|Not an accurate Depiction, either!|
When I envisioned the trains of India before I lived here, I had a mental picture of trains streaming across wide-open verdant spaces with its cars bursting with passengers. It seems I got only part of the picture correct. We recently took a train to the north of our state, Kerala, and while it’s not my first foray into the world of India’s most popular transport, it will help redraw my revised, more pedestrian yet vivid mental picture of the experience.
Two days before we were scheduled to take 3 flights which took us to 2 different states before returning us to our home state, I had a meeting with the director of education. At the end of the meeting he wished me a safe journey with a chuckle said he’d heard how I was traveling to the north, and shook his head in disbelief. When he explained I could have taken a direct train that would only take 6 or 7 hours (in comparison to our 9-hour 3-flights, 3-states model), I was taken aback. I was told (by names unmentioned) that I would need to take an overnight train trip that would take around 16 hours, so I labeled that a non-starter and starting searching for a direct flight. There are none to be had, which is a sad but true tale about much of the in-state flights in India. When I told S there was a much easier, if not quite as clean, way to get to where we were going, we decided to cancel our flights if we could get a train ticket at the last minute. That’s when the fun started.
The next morning we had our driver pick us up at 11:00 to go directly to the train station to buy a ‘last-minute’ ticket, only to find that the quality last-minute tickets are released at 6:00 a.m. the day before its departure, and there is a line waiting for the few that were reserved. We were met with a quizzical look when we asked if there were last-minute first-class AC tickets for tomorrow’s train. Now we had to decide what level of comfort we could trade for the chance to have sufficient leg room, the ability to get up and stretch our muscles from time to time, and not have to subject our bodies to 3 altitude changes in quick succession. We decided we still liked the train idea, and we had armed ourselves with a quick online tutorial that explained, sort of, the different classes of fares. There is 1AC, 2AC, sleeper, AC chair coach, etc. After trying to decipher whether we were going to be sitting in AC or the hot wind, we were lucky enough to bag 2 tickets in the lowest class AC available. But, not before standing in 3 different lines, leaving to make copies of our passports and visas (wonder where those copies go to die?) and filling out a form for both departing and returning that required me to write my personal information 4 times, 2 times for each trip.
Next morning we rose early to catch our 6:00 a.m. train. When we arrived at the very busy train station with 45 minutes to spare, we were dropped off by our driver. We waited for him under a portico where too many people to count were stretched out sleeping on the cement floor. The driver checked on the correct platform for our train, and then instructed us where to go, as he wasn’t permitted to go any further without a ticket. We were confident we could figure it out, so bid him good-bye and began our trek up 2 over passes (with 3 pieces of luggage, 1 full of heavy teaching supplies) and back down the steps. I didn’t realize I would get a workout as a bonus for taking the train. We found our platform, and our train was there and all seemed well. After a few minutes we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that announced a platform change for a train. After listening a couple of times, we determined it was ours they were talking about, so we picked up all our luggage and headed back over the same 2 overpasses, up and down the same stairs. We still had 20 minutes to find our car, no problem, just a little sweatier. We were at one of those junctures where you’re not sure if the correct turn is left or right (a juncture I spend a lot of time in my life standing in because of my poor sense of direction) and we chose to go left. We soon found out it was a very long train with over 20 cars with the letter before yours painted on the side, and even longer when you get to the end of the train and realize you took the wrong turn. We hoofed it back to the complete opposite end of the train and found our car, the next-to-last car, with a few minutes to spare. BTW, it’s surprising how sweaty you can get in the early morning when you’re carrying luggage up and down steps and trotting with them behind you on an uneven surface. We snagged our seats, fell in a flop, and about 2 minutes later the train left promptly on time. In a country where almost nothing happens on time, that made me smile. I sat back and watched the parade of food and beverage wallahs begin, and noticed there was an electrical outlet on the wall beside me for my computer. Unbelievably, it worked. That confluence made me conclude there is absolutely no figuring out parts of this country.