Thomas the Tank Engine and Muslim Weddings

When my friend Rashmi invited me to her wedding three provinces away, I thought about saying no, but then I remembered my "I'm game" rule, and changed my mind. The wedding is in Mukteshwar, which sounds like the name of an Al Qaeda recruiting center, but isn't, and the trip will take about 40 hours. I'm on my way to the train station; the first leg is an overnight train to New Delhi.

Ever since the days of Thomas the Tank Engine, I've been a train fanatic, and I get a huge rush from hanging out the car door, watching rural India fly by.

I have a bone to pick with Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. Most passenger trains run overnight, not during the daytime, because they have limited AC, and long distances between stations. Most of the shots in that movie are of trains chugging along in the heat of the day. Also, the film was shot in Rajasthan province, but Darjeeling is on the other side of the country.

After a fitful night's sleep, I'm again hanging out the door in the dim morning light, watching Delhi come to life. The neighboring tracks, are a popular toilet for local residents, maybe because of their relative isolation. The squatters are utterly unconcerned about being naked in front of the 20-car-long train passing by ten feet from them.

I take a taxi across Delhi with two friends, who are leaving Seva Mandir for foreign shores. At least once a day, the price of something takes me by surprise. My 12-hour train ride cost $6, and the taxi across Delhi costs nearly as much.

One time I tried to take public transit from Claremont to UCLA. Door-to-door, the trip took 3 hours and 20 minutes. I've now ridden a private car, train, taxi, subway, and bus, and everything went smoothly. I get on the bus to Haldwani, a town at the foot of the mountains in Uttarakhand province, only 80km from my destination. It's amusing that planning and taking a journey of similar length in my native country (and native language) would be a Kafkaesque struggle. The USA just doesn't have the infrastructure, density, or quantity of poor people, for feasible public transit.

Bus travel is not romantic; there's no AC, no legroom and people try to sell you things through the window when you slow down. Four hours in we stop at an out-of-the-way restaurant, in an arrangement that surely generates kickbacks for the driver and ticket-taker. Out of principle I refuse to buy anything. The highlight of the trip comes when a man carrying a goat sits down in the seat across from me. I'd love to ask him questions, like what he does for a living, where he is going, whether he had to pay a separate ticket for the goat, and most importantly why he has a goat with him, but the language barrier's too large, so instead I just take a photo.

I debate quitting my seat and climbing onto the roof of the bus, where I can stretch my legs and enjoy a great view. Ultimately I decide that I am drawing enough stares as the only foreigner on a bus for locals; I don't need to draw more by climbing up to the roof. After nine hours I get off the bus and stay overnight in Kathgodam, near Haldwani.

Early in the morning the proprietor wakes me up at 6:30 and hustles me into the back of a Jeep, where I'm squished in the back, as the twelfth passenger. I'm not sure why I have to get up this early; there's only 70 kilometers to go, until we get two kilometers outside of town and I realize it's going to be 70 kilometers up a narrow, winding mountain road. The road to Mukteshwar is sort of like the road up to Mt. Baldy, only more windy, twice as narrow, and with the occasional landslide blocking one lane. Sleeping or reading for the next three hours will be impossible. I used to pride myself on being able to sleep anywhere until I notice that the woman next to me is fast asleep.

It would be pretty absurd to think that you could get an idea of the "United States" in a short trip in one city. I am realizing that you could easily take six or seven two-week trips to India, and for all intensive purposes, be transported to a different country each time. Rajasthan, where I've been staying, is a dry desert; Uttarakhand is mountainous and relatively thinly populated. Two hours into the Jeep ride I catch a glimpse of the Himalayas; they are imposing, snow white and beautiful. If I weren't so queasy I would snap a picture.

Finally, I arrive in Mukteshwar. At the end of a mountain road, and 7500 feet in the air, Mukteshwar is a place that you'd go to when you would like to get away from it all. It's the high-altitude home of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, which according to its website, "conducts diploma courses in veterinary preventive medicine, animal husbandry, veterinary biological products, animal reproduction, poultry husbandry, medicine and surgery, zoo and wild animal health care and management, meat and meat products technology." Some of the buildings here are holdovers from the time of British colonization. The landscape is out of a storybook. The hills are terraced and steep, and small homes dot the hillside. Everything smells like pine trees.

Whether to show off to their friends back home, to feel more exotic, or to try and show their tourist friends that they're fitting in, Western tourists around the world love 'integrating with the local culture.' This is unfortunate, and to anyone who's been around for a few months (or a local), it looks silly; it usually involves mastering the words "Hello" and "Thank You" in the local language, eating non-spicy, overpriced versions of the local food, and doing the same things as the locals do, like ride elephants, gain an intimate understanding of the Kama Sutra (again, ride elephants), or embark on all-inclusive overnight camel safaris. I wanted to fit in at the wedding, so before I left I went to a tailor and bought a knee-length, embroidered kurta and white trousers.

This backfires slightly when I look around and notice everyone at the wedding is wearing Western clothes: collared shirts, sweaters, and jeans or khakis. Out-localing the locals is a ridiculous idea and I leave the kurta in the bag, unmentioned. I'll wear it next time I'm hanging out with other tourists, or back home.

This isn't my first Muslim wedding; my cousin got married at our house a few years ago. As Rashmi introduces her family, extended family, neighbors and friends, I say "As salaam aleikum!" to everyone, and score points. The Khans are the nicest people on the planet; they're trying extremely hard to make me feel comfortable, to the point that it starts to get uncomfortable.

Today, the first goal of the Khans is to successfully marry their eldest daughter. Their second goal is to feed me as much food as possible. In mid-afternoon we sit down to eat, and every two minutes or so someone drops more food on my plate, or refills my cup, despite my attempts to get them to stop. I resort to the little Hindi I know, or have heard, and plead, "Bas, bas. Nehi!" The server drops more lamb kebab on my plate anyway, but he stops coming after that.

Over the course of the afternoon I am introduced to Rashmi's husband's sisters. I can't speak Hindi, and they can't really speak English, so there's an awkward pause. Each time, after about a minute, I'm asked by one of Rashmi's brothers, "So what do you think?" "Of what?" I say. "My sister-in-law." I'm not sure whether they're serious about attempting a marriage to someone I met one minute ago, or just testing the waters, but in any event, I demur politely.

As a traditional Indian wedding, the women are in the Khan home preparing Rashmi's dress and clothes and the men are outside talking to each other. I'm supposed to spend time with the men; I put aside my inner Andrew Bluebond, and decide to fight gender stereotypes another day.

Spending a long time talking to any group of people fills me with a sort of low-grade anxiety; usually I mitigate this by checking my phone, drinking heavily, and/or talking about basketball. As we're in the middle of nowhere, it's a Muslim wedding, and no one cares about hoops here, I'm in trouble. Only some of the guests speak good English, so I content myself by watching a mountain eagle and an osprey float lazily on a nearby thermal.

(By the way, if someone asks you who your favorite cricketer is, it's a loaded question. There's only one correct answer: Sachin Tendulkar, the 5'6 legend who's been thwacking sixes for more than two decades, who prompts fawning ESPN India commercials, and Hindustan Times op-eds wondering whether he should be knighted. If someone asks you who your favorite actor is, you have a little more latitude: you can answer Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan. Maybe I'm biased, because I've stuck to small cities and only been here two months, but it seems like pop culture is much more homogeneous here; everyone listens to the same hit songs, the same two movies play in the theaters at a time, and the same actors and cricket players are popular amongst everyone. I have a theory that India, at least the parts that I stay in, is like the 1930's US, with better technology. Salman Khan reminds me of Cary Grant.)

Finally, we get to the ceremony, which is short. Rashmi wears jeans around our dorm, and was wearing them when I talked to her that morning, so I'm stunned by her outfit; she emerges in an extremely fine dress, jewelry actually straining her neck forward, her face obscured by a beaded veil. Her soft-spoken husband, Asim, is waiting outside, wearing a traditional outfit, turban, and necklace of rupees, which brings good fortune. Traditionally, the bride goes to the groom's house for two days and then returns home. Because Asim lives in Moradabad, over 250km away, this part of the ceremony is simulated; the couple walk slowly to the home next door, followed by a crowd, spend ten minutes there and then return.

Back in the home, the couple are now married, and everyone gathers around to give the couple their blessing. I'm outside talking when I see Rashmi's brother walking quickly away from the house, with Rashmi over his shoulder. Did she get cold feet? but it turns out he's only carrying her to the "Just married" vehicle. It turns out that once married, the bride's feet cannot touch the earth until they reach their new home. That's reassuring, because I was worried I would have had an awkward afternoon.

I spend the afternoon with local boys, walking around Mukteshwar, and going to the nearby cliffs as the sun sets. We discuss the usual subjects: the Backstreet Boys, whether Hollywood or Bollywood actresses are prettier, and the WWE. Twice Asim starts singing "Tearing Up My Heart."

After the sun sets, it gets really cold; we spend most of the night back at the Khan home, warming our hands around a small fire. I explain that I'm going to travel for a few days after the wedding. They are concerned that I will get lost, or taken advantage of, and worry that I don't have enough money. I tell them that I'm an experienced traveler, and then I try to explain real wages, and how prices and wages are higher in the US, and that you can earn $16,000 a year (about 800,000 rupees), and be poor in the US but have relatively lots of money here. I'm not sure that my point's hitting home.

There are more stars in the sky than I have ever seen in my life. Sameer, Rashmi's brother, asks if I want to go on a walk. He starts walking into the darkness with no flashlight; I simultaneously realize that, evolutionarily, it makes more sense that people can see in the dark, and there's a reason why every phone in India has a built in LED flashlight. Sameer tells me he's seen four tigers in Mukteshwar, one about thirty yards from his house. The tiger snatched a dog in its jaws and bounded off. We look out across the valley, which is dark but for a hundred flickering lights. Sameer says that three years ago, there were maybe one or two lights in the whole valley, and now everyone has one.

There isn't a good reason to stay up late, so we hit the sack by 10pm, and get up early the next morning. Within ten minutes of waking up someone's turned the TV on. Maybe our cultures are similar, after all.

By 9am I've had four cups of chai, but they don't do much against the cold. I think of Rashmi, happy, in Moradabad with her new husband, and feel warm inside. I'm ready to head out to my next destination, a lake village called Nainital. The Khans have been the nicest people on the planet and I thank them profusely for their hospitality, the graciousness they've shown by welcoming me into their home, and letting me be a part of an important family ceremony. Halfway around the world, in a culture wildly different from the one I grew up in, we're celebrating the same thing: a man and woman in love, determined to spend the rest of their lives together.