Travel Blog: Riding the Trains in India
India, Day 11 and beyond.
The trains in India are unmistakable. Distinctive blue paint schemes, mountains of discarded shoes beneath the benches, muffintops of people on the roofs--there's not much to compare to the sights, sounds and smells of a cross-country trip aboard an Indian train.
Something I was not aware of until I booked my extended trip to India was the layered romanticism India aficionados have applied to Indian railways. Most recently, I think Wes Anderson's superb film The Darjeeling Limited might be the ultimate glorification of them, and while the luxury rail accommodations depicted in that film are definitely atypical, a few elements of the cinematic treatment ring true to everyday experience.
I'm a very visual person (big surprise), the first cinematic element that hit home for me in person was an inexplicable thrill the first time I saw a blue Indian train snaking its way through the wild landscapes of the country. My compositional eye lingered hungrily over textual contrasts of smooth metal passing through rocky hills and lush jungles; as well as striking color contrasts of the blue trains crossing the earth-toned landscape like rivers. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire captured the grandeur perfectly:
But I'm getting ahead of myself...
"First come tickets, then come passage..."
A cross-country trip aboard an Indian train begins with booking a ticket. Simple in theory, but surprisingly complex for the uninitiated.
I found out, a little too late, that the only smart way to book a train is six months in advance. of your travel date.
Why so early? Because this isn't measly old Manhattan where you are one of several million people using the Metro. This is India, and you are one of 1.2 billion people vying for a seat. Book early or face the consequences. What consequences? I'm glad you asked.
If you fail to book several calendar pages ahead of time, chances are that you will not get a reserved seat on any car. That said, if you miss out on one of those last twenty seats, you can still buy a ticket and board a train. If there are unoccupied seats when you get on the train (fat chance) you can buy them from the conductor at a discount, but only if you are the first to approach him (move fast) and if you possibly have an extra fold of rupees in your belt to incentivize good customer service.
If you are successful, by hook or crook, to get the seat, congratulations! You are a smooth operator.
If you are unsuccessful in obtaining some surface area on which to rest your tookus, you are cordially invited to join the doorway standing party, already in progress.
In what I personally feel is a cruel practice, twenty seats are held open on every train until the day they arrive. I can only assume this is for the entertainment of the ticket office. No matter the real reason, this means that most mornings you can expect to see the ticketing areas looking much like a campground as dozens of hopeful travelers bivouac in the stations to claim seats.
For purposes of this piece, I shall cancel out fractal possibilities, parallel universes and alternate endings and proceed with the simplest scenario: with a reserved seat on the train, what can you expect at the station?
My first visit to an Indian train station was preceded by fourteen hours of severe dehydration, complete with all the intestinal fisticuffs, marathon-level sweating, distance vomiting and projectile diarrhea that one might expect when sick overseas. I was barely coherent the first time when I staggered after my host into a station, so my early impressions of the places had very negative associations.
The exteriors of India's train stations are often impressive--the Howrah station in Kolkata is a positively monumental edifice--but it's not always a good idea to get comfortable on the platform. Very few litter laws and lackluster hygienic awareness in much of India add up to areas with active rat colonies and standing puddles of spit underfoot.
Needless to say, I started my relationship with Indian train stations on the wrong foot. But by the end of the trip, after logging more visits in the light of day and with a calm stomach, I grew to love them. I didn't care that ten kinds of foreign bacteria clung to my leg hair. I didn't mind the crowds or the beggars or the hungry cab drivers chasing the only white guy in the city. To this day, my time spent on Indian platforms has given me the best people watching and some of the most fun photo ops I have ever shot. As I write this post, I miss them.
On the Train
I love trains. As an American who grew up away from major cities, they're a fun novelty. I love them in Europe, I love them in the UK, and fell in love with them in India instantly. The convivial atmosphere of the trains would become one of the few constants in which I could take regular comfort while in the India that summer.
When I board a train, any train, a switch flips in my brain and I relax. While I know much better than to leave my bags lying about unattended (a policy applicable anywhere on the planet), there is a sense of communal friendliness to enjoy on the trains in India.
Like everywhere else in India, when you settle in, you kick off your shoes. As a visitor, I learned quickly to abide by the established etiquette. Trust me, it works in the country because everyone abides. If you resist going barefoot, you'll be the only one leaving shoe marks on the seats, which engenders dirty looks. It's much more comfortable to let your tootsies go au naturel in a country that warm anyway.
With your shoes off and the rest of you slouched comfortably in your favorite reclining position, the train abounds with wonderful people-watching opportunities.
Turbaned Punjabis They seem to be on the clock, twenty-four and seven, to look wise, ancient and heavy-browed.
Busking performers, many of them children. How that little girl made it through that hoop, I will never know.
Traveling families, their children more numerous than the stars in the sky, each of them with four days' worth of food stashed in Jenga towers of tiffins.
Laughing teenagers in reproductions of American pop culture apparel. Don't ask them why Colonel Sanders is blindfolded, they'll just grin and bob their heads.
Imposing aunties, feared for their size and severity by naughty children all over the subcontinent. In a hypothetical fight between an old mousi and a Bengal tiger, my money is on Mousi Lakshmi.
Snoring imams, fearlessly wearing white raiments long after Labor Day.
Epic. Beards. Everywhere.
When I watch people for a while, I generally build up some thoughts that I want to put in my travel journal. However on that trip I found that I needed to ration my journaling sessions, because barely two weeks into my six-week journey I was already halfway through the journal I brought with me. Thus those first few rides I bounced back and forth between short periods of journaling and longer stints of creative people-watching.
At the risk of sounding like a voyeur, I found opportunities to take covert snapshots on the train. My street level walks India usually result in decent photographs, but always with a half-dozen sets of wide eyes staring back at my camera. In the words of Gregory David Roberts:
Somewhere in the five or more millennia of its history, the culture had decided to dispense with the casual, nonchalant glance….eye contact ranged from an ogling gaze to a gawping goggle-eyed glare.
Never were truer words written. By the time of my train experience, the stares didn't bother me any more--I had spent enough time as the only foreigner in a 100km radius to get used them--but I still felt the stares made many of my photographs appear clumsy or contrived. Amateurish.
With this in mind, I sought out the only place on the train where I could observe without being observed: the upper berths. If you travel in multi-tier classes or dedicated sleeper cars, there are several levels of benches (usually three) that fold out from the compartment walls as cots. The uppermost berths are high enough to stay unfolded all the time,and while everyone was seated below during daylight hours, I ascended to the top level.
From the privacy of those shadows, I was able to snap photographs with a much lower percentage of upturned faces. The "crow's nest position" became my new default whenever I traveled on the trains and took photos.
As interesting as the visuals are on the trains, one can't forget to pay attention to the sounds. You will most likely be surrounded by the aforementioned cell phone music, as well as conversation in several dialects of regional Hindi.
Sidenote: I had originally intended to try and pick up some Hindi on the trip, but eventually gave up. Almost every conversation, interpreted or not, is a pidgin hybrid of regional dialects and nationally standardized Hindi. The record I have on file for "most languages spoken at once" was when I heard Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, English, two dialects of Manipuri and one dialect from Sikkim spoken in a single conversation in northeast India. It's enough to make Tim Ferriss's brain explode.
That chai, tho.
Oh those vendors. Much like the little boy selling balloons in Slumdog, children and women slide up and down the train cars selling all manner of trinkets and floral pieces. Visiting family? Take them balloons and flowers. Making a religious or romantic trip? Flowers. Need to lock up your luggage? There's even a lone man going up and down to sell you a small padlock with a length of chain.
The custom in India is for a family to pack enough food for double their number on a train trip. And sharing with new acquaintances is common. But for those unprepared folks who didn't bring enough tiffins of food to live through the zombie apocalypse, there is no shortage of food available to buy from an entertaining cast of vendors.
First and foremost, from the moment you board the train to the moment you disembark, you are never far from a cup of that most wonderful of Indian customs: chai. Chai is a wonderful experience of spicy tea and sweetened milk, usually served piping hot in a barely-there paper cup.
If you are on a train and you have thirty rupees (fifty-five cents American), you can have a cup of chai.
If you are on a train and you have thirty rupees, you should have a cup of chai.
The thinness of the cup might result in your losing your fingerprints by the time you finish your beverage, but you will nonetheless be warmed and comforted by the wonderfully aromatic and soothing milk tea.
Meals are plentiful once the train has gotten underway. Unlike an American plane flight where passengers are fed like test subjects in an experiment whose title includes the words "hungry," "desperate" and "captive," Indians take pride in the food they serve their travelers. In fact, it's my personal opinion that India should be held up as an example of travel food done right. Boiled eggs aren't fancy, a samosa is nothing more than fried dough wrapped around a potato, chicken bryani isn't molecular gastronomy, but it is all fresh. Sure, it might be mixed and served by a man who hasn't washed his hands since the last time it rained. It might be wrapped up and handed to you in a sheet of newspaper of indeterminate age, but the hot dishes are always hot, the ingredients are always fresh and it is all delicious. If you walk past the kitchen car of a train, you won't see attendants microwaving shrink-wrapped packages; you will see a dedicated soul bent over massive pots on a gas stove, risking all of his recognizable features to fry up fresh snacks on board the moving train.
The vendors who patrol the trains to create their own strange music as they make the rounds and call out their products. Some of them speak in nasal tenors, some bark their products out loudly, some of them slur multiple words together into a single ongoing note, but everyone unconsciously works in congress to establish a rhythm with their voices.
Samosa! Samosa! Samosa!
Chicken bryani! Veg bryani! Egg bryani!
Unsurprising in a country where so many aspects of even heterosexual relationships are repressed beyond English Victorian standards, individuals born with the ability to both pitch and catch are marginalized and feared in Indian society. They are feared because some people ascribe their physical irregularities as being indicative of occult powers, and this fear leads to their curious reduction to highly stylized beggars.
Bearing the full weight of their reputation, colorfully-adorned groups of disenfranchised intersexuals hop on and off the trains at the satellite stations of major cities, begging more aggressively than anyone else I saw India.
I first met them near Kolkata. I was engrossed in some journaling (shoes off, of course) when the train made a quick stop at a small station outside the city. Deep in thought, I was vaguely aware of some heavy claps coming down the train car, but I had no idea just how close they were until a throaty voice above me said "hey!"
It was a husky, androgynous voice. It sounded to me like a man imitating a woman, and for the briefest moment I thought Vera di Milo, is that you? Thinking of Jim Carrey's female bodybuilder sketch made me even more startled when I looked up and saw the genuine article looming over me, over six feet tall and colorfully arrayed.
"Hey," the tall figure said again. This seemed the extent of his/her English.
It is my policy to not respond to beggars who "attack" for money, especially because my white skin puts me on the list of high-priority marks for every impoverished individual in India. I tried to wave him/her off, he/she wasn't about to let me get off that easy. He/She lifted both huge hands.
Good, close and loud, compressing a little air into my face. If I wasn't cooperating, he/she seemed to assume I didn't hear the first time. The clapping struck me as odd; almost ritualistic. I wondered at the time if there was a hex involved. At that moment, I wasn't thinking of a spiritual duke-out; to be quite honest all I could do was look at him/her and try to narrow down a list in my head of American celebrities to use when I described this person's features as being "a mashup of _____." To date, I could best describe this character as the ill-favored offspring of Snooki Palizzi and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie.
My resolve to not turn out my pockets was met with one more offensive tactic from my inscrutable opponent. He/she reached out a bangled arm and snatched the water bottle that sat on the window ledge at my elbow. Throwing me a final look of utter contempt, he/she took a deep pull from the bottle and set it down back down next to me. The entire action conveyed an industrial-strength, non-verbal message of so there, jerk!
But the joke was on him/her. It wasn't my water bottle.
As a westerner, riding the trains in India is similar to doing anything else in the country. Everything is just different enough to make you question every action. I once joked with a friend, as we boarded a ferry to go down the Ganges, that everything in India was just "a little bit backwards" to what we were used to. As if to reinforce the point, a boat came down the river that literally looked like it had been built to travel stern-first. We laughed, because as Stephen Tobolowsky says, recognizing the truth in the situation made it funny.
The Indian trains are yet another scenario of the kind of cultural displacement that always makes life entertaining when traveling abroad. At the end of the day, though the culture is colorful and sometimes encroaches on our Western ideas of personal space, the best advice is almost the same as going anywhere else:
- Plan ahead.
- Get there early.
- Taste the local food.
- Keep an eye on your bags.
- Talk to and learn from as many people as possible.
- Remove your shoes and drink chai. (India specific tip.)
- Seriously, always drink chai.