Travel Mishaps: Sins of A Sleeper Train
At some point in this story you are going to say to yourself, “Why isn’t this idiot wearing shoes?”. I don’t have to explain myself to you, Judgey McJudgePants, but as I am a courteous person, I will endeavor to give you as accurate a representation of the events that led up to The Great Shoeless Tragedy of 2017 so that you might understand why, in fact, I didn’t have on my goddamned shoes.
Before we officially begin, you have to know that the most important purchase a backpacker, or long-term traveler, can make is the right pair of shoes. These are the foundation that will (almost literally) carry you comfortably through all of your adventures. Just like your pack, you will form an emotional attachment to your shoes because they are what allow you to leave your footprint on the faraway lands you visit, just like each place leaves a footprint on your heart. It’s sentimentalism at its best/worst, once you have worn a pair of shoes all over the world, in the most trying of adventures, they become stuck to you forever.
And if you are rolling your eyes, thinking that having the wrong pair of shoes really ain’t that big of a deal, let me point you towards this 2h 5m documentary, How Wearing the Wrong Shoes Really Fucked Up My Day and Nearly Got Me Killed. You may know it by it’s alternate title, The Wizard of Oz.
Now, I’ve watched this doc no less than 200 times, so I was well prepared. Before leaving on the European leg of our journey, I wandered the hallowed halls of the Annapolis mall for hours debating the philosophical, ethical, and fashionable differences between Adidas and Vans; Nike and New Balance. Five phone calls to Kathleen and hundreds of picture texts later, I decided these sweet pair of pink and black Adidas would do the trick. That would turn out to be a stupid move.
I’d worn these puppies through the UK, Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. They’d (poorly) supported my soles through 15 countries and three mountain ranges. And despite their dope outward appearance, they were basically stiff, supportless boards masquerading as expensive sneakers. They had not turned out to be my best friends, but mere acquaintances at best, the ones you only like to see at parties where you can be sufficiently inebriated.
By the time we got to Varkala, India the need for proper footwear was imminent. Our next stop would be Kanha National Park and Kipling Camp where there’d be a helluvalot of walking, including daily two mile-long treks to a swim in a river with an elephant.
I interrupt this blog-post to deliver an important message. Traveling or vagabonding for two years is hands-down the hardest thing I have ever done. It is more physically, mentally and emotionally trying than the most challenging production I have ever managed or produced. I write and talk ad nauseum about the difficulties of life on the road and off the grid – and for the most part our travels were arduous and taxing adventures. Varkala, India, however, was an exception. While most of you were rolling your eyes at network notes, I spent a week on this balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean, perfecting my hash joint, and shoe shopping on Amazon.in for a new pair of shoes. If that doesn’t convince you to travel, I don’t know what will.
Back to blogging.
After days of searching, I found the perfect pair on Amazon.in. They were New Balances – midnight blue with bright pink stripes. They had great reviews and it looked like a ton of support. I just knew they would my new best friends! They were to be my trusty steeds who carried me to new horizons. I informed my Adidas that our relationship just wasn’t working out and that they would be on to new adventures at Varkala Beach for the remainder of their days. They didn’t seem to have much emotional reaction to this proclamation; I think the feelings were mutual.
My new best friends couldn’t be shipped to our location, so I arranged to have them shipped to Kipling Camp’s offices which is about a four drive from the actual Kipling Camp. The plan was that our driver would pick them up from the offices, then pick us up from the train station. I’d have them just in the nick of time for our adventure in Kanha – the park the inspired The Jungle Book.
Getting a new pair of shoes is always exciting, but it’s about a million times more so when you’ve been wearing the same four outfits and two pairs of shoes for six months. I can not stress enough how excited I was to get these shoes. We had left the Middle East and were venturing on to the Asian portion of our trip, which would ultimately take us all the way to New Guinea – and these were the shoes who would take me there. I ripped open the package in the backseat of the car like a kid on Christmas morning.
Now, anyone who has ever seen me attempt to dance knows I have two left feet. But I don’t think it was necessary for the folks at Amazon to send me two left shoes. Well, played India, well played. I was four hours from civilization and had two options: wear the shoes or skip hiking. Skipping hiking was not a real option: we had specifically picked Kipling Camp because of Tara the rescued elephant who resides there. Everyday she goes on a two-mile (round trip) hike to the river where she goes swimming. Lucky guests can accompany her for this journey and even go swimming with her, if they are brave enough. I was not going to miss the chance to tread water and look into this marvelous beast’s eyes just because of a pair of shoes.
The hiking was absolutely excruciating. Not only did the right foot object being put into the left foot’s box, but the left foot must have felt under appreciated because both feet began revolting to my new step patterns and sneakers. Within just the first ten minutes, both feet were sending me danger messages and by the time we got to the river, it was full-on SOS signals. Every day we walked to the river and back with Miss Tara and every day my poor feet felt the brunt of the outing. They were red, sore, raw and blistered after just the first day. I took them off absolutely every chance I got. Tara, and you alone did I suffer the fate of two left shoes – blisters, sore spots and all. And it was absolutely worth it.
To make matters worse, I somehow managed to make an enemy of the camp’s resident rooster. Everytime I left my cabin, this little asshole would make a run for me. And don’t go thinking he was just some birdbrained featherhead protecting his territory. This guy was obviously trained by M16, CIA, and KGB. He knew where the hell I was and what the hell I was doing at all times. He knew when I was sleeping, he knew when I was awake and he definitely knew when I was wandering around the camp unguarded. He would hide out behind trees, just to charge me when he saw me coming.
I would also like to point out that I did nothing to said agent of destruction. In fact, the workers there, young British boys, would constantly throw dog toys at him and taunt him. I, on the other hand, was his biggest advocate. But no good deed goes unpunished and I quickly became the bullseye of targeted, premeditated attacks. In fact, I don’t even have a decent picture of the poultrine assassin because every time I was near, he was trying to kill me.
You should know, that roosters are surprisingly fast and can use their little wings to jump and fly at astonishing attack speeds. Janes are unsurprisingly slow in comparison and it took a
decent amount of energy to run away from this horrid bird, especially tripping over two left shoes. Just getting breakfast turned into a Rambo
simulation, ducking and weaving for my donuts. My daily rooster sprints became a source of great entertainment for the workers of the camp. Glad to be of services, mates.
At one point, I thought I could outsmart him. I thought I could just get around the camp on a bike and that the large machine would discourage Cranky from being such an asshole. Instead he chased me around on the bike, playing literal chicken until I had to swerve severly to miss his feathered ass that I fell off the bike and got a good knocking to my head – and ego. I’m not sure, but I think I could hear the whole of Kipling Camp, even Tara, laughing in the background. To make it worse, Cranky Cock didn’t even have the decency to finish the job. I was so pathetic looking there on the ground that he just cocked his head, side-eyed me, clucked, and walked away – shaking his infuriating tailfeather at me the whole time. I was done with that damned bike and it was back to running from Cranky in my two left shoes.
My pride was pretty bruised, but my feet were even more so. After almost a week of avoiding rooster pecks and taking long walks to the beach with my elephant girlfriend, my poor earth crushers were absolutely shot. They throbbed every time I put on my shoes and were just. so. red. I was literally cursing these god dammed shoes every time I had to put them on, which didn’t do much for our relationship.
It was kind of sad, actually. Like I said, you form an emotional attachment to your shoes and I had been so excited about finding the trusty steeds who would carry me through my Asian adventures. And to some extent, they had. They had allowed me to bond with an elephant and avoid attacks from a rooster. They had been already been a part of some of my most memorable – and humiliating – experiences. They were like frenemies; we had a serious love-hate relationship.
But by the end of the week, it was a hate-hate relationship. Luckily, we were headed to Varanasi, where it would be warmer. All I had to do was make it through one train ride and then I could wear my beloved flip flops once more, until we got to New Delhi where Amazon had my new shoes awaiting.
I actually wore said flip flops to the train station, but we were on a night train, so the frigid central Indian air blew through the train station. I had to choose between throbbing, sore feet and hypothermia and somehow the blisters won that war. I’ve never cursed a pair of shoes so much in my life – and I used to wear stilettos to set.
By the time I boarded the train in Madhya Pradesh, India my body was in such a state of disrepair that if I were a human repairman, I’d have thrown me out and started over. I was getting sick, it was freezing, and I was in immense pain.Thankfully we had an overnight sleeper train, so I got into my comfiest clothes, stashed my horrid shoes under the lower bunk with my pack and snuggled in with my kindle for a relaxing night, hoping to the large metal shipping container of a train would be my cradle, rocking me to sleep on our 8 hour journey.
Since I was under the weather, I started guzzling water and vitamin C, following my godson, Owen’s, mantra : Gotta Stay Hydrated. Well buddy, Auntie Jane ended up following youradvice a little too well.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a bladder fuller than a tick on my face. Normally, going to the bathroom in the middle of night isn’t a problem, but in this particular case it would get complicated and gross pretty quickly. I wasn’t just in any bed. I was on the top bunk of a rickety sleeper train lumbering through the darkness of night. It was pitch black and the train was going full-speed.. And it was, to my dismay, absolutely freezing.
I scurried down the bunk ladder, cold metal digging into my sore, sock-clad feet. I kicked my sleeping bunkmates head and cursed myself. It was at this point that I had to make a pivotal decision – do I wake my bunkmates scurrying around under their beds for my shoes or do I brave the bathroom journey shoeless? This time hypothermia won out and in all honesty, the cool train floor actually felt nice on my throbbing feet. And honestly, I just wanted this abusive relationship with footwear to be over. Putting them on again would probably just make me cry. Off I went.
Navigating a train in the pitch black going 100mph is akin to playing Twister – while piss drunk and surrounded by sleeping humans. And trust me, if a parangi wakes a peacefully sleeping Indian in the middle of the night because they are too clumsy to walk properly, said sleeping beauty will be grumpier than Cranky Cock on fried chicken day. I said more “I’m sorry’s” in the space of five minutes than Bill Clinton said during his entire impeachment trial.
After two cars and a slew of grumbling passengers, the bathroom finally made an appearance. Tucked away in the back of the train, this little box of relief was like visine to dry-eyed stoner – pure gold.
I slid open the door, the train lurched and I was flung into the freezing cell. Now, I must interrupt this blog post again for another important announcement: India has a massive shit problem. In many areas, livestock runs free, decorating the streets with their waste. On trains, the toilets have no tanks, just holes that lead to the ground whizzing by (pun delightfully intended) underneath where all our bodily unmentionables are thrown from our bodies to the tracks below. And when shit hits the tracks, it’s pretty gross. In fact, this is such a problem in the country, that tracks have started to deteriorate from the accumulating urine and feces of the 8.4 billion passengers who frequent the country’s rail system every year.
Back to blogging: The smell hit before the sensation. It was piss. Piss everywhere. In the air, seeping into the walls, assaulting my nostrils. A thin layer of the piss on the floor spreading around the dirt like a piss-dirt Jackson Pollack. There was nothing to grab onto to keep me steady and twice I almost fell into the bog of eternal piss before reaching the toilet hole.
At last, my throbbing feet staggered me to the toilet, drunk on meds and sleep deprivation, fighting to hold onto the contents of my stomach, which were just begging to come up from both the movement and the stench.
Now, you might think it’s just rude people who would piss all over a bathroom floor, but if you’ve ever tried to squat or aim in the middle of the night on a rickety train going 100 mph, you’d understand why more than a few people miss the mark. And it was as I was trying my best to “aim”, it hit me. My feet weren’t just cold. They were wet. My socks were absolutely soaked. Just as I felt my bladder give way, my ass sticking out and being slapped from the wind from below the train, I realized that my socks were soaked entirely in the piss of passengers past and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Utterly dejected, disgusted, and exhausted, I finished my business and didn’t even bother to wash my hands. I got out of that hell hole faster than Vin Diesel in a supercar. I stood in the hallway half-hyperventilating and half-crying in exhaustion and pain. I was probably imagining it, but I could just see the piss microbes entering the raw, sore spots on my poor feet.
It is at this point where you would probably ask yourself, “Why isn’t this idiot wearing any shoes?”. I hope I have supplied sufficient evidence to support my actions as an act of humanitarianism to my feet.
It was one of those “just can’t” moments. I gave up. I sloshed back to my bunk, in the dark, smelling like someone had dropped me in a vat full of old urine. I climbed up the bunk again. I can’t imagine what my bunkmate thought as my piss feet climbed past his head one more time. Once in the bunk, I slipped off the socks, sealed them in two plastic bags. I took a hand sanitizer shower right there in my bunk; I think I used half of the bottle alone on my feet. My feet were stinging and burning as I doused all the raw parts in the sanitizer. I rinsed them with my “gotta-stay-hydrated” water, cried, rinsed some more, cried and garnished with a final dose of sanitizer. And, then, I fell back asleep while dreams of pee-footed Sugar Plum fairies danced in my head.
When we finally got to New Delhi about a week later, I packed up my stupid shoes and sent them on their merry way. I don’t know whatever happened to them, but I hope they are off torturing some other poor soul. As for me, I finally found my bestie shoes – these teal green Nikes that accompanied me through Asia into New Guinea back to London and then to our final stop: South America. They are still with me and I wear them everyday. They have a few holes now and are a little worse for the wear – and despite my mother’s pleas for me to get respectable sneakers, I think I’ll hold off on a new shoe adventure for a little while.