On Trains and Birthdays

I’ve just had a birthday A big birthday. I can’t type the figure, let alone say it, and it would traumatise me too much to try. Let’s just stay that there’s an unacceptable swear word that begins with the same letter, strangely enough has the same amount of letters and also contains an ‘F’and a ‘U’. This swear word would pretty much describe my disdain at turning the afore-mentioned figure, and would also describe the reaction of many people when I told that how old I was turning, as apparently I don’t look it! Small comfort. Stuff growing old gracefully, DISGRACEFULLY is far more fun and I plan to go into my middle aged years kicking and screaming in dire protest.

Anyway the plan was to go to a land where millions of people didn’t know how old I am, and mission accomplished. In order to ease the pain I am rewarding myself with a very extended holiday. The plan was also to party in Goa on my birthday, but the amount of time it takes to get from A to B in India has to be taken into consideration so I had my Goan pre-celebration birthday on the Friday 18th Feb instead of the 19th when we would have to take an overnight train to Kerela.

A stunning full moon heralded the arrival of the big day, and that evening it shone above the palm fronds, bathing the beach in moonlight. Caro and I ate at our fave restaurant, the German Bakery, and realized that in the restaurant next door there was live music. Indeed, there was a band of talented folk musicians, dressed in a hybrid of European gypsy and new age chic. They fiddled, drummed, strummed and sang, and the hippies danced. It was like suddenly slipping into an age gone past, strangely incongruent with the beach and full moon – rather I should have been an onlooker in a cobbled square of a mountain town in Switzerland about 200 years ago.

When the music finished, the fire dancers came out. Using sticks, hoops, poi and staffs they twirled, juggled and cavorted. The poi spinner was dressed like a sultan, making the whole evening even more magical. At the end they stood on each other’s shoulders in a grand finale of fire. Have to say it was the best birthday party ever!! I asked one of the chaps in a German hat where they were all from. He was French but he said for the most part they were Swiss entertainers who met up at least once a year in Goa. Many of them had their children with them, and they seemed to be travelling enmasse. Part of me, the enthralled kid at a circus part, wanted to beg them to whisk me away and teach me their tricks, like running off and joining the circus! I feel I could happily travel the world, performing on moonlit beaches to the delight of tourists. Not sure how I’d pull off the attire though.

Next stop was Coco Loco – the one disco in Arumbol. The police are pretty strict on reducing sound levels, so the amps are turned down around 10.30pm, and then off completely at midnight. However I had to see the mmmph-mmmph birthday IN at least, so I danced to some rather poor Goan trance. One chap there was bare-headed with only a small plaited ponytail coming out the back of his head Hari Krishna style. He was dressed only in red Ghandi trousers, but pulling the kind of moves that told me he was English. We got chatting, turns out that Shiva (but I could call him Steve), was actually an ex-Scotland Yard detective who had been on the anti-terrorists and drug-squads. Having overdone the stress levels by seeing the best and worst in people, he took off to Goa where he’d been for 2 years and was now living the dream and had found himself. Interspersed with this strangely surreal yet highly interesting conversation, he told me he could feel the energy from the speakers. He suddenly stopped talking and looked at me and said: ‘I have no idea why I’m telling you all this – I don’t normally tell anybody’. My answer to that would be that drugs were involved somehow, especially for a man who never did any due to his line of work and then did nothing else BUT drugs. In Goa, I think finding yourself just means finding the local drug dealer.

My pre-birthday over, my proper birthday meant boarding a train in the early hours of the evening to go down to the Keralan town of Kochin. Trains are identified by their numbers, and as they are always late and the number is often different this isn’t an easy task. You have to listen out for announcements which may be in English but often won’t make any sense, and ask as many people as possible if the train in the platform is the right one, and hope you don’t get a head wobble as a reply.

Our train was late – an hour – remarkably early by Indian standards, but was leaving from another platform. As we dashed over to Platform 2 night was falling and there were no lights making it hard to see the carriage numbers as the train pulled in. Indian trains areSERIOUSLY long, and we were in the middle of the platform so we headed towards the front, where the majority of the airconditioned sleeper carriages seemed to be located. We stopped and asked the inspector who was walking by us where our carriage was. He pointed further down and said, we think, ‘get on the train’. Now normally a train will stop in the station for about 20 mins. We strolled casually down the platform thinking we had loads of time, and then I realized that the train was moving! We dashed for the nearest door, Caro jumping on with her big pack on her back up the steep stairs – the train sits about 2-3 feet above the platform, with me at her heels. As I was wheeling my pack I threw it on, but the train was picking up speed and the door was pulling away from me very quickly and I was already running at full pelt. Visions of being left behind flashed through my mind (not surprisingly Caro was thinking the same thing), and I made a last desperate dash, grabbing the many arms now hanging out of the door to pull me on. Safely onboard, we looked at each other and said: “Let’s never do that again!”

Our train adventure did not stop there. Already my birthday was turning into one of the most eventful I’ve ever had. Three carriages away from where we needed to be, we painstakingly lugged our bags through the packed non-airconditioned sleepers. The train had originated in Delhi some 40 hours earlier, and one carriage was full of happy, singing teenage schoolgirls who had been up there for a schooltrip. Squealing with delight at the sight of two blondies pushing their way through tangle of legs crowding the aisles, they demanded: “Sing us a song!” to which I replied: “It’s my birthday, you should sing ME a song.” Immediately half the carriage launched into Happy Birthday To You in both English and Hindi, and loads of people shook my hand and wished me happy returns. Just as I reached the door the song ended with lots of cheering and clapping! I turned and thanked them all, surprised and a little overwhelmed that something so stressful had done a complete 180 and become the most wonderful experience!

Our sleeper was 3 tier, meaning that Caro was up near the roof, me not being brave enough, and I was in the middle with a chap sleeping on the tier below us. A lovely lady called Nima was travelling her mother having gone to Delhi to complete the French exam at the Canadian consulate for her working visa. I have to say by the end of the trip we were firm friends. It distressed me to hear that originally her and her husband had successfully obtained a visa for Australia, but the Indian Government is stopping Indians going there due to racial hatred and a spate of violent attacks on Indians within Australia. As a result the Canadian government has stepped up to the mark granting those who had Australian 457 visas the equivalent Canadian visa instead.

Later I made my way back to the carriage of singing girls, to have a chat to them. They were all absolutely gorgeous, charming, super giggly, and so much fun, and we had tons of photos and I was proudly introduced to all their teachers. One of the girls had the voice of a nightingale (how her schoolmates fetchingly put it) and she proved it by singing the most beautiful song. I’m not sure where I’ll be for my next birthday, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a birthday quite as unusual and lovely as the one I had in India!


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