Time Zones

Travelers Cleanse the Soul, And the Ears, in Holy City

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 2008

HARIDWAR, India On this dusty train platform in the foothills of the Himalayas, passengers can buy a morning newspaper, sip a steaming cup of chai and endure an enthusiastic ear cleaning by the station's earwax wallah.

With more than 7,000 stations, and customers taking 5 billion trips annually, India has one of the world's largest railway networks. To serve the passengers, there is a haphazard legion of scrawny porters to carry bulky bags, shoe-shiners who will polish flip-flops and, yes, earwax cleaners.

At 10:15 a.m. Mr. Wax Wallah, as he is known, removes a giant swab of cotton from the folds of his red turban. He hooks the cotton onto a stick and roams the station, calling out: "Ears cleaned here!"

Some less scrupulous ear-cleaners have been known to pretend to stick a cotton swab into the ear of an unsuspecting would-be customer and reveal it coated in a dirty, waxlike goo. The soiled swab becomes Exhibit A for the wax-cleaner's argument that the potential customer is in desperate need of a thorough cleaning, which costs the equivalent of 25 cents.

But Mr. Wax Wallah has a stellar reputation and skilled hands. He says he has never faked the need for a cleaning or punctured an eardrum.

Western tourists visiting Haridwar to learn yoga or meditate seem relieved when the train arrives at 10:45 a.m. -- just 40 minutes late. It's chugging along to New Delhi, about a six-hour journey through half-built towns filled with construction sites and hulking cows napping beneath the bamboo scaffolding.

"There's an old-school charm to the Indian train experience," said Anshu Mala, 48, whose family lives most of the year in Gaithersburg. She was vacationing in Haridwar, an ancient city where Hindu pilgrims come to pray and conduct funeral rites near the banks of the Ganges River. "I love the train, because you don't have to be in a rush. You can think."

Mala is craving the train's coffee and vegetable cutlets. But it's too early for lunch, so she settles into her cubby, in the second-class air-conditioned section. It is cozy and has small worn-out cushioned bunk beds facing a smudged window. There is also a curtain for privacy. Indian trains usually have three classes, each with its own degree of personal space, comfort and chaos.

On this train, many of the poorer passengers squeeze into the third-class section, which has only a few seats -- all made of wood. Most passengers are forced to stand, leaning on one another and creating a swollen knot of arms and legs.

Many passengers carry foam mattresses and cooking pots because they sleep outside to save money while visiting one of Hinduism's holiest cities. A journey to Haridwar is as sacred as a Muslim's journey to Mecca or a Catholic's trip to the Vatican. After praying for sick loved ones or performing funeral rituals, members of many families sit silently during the ride back to Delhi.

Young men, their heads recently shaved in a Hindu ritual of mourning, rest their bald scalps against the windows. Some cry as they look out over the landscape of Indian life: women in saris hauling loads; small Hindu temples with marigold-draped deities; and vegetable markets, where stray dogs sniff the tomatoes and onions.

The biggest complaint about India's trains is the bathrooms. "Let's just say the toilets are not really up to the mark and leave it at that," laments Sanjeev Sharma, 45, an engineer who finds the train "cheap and unhygienic. But I like it anyway."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company