I left Xuchang in a daze. A madcap journey across the central plains to reach the lushness of the south. Lynn, Spoon and Cissy were there to see us off at the station as was Ruby. At that time, I didn’t think I would miss Xuchang as much as I do now. Perhaps at that time, I was too tired. I still am. Now though, the tiredness is replaced by a sense of tired resignation. Is this all that I can do in my life? Is this the clamor that I am forced to live with?
I usually love train journeys. To me, the music of the train is a lullaby to dreamless sleep. This time though, I hated the journey. The awakening into the green south was lost in the darkness of the night. Birdie and I’s seats were surrounded by some of the most leering men I have encountered in China. When we got off the train early in the morning in Guangzhou, small wonder that in the midst of all that dazed mind-numbing tiredness, we left the “migrant workers'” bag on the train. What followed was hilarious in hindsight. We had to call Lynn – who translated what had happened to the guards at the station – Birdie went with one of them, returned back a few minutes later and we had to lug all that luggage to another guard who spoke fluent English. Turned out that I had to go to what was foggily described as “another station” Now I step out of the train station – and I am swamped by the hugeness of Guangzhou. Like Zhengzhou, this has just been a transit city for me. With just a paper in hand with something written in Chinese, I tried in vain to cross the barricades that separated humans from vehicles. A long long walk later, I found a taxi stand. No luck here – most of the taxi drivers didn’t know where this mysterious place was – and I was cursing Guangzhou bad. Real bad – like bad people, unsmiling people, grumpy people. More walking, more walking till I finally reached a place where there were no barricades obstructing man from mankind’s means of getting around.
Finally, a friendly taxi driver who was helpful enough to call the place on the piece of paper – and a short taxi ride later, there I was. Another guard snarled at me and from the snarling, I could gauge that I was to give the “piyao” or the tickets. I did produce it and I was escorted by another chubby police officer who looked like he might be more at place behind a PC than strutting around escorting weird foreigners who are dumb enough to leave their luggage behind on a train.
And this was a first for me – I have reached the dockyard. Each train comes here after its long journey for a professional shower. They are cleaned, spruced and decked out for the next haul. The ground below the trains are flushed with the refuse of the last journey. I walk gingerly amidst green tracks of sewage. The portly officer keeps asking me questions in Chinese – questions which I don’t understand enough to give the answer. The train I arrived in Guangzhou from Xuchang is frightfully long – it sits like a long snake across taut turpentine streaks of metal. Slush slush I paddle in my shoes. The sun is baking me across the back. Finally, the officer beckons me towards what I guess is the compartment of the train I was in. I am hauled up to the train as the steps have mysteriously disappeared. I walk through an empty train – mattresses are being cleaned, new bedsheets are unfurled. Walking across the train, I reach the berth where I have just spent 16 hours. I recognize the ticket collector who had helped me get on the train. A hurried exchange follows in Chinese – and somehow I understand that the “migrant workers'” bag is not on the train but has been stowed away somewhere else. We get down, I plop my feet in more slush and walk across following another line of train tracks. All around me are trains – my feet are aching, I feel like lying down on the clean sheets inside the train and wish this aching tiredness away.
The sun zooms higher. Troy, the Chinese friend who is awaiting me in Shenzhen messages me to find out what happened. I trudge across more train tracks. Portly officer is also sweating now. Finally, miraculously looms another police station. And inside one of the rooms is the bag. After a short translation service later, courtest Lynn, I sign a paper written in Chinese, and trudge out. The portly officer drops me across at the first station after hitching a ride on a goods trailer – and I walk more miles before finding a taxi that drops me to the station.
Guangzhou – memories surface of my last time there. It was chaos too then. The height of the Spring Festival jam -and I was rescued from the mayhem by a Chinese stranger who buys me tickets from the mass of bobbing heads that surround the ticket station. Guangzhou this time was no less chaotic. I board the fanciest train in China -the D train capable of speeds of up to 180km/hr – and watch as Guangzhou swirls by through its air-conditioned windows, wondering if my green-caked shoes will ever tread here again.