Train # 2656

“Chai/coffee, chai garam, chai/coffee, garam chai.”

“Pani water, cold drinks, mango Frooti.”

“Tomato soup, soup garam, tomato soup.”

The intonations start almost immediately after we are seated on the Navajivan Express from Chennai (Central station) to Ahmedabad at 9:20am on October 10. Besides the tea, coffee, water, fruit drinks, and tomato soup, we were offered potato chips (Lays), peanuts, vegetable cutlets on buns served with tomato ketchup, pakoras (deep-fried vegetables in a chick pea batter), “salad” – slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, dahi vada (urad dal (lentil) “donuts” with curd), papad, dahi (curd/yogurt), sweet lassi (a yogurt-based drink that has many variations, but usually served sweet or salty), samosas, cashews, masala (spiced) cashews, a selection of picture books, guides and maps of India… We are fortunate that on this train, the waiters are the ones hawking the food, so we are allowed the relative privacy of our 2nd class A/C (air conditioned) compartment with the curtains drawn. (On other runs, local vendors jump on the train before it has come to a stop and relentlessly shove goods in front of your face, pushing aside drawn curtains, and listing a full inventory of food, drink, snacks, books, magazines, clothing, bolts of cloth, batteries toys, toiletries, hair ornaments, regional specialties … before they have to jump off at the next station, switching places seamlessly with their counterparts – at every stop!)

Mark and I are traveling to Ahmedabad (in the state of Gujarat, in the north west of India) a day and a half after arriving in Pondicherry (in the south east of India) to see our friend John Silliphant, who is sick with Hepatitis A. He and Mark Peters, both CharityFocus volunteers, have been in northern India for more than 6 months of a year dedicated to volunteer service, sick most of their time here. We are taking John some protein powder and whole food tablets and vitamins to supplement his meager vegan diet. We were thrilled to be able to have breakfast that morning with Pavi and her mom, Vara, who came in at 6:30am to Egmore station from Madurai for a few days of sari shopping.

Mark and I love train travel in India. We generally travel in relative luxury, booking second class air-conditioned berths for the long, overnight journeys it requires to get from state to state. The second class A/C compartments have 4 berths to a compartment, two berths on each side, one above the other. (There is usually one first class A/C coach on the train (two berths to a compartment) and several third class A/C coaches (6 berths – three-tier) as well as one or two second class A/C coaches.) A fan, with two speeds (slow and fast) complements the air conditioning; each berth has a private reading light; there are shelves, pockets, and hooks for your things, and metal rings to which to lock luggage below the bottom berths. The upper berths can be bolted against the wall or suspended by metal chains when lowered. The lower backrest folds down on the seat to form the sleeping berth. Attendants distribute blankets, sheets, pillows and sometimes towels (depending on the line). Meals can be ordered, with lunch and dinner costing 40 rupees (we’ve never ordered breakfast) – the equivalent of a little less than US$1 (the current exchange rate is around 43 rupees to a dollar) for rice, 2 rotis, a vegetable dish, dal (some type of lentil dish), a packet of pickles, dessert, and a plastic bag of water. (On certain “super fast” trains, meals are included in the price of the ticket, which can be quite a burden, since you are awakened at the crack of dawn to be served tea and are not allowed to sleep through without drinking the tea because the waiters want to clear the tea service before bringing you breakfast!) However, most people bring their own food, full-on meals in tiffin tins, packed by family or relatives for the journey.

Mark generally falls asleep about a half hour into the trip and sleeps off and on for about 30 hours. (This trip was 35 hours.) He puts on his iPod headphones, strums along with his travel guitar for a while, then falls asleep, getting up only to eat and drink. I do a lot of window gazing while there is light, watching the slums around the cities turn into villages, then fields of grain, then rangeland, back to fields, villages, slums, cities, with an occasional cenotaph or temple here and there. Views of litter thown out of the train windows lining the tracks make way to larger panoramas of herds of goats and buffaloes, tended by men, women and children as thin as sticks and rows of women bent over at the waist weeding rice fields. Brief sunsets give way to blackness, penetrated by the occasional dim yellow lights at a rural station. Then I read and sleep fitfully because one of us has to be alert to the comings and goings of attendants and conductors.

We had reserved tickets for this train from San Francisco, the day before we left, using the Indian Railways website. Our tickets were couriered to the Seaside Guest House in Pondicherry the day after we arrived. We were assigned seats/berths on the side of the coach, basically in the hallway opposite the main compartments. These berths are narrower than the ones in the main compartments for 4 and basically offer little privacy even with the curtains drawn. We thought of asking the conductor for different seats, since the train was not full, but decided to wait and see if they would fill up with passengers further down the line. The initial conductor turned out to be one of those fawning sycophants who kiss up to white people. He gave Mark a close, deep “namaste”, inquired about his dual time watch (which everyone in India loves and wants to possess), and laughed obsequiously at everything Mark said. About two hours into the trip, he came back and offered us different berths in a compartment that was completely empty, and which we had to ourselves for most of the trip, making a big show of letting us see the changes that he made on his manifest. “See – you are now in 25 & 26, and now 17 & 18 are empty.” He also asked for some “foreign coins that students are collecting”.

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