Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Trains of India

The train is a great way to travel around India. With 20 million people taking the train everyday in India, it helps if you have some India friends to introduce you to the system. Many thanks to Arvind (who explained the options and bought our tickets), Kaustabh who met us at the station, and Baliji and Shyam, all of whom helped make our first trip a pleasant one.

On the website of the IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited, A government of India Enterprise), you can buy seven different classes of tickets:
1A-First Class AC (Air Conditioned)
FC-First Class
2A-AC 2-tier sleeper
3A-AC 3-tier sleeper
CC-AC chair car
SL-Sleeper class
2C-Second class sitting
This is Donna sitting in the Air Conditioned 2-tier sleeper (2A) car we road in for the trip down to Muthu's wedding. When you buy your ticket you are assigned to a particular car and seat (or bunk in sleeper classes). Although Kaustabh and Baliji were riding in non-AC sleeper class, they first made sure that we found our car and our seats before finding their own.

As the name implies there are two bunks, one above the other in this class of car. For riding during the day the bunks fold up against the wall. The lower bunk serves as a backrest and the upper bunk is simply up out of the way. You then have two long bench seats facing each other. There is even a small table (folded down in this picture) on the end near the windows. The other end opens onto the aisle with a curtain that can be closed to give a bit of privacy for the four people sharing this space. On the other side of the aisle are two similar bunks, one above the other, placed parallel to the aisle and direction of motion of the train.

This picture shows the upper bunk folded down for sleeping but with all the bedding for the four bunks piled on it. Each bunk has its own reading light visible in the upper left corner. Donna and I had the bottom bunks and only one of the upper bunks was occupied--by a young man who is living and working in the US and was on his way to visit his family in southern India. We boarded after 9pm and he boarded at the next station, still in Bangalore. After a little pleasant conversation we folded down the bunks, made the beds and closed the curtain to the aisle.

The beds are covered in vinyl with shallow pocket the full length of each side for tucking in the bottom sheet. Bedding also included an upper sheet, a blanket and a pillow. The bedding was clean and comfortable, although Arvind told me that some people bring their own blankets because, unlike the sheets, blankets are not washed every day. It was a little strange to realize that you would be sharing a sleeping room with people you had never met before. We had been warned to carry all your valuables in a wallet of some sort under your clothes and to use your purse or backpack as your pillow. We did the former, but didn't bother with our backpacks, other than shoving them way back under our bunks (we were on the bottom) and putting our shoes in front of them. I could see how it would be more important if you were in an upper bunk.

We slept very well and woke up to the sunlight wondering just where we were and if we had missed our stop. Not to worry, the trains generally run a little late and our friends called by cell phone to warn us one stop ahead that our stop was coming. If you don't have someone watching out for you, you need to watch the signs at the stations because there is no announcement of the stations. We hadn't thought to print out any sort of list of the stops, so we could determine how many stops remained before our destination.

During our travels people came through the cars selling tea and coffee. In the morning it acted as sort of a wake-up call. However we had been warned to bring our own drinks and snacks rather than eat what's available on the train, or offered by anyone traveling on the train, so we declined. Apparently there have been cases of passengers being drugged by something put into the food or beverages, and their possessions stolen. We were also warned not to drink too much "because you really don't want to use the bathroom on the train". After eight hours on the train I was impelled by more than idle curiosity find out what the bathroom was like.

Here it is. Those of you who find bathrooms an unsuitable topic for polite conversation can skip this paragraph. For the rest, let me orient you to the picture. The picture was taken looking down at the "toilet". Behind me while taking the photo was the sink. The "drain" is open to the train track below. The two "foot prints" in the picture are raised 2-3 inches above the floor to keep your feet up and clean. The blue pipe on the wall to the left has a value at the top for flushing. On the right is a faucet and cup (chained to keep it from wondering away) for personal clean-up.

The trip from Bangalore to Virudhunagar is a distance about 550 km (about 350 miles) it took about 10 hours and for the two of us cost about Rs 1700 ($45). We arrived the next morning refreshed and ready for a day of discovery. When we stepped out of the train car the temperature was about the same as inside, but the humidity was much higher. The AC sleeper was a wise choice.

On the way back we rode in a 3A car. Similar to the 2A but with bunks stacked three high rather than two. Here you can see the bunks in sleeping position but with out any bedding. There is no curtain between the compartment and the aisle in 3A.

Three tier sleeper is only about 2/3 the cost of two tier so it is a popular way for families to travel. We shared our space with a couple traveling with their two daughters. They were Indian natives but had recently moved back to India from California. The people across the aisle were also traveling with children and we had a pleasant visit with all of them before all climbing into our beds.

Several small children were walking down the aisle asking everyone if the small soccer ball they had found belonged to them. They pointed to the American flag on the ball (all the dark hexagons were flag designs) and asked if it belonged to us. We commended them on trying to find the owners, and a long serious conversation followed about how they might find the owner, whether there was any way for the owner to try to get it back, and my suggestion that it might be O.K. for them to keep it if they couldn't find the owner. Following this they went to the ticket officer to see if there was any lost and found, but he totally ignored them, as if they were a couple of flies.

There was no privacy, but everyone was very nice. Donna thought it was like a co-ed, all-age sleep-over. Both we and the family in the upper bunks were scheduled to reach our destination before the sun was up. We got I bit before the scheduled arrival at 3:30, and wondered where we were and if we had missed our stops. But the train was running a bit late and we had plenty of time to try to recognize the dark landscape and read the signs coming into the stations.
We were met a the station by our faithful driver Joseph, whom we had instructed to sleep at out house that night, as there were no buses or rickshaws available near his house at that ungodly hour. We all went back to bed, and after another hour of sleep I was rested enough to go to work. Donna slept in a bit, as she had been kept awake longer by a crying baby that I slept through.

So after a very pleasant excursion, we plan to repeat the experience next weekend with a train trip down to Coimbature to visit an orphanage run by our driver's daughter, and a nearby leper colony they help to provide for. Donna is going to evaluate the design of a cuff that will hold a spoon for people who have no fingers. In Donna's O.T. days, they were used by patients who hadn't regained full hand control following a stroke or other injury.

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