I nervously twirled the silver band on my ring finger as I surveyed my companions. All men in their thirties and forties. All speaking a language I could not comprehend. The smell of sweat and rust and spice mixing in the metal box that would carry me for 18 hours, through the night, to my next adventure. Would my fake wedding ring be enough to fend off unwanted advances? Or would these men see through my ruse, smell my youth and inexperience, and take liberties with this solo female foreigner in a sea of men?
Everyone had warned me not to go. I was determined to prove them wrong. But my 22-year-old gumption was giving way to the voices of reason from back home. Voices which were quickly drowned out by the screeching-lurching-churning of the aging train straining to leave the station. No turning back now.
Feigning calm, I smoothed the airy layers of my salwar-kameez, the breezy tunic and billowy pants a relief in the sticky heat. I tugged down the scarf I’d carefully draped across my shoulders, which was now strangling my neck. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be less noticeable. To be less stared-at by all these men.
They spoke my language but I could not speak theirs.
“Hello, miss. I am Ravi. If you please, what is your name?” Seven pairs of eyes all turned to me expectantly. It seems my berth-mates had nominated their spokesman, a quiet young man with kind eyes sitting across from me.
“I’m Leah. Nice to meet you... all of you.” Laughter rippled out, dispersing the tension. One by one, they introduced themselves to me. Strangers becoming less strange. I learned about their hometowns, their studies, their jobs. I shared my own simplified biography.
Then out came the food. Container after container of aromatic surprises, still hot from the kitchen. They all wanted me to try the various dishes prepared by their mothers, grandmothers, wives. Explaining the history behind each one, the ingredients and methods of preparation, watching my face to see what I thought. It became a game of sorts. An unwitting cook-off with absent chefs.
I bit delicately into a coriander-scented ball of fried dough, an explosion of flavors I couldn't name filling my mouth. Next came a salty, spiced cracker - delightfully crunchy, followed by a steaming soup so peppery hot I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. I tried to enjoy each new taste, but my face has never been good at hiding my truth. They could tell which foods I liked and which I didn’t, teasing one another and offering me milky chai to wash down the bites that burned.
By the time the train groaned into the next station, I had seven new friends. My nervousness was replaced with ease. I could handle India. Alone yet not. My belly was full and my heart was light as we rumbled across the subcontinent towards Varanasi.
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