In the bunks below, voices chattered in Hindi as the train to Jaisalmer lurched forward. Half awake, I glanced at Laura in the opposite bunk and smiled. A distant and wan stare was all my wife could muster in return. Our tenuous attempt at communication was interrupted by a long hacking cough from one of our fellow passengers. I rolled my eyes. I could now identify the low point of our trip to India. Using skills once learned on a school jungle gym, I climbed down from my bunk. The smell of cumin, coriander, and onion filled the car as our fellow passengers opened their bagged breakfasts. Coughing erupted again. My ticket read "first-class/three-tier/ a.c." Our car was a metal box with plexiglass windows, enamel floors, and stacked vinyl cots. I walked to the bathroom. First-class cars included a pit toilet that opened on the tracks passing below. What, I wondered, were second- and third-class accommodations like? Upon returning to my car, I tried to distract myself by looking out the window. The landscape was arid, open desert. Thank goodness the air conditioning was first-rate. As I often do when uncomfortable, I pulled out a book: The Natural, Joe Klein’s evaluation of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I was buried in the Lewinsky scandal when I heard a single word in English. It was the cougher. "Clinton?" I peered over my book and smiled, "Yes." Suddenly, the United States didn’t feel ten thousand miles away. Actually, until that train ride, the United States had seemed strangely close. In conversation, on roadside billboards, on television, I found my country (if not my countrymen) everywhere. Arriving in Delhi, we had been welcomed by our travel agent, with questions about tourism in New York since "eleven September." Indian tourism was also hurting, he reported. He feared the looming war between the United States and Iraq would only make matters worse. He wanted to know what Americans thought of India. "If we think of India at all," I answered, "it is usually because of violence between Hindus and Muslims." To which Laura added, "Or the poverty of Calcutta." Our guide hoped we would return home with a different opinion. Outside of Delhi, American accents were rare, and by the time we boarded the train tourists in general were scarce. Consequently, when we arrived in Jaisalmer we had our own private dune in Sam Sand Dunes (if you don’t count our two camels and the four-year-old who jockeyed us out there, hoping we might mention him in the backpacker guide, Lonely Planet). The lack of tourists made for great sightseeing and some quiet dinners. It also allowed waiters and guides (they were almost exclusively Hindu men) to take the time to explain the local culture. Once introduced to the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, who could resist his playfulness? We learned the finer points of cricket, a national obsession. Storytelling seems to be another national trait. One storyteller nearly convinced us that we had witnessed a newborn camel race around its mother, when in fact we were merely sharing dinner in a café. The Taj Mahal is indescribably beautiful. Equally striking for us was the curiosity of Indians about current events. "Looks like Tony Blair is headed for trouble with Parliament," began a conversation with our tour guide in Agra. Another guide asked, "Why do you think Mr. Bush is pressing so hard for this war?" India is a country wired for news. Turn on the TV and you have your choice of BBC Asia, CNN International (Larry King Live was not meant to be viewed at 7:30 a.m.), and in Delhi two channels are dedicated to local news coverage. In northern India there are at least twenty-two major newspapers. You can read the news in English, Hindi, Punjabi, or Urdu. The Internet reaches even the smallest villages. Clinton visited India in 2000. Our first night in Delhi a retired Indian army brigadier general told us, "This current administration plays dangerously with Pakistan-unlike Clinton who understood you have to work with both countries [India and Pakistan] to keep stability." Our tour guide in Jaipur, which is 160 miles from Delhi, commented, "You know, when Bill Clinton was here we trained tour guides at the Amer Fort for six months, because we knew he would have many questions and we didn’t want to be caught off-guard." The fact that Clinton’s schedule prevented him from spending much time locally was a real source of disappointment. On our last night in Delhi we enjoyed the "Presidential Platter" at the restaurant Bukhara. Named after Clinton, who had eaten there, our entrée was a savory feast of leg of lamb, chicken tandoori, dal, and nan. It was said that after feasting there Clinton announced that he wished he had two stomachs. Clinton’s visit has evidently shaped Indian views about American appetites: the platter held twice as much food as any two people could eat. When we returned to New York, I scrounged to find a cricket score. American appetites seemed super-sized. And camels, imaginary or real, were hard to come by. I also wondered what the people of India thought about the war in Iraq, which had begun the week we got back, and whether Bill Clinton is more popular than ever in Delhi and elsewhere. end

Published in the 2003-05-23 issue: View Contents
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Paul Q. Kane, SJ, is co-director of Kateri Northwest Ministry Institute in Spokane, Washington.
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