The following morning, we prepare to leave Varanasi and head to Agra (and the much anticipated Taj Mahal). I’d been fighting off some mean stomach afflictions all night and, in the morning, they still won’t let up. It couldn’t come a worse time: we plan to travel to Agra by overnight sleeper train.
Tim and I tried traveling by overnight sleeper train once between London and Edinburgh. Even with its modern, first-world flair, it was not fun. Gentle rocking. Quiet, constant percussion from the tracks. That’s what I imagined it would be like to sleep on a train. In reality, I slept very little.
The rocking: not gentle, but rough and unpredictable.
The percussion: I couldn’t even hear it over our loud neighbors and the fire alarm going off twice.
I’m the type of person who needs my sleep. So I’m not sure why I thought that trying a sleeper train, Indian-style, would be a good idea.
Tim prepares for the journey by getting a massage. Of course, this was supposed to be a couples’ massage, but I decline. Two things that don’t ever mix are massage and diarrhea. I spend every minute I can in the bathroom, literally until the moment they load the tuk-tuks with our group’s luggage. On our way to the train station, the tuk-tuk is zigzagging through traffic while I speak poop-related affirmations over myself:
You’re prepared; you just spent the entire morning in the bathroom. And there will be a bathroom on the train. Even if you’re bombing into a hole in the train’s floor, you’ll be alright. You’ll make it to Agra. You’ve got this, tiger.
Even the tigress is sick. Delhi Belly is so intense it will reach through your psyche and infect your alter ego.
When we arrive at Varanasi Junction, I (carefully) hoist my backpack on my shoulders and join a throng of people headed towards the rails.
“The trains run on Indian Standard Time,” says Anant with a sarcastic chuckle and a shrug, “and that means we could be here a while. If the train is delayed, there’s nothing we can do but wait on the platform. Once, one of my groups and I waited 12 hours on the platform! But hopefully, we won’t be delayed that long.”
The platform is an open-air concrete slab with an overhang that provides some shade. There are no bathrooms anywhere. Even after all the affirmations and preparations, I can feel my chest tighten, and breaths shorten as Anxiety starts to take the reins.
Not 15 minutes later, the ground starts to rumble, and Anant readies the group, “This is ours!” And I’ve never been so happy to see a train.
We make our way through the crowd to board and find that a large family has settled into our seats. Anant argues with them loudly in a language we don’t understand before walking us away to a different compartment.
“The tour company buys extra seats in case this happens,” he explains. We sit down next to an elderly, barefoot couple who are on their way to a wedding.
“Would you please consider giving me your seat?” implores the elderly man of me in English. “I am old and cannot climb well,” he laughs loudly. And I realize he’s talking about tonight when the seats around us fold down and become bunks. He wants my bottom bunk in exchange for his top bunk.
Of course, I trade with him. I think it annoys Anant, who went through so much to get us the best bunks. But what Anant doesn’t understand is that I’m from the southern United States, where ladies don’t ask for anything, even if we need it, lest we be a minor inconvenience (God forbid). Bless our hearts.
I don’t know if my body will allow me to scale a ladder and climb into a top bunk, but, in the words of regional icon Scarlett O’Hara: I can’t think about this now. I urgently need to find the bathroom and purge (from both ends).
I find it at the far end of the car. I have to step over the joint between train cars to get to it. It is a western toilet, but there’s no seat, no flushing, and, looking into the hole at the bottom of the grimy bowl, I can see the tracks whizzing by. It’s not perfect, but it’s here, and I’m grateful.
Outside, the setting sun is painting the sky in indigos with streaks of pink. Solitary stars are beginning to pop through the smog. Even in my Delhi Belly haze, I can appreciate the striking scenery: trees and small buildings pepper the flat, sandy countryside. It stretches out in every direction to the feet of far-off mountains. People bike and walk alongside the train tracks. The soft, dreamy light quiets the naturally loud colors of their saris and turbans. The train window is like a watercolor painting.
There’s a small jolt, and the entire train suddenly stops. People crowd around the windows. The train is sitting in a small cluster of buildings in the middle of the arid landscape. Something is blocking the tracks.
After two hours at a standstill, I look out the windows to the train’s left and right during another trip to the bathroom. Countless headlights stream through the plexiglass – cars, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles are piling up on both sides. Until the train moves, this little town is split in two.
Anant shakes his head and stretches out in his seat, “The longer we sit here, the longer it will take to reach Agra.” I hadn’t put this together yet. Our original estimated trip time (without delays) was 10 hours.
We’re now looking at about 13 hours (if there aren’t any additional delays). 13 hours. And my stomach doesn’t seem to be getting any better with each field trip to the bathroom. In an attempt to stave off dehydration, I’ve almost blown through my only liter of water (these trains don’t have snack or beverage carts like is common on airplanes, you bring your own sustenance). And there are still hours and hours to go before we reach Agra.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” I attempt to self-soothe on my millionth trip back from the bathroom. “I’m just going to go to bed, get some good sleep, and it’ll make a world of difference. I just need to sleep it off.”
At that moment, the train starts to move again! I let out an audible moan of relief that, judging by the faces of my fellow passengers, transcends language. They nod and agree with me using body language. We begin working together to convert the benches into bunks. Downing the last of my water, I struggle up the ladder and into my top bunk.
Unsurprisingly, I sleep poorly. Hardly at all, actually. The older man enjoying my initially assigned bottom bunk snores so loudly, I question whether or not he’s pulling a prank on us.
As we pull into Agra and start collecting our things to disembark, my Delhi Belly has worsened. I have intense body aches, fever, chills, dizziness, and dilated eyes. I can’t lift my bag. I can barely stand for more than a few minutes at a time. Tim carries both our huge backpacks through the crowded, dusty Agra train station as I squint against the sun and try my best to keep walking.
And a thought pops into my head. An angry, indignant thought. A thought that has frequented my head for the last year:
I did not ask for this.
In fact, I did everything in my power to actively avoid this very situation. I declined street lassi. I washed and sanitized my hands religiously. I kept my mouth shut in the shower. I only put steaming-hot food in my mouth, and here I am: sick out of my mind with Delhi Belly. And I’m not resentful, but, just for the record, the people in our group who have risked raw food or street lassi are all feeling fine.
I don’t realize it immediately, but tears are streaming down my face. I’m not sad. I’m angry. And I’m completely exhausted by my total lack of control.
In the months immediately after our traumatic event, I felt these same surges of anger. It bubbled up in response to nothing in particular, and at times that didn’t always make sense.
Sometimes I would have to remove myself from people, even Tim, confessing, “I’m sorry, I’m just really angry right now, and I’m not sure why.” It was like my body, independently from my brain, would randomly remember the injustice of it all and surge into fight mode on my behalf.
Being angry on my own behalf is not something that I’m very comfortable with; I don’t think many people are, especially women. It’s much easier for us to get angry on behalf of someone else. If you hurt me, I can swallow my words. But if you hurt my friend or spouse or kid, I’m going to speak up.
So I stuffed my anger down deep where it could fester and grow, like a blister. After I started working with my therapist, she encouraged me to give myself the space to be angry. She said:
You have a right to feel angry about what happened to you.
You have a right to fume and rail about the way that things should have gone.
Because what happened was tragic.
And you deserved better.
You deserved so much better.
I never thought twice about the phrase “in spite of,” even though it includes a pretty barbed word: spite. But it makes sense because, to thrive in spite of tragedy, you have to permit yourself to bring that spite. You have to sit with her barbs and her mess.
And there will be a mess. Because processing anger is like cleaning out your garage. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
There wasn’t anyone my spite didn’t target. It was like a landmine that exploded with no regard to who was friend or who was foe. I was angry at Tim. I was angry at God. I was angry at myself for being too stupid to foresee my tragedy (as if anyone ever can).
But, in the words of the unnamed poet, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.”
That’s what this anger truly is: white-hot grief.
Grief for the life you would have lived, the story you should have had.
Grief for the pre-trauma version of yourself that no longer exists.
Grief for the belief that you have any control over the things that happen to you.
It wasn’t until I grieved, really grieved, the passing of these things that I began to see the tigress and follow after her.
I collapse when we reach our hotel room. Tim and Anant call two doctors to come directly to the hotel. I don’t know what wonder drugs they give me or what the pills are for, but I sleep for almost 24 hours.
When the sun rises, I’m miraculously whole again with only lingering fatigue and weakness. I missed most of the Agra experiences while I slept. But I’m strong enough to see history’s most exquisite monument to love with my lover.