By Dr. Alok Sood, with Niru Kumar
As I read, for the umpteenth time, Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham to my insatiable toddler, my eyes glazed over and my mind began to wander. Oh, there is something charming, a je ne sais quoi, about travel by train. Most of my recollections from India, Europe and Canada are happy ones; from meeting different people and having interesting conversations, to watching picturesque landscapes roll by.
As a youth on a shoestring budget, I spent a pleasurable few months travelling by train throughout Europe. I was impressed by the extensive rail network, and even more pleasantly surprised to discover the system’s renowned reliability.
Of course, as there must be, there are exceptions to every rule. One of my fondest memories is of a time I overly relied on that reputation. I was travelling between Lucerne and London. I needed to go via Bordeaux to collect some bags I had left there while I backpacked. In my typical type-A kind of way, I meticulously organized my journeys to take me from Lucerne to Geneva to Bordeaux to Paris to Calais and then on to Dover and London. This was some undertaking as I had to switch trains four times, but I had timed it perfectly, leaving me an hour or so between each train and travelling overnight so as to avoid another night in a hotel. Hey, I was a backpacker after all! I thought I was doubly smart since I had converted all my remaining Swiss and French currency to English sterling since the transaction and conversion fees were far less in Swiss banks.
Sure enough, the very first train was over an hour late. Ugh. Which meant that I was going to miss every one of my subsequent connections. But more importantly, I was going to arrive penniless in Bordeaux on a Saturday at midnight in the days before you could walk to any ATM and use your Canadian convenience card. Serious problem. My fellow train compartment passengers could see my growing discomfiture as we journeyed from Geneva to Bordeaux. One of them, an elderly French Nun, engaged me in conversation and, after discovering my dilemma, tried to force enough French francs into my hands to allow me to spend the night in a Bordeaux hotel. Somehow I didn't feel quite right in taking money from such a kind soul who undoubtedly led a minimalist life herself. Perhaps I was foolhardy in declining her charity, but I now like to believe that she instead arranged for some divine intervention on my behalf, since, in the end, the friend who was supposed to have left her apartment in Bordeaux for a weekend away decided rather spontaneously to stay and wait for my arrival. I was saved from a night of homelessness and hunger in the streets of Bordeaux!
On to India, where train travel is an adventure unto itself. Indian Railways is the single largest employer in the world and the network is incredibly vast, if not exactly rapid. Having said that, there is a certain joy in unhurried train travel in India. Indians are by nature social and curious. They are gregarious and generally have less social boundaries than do Westerners. As such, whether you desire it or not, you end up in conversation with fellow travellers. They will share their tales and even their food with you. (Not that you need their food, since delicious warm Indian food is served you on the trains.)
That may sound as though I am romanticizing rail travel in India but I have had my share of challenging experiences as well. Once, we battled Delhi's notorious traffic to arrive at the station just barely in time to catch it. Unfortunately, we were at the platform furthest from our train, and that too, with large suitcases in tow. We hired porters to help us race to our platform. We jumped on as the train was already pulling out of the station (can’t even conceive of doing that here!), while at the same time negotiating the fee to pay the porters and hauling on our cumbersome luggage. We ended up getting completely fleeced, but hey, we caught the train!
On another journey between Mathura and Bombay, there happened to be a derailment, so instead of arriving in 16 hours on an direct, relatively comfortable express train, we leisurely meandered through 4 states and 32 hours later arrived safely if not slightly worse for wear. At the time it was frustrating, but in retropsect, amusing … our annoyance was easily tempered by examining the aplomb with which a fellow traveller (who had struck up a conversation with us in true Indian fashion) was handling the inconvenience. He had journeyed from Darjeeling to Calcutta to Delhi to Bombay over a period of 5 days only to be arriving 2 days late for a company medical appointment that would need to be rescheduled for a future date! So, he was going to have to trek back to Darjeeling and make the odyssey all over again. He good-naturedly smiled throughout the fiasco.
For all that it has to offer, I would urge any of you who have yet to discover the pleasure of train travel in India to do so; just make sure to pack your patience along with everything else in your suitcase!
But train travel is slowly changing, and in my opinion, for the worse.
Over the past few years, I have travelled by train mostly in Canada, a country in which trains have a revered place in history. When it was completed over a century ago, it was a remarkable engineering feat to have built such an amazing and state of the art (at the time) rail network linking Canada coast to coast. The train remains an important means of transportation for many Canadians and train travel has always been enjoyable – calm, peaceful and comfortable - if not quite as rapid or reliable as in Europe.
But it has lost something along the way … the very charm that sets train travel apart: the human touch. In fact, in my view, this most civilized means of transport has become remarkably un-civilized. On the past couple of journeys, it struck me as sad that as soon as passengers seated themselves, the ipods and laptops come out and nary a word nor a smile was exchanged between them. For the entire journey! Everyone is content to communicate solely through electronic media, with the real human-to-human communication limited to the perfunctory or absolutely necessary. How isolating. How sterile.
If I were to experience a similar incident of missing trains and connections here, would anyone come to my rescue? Would anyone even know if I was in need of help? Would anyone even care?
Some of my fondest memories are of chance encounters with total strangers who have left an indelible impression on me and enhanced my appreciation of humanity. I like to think it goes full circle and that I share a little something of myself with those whom I encounter. A meaningful exchange between otherwise complete strangers.
So, the next time you board a train and feel the impulse to connect immediately to your electronic device, just think of the lost opportunity to connect with your fellow human being and exchange a moment of our common humanity. Instead, take a few moments to smile at those around you and exchange a few pleasantries. You never know how your life may be enriched.