reserved seating. As described, the train starts to move only minutes after it arrives. I have a Class 2-AC ticket, the highest class, which means I am in a compartment that has two long benches that face one another, one window at one end of the benches and a curtain that offers a thin veil to the body-wide corridor just outside the compartment, opposite the window. This is a compartment for 4 people: the two benches each serve as a sleeper platform for a person, and there is a platform above each bench, making sleeping space for two more. There is enough room to sit up on whatever platform you have. I was told they provide bedding.

I find my compartment and my position is the top-right.

The lights in my compartment are out, but the dull yellow light from the station platform shines through the window and the harsh brightness of the fluorescent, nighttime lighting configuration of the corridor peeks through the curtain. I can make out a lump of a figure in both the top and bottom left positions.  They are each wrapped with a light tan blanket around their bodies pulled up around their heads that says: “don’t disturb me.”

My bags are way too heavy with food and water and books … probably too much of each, but I’m not worried and yet I feel totally unprepared for this. I pull out my lock and cable that I brought all the way from the States for this contingency and locked my baggage to the bottom, right bunk, like it was suggested I do from what little pre-India research I did in New York. These are close quarters and I will probably be traveling with these two for the next two days. I push away any thoughts of how this will go, because prejudging does not help and now the next thing to do is to lay down and fall asleep: it is a long journey and I might as well have as much of it pass while counting Zzzz… or, I think, it’s sheep, nope – I’m gonna count cows…

Cows, really Sam?

 Hey, it’s India, you know. All right, Monkeys then. I’m becoming quite fond of them and …

Monkeys are pretty energetic. Try again…

 Oh, you’re right … Ok … I think … it has to be the water buffalo.


They are such noble beasts – gorgeous. See: a hallmark of domestication is specialization for a specific function. All cows are descendants of one species, the Aurochs or Bos primigenius, from which come the Bos indicus, the common ancestor of all Asian cow species, and Bos taurus, the common ancestor of all European and American species. This domestication started at least 10,000 years ago and we have many, many subspecies of Bos, some that are highly specialized and some who cannot survive without the aid of humans. I think of the American Dairy cow: a highly specialized subspecies created by the selective pressures of breeding for specific traits through the intelligent designs of humans. The water buffalo, in contrast, is Bobalus bobalis, a different genus entirely! Its domestication didn’t start till about 5,000 years ago (for the Indian species, it was about 4,000 years ago for the Chinese species). This late domestication, it is my guess, didn’t allow for as much specialization to occur; so, to my untrained eyes, they seem more primitive. Now, this is probably not the right word, it doesn’t have scientific value as far as I understand. Maybe better is ancient, but better still is that there was less time to develop stark specialization than let’s say the American Dairy Cow, and thus the water buffalo maintains many of their original, ancestral markings and traits (there phenotypic attributes and older morphology that came about from natural selection and Darwinian evolution and not by human intelligent design). There is much interbreeding and hybridization among Bos, but they cannot breed or hybridize with Bobalus. So, when you see the water buffalo there is no genetic mixture with cows and I imagine when I see water buffalo that I am looking at a scene straight out of the turn of the last ice age. These water buffalo are beautiful: herds move around Varanasi like they are one organism, they seem to be connected to one another, moving in unison, and to think together, unrushed by the human melee around them. They are technically domesticated, but hardly specialized and they do just fine without humans.

I already miss the herd that wanders around the residency. This is a long train journey and might as well have as much of it pass while sleeping, and counting water buffalo will be an a appropriate homage.

As quietly as I can, I push my baggage underneath the bed-platform, undo my shoelaces and place my shoes underneath the left bunk. I pull out my warm shirt and winter hat (yup, it’s sorta cool) and put them on. I follow the top guy’s lead and forgo taking my bed sheet out of its brown paper wrapping and I use my Spiderman stealth techniques to silently migrate up to the top bunk. I unfold the blanket and do as my new companions do and give myself a tight, full body wrap with the blanket. As I pull the blanket around my head and make sure my feet are well covered, I note that the pillow is about the size of a collegiate dictionary and just as hard. I think:

“This is it: you are on your way to Southern India! … Well before you had planned … three weeks before you thought you were going to go! This is why you came to India.”

This whole project – To come all the way to India to work with granite, is this foolhardy? I know what people think: “Plenty of granite elsewhere …” So, it is not just about the material, then … it is about the connection of material. “You work with granite?! Isn’t that hard and heavy. Whoa!?” – That’s what many think when I tell them that granite is my material of choice, and there are various subtexts to these conversations: whatever. But, that reaction is incomplete at best, prejudiced at the heart. I’ve worked so long with the breaking of stone that granite now feels like a liquid, and given the life cycle of stone, the life cycle of carbon, the life cycles of the earth, granite really is not heavy at all and moves in unexpected ways.

Granite flows like a liquid and floats as a thin crust on top of the planet – that’s right, I said it, granite is light and is like a liquid. This is where I’ve come to … This is where I am …

Granite – light and liquid.

Exactly: One just has to think in deep, geologic time.

The scale of granite on our planet is huge, and is evidence of long-term, planetary-scale fractional melting, which is the distillation through heat and pressure and chemical processes of mantle rock where by certain elements, like silicon, sodium and potassium are concentrated. Basalt, the ocean floor, can be created by one revolution of fractional melting. It takes granite multiple revolutions of this heating, melting, cooling to form the concentrations that exist today. Another way of stating this is that because of the super hot radioactive process at the core of our planet (that makes our planet tectonically alive, btw), the mantle churns and moves, heats and rises, cools and falls, just like the cycle of a full-flowing lava lamp. Through this churning and the fractional melting that occurs because of it, what rises to the top are the lighter materials. These lighter materials make up the crust of the earth; and, now, after multiple revolutions of the mantle mixing and sorting over billions of years, this crust is basically granitic, and made up of basic minerals like feldspar, mica and quartz (for traditional granites) and with plenty of amphiboles and pyroxenes thrown in. There is evidence of many different stages of all these cycles – of melting and flowing and sorting – with various mineral compositions and crystalline structures being created by the ways materials are cooled, hardened and crystalized, all throughout the crust; for example, granite is an igneous rock which means it cooled from a melting of some kind – if from lava, it’s volcanic rock; if deep underground and cooled very slowly, it’s plutonic rock – there are granitiods that got frozen in many stages of development and metamorphized into another type of stone called gneisses, which are some of the oldest rocks on the earth (in the order of 3.5 billion years old!), and the classifications can go on and on. The important point is that all of this floats up and rests on top of the surface of the planet, giving a matrix for everything else, including us (and other rocks, too), to interact with; and this granitic crust, in turn, continues to move and play with the rest of the life cycles of the planet. Granite is unique to Planet Earth and evidence of tectonic robustness.

Well, this is what divergent thinking and curiosity is about: Spiderman Stealth, water buffalo encomium, the rumblings of our planet and how to come to terms with flying to the other side of the world and traveling to a strange city at the flip of a switch, all to work with some new granite. It all flows together and I’ll leave it for now….

There is more flying around my head as I wiggle into a comfortable position for sleep; like, I wonder how traveling so farther south will affect the weather and climate and flora and fauna of India. It will be the furthest south on the planet I ever have been. For example, there is a species of kingfisher that fly around the Ganga. It has a powerful refulgent blue and rust colored plumage – so different from the North American species. I discovered one of these tiny gems my first day in Varanasi. I have always loved kingfishers and seeing one at the Ghats my first day was … umm … I felt happiness and nostalgia. It centered me, but – ahem?I owe you all a post about that first day. The kingfisher of the Ganga riff will have to wait. I’ll get to it, I promise.

As I laid my head down on my collegiate-dictionary-like pillow,
thankfully, at this stage, I am pretty good
at turning all this thought off,
and I fall into a deep sleep.

To be continued.


Filed under Art, Story

5 responses to “Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part II

  1. sue nigro

    wow Sam…what an adventure!!

  2. Pingback: Monkeys on a Train … or … The Secret of High Energy – part III | i heart uniqueness – i heart infinity

  3. Pingback: Monkeys … Trains … and The Secret of High Energy – part IV | i heart uniqueness – i heart infinity

  4. Pingback: Cairns – Shards – Pieces | i heart uniqueness – i heart infinity

  5. Pingback: The Mystical, Magical Bubble of Norman | i heart uniqueness – i heart infinity

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