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Vijayawada: Lounging and Lunging

It’s sleeper class on the return. You pay chump change to recline and to sweat in the circulation of the wind dashing between the open windows. The train life is a repeating tape as a cast of castes enters from the side wings of the car every few minutes. A man with crippled legs slides through of aisle and shakes a box at me. A waif woman totters not from the train’s squirming crawl but from a limp and passes me. Her sari is a muted brown, a simple cloth compared to the ornate, bejeweled wraps that women wear to impress each other on the train. However, the body it covers is seamed with wrinkles. A man hands her a few rupees and one drops to the floor. She doesn’t even have a kurta. When she bends over and I fear exposure, but the folds of her body enshrine her breasts. The sweat on her body glints brighter than any beading. Her fingers spent ten minutes scrimmaging with the dust and the luggage to find the lost coin. Her waist bent low like a wilted, burned sunflower and I didn’t think she would be able to stand back straight. The man who gave her the rupees, waiting but unable to pass, stoops to help and she refuses to leave it although I couldn’t bear to watch the determined hunt to its conclusion.

Chaicoffee! young boys shout as they stride through the car with silver pots and paper cups swinging like lanterns in front of them. The single syllable emphasizes their urgency – get it while it is hot!

Interspersed with the chaicoffee connoisseurs, two women trail each other through the berths, attached like the capsules of the peanuts they are selling out of large, round wicker baskets. They squawked whatever it is you shout to let people hungering for peanuts know they better flash their wallets. Even if I hadn’t wanted peanuts, I would have bought some for a moments silence from their impossibly deafening pitch. Their seemed to elude the Doppler effect and amplify with the rushing wind.

That can’t possibly be that Telegu word for peanut, Anna notes when the interjections interrupt her upright snooze.

Despite the interruptions and the stowaways, I like riding the trains because for once I see people’s unadulterated moments. For the first few hours the sieve of curiosity attracts syncopated head-turns from whole families and neck-twists from those passing by our berth. Soon enough, though, everyone forgets or realizes the most interesting thing I’ve done is scratch a bug bite. Then I can see the mother changing her toddler’s pants, the or the two brothers, one arm around the others shoulder, chatting and smiling, maybe about us through shrewd lashes, but maybe not. Later one lays his head in his brother lap while the other reads. They make do with the cramped space and uncounted hours. In a similar remedy, the tiniest boy placed himself as a decal on the adjacent window by somehow cramming between the spaces of two of its bars.

We shared our berth with an uncharistically taciturn family of 5.  When we stopped at a junction station, the father left his seat. I thought he might be using the restroom, but when I looked out of the window I saw him on the platform charging his daughters cell phone in an outlet. Five minutes later the train started moving. He pulled the charger from the pillar and jogged to the train, hoping on at the last minute.

I am glad you made it back, I smiled. He smiled back, shrugged, and crossed his arms and went to sleep upright again. I wanted to know how his daughter is getting reception all the way out here.

If we weren’t going to have to explain our travels and our relationship status to anyone, I was going to daydream about it myself. I shove on my headphones and try to remember each mile we pass.

I scroll until I find the Avett Brothers. I hadn’t given them much play time before – I had always relegated them to the bench of artists whom might impress a casual observer of my iPod but when pressed for more information, an opinion,  I would reply with the hipster dignity masking ignorance, I need to listen to them more to say. Still, I liked a few songs and I had six hours to kill.

I see one titled Salina and play it out of curiosity. The song begins with a plea to Kansas and I remembered the drive I took the day before through the farmland near my house, when the sun seemed to be laying its long limbs of dusk onto the horizon in repose.

Now, I watch as the train hemmed the Western Ghats drenched in a similar sun. Their singular blue cones tended to waterlogged rice paddies and brown fields like the shepards passing through them wearing a cloth around their waist. In a seat sticking to my white pants, admittedly a poor choice for the conditions, I listen as the lunging banjo gave the lunging car a dulcet impetus. The rushing wind wraps the surroundings closer. It makes the movement more like a ripple than a cut through the countryside. I could have touched the people on the platform whizzing by, or the short palms wagging their fingers in our wake.

I look at the flaccid, bored faces of the families around me, also facing the margins of the train like correctly-placed photos in a yearbook spread. The East Coast Express promises the most direct route to the people and destinations they must be envisioning. I thought of Kansas, but also how I was chugging back from a place I still could not map except in a sweet memory almost like that of home. I couldn’t say if we were going north in the world or where. In the drone and sway of the tracks I keep looking out at the unknown fields, revealing in the moving isolation, adding this somewhere to me.

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I don’t leave the country for two days, but today marked my last stationary day of the summer. Tomorrow transit to the airport begins, and some last goodbyes with friends and family. I have spent the majority of the week shuffling aimlessly through the aforementioned superstores, trying to decide which travel-sized shampoo would be most compact yet conditioning. I didn’t want dandruff protection to dictate my lasting memory of America.

So, I took a drive.

I jumped in my dad’s beat-up gray Nissan truck and chugged along until I hit the countryside. And by “beat-up,” I mean it is so old and dilapidated that when a couple of teenagers once stole it from the curb outside of our house they abandoned it by parking it around the corner. I had been brambling around town all week in it. In the city, we fight over who has to drive it. The shiny Lexuses and hybrids make the ripped upholstery and busted bumpers even more apparent. The oily engine gargle attracts attention that the rusted exterior does not deserve. It’s a lemon through-and-through. Those who might have recognized me from high school would never suspect my education or soon-to-be world travels.

But while I drove with my elbow hanging out the manual roll-down window, blowing past fields soaked green from the rain that falling every night in the summer, it didn’t matter if the cloud billowing from the rear was from the road or a flat tire or a rotten engine. I felt as if I were living an Aaron Copeland soundtrack, which could have been playing if the radio wasn’t busted. Just as the 29th street turned to dirt, I saw an eagle on a telephone wire. At least it was a hawk or some other large fowl that looked enough like an eagle for my city eye to fit it as a sign of my immanent American-ness in the moment. Then at one intersection, a man in a large tractor nearly flattened me, so perhaps I should have searched for a less folksy aesthetic.

I was traveling with only a general knowledge of my location to the city. I found the small town of St. Mark’s. I had never been there, but it couldn’t have been more than eight miles from my house. I passed through and onward. I wasn’t paying any attention to my speed, although the speedometer gives an Olympic-sized ballpark estimate to be of much use anyway.

In one wheat field, small white egrets were tiptoeing through the stubble stalks. The birds aren’t rare in Kansas. They flock along subdivision lakes and in Sedgwick County Park. But the egrets always seem foreign to me. Their angular creeping looks exotic imposed upon the typical flat fields and big sky. Beyond them in the distance another storm bruised the open blue. I could see a line of rain falling on Goddard. I could see some people very close having a much different day than my sun-saturated evening.

The air cooled as I drove on, and I could see the storms edges reaching those the suburbs’ developing skeletons. In the bright sun I could even predict its landing. My windshield flattening cotton wisps as I drove home, missing that certainty already.


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