Busy Indian stations can be quite a culture shock for first timers on an India trip. The sheer volume of people at a station can be overwhelming in itself. It’s distressing to see vulnerable kids miraculously surviving and looking after each other at the train stations across India. As you pass by a beggar the urge is to dig into your pocket for change, but will this only temporarily alleviate their hunger or habit? Are they part of an organized ring and the money will line a ‘beggar-masters’ pocket and so keep them on the street? Many dilemmas, sights and sounds will surprise you as you travel the trains in India.
As I settle my frame into the lower berth, an old Indian Railways tagline: “To learn a thousand dialects, eat a thousand cuisines and meet a million people, you need just one berth,” comes to mind and for a few moments, I let my mind wander. When one negotiates more than 2300 km on a three day train journey in India, one comes across mountains, rivers, backwaters and the sea. One unravels local tongues and makes friends with fellow-passengers even as one's tastebuds explode with a smattering of food flavours.
No whistle marks our (on-time) departure, but a polite female voice from the tannoy system advises against riding on the roof, as it is “very dangerous”. So we begin to plod through the night, mostly through the vast agricultural fields of Punjab.
The sleep was deep until around 5am, when I awoke to the sounds of “chai!” The mornings, indeed all the waking hours, are punctuated by regular cries of “chai, chai”, as a man lugging a silver urn offers tiny cups of sweet, brown and milky tea at 5 rupees each. He is followed by water-sellers (“pani, pani”), the junk-food wallah (“chips, chips”) and—depending on the nearest station—sellers of samosas, biryanis, newspapers, paperback novels, SIM cards, memory sticks and a great deal more. In turn come beggars (an elderly man with stumps instead of hands, a boy with one leg) and occasional hijras (transgenders) in search of a few rupees.
The cries of the chaiwallahs, the wiry porters in their red shirts, the myriad vendors and fellow travellers rushing by, all fascinated me. At times I was so mesmerized by the happenings on the train I barely noticed the dust, the flies, the stinking toilets, the sweaty crowds, or the malfunctioning A/C.
Activities for the passenger are scarce. Staring at the passing countryside can become repetitive: in summary, the north is cold, brown, dusty and full of people, whereas the south is warm, green, wet and full of people. The north is litter-strewn, the south better swept. At one point, I was rewarded with a sight of mountainous slag heaps, with palm trees before them. Across much of India, it seems, satellite dishes are now sprouting on the roofs of even humble, thatched homes. And all over there are fast-growing cities, such as Bangalore in Karnataka, with around 6.5m residents.
Curious locals can have the habit of staring at you, and then staring some more, with an unbroken gaze, and often ask many questions. There was a guy staring at me on the train journey, intensely, as if I was so alien he’d never seen anything like it before in his life. Perhaps he was from a far flung village and was not used to train travel or tourists. I hid behind my book and then went to sleep for an interval and when I awoke he was still staring. You do wonder what could be so fascinating. It was not menacing in any way, but it did get to be a tad perplexing. Staring and asking personal questions in public is to be expected and is not considered rude in India.
I have just awoken from a night’s sleep and the train is still chugging through the countryside. It is first thing in the morning and as I rub the sleep from my eyes I notice people either side of the tracks squatting and cleaning their teeth, and what is really quite surprising to witness for the first time is a line of bare bums excreting, in full view of each other and a train full of passengers. Many people in India do not have a bathroom, running water and any privacy. So anywhere that is deemed to be no-man’s land can be used as a bathroom ; perhaps the gutter if you are a pavement dweller, the shoreline at low tide if you live in a fishing village or the land either side of the train tracks near your village. When people are washing at a standpipe or in holy waters or going to the loo in public people do turn a blind eye to the amount of flesh exposed. In certain scenarios such as these, it is rude to stare.
I trust my instincts when in India. They have so far served me pretty well when it comes to scams, eating safely, haggling for a good price etc. There are numerous snacks and drinks prepared on the platforms and on board the train. If you don’t want to risk them you can purchase your own snacks to take on board. My philosophy is if it’s recently deep fried and vegetarian you can eat it! If it may have been lingering in hot sun with a chance for the flies to gather then give it a miss. Make sure you buy bottled/purified water only, despite the environmental crisis of excessive plastic consumtion, you will at least protect your health. This can usually be purchased, at a slight premium, from vendors who come on board and from the platforms at stations. Check that the seal looks intact just in case it has been refilled with tap water. As aforementioned, hot sweet chai and coffee is brought through the carriages at certain times of day. You don’t usually get the option to have it sugar free as it is pre-mixed in big urns and Indians love it very sweet and sometimes spicy.
From time to time you hear stories of travellers accepting hospitality on trains such as a drink or a morsel of food and even a wedge of ‘drugged’ orange then waking up with all their belongings gone. This may happen, but it's highly unlikely. Most hospitality is genuine kindness — again I just trust my instincts and judgement. Another reason not to accept food is you don’t know how it has been prepared and your resistance to local bacteria may not be great. Also in India, people use water and their hand to wash after the toilet. So….even though you use one hand to eat with and the other for your bum, making chapattis is a 2 handed job if you know what I mean.
Overall, the long train journey was a joyful and life-enriching experience. Whenever you decide to venture to the Indian sub-continent, make sure to immerse yourself in an adventure on the rails.