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.