Chet left Varanasi on the evening train from the Mughal Sarai station. It was Saturday and he had already been in India for one week. It was time to head south to Goa. The beach was beckoning him. As much as he appreciated his new friendship with the Ganga, he was looking forward to seeing an old friend, the Ocean.
Chet had initially become acquainted with the Ocean in his childhood on a family trip to the Oregon Coast. Even though he was only eight years old at the time, he remembered being conscious of the bond that developed between his own soul and the Soul of the Sea. Its vastness overwhelmed him and calmed him at the same time. Every day of their trip he spent as much time as he could at the ocean. The tension between his parents pushed him and his sister out onto the beach where they were alone and free. The steady winds and the ceaseless waves mesmerized him. For most of his days, he sat on the sand staring out into the Great Beyond. He stood with his feet in the cool waters. He walked along the shore, side by side with his strong companion. (He would have walked forever if not for the reprimand of his mother.) Whereas his sister played in the sand for hours upon hours, running back and forth from the lapping waves only to replenish her water supply, Chet couldn’t keep his eyes down long enough to play. He was always paying attention to the Ocean, always searching, longing. It was perhaps a form of prayer. Though he never actually spoke a word into the mysterious waters, it was as if he was deep in conversation, as if the Great Deep was listening to him, and accepting him.
As the family packed up the car and drove east back to Idaho, there was a tearing away in Chet's heart. It had only been five days, but he knew that he had made a lifelong friend.
The next time Chet went to Oregon it was the long weekend just before he started his senior year of university. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. He went alone. The man he had been working construction for in the summer said he could take his truck home for the weekend. Chet asked if he could take it camping. The man had said yes, as long as Chet didn’t go into the mountains. So, he drove straight to the ocean, arriving in the middle of the night. He dragged his sleeping bag out of the back of the truck and lay it down on the sand. He curled up like a cat on the lap of her benevolent owner. He breathed deeply and fell asleep with a smile on his face. When daybreak came, he did something he hadn’t done on the previous trip – he swam. Though the sun was warm, the water was frigid. Nevertheless, Chet waded out into it until it reached his waste and then he took the plunge. It was refreshing, to say the least, and he repeated the ritual the next morning as well. For those two days, the ocean was barely out of his sight. He ate on the sand, slept on the sand, and carried on a long discussion with his old friend. It was sweet fellowship. Chet left satisfied and vowed to come again.
Goa is India’s beach paradise. It’s a small state south of Mumbai along India’s southwestern coast, on the Arabian Sea. It’s well known as a holiday destination for both foreign and domestic tourists, and it has the full spectrum of accommodation, from shoestring to five-star. Chet was, of course, looking for something closer to shoestring, and it wasn’t hard to find.
Goa was formerly a Portuguese colony and so, in addition to the European influence, there is a strong Catholic presence. Many of those who visit Goa take the time to see the cathedrals and the relics of the church, which are said to include body parts of St. Xavier. Indeed, the most popular time to visit Goa is during the festival of Christmas, when the local Christians rival the devotees of other Indian religions to put on a party that pleases all who will come near. The Portuguese first landed in Goa as merchants during the 16th century, but after establishing themselves they went on to conquer it. Portuguese rule lasted for about 450 years, until it finally became a part of India in 1961. Under colonial rule, a form of Christianity spread throughout Goa, though it is commonly asserted that the methods of mission were highly coercive. Apparently, there is even evidence of a Goan Inquisition. Chet always disliked how some people could find such a happy union between the teachings of Jesus and the politics of power.
For Chet, the main draw of Goa was his reunion with the Ocean, and the relaxation that he hoped would be the result of that rekindled friendship. His heart was full of anticipation and desire. Though he was also intrigued with how this particular blend of Indian culture would meld with the modern beach scene, he had no interest in visiting any Christian artifacts in various states of decay. In the same spirit of his earlier trips to the Oregon Coast, he was intent to focus his time in Goa on the sandy beaches that would carry him into the presence of the Big Sea, in this case, the Arabian.
In Varanasi, upon the recommendation of his earlier train-mates, Chet had chosen to book his tickets in Sleeper Class, a step down from what he’d experienced already on the trip. He did not regret the choice, mostly because of the berth that he was providentially given by the person who booked his ticket.
The layout of the compartment on Sleeper Class is the same as the three-tier system in AC cars – with six sleeping berths in each compartment that convert into two benches that face each other. The feel, however, is completely different. The biggest difference is the open windows that let in all the sounds and smells of the surroundings, not to mention the dust. Compared to the enclosed AC compartments, Sleeper Class is just plain dirty. Despite that, Chet liked it. It had a much more communal feel. Although the compartment is meant for six passengers, there are, of course, often more passengers than that. In a nation of one billion people, there are inevitably more people than seats in most situations. It’s usually not a terrible problem. On a perfect day there are six people in each compartment. The train left Varanasi on a great day, not a perfect day. There were ten people from the start, and it rarely dipped below eight for the duration of the trip.
Chet was not bothered by the small crowd because he was blessed with the upper berth, which he likened to a shelf. Though it is often used for luggage storage during the day, he claimed the space for his body as soon as he boarded in Varanasi. Even though the train had originated in Patna that afternoon, the upper berth was conspicuously clear when he entered the compartment. He climbed up and lay down on his back, using his jacket for a pillow and his pack as a rest for his outstretched legs. He wasn’t necessarily trying to be anti-social, but in this position he was somewhat separated from the other passengers. He was, sort of, hovering above them. Periodically, of course, he would come down to their level to move about and squeeze into a seat for part of the journey. But he liked his own little space perched above the chaos and he was surprised at how much of the 36-hour trip he actually spent up there.
Chet spent most of his waking hours reading and reflecting, in addition to observing the passengers below him. People regularly came and went, some staying to chat, some coming and going without a word. Most of them looked up to greet him and smile. He had no idea from where they came or where they went, only that over the course of the journey there seemed to be a steady ebb and flow of people.
As night fell in Sleeper Class, the passengers set up their beds. The lower berth, where everyone had been seated, becomes one bed. The middle berth, which was lowered on a hinge against the wall and used as the backrest during the day, was raised and fixed in place, completing the three-tier bunk formation. It’s a good system, although it tends to sound more neat and tidy than it actually is.