On the Rails

India, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Train — By on December 28, 2006 at 3:34 pm

While it’s theoretically possible to snag a cheap fare from Delhi to Chennai on one of India’s new low cost carriers, getting from A to B in the subcontinent (especially on a backpacker budget) usually means traveling by train. And when cities and attractions are as spread out as they are in India, going the distance can mean you’ll be spending anywhere from four hours to four days pitching and rolling along with your fellow passengers.

Depending on how much you’re willing to spend on a ticket, doing the locomotion can be relatively comfortable affair-shell out for the 2 AC class and you’ll get a full flat “bed,” clean sheets, air conditioning, full board and an electric outlet perfect for recharging your camera battery while in transit. A slightly less expensive seat in 3AC class earns you similar perks, but you’ll be bunking up with eight people instead of six. And, the third overnight category, is the “sleeper” class, located in a car that doesn’t have air-conditioning but does come complete with a full militia of cockroaches that can actually be heard laughing at your feeble attempts to squash them dead.

Of course, Jen, Holly and I were blissfully unaware of the distinctions when we booked our seats for the 14 hour overnight ride from Bangalore to Trivandrum. After inquiring about the cost of 3 AC, we were promptly told that all upper classes were sold out and that sleeper was our only option. No sweat, we said, figuring if we’d mastered the matatus in Kenya we could handle economy class aboard an Indian train.

No sooner had we slid into our assigned spots when a steady stream of six-legged critters starting pouring down the walls and over the seats like a scene straight from the short lived Jerry O’Connell show “Joe’s Apartment.” But these little guys didn’t sing and dance like they did on Comedy Central. Our new insect bunkmates were hell bent on showing us who’d invaded whose territory-and swooping in to claim any crumbs we might drop between shrieks of pure terror.

As we ran around the compartment swinging wildly at the walls with our shoes, rolled up magazines and even our Lonely Planet South India book, the rest of the passengers started filing on and seemed astonished-then incredibly amused-to find three white girls engaged in a full scale freak out over a few tiny little bugs. With a mix of sign language, Hindu and English, one kind woman tried to explain that there was nothing to be afraid of, that unlike mosquitoes, cockroaches didn’t bite.

Of course we knew this-the girls at Pathfinder Academy didn’t mind roaches and said “there is no reason to fear them.” Blame it on our American socialization or one too many Raid-Kills-Bugs-Dead commercials, but we definitely did fear them…at least, for the first few hours of the train ride.

But as the hours rolled and the city lights grew dimmer behind us, something interesting started to happen. Or rather, stopped happening. While the bugs continued to commute down the walls behind our heads, their presence ceased to evoke such a strong reaction. Eventually, there was barely a reaction at all. We’d spot a bug crawling in the direction of each other’s hair and without a word, we’d lean over to squash it and move back to our seats in one fluid motion.

Skin no longer crawling (well, not as much), we were finally free to observe the action all around us.

Each sleeper car housed about a dozen compartments and each one was packed to rafters and with extended families large enough to comprise both sides of a regulation soccer game. We saw groups of glossy haired women-moms, aunts, grandmas-swathed in electric hued saris, bouncing babies sporting kohl smudged eyes and more jingly gold jewelry than your average hip hop mogul. Hunched over tin foil packets filled with steaming mutton biryiani or chicken tikka masala, dads ate dinner, pressing the food into a sticky ball between their fingers and scooping it directly into their mouths, throwing the containers out the window once the contents had been spent.

In the absence of something more interesting to occupy their hands, groups of middle aged men with 70s disco-style mustaches stood in the train car vestibule, untying and retying the thin plaid and flowered fabric that encircled their waists (called a mundu or lungi), sometimes so short that I had to look away for fear of getting an unwanted glimpse of the goods.

And then like clockwork, at 10:00pm, the sleeper beds were pulled down and everyone snuggled in together, sometimes three to a bed, to start the process of drifting off to sleep. Within minutes, snores, wheezes, sneezes, coughs, farts and other exotic sounds filled the air, a cacophony set to constant rhythm of train wheels clattering over the tracks below.

I wriggled into my sleep sack and pulled it up tight around my head, praying that insects who shared our car would be bunking down as well-just not with me.

Okay, I knew better, but tried not to think about it.

Morning came way too early (Who gets up at six when they don’t have to?!) and the howls of drinks sellers hawking “CHAI COFFEE CHAI COFFEECOFFEE CHAI CHAI CHAAAAI” pierced my sleep like a smoke alarm. By 7:00am, most families had already snapped their beds back into place and one group in particular was trying to share its breakfast with a too-kind-to-refuse Holly.

Having wisely chosen the top bunks, which didn’t have to be folded back up, Jen and I hung out and watched and a.m. chaos from scalp level, finally jumping into the fray when became too hot and steamy to remain perched at the top of the car.

No sooner had we hopped down when this adorable brother and sister duo approached us to say hello and see if we were having more fun on our side of the car. Jen, trying to be friendly, placed one of her Ipod earbuds next to the little girl’s head.

At first, the girl shied away, totally unnerved by the sound emitting from the tiny speaker. But just as we all did five years ago, she quickly caught onto the joys of the Mp3 player and as she listened to the music, a huge grin spread across her face.

Her brother, noting that his sister had a toy that he didn’t, grabbed the other earbud and together they rocked out to some classic Bon Jovi until their tug-of-war war nearly split Jen’s headphones in two. After Jen took back the headphones to prevent them from being damaged, the little girl decided to move on to something more interesting-slapping, scratching pinching and hitting the two of us until we were black and blue.

Across the aisle, the girl’s mother looked on lovingly, laughing in delight as her oldest child pummeled the two nice ladies currently babysitting her.

Shocked by her strength and determination, I was torn between the instinct to control the little four year old hellion in front of me and the desire to abide by the rules of Indian etiquette I’d yet to learn. Was it rude to discipline someone else’s kid, to tell her that physical violence isn’t cool and to try to calm her down-especially in a language she might not understand?

In the end, I didn’t have to do anything. Attention Deficit Disorder won out once again and she started a new game of unbuckling her sandal, throwing it across the train car and bringing the shoe over to Holly to help her put it on again. The two of them were well into their third round when the girl’s mother finally came over to intervene: they’d reached their destination.

Our stop came about twenty minutes later and the three of us all disembarked, not so much rested, but at least in one piece. We’d officially made it through another Indian rite of passage, one of totally idiosyncratic, hair-raising experiences that make this country seem challenging-but one of the least boring places one earth.

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  • Anonymous says:

    Kudos to you on yet another full-immersion experience, but I’m not sure I could have lived with the cockroach thing.


  • Dellie says:

    Next time book early! You managed to endure what we here back in the States would refer to as a 14-hour nightmare. It appears that the sociologists are right. Humans are a very adaptable species. I congratulate you. I would have run shrieking from the train. Marin-another NYC writer-(Men In Trees-NBC) kept a racoon in her closet while living in Alaska – but that was fiction! You have much patience-for everything;people,children,bugs and the inconveniences that life throws your way. I agree with Songbird-Kudos to you once again.

  • Anonymous says:

    Ain’t it kewl to be able to get over the small stuff? I bet that is one of the biggest lessons you will take away with you.

    Y’all did not get rental space on my blog, but y’all know me–I plugged you on a post anyway. You’re still on my list of blogs that I look at every now and then. I am delighted to see that you ladies are doing well.

    There’s gotta be a book in this somewhere, right?

  • indian people alwasy welcome others