India by Train, 2004-2005
I think we know by now that India is a BIG country. But did you know that sometimes a journey in India can take several days, going from the East to the West or North to South? Some people might find this interminably boring, but I found that it was one of the few times when I wasn’t seen as a tourist (or a walking wallet) and wasn’t being hustled by the endless stream of hustlers that seem to make up 90% of the Indian population.
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I was engaged in respectful and interesting conversation by normal, working Indians. Those Indians would protect me and other tourists from the numerous touts and beggers that preyed on foreigners, either learning in the windows at the station or getting to the train at one station and working their way down the train to gather whatever they could before getting off at the next station and repeating in the other direction.
Once, on a three-day journey from Chennai in South India to Mumbai in North-Central India, I was awoken in the middle of the night by an unknown man.
He smiled at me and said ‘Get off the train’
‘What?’ I thought in my sleep-addled state…
Be insisted, ‘Get off the train and go to that stall over there’ he pointed…
I stumbled off the train in the humid warmth of the early morning hours and made my way towards a gaggle of people crowded around a solitary stall on the train station platform.
As I approached the back of the crowd one of the men in the group turned around and motions to me for some money, I don’t remember how much, I just handed it over, and moments later a small wooden tray (biodegradable) was placed into my hands containing a number of small round dough balls swimming in syrup, freshly cooked Gulab Jamun!
Collectively we milled about on the platform gleefully eating this unexpected middle of the night treat, and once we’d finished we filed silently back onto the train, smiles on our faces, returned to our sleeping bunks and the train resumed its journey…
So sometimes, being woken in the middle of the night by a strange man isn’t a bad thing!
On another journey, my travelling companion and I bumped into another pair of foreigners. Two young women on the train, travelling in the same direction as us. We shared a train compartment for a short time.
The first girl was from England and she introduced herself and the second girl…
‘She’s from Kazakhstan!’ Like Borat! Tee hee hee hee’
Bearing in mind that the first Borat film had recently been released and was currently universally hated by all citizens of the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
I don’t think the Kazakh girl actually said a word to us, just rolled over in her bunk and faced the wall… Probably she would have had a better time on her Indian trip if she’d ditched the English girl and been able to make connections with different people before their first impression of her was forever tainted with the Borat connection…
One of my most memorable experiences on a train was travelling for several days while sharing a compartment with several Ethiopian Muslims. They were friendly and generous with their food, all of which they brought with them.
They had a seemingly endless supply of honey, dates. white bread and milk. I don’t know if this was a religious thing or if they just really like carb-heavy treats?
They refused all offers of our food but happily shared theirs with anyone who would accept their generosity, all the while gathering a group of the other Muslims on the train so that they could pray together. One of the gang resembled a small gnome, complete with a little beard.
Soon our compartment was crowded with guys trying to find the correct direction for mecca. Given that this was a moving train it proved to be difficult for them.
An Indian man who was sharing the compartment scoffed that they spent all of their time praying and felt that it was ridiculous!
He asked me what my religion was, at the time I had identified with Buddhism, and he was fine with this because ‘ we basically pray in the same way’.
I thought this was a slightly odd distinction to make, but India is a slightly odd place.
During our time together, and between their frequent prayer sessions, I had the opportunity to converse with the leader of the Ethiopian Muslims.
He was constantly on the hunt for new recruits and we had a number of debates during the journey about different religions, prayer vs meditation and what constitutes a good life.
My biggest victory was getting him to admit that it didn’t really matter which religion people were, as long as they lived a good life.
I felt happy with that and chalk it up as one for human unification! But I have no idea if it changed his recruitment drive or not…
Part 3 of Kiwi’s Adventures in India – Travelling by Bus – is coming soon!
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