It's about time I told some actual stories from our India trip, because, after all, this is what this blog is for (to some extent, at least). This first is about our first train ride, and bear with me on the descriptions - I'm not the best storyteller, but I want to describe this experience.
Three years ago, when I was traveling across Europe for a couple weeks after my semester abroad, my dad and I decided to take a train ride from Paris to Rome. It was a 12 hour ride from the morning to the evening on a Sunday. I sat by the window, read Lewis' The Four Loves, listened to Dropkick Murphy's (seriously, "Green Fields of France" takes on new meaning when you're actually looking at green fields in France), and watched the scenery as we passed by - I saw the Alps, too! Overall, it was a very comfortable, almost relaxing train ride, not unlike a road trip.
This was my one experience with long-term train travel. Sure, I'd ridden subways and such before, but spending 12 hours on a train was quite the experience.
Needless to say, when we got our itinerary a few days before the trip and I saw that we had a train ride starting at 9PM one evening and supposedly ending at 8PM the next evening, I figured there was some sort of typo. Surely we're not spending 23 hours on a train? How in the world could a train ride take that long? India's not that big.
Oh but it can. I discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that yes, indeed, our train ride was scheduled to be that long. Having never seen a sleeper car outside of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, that was what I thought it might be like: something between a moving hotel room and the Hogwart's Express.
Boy, was I wrong.
We arrived at Kolkata's famous Howrah train station at around 8:30-9:00 at night for an apparently 10 or 11PM train. I'm still not entirely sure when our train ride was supposed to start, but I know we didn't start on the time initially told. This would be the theme of numerous train trips to come. Luckily, with Howrah being a larger station, we would stop for far longer than if we were boarding at one of the smaller stations - around 10 minutes versus just 2.
Another thing I was wrong about was that trains like the ones featured in The Darjeeling Limited actually exist. If they do, I never saw them.
Sure, the outside of the train resembles Wes Anderson's vision pretty well - that strangely blue color that only India gets the right shade of, the fading stenciled writing, and the ricketiness that screams to the person used to efficient London, New York and Boston subways "Oh god, I'm getting on THAT?" But that is where the similarities end.
We were told that we had two sleeper bunks (meaning sections) to our team, which was good because it meant we were all together. Being alone, however, was not about to happen.
The way that second class sleeper cars are set up on these trains is that there is one narrow aisle running down a side of the train, with "bunks" on one side. In one bunk, there are six beds - two set of three high. When all the bunks are down, it is nearly impossible to sit up, especially if you are a tall American. Across the aisle from these six bunks (which go width-wise on the train), there are two bunks going length wise, completing the entire bunk with the capacity to sleep 8 people. Our group was able to fit into 2 sections, with a couple of strangers in the aisle across.
It is certainly no Hogwart's Express.
Everything in these trains is blue. The beds are made of a blue plastic material with God-knows-what for padding. The walls are painted a strange pale blue and the frames on the windows are a chipping darker blue. I was glad the blue is my favorite color; I might have been sickened by it otherwise.
We stored the luggage under the seats, across the aisle, and some people slept with theirs as a pillow. Realizing that I had just been in the hospital that day, I figured motion sickness would not be a good thing to add, so I bummed a Dramamine off my friend Chase, and spent the next 20 minutes attempting to take it. (Side note: I have trouble swallowing pills because I never have to take them. So I broke it into little pieces and dissolved it with water, making the pill taking experiences briefly disgusting, but ensuring that I swallow the whole thing. Chase and Althea both made fun of me and tried to coach me on how to take it...).
Between taking the pill and it taking effect, some of the girls returned from their adventures to find the bathroom on the train with some bad news: They had no toilets.
Yes, you read that correctly: The bathrooms had no toilets. I was told to expect this, but I was not expecting it on a moving train. Althea, having drunk most of a Kingfisher Beer in an effort to loosen herself up before the train ride, asked me if I would, before going to sleep, agree to accompany her to the bathroom. I figured, since I'd just chugged half my water in taking my drugs, I'd probably have to go anyway. And sure enough, I was right.
I'm a little disappointed that none of my friends have posted a picture of the toilets, but they were, as literally as I can describe it, a hole. There was a grimy sink on one side, and a hole in the floor with two footstep shaped things on either side, ostensibly for women to stand on. Most ominously were the two metal bars on the wall much like you find in wheelchair stalls in the states. I'll spare you the details, but using that particular kind of bathroom was quite the balancing act. As was said numerous times throughout the trip, you just sort of had to close your eyes and trust that everything was okay...and not think about what you were stepping in.
Germaphobes would not survive well in India.
Soon after our bathroom adventures, I fell into a sleep which was broken a couple of points throughout the night by the discovery that the window at my head was broken, and thus kept creeping open. Having not brought a blanket with me, I layered my socks, curled up as best I could under my winter coat (I am so glad I didn't leave it in South Dakota like I'd been thinking!). Sometime around 3AM, I would guess, I fell into a very deep sleep, during which I dreamed about falling through the toilet hole and breaking my leg on the train tracks below us.
I woke up naturally at around 8:30 in the morning to discover several of my teammates already up and about. As I'm a very light sleeper normally, I was amazed that the sun had come up, breakfast had been served and people had walked around me, sat on the end of my bunk, and talked loudly without waking me up. Dramamine works wonders, apparently. My friend Chase commented that he'd woken up maybe an hour before and I hadn't moved. Thank God.
Now was the hard part, or so I thought. For the night, I could just take a drug and pass the time by sleeping. Now was the day long ride enclosed in yet another metal tube, having to find ways to occupy ourselves. As I had the lower bunk, I naturally sat up and took up my spot by the window for the majority of the train ride, giving it up when I wanted to engage in conversation more than stare out the window.
Staring out the window may seem like a boring way to pass the time, but for me, as someone who prefers to sit back and watch things happen a lot of the time, sitting by a window for 4 or 5 hours was the perfect way to pass the day. I could see every stop, watch the mountains and fog grow and fade, see the workers in the fields, the textile workers laying out and dying their fabrics by the river, get surprised every time a train passed on the opposite track, and feel the wind on my face as we rode along. It is not something I want to do every single day, but if I could do that once a month or so, I think it would be a solid reminder of the diversity of human life, and God's beauty in creation.
This is not to say that things inside the train weren't interesting. The aisle was an almost constant flow of people, many of them vendors (official and non-official) who would walk by like the vendors at American baseball games, only instead of yelling "Come get your hot dogs here!" they were yelling things like "Bread! Omellete! Bread! Omelet! Chai! Coffee! Chai!" in their Indian accents, often making it hard to understand precisely what was being said. When the "Bread! Omelet!" guy came by the first time, either Erica or Althea thought he was saying "Bread! I'm late! Bread! I'm late!" like the rabbit in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The train was never quiet as a result, but after spending my previous travel time on an eerily quiet plane and being introduced to the noise of Kolkata, I couldn't help but feel that the noise of the train, the people, and the hustle and bustle was something so completely Indian that I dared not ask for anything else.
We rode on three more trains throughout the trip, but the way our group bonded, relaxed and adjusted to being in India on this first train ride was something I think none of us would trade for any other experience. It pushed us, brought us down a few notches, and helped us, eventually, to understand the way India works - it's a hustle and bustle and sometimes a loud, stressful time, but in the end, you get to where you needed to be, often as a different person than you were before.
Photo Credits: Bunk shot is from Becca Masterjohn, featuring our team leader, Colleen Watson. Aisle shot is from Lindley Henderson. Window shot is my own.