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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: Wealth, Wastefulness, and Instant Chai

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

The sleek white train car slid smoothly into the station. Gandhi's iconic moon-shaped spectacles--now the symbol of "Swaacht Bharat," the Clean India campaign--seemed to float along of their own accord, the country's orange and green flag pictured proudly beside them.

This was one of India’s newest, fastest, state-of-the-art trains--a physical representation of the country’s 21st century growth gliding along steel relics of its British colonial past. Released only six months prior, the trains weren’t at all what I expected.

There were no chai-walas, men weaving in and out of the cars crying 'chaiiiiii, chaiiiii.' Once a nostalgic staple of India's railway system, they used to dispense hot chai into little paper cups for passengers.

There was no organized mayhem of who sits where, in what seat, in what position--the initial exchange among passengers as gears screeched and churned before settling into a rhythmic click-click click-click.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Instead, I sat beside Kathryn and Meherun, three neat seats to a row. My ticket read “Seat 70.” I threw my backpack onto the shiny luggage rack above and settled into the aisle seat while the rest of the passengers boarded.

The AC was on full force, a temporary respite from the shimmering heat outdoors. Meherun was the first to pull out her foot rest. Within moments, the train whisked us away, landscapes flashing by through the window frame.

The carriage door swung open and the train attendant walked in. He walked down the rows, handing each rider a bottled water. A few moments later, he came by pushing a cart. Snacks.

I had missed lunch (a combination of poor timing and miscommunication with various rickshaw drivers, the owner of a silver store, and our inability to speak proper Hindi), so to see and smell snacks made me very happy.

I opened my tray table. “Here you are, ma’am,”the attendant said, handing me a tray box with Himalaya Salt Caramel Popcorn, a Chocolate Muffin, a juicebox, and a thin plastic packet of instant chai.

“Ouuu, Himalaya Salt Caramel Popcorn,” I said smiling. I ripped the side of the bag to try one.

“I feel like I’m on a plane,” Meherun said, opening the chai packet and pouring it into her paper cup. “I’ve seen instant coffee before, but instant chai? This is a first.”

And then, it hit me--all these things were packaged in single-use disposable plastic.

I looked up and down the aisle, at all the people sitting, enjoying their snacks, sipping their instant chai, drinking their bottled water, sucking their juice box straws, and imagined the same thing in the nineteen other cars to the front and back of us.

The train progressed, passing people, towns, timeworn land. But beneath the veneer of ‘modernity’ and ‘comfort’ lay inevitable wastefulness.

Wealth and wastefulness--the two tiers of socioeconomic progress.

Wealth and wastefulness--markers of society’s advancement, people’s embrace of the global middle class lifestyle.

We couldn’t escape it. But could we change it?

I stared out the window, my hunger gone, excitement diminished.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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