Riding the Train to Jodhpur | India | Living in Mexico

Riding the Train to Jodhpur

Travelers can choose from up to eight classes of travel on Indian Railways. Actually there's a ninth class, shown below, but it's available only in the vicinity of large cities like Bombay. We did not choose to travel this way, even though it's free.

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Photo found on the web.

I never saw people riding on top of trains, although I did see a few riding on top of highway buses. Good thing there are no topes (speed bumps) in India.

We had two objectives in taking the fifteen hour overnight train to Jodhpur. We wanted to see the Indian countryside outside of cities and tourist stops. And we wanted contact with ordinary Indian people. To achieve our second goal, we opted for cheap seats: a second class sleeper without air conditioning. The decor in our car was like Alcatraz in the '50s: gray vinyl benches that doubled as bunks, huge industrial-grade fans bolted to the ceiling, heavy steel bars on the windows. The latter protected us from thieves who apparently might try to enter our car during the night.

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Grime covered the coaches inside and out. Drifts of desert dust coated our bunks. Handrails were encrusted with a sticky layer of gunk deposited by thousands of dirty hands. No porters would be making up our beds; we brought our own blankets and used our backpacks for pillows. Backpacks make serviceable if uncomfortable headrests. More importantly, sleeping with luggage keeps it from disappearing in the night, something that we were told happens all too often.

Our coach was first in line behind the engine, an undesirable location, because the engineer blew the horn almost continuously. Not honk, honk, honking, but uninterrupted blasts that lasted for minutes at a time. I knew better than to think the honking was a cultural quirk. I finally realized the Indian countryside isn't fenced, and sacred cows wander everywhere. The horns warn them away from the track.

Our compartment contained eight bunks. Upper berths were folded up during the day, providing seating not only for the eight legitimate ticket holders, but numerous other passengers who boarded at one stop and got off at another, avoiding the conductor.

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We occupied our space with an ever-changing set of companions. They shared food with us—home-cooked delicacies we were advised not to sample, but did anyway. We distributed our granola bars, cashews and mango leather in exchange. The compartment took on the aspect of a temporary home; our companions an ad hoc family.

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Whenever we stopped at a station, the stench of the bathrooms would seep into our compartment. Note to self: When choosing seats, go for the middle of the coach, not the end near the latrines.

Four of them occupied the space upwind from our compartment. One was western style with a sit-down stool, although one wouldn't want one's skin to come into contact with it. The other three were squatters. All toilets emptied directly onto the tracks.

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The yellow encrustation at the top of the photo is crystallized urea. India Railways toilets aren't often cleaned.

In the western bathroom, a stenciled sign echoed the Raj with a sniffy British-style message.

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Vendors ply the corridors, most notably the chai-wallah, with his large thermos of milky sweet tea. I developed a liking for it. A shoeshine boy ran alongside the train as it slowed for a stop. During this trip, I was offered scores of shoeshines—more than any other service.

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In Europe and Japan, railway rolling stock looks crisp and shiny. In India, deterioration is everywhere. Equipment looks worn, but sometimes appears picturesque for all the wear.

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Rarely did I see places without people. India has more than a billion citizens in a country little more than a third the size of the United States—maybe eight times the population density. Lots of them don't have shoes.

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Many live in poverty. Here, a couple of families live in tents constructed on the railroad right-of-way.

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They perhaps are more fortunate than this cowherd who lives unsheltered in a field with animals.

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Conical structures are common sights. They are covered in thatch made from rice straw. This one shelters cattle feed. Others serve as tiny houses.

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Rice is the main staple crop. That so much of the production is done with manual labor is remarkable. The woman at the top of the image is threshing rice by swinging her bundle of stalks over her head and beating it on a blanket.

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More rice straw is produced than can be consumed as animal feed, especially in a country of so many vegetarians. So fields are burned to ready them for new crops, just as they are near Sacramento in California. We breathed smoke for hours.

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Every so often, we saw rice straw being used as fuel to fire bricks. Indians make bricks the same way Mexicans do—by hand. Women in saris squat in clay pits and force wet clay into molds. After drying, they carry raw bricks to huge kilns like this one. Smokestacks are another common feature of the countryside.

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Visitors to our compartment broke the monotony of rice fields and brick factories. At one point, a group of armed soldiers joined us. I tried to ignore the Mauser jabbing me in the ribs. This infantryman insisted I take his picture.

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We became tired and sleepy as the day wore on. A man took orders for dinner: an aluminum tray containing dal, rice, vegetables and soggy nan. And a tub of curd. I managed t spread mine all over my lap, the seat and our end of the compartment. But I ate it all. We'd been on the train for nine hours and had long since consumed all of the food we'd brought with us—as well as that of our companions.

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Then it was time for sleep. Bunks were lowered, suspended from heavy chains. Seasoned indian travelers broke out blankets and pillows. I wrapped myself in a small, inadequate Etihad Airways microfiber lap blanket and rested my head on my backpack, my laptop digging into my neck. Inches from my face, a huge, grimy fan roared. I stared at a pair of shoes someone had left on top of it. The train rocked. The horn blew. The bathrooms reeked. I fell into a sound sleep, waking up just outside Jodhpur.

Morning brought one last discovery about Indian people. They hawk and spit. Horrible guttural sounds erupted all around me. Phlegm flew out of doorways and windows. Hacking, throat-clearing, snorting, gargling, sniffing, snorting—the din was incredible. It went on for a half hour. It was comical. I had to suppress my laughter. This morning ritual was one of the truly noteworthy aspects of traveling with several hundred Indians.

You had to be there.

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