Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Great India Adventure: planes, TRAINS and automobiles

Our Bed for the Night
Our trip in India included several flights around the country, countless hours in our vans, and an overnight train to a wedding. Since I have been back, people have asked me what my favorite moment was in India, probably expecting me to say seeing the Taj Mahal. While the Taj Mahal was spectacular, and certainly a highlight of the trip, the real response to the big question is that my favorite memory is of the 'train ride'.

OK, so, let me be fully transparent here. I can't say that the sleeper car was my favorite experience, but I can say the experience will always be etched in my brain, and will be remembered as a great international adventure.

So, while I was preparing for this trip, I paid close attention to our modes of transportation, and was knowledgeable about the weather. These two things are very important for a person who is traveling with special medication that needs to be refrigerated (but I'll leave that for another post). So when I realized we were going to be traveling by overnight train, in very hot weather, I instantly started planning for wicked temperatures. I borrowed a lunch cooler, bought ice packs for the cooler, and hoped for the best.

Well, the best came in the form of air conditioned sleeper cars! When father told us we would be on air conditioned cars, I literally leaped for joy inside... This was, in fact, the best news, because by the time we were going to be traveling by train, I had already learned that there was no such thing as a freezer for my ice packs at any of our hotels, and I was still trying to preserve the integrity of $6,000 worth of medicine...

How naive of me to be so singularly focused... What I mean is, I celebrated too soon...

When we arrived at the train station, I was overwhelmed with the volume of people lingering, loitering, sleeping, passing, pushing and staring. For some reason, the day leading up to the overnight train was particularly hard for me, and I can only guess that it was due to the tremendous heat that we encountered throughout the day. I was fairly grumpy, but trying to hide it, and the influx of people everywhere threw me into a bit of a tailspin. I literally just wanted to board the train and sleep it out.

And then I saw the state of the trains on which were were going to be traveling. The realization hit me that first class, air conditioned sleeper cars in India, barely hold up to a regular commuter train in America. This was one of many moments in which I recognized the huge difference in my standard of living in the United States, and the standard of living in India. Neither standard is right or wrong, but it certainly made me reflect on how much I appreciate the standards I have become accustomed to, living in the United States.

Anyway, I took a look around at the characters I was traveling with, and it appeared to me, as we sat there waiting for our train, that everyone in our group seemed a tad bit deflated. Could they all be having the same feelings as me? I wondered... That is when I started pacing, and then dragged my mom and Mrs. H. to take a walk. We tried to find a bathroom, nothing suitable was available... We talked about the fact that we didn't feel safe in that moment... We took note of the people sleeping everywhere... We paid attention to the hundreds of people traveling in the night, just to get to their next destination... Here we were, three Americans walking around a train station in India, without knowing what we should say next.

After a little time, we made our way back to the group. I put on my 'fake it til you make it' smile and offered to buy everyone potato chips and pop. For me, the little bag of chips and orange pop I was drinking was just enough taste of 'home' for me to go on with the train ride with a a bit of a smile on my face.

And then the train arrived...

We all approached the train hesitantly, but were being pushed forward by a crowd behind us. Was our hesitation due to not understanding where we should head when we got on the train? Or a result of our apparent deflated state? Or maybe a combination of both? I don't think I will ever know the answer to that question, but onward we went!

When we boarded the train, we moved into our car, and it was evident we had no clue where we needed to go, but Father came to the rescue. He directed four people into one cubbie, and shuffled the remainder of us forward. He then started looking for our seats by opening up the curtains that were hanging throughout the cabin. There were already people loaded on the train, and he was obviously disrupting the sleep of many passengers, as we heard at least one person chastise him by saying loudly, WE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP. At this point Father discovered the seat assignments were clearly marked overhead, and there was no need to disrupt others to find our way.

We continued pushing down the isle and were all being directed into various locations. Mrs. H. found her bed for the night, and then I was directed to a single seat on one side of the train while Selfie and her Hubby (their names for the rest of these posts) were pointed into a 'stall' directly across from me. I sat down in a seat feeling as though I had been deceived. Where was I to sleep? There were two singular seats facing each other, and a big burly man came and sad directly in front of me, and our knees were jammed together due to the proximity of the seats. I was watching longingly as Selfie and Hubby stared at their sleeping arrangements (top bunk) and so obviously tried to stay positive while they shoved their belongings into their 'beds'.

As I sat there, about to fall apart in tears, Father came to my rescue AGAIN. He spoke with the guy who was basically sitting in my lap, and then told me that I got to sleep in the compartment above the seat. I was both thankful, terrified, and worried. You see, the seat I was sitting on, barely fit my body, and the width of the compartment above, was comparable... Oh, and did I mention I am claustrophobic? I made my 'bed', threw my backpack to one end, and then climbed aboard. When I jammed myself into my sleeping space, I literally thanked my lucky stars that I have spent a lot of time in MRI machines over the last couple of years, because they prepared me for what was to be my home for the next eight hours.
My Sleeping Quarters

My sleeping quarters
Once I was settled into my bunk, I looked across the isle and saw Selfie and Hubby trying to arrange themselves in their beds (please note, their beds were about twice the width of mine, so in this moment I did not feel bad for them). I watched as they climbed in, and I tried to made a few jokes to lighten the mood. I think my jokes fell on deaf ears.

Hubby and Selfie trying to get situated.
Soon after settling in, I closed my curtain, prayed that the train would make it safely to our destination, and fell asleep for several hours. I was awoken by Father telling me to get up because we were almost to our stop. He was clearly using 'Father Time' when telling us we were almost to our stop, because our stop did not appear for another hour. (For your reference: Father Time is the amount of time Father would tell us we had to get to our destination. We always knew to multiply his estimate by at least three. A two hour drive? More like six... Twenty minutes until our stop? One hour in real time) During this hour we all found the humor in the overnight train. Pictures were taken, loud talking ensued, and Selfie told the story of her rude cubbie mates, and I honestly thought I was going to have to save Selfie from a scary looking woman who kept Selfie and Hubby up all night with her talking and texting on her cell phone.

And we arrived!
A view from the isle. 

 When we arrived at our destination, at 5:00 in the morning, we were again faced with an overly crowded train station, people sleeping in rows on the ground, people pushing, and major confusion on our faces... Yet we all survived...
People sleeping in the Train Station

So ask me again, what was my favorite part of my trip to India? I'll still say it was the sleeping car!!!

Side Note:

If you ever travel to India, let me first provide you with a few tips:

1) If you are flying while in India, be sure to bring a paper copy of your e-ticket to the airport, otherwise you will NOT be allowed to enter the building. My mom and I both learned this valuable lesson on our final day in India.

2) When traveling by train, be sure to reserve the first class sleeper car WITH air conditioning, and note that it might not feel that cold.

3) If you have the luxury of having a small van, with a driver on your trip, make friends with your drivers... I happened to love our drivers, and learned more about Indian culture from them. 

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