Thursday, September 29, 2011

Riding the Rails

'Catching the Train' has a whole new meaning here in India. Here they take the saying more literally. If you can 'catch' the train, you can ride it. We love watching people scamper down the platform after a departing train, grabbing onto the handles outside the open door and swing themselves inside. Old, small, young, regardless of luggage- this is how Indians 'catch' trains. This morning, waiting for our train to finally make its appearance at the station, I laughed, watching the scene replay itself over and over again. I remembered that time Jonathan, Gramma and I were in Dublin, catching an above ground metro train. There was a bit of a crush and Gramma and I made it onto the train just before the sleek, glassy doors slammed abruptly shut in Jonathan's face. We watched, stunned, as our train pulled away and left Jonathan standing there on the platform. Its funny now, of course. That would have never happened in India. Jonathan could just hang off the back!

All the trains in India have a name. At first, I thought that not only was this a fun idea, but also it might help us decipher the faster trains from the 'milk delivery' sort. The Something or Other 'Express', they are all called. What a complete and utter fallacy. There is nothing express about any of India's trains. I just had to get that out there. The train that we are currently sitting on is called the Dedra Dun Express. We are going a total of 447km and it is going to take us a total of 10 hours and 13 minutes, assuming, of course, that it is on time, which it isn't. 'Express', it seems simply to mean a pretty slow train that will only stop every ten minutes, as opposed to every five, and will probably arrive before the non-Super Fast train. But, who am I to complain? Our train from Delhi to Amritsar, second class, open window, which took a total of 8 hours cost us $5. Total. For both of us! And we had reserved seats! Its even cheaper in the non reserved section. (Not that anyone should ever, ever do that to themselves). Its Literally pennies to travel by train. And, train travel is far more luxurious than the buses we have been taking through the hill towns. Especially when you 'splurge' for the AC coach- which we have done since our long, hot ride to Amritsar. And by 'splurge' I mean and eight hour train journey with more spacious seating and aircon will cost $10 each, instead of $2.50. Big percentage more, small amount. Worth every penny.

Speaking of those ridiculously cheap non reserved train cars, the class in which most Indians travel, our guide book says it well. 'Incredibly packed... and best avoided for longer trips...unless you are exceptionally hardy or unusually poor.' These trains are 'so cheap as to be virtually free.' We have had our share of free train rides here, though! Fifty cents, total, for both of us to travel two hours, as an example. It would have been really hard for me to imagine how 'incredibly packed' these trains could be if I hadn't seen it with my very own, wide, unblinking eyes. (Thankfully 'seen' not 'experienced'). I was looking out the window from the comfort of my airconditioned berth. We were at a station and were slowly passing a local train. I couldn't look away (for once, I was the one stare-er as opposed to the stare-ie). There were bodies and body parts in every available inch of space. Men sat on eachother's laps, feet, legs, arms, torsos were jutting out everywhere, so tangled that you couldnt tell which limbs belonged to which body. Random feet were resting on stranger's heads, arms around necks, bodies hanging out of the train. People were trying desperately to grab the window bars and shove whatever part of their faces that they could through the grimy bars, just to gasp some air. The space between the cars was jammed. People were suspended in the air, being held up by the bodies of other passengers. It was almost comical. Only because I wasn't one of the people on the train. People were crammed in to the point where it looked impossible that it was actually real. There was a guy sitting, his back against one car, his feet propped up against the next car, only his bottom wasn't on the ground! He was being held up by everyone else. One other young guy sat on the steps between the cars, pressed up against the side of the car, one side of his head resting against the car, the other padded by a large man's round pot belly! Seriously! He couldn't move his head. It was, to me, a fascinating display of what is considered to be in the realm of 'acceptable' here in India. If you can find space, its yours. There's crammed like Rome at World Youth Day, like the subway at rush hour in London, the train in Spain, but no where we've been, nothing I've seen, compares to this. If that subway or that train would have been in India, they would have figured how to jam another 100 people in somehow.. plus 50 hanging off and another 20 on the roof. Its impressive to the point that is horrifying. Clown cars have nothing on Third Class Non Reserved India Rail cars.

Sitting in the air-conditioning, in a berth that had four of the possible six passengers, the juxtaposition was overwhelming. Watching the kids with dirty clothes and painted faces beg for money and food from the passengers. Gazing at people, young and old, going to the bathroom between the tracks. The dogs scampering in front of oncoming trains. The cows begging for treats from people like they are household pets. The shanti men in their white and orange cloth carrying their alms bowls. All this is happening while I am sitting there, sipping chai, delivered to me from a chai wallah that roams the train dispensing sweet tea to those who have the 5 rupees to pay for it. Sitting there, trying to decide whether I should watch or look away. But this is India. A country of contrasts. And its too fascinating and foreign not to look. You attempt (and fail) to take it all in.

India, to me, is colour. If I had to pick one word to describe this great subcontinent, colour would be my choice. Of course, India is so much more than one word. Its hot, its beautiful, its bountiful, its poor, its rich, its incredible... but in all this, its colourful. Today, on the train, I am reminded again of why my word for India is colour. The trains are a bright blue, to start, not the boring dark navy blue like in the west, blue like the bluest sky. The people crammed onto the trains are dressed in sparkling saris, or patterned suits or even just colourful shirts and pants. Their skin is warm cocoa, in contrast to the bright blue train and red and yellow clothes. Just the sheer number of people on the train, all dressed in their everyday clothes is a shockingly colourful sight. One thing is for sure, thankfully, India is not a country ashamed of showing off its colours.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
Each of your blogs fascinate me, but I think the trains in which you travelled
when in India will stand out in your eventual memoirs. It was a bonus getting to visit the Taj Mahal. Your latest Postcard arrived today for which I thank you.
Yes, we are looking forward to your arriving in Ireland.
Best wishes to you both
for continued safe travel.