I would often awake with a start and think, where am I? I might be in a tent in Fargo or on a stranger’s couch in London or in bunk in a hostel in Rome. This time I was on the floor of the Howrah Train Station in Kolkata. People were crowding around me. Occasionally, someone would step over me. I sat up and looked around. My back was killing me. I tried to rub the sleep out of my eyes. I had arrived at the station early only to be told I’d have to ride back across the Hooghly River to a different building to book passage. After filling out more forms, and with my ticket finally in hand, I rode back to the station where it took another couple of hours to book my bike and equipment as baggage. With all arrangements made and no place to sit, I’d settled down on the floor against a column to get some rest. I’ll just close my eyes for a couple of seconds, I thought. That had been 20 minutes ago. Now I got up and walked around. All the chairs were taken and people were clustered in little camps on the floor all around the huge, barn-like structure, their baggage piled up in mounds.
I’d decided to send an e-mail to my daughter, Maren, to let her know I was okay, but as soon as I switched on my phone, there was a call from her. “Dad, did you get my e-mail?” She sounded grim.
“I got a message from FedEx. They’ve Delivered your package to the hotel in Kolkata.”
“Cornbread hell,” I said, “are you sure?”
“That’s what they’re telling me.”
I looked at my watch. My train would be pulling out in a couple of hours. Would I have time to get back to the hotel, pick up the box and get back to the station? Maybe. Or could I call and have the manager send it to me in a cab? Possible, but risky. Different plans of action raced through my brain. Whatever I was going to do I’d have to do it fast. “Okay, Honey,” I said, “I’ll let you know.”
He who hesitates is lost. But it’s also true that haste makes waste. Then again my Dad used to say, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” I decided to go with Dad and jumped in a cab. The 50-minute ride to the hotel through the gathering, Kolkata rush-hour traffic kept me on tenterhooks. When we arrived, I told the cabby to wait and dashed into the hotel. The manager greeted me with a huge grin and my FedEx box. I gave the cabby an extra 100 Rupees to make time and man, did that cat drive! Back at the station, I jumped out of the car while it was still rolling and hoofed it over to Track 9. I needn’t have rushed. I made it with time to spare but the solution of one problem had lead to the creation of another.
Now that I had my asthma medicine, I no longer needed to get to Delhi in a hurry. I could take my time and make the trip on my bike as I’d originally planned. The problem was that I didn’t have my bike or my bags; they were checked into the Indian railway system slowly making their way through that Byzantine, post-colonial organization and I had no idea how to retrieve them. I’d had to go across town just to buy tickets and it had taken me additional hours of schlepping everything from one department to another to arrange shipment of my gear as cargo. I had a stack of documents that I would have to present at the other end to claim my stuff. There was no telling what bureaucratic hoops I’d have to jump through to cancel that contract and get everything back now. My bike and all my camping gear were going to Delhi whether I was on that train or not.
Passengers were starting to mill around the doors of the train now, preparing to board. I heaved a sigh and gave in to my fate. I would take the train across India after all. I found my compartment and stretched out on the upper berth.