Tuesday, January 13, 2009


“FOOOOOCK!!!”—Rudely catapulted out of her seat by one of the frequent illegal speed bumps Indian villagers love to put on the main roads, my fellow traveler resumed viciously cursing the Indian roads, the bus’s broken suspension, collapsed upholstery, and the mechanic who removed all the shocks a few decades ago in Flemish, French, and English.

We are on day 3 of our Indian trip, and the first one with a hundred or so miles of Indian highways. It lacks the complete terror of one’s rickshaw cutting off a city bus, the confusion of the same rickshaw weaving through Old Delhi backroads scarcely wider than the vehicle, but adds the extreme discomfort of getting shaken hard enough to dislodge luggage and kidneys. It also goes a long way to explain why the main mode of inter city transportation in India is by train.

Indian trains are slow and crowded, but—except for the last day—more punctual, friendlier, and cleaner than anything Amtrak puts out. You board, settle back in your seat, let the landscape pass by and wait for the chai, coffee, or food wallah to serve you. The food is dirt cheap at about 40cents for breakfast and a dollar for most full meals. Also, when the train stops somewhere out in the open (which happens a lot, because of single lane tracks and no computerized scheduling), it only takes minutes for the kids from the nearest village to grab all available foods, bang on the doors and board the train to sell it until the train starts moving again or they get kicked out by the dozens of railway employees.

Service is an admirable 24-7, the constant shouts of “chai”, “coffee”, “meal” of the wallahs make sleeping somewhat of an art form, though.

Getting to the train is a completely different experience, though. All the stations we went through have seen minimal changes or improvements since the end of the Raj, and are overflowing with people, cows, and various other animals. When leaving Delhi, some workers were resurfacing the platform right between the passengers. The SOP is:

  1. Lay out some rebar on the current platform
  2. Move in concrete bucket by bucket on donkey trains
  3. Pour said concrete on rebar, donkey droppings and the trash that’s been blown up from the tracks
  4. Move on while cows, dogs, and rushing passengers create intricate patterns of footprints in the wet concrete.

Rinse, lather, repeat.Trains are commonly late, really late, not late like Japan's Shinkansen "annual average of 6 seconds" late. And this being India, obviously nobody in the station hierarchy has any idea when they might finally leave, so many Indians camp out on the platforms. One woman told me that she’s been waiting for 16 hours when I boarded the Super Express train from Veranasi to Delhi. By the time we got to Delhi, the super express delay had balloned to 27 hours, turning what was supposed to be a 12 hour trip into a two night ordeal.

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