Written largely on the Kerala Express (12626)
Departed from New Delhi Railway Station, New Delhi, Rajasthan
Headed to Ernakulum Junction (South), Kochi, Kerala
11:30 am, Tuesday, March 11
We are on our way! Our train just pulled out of New Delhi a few minutes ago, and we are picking up speed. My first impressions of the 2-tier AC class so far — it is mostly neat and clean, but not as fancy as Amtrak. The hard sleeper class in China is very similar. Across from us is a nice-seeming but quiet gentleman. He speaks a little English, but either we have trouble with his questions or he has trouble processing our reply. There seem to be no other foreign tourists on our car, but I have glimpsed a few monks in their orange garb. There are a few curious kids also shyly peering at us too.
Steve and I are both getting over a bad cold, and he has had some disagreements with Indian food, so he is less enthusiastic about this trip than I am. The conductor just came by to check our IDs, and our neighbor had to peel his sweater vest halfway up his chest and partially unbutton his shirt to extract his wallet which was on a chain. It reminds me of this underwear that my mother once showed me from China, which had a small zip pocket for cash in the front. Basically, all Asians are paranoid about theft and pickpockets, but probably for good reason. Men have come by hawking lunch, but I feel adequately prepared, with two liters of water, two footlong Subway sandwiches (oh the fresh veggies), chips, and two rolls of TP. Let’s hope this is enough.
6:44 pm, Tuesday
Sunset on the train. We turned the individual cabin lights on. Our neighbor has found a few friends on the same train, and they are chatting and headshaking up a storm. On the left side, no one is in that berth, so we are sitting and looking out the window. There are mostly trash heaps against the side of the tracks, but also wanderers with burdens on their heads, herds of cattle or goats and young goatherds. We saw an informal game of cricket taking place in one village. There are small rivers and rivulets now and then. By the map on the tablet, we are in Madhya Pradesh.
9:05 pm, Tuesday
It’s almost bedtime. Steve and I stopped one salesman to buy a cup of marvelous Indian chai as well as a cup of red liquid, which turned out to be very spicy tomato soup with a few fried crutons. The bathrooms are really quite deplorable, which was to be expected. Same as in China. You have to breathe through your mouth while you’re in there, and stand on your tippy-toes and pray nothing splashes on you. The noise of the train is especially loud as you can look down the toilet, and whether squatting or Western-style toilet, it all just empties out onto the tracks. I am immensely grateful for our small bottle of hand disinfectant. Well, off to bed.
9:10 pm, Wednesday, March 12
Our train has slowly traced the length of India. After departing from Delhi, which is vaguely in the northwest of India, our train headed southeast all the way to Vijayawada Junction, in Andhra Pradesh, which is a mere forty miles from the Bay of Bengal to the east of India. Then we made a turn to the west again and zagged further southwest toward Kerala, which is on the southwestern tip of the inverted Indian triangle.
This morning, we awoke to salesmen coming by at 2-minute intervals (I counted!) to sell chai (“garram chai” means hot chai) and coffee and veggie cutlets. I simply gave up sleeping after they came by so often, and watched the scene outside. There are a lot of water buffalo and small, white heron-like birds that gather in the rivers. We saw a sow with her litter trotting behind her.
We spoke a little to our neighbors. A woman named Puja boarded in the middle of the night and took the upper berth opposite us. She introduced herself as working in marketing at the Times of India, and her brother works in New Jersey. She was traveling with her mother-in-law, and taught me a few words in Hindi about how to say how are you doing and to reply I am fine, which I promptly forgot right away. Being good at languages is one of things I pride myself on, but especially without romanization and a good way to fix the words visually in my brain, I am just hopeless.
Meals have been served hot on the train. You can order beforehand and make sure to get one delivered or purchase one if they come by with extras afterward. Breakfast, a small omelette sandwich, was 35 rupees, and lunch and dinner 55 each. Both lunch and dinner boasted a small package of dal, curried veggies, chapatis, and rice.
7:45 am, Thursday, March 13
Morning is brilliant here. Last night was far more of the variety of interaction I had hoped to have on the train and on this trip to India. I introduced myself to the people sitting at the neighboring berths, and met two monks (one from Malaysia, the other from India) and a young man from the U.A.E. of Indian descent. The Malaysian monk spoke some Chinese, which I had identified on the first day on the train with some curiosity, and we spoke briefly. He told me about how he spent four years living in Portland and absolutely loved it, and we talked about how Buddhist dogma does not prohibit the use of smartphones but only because it wasn’t an engraved prohibition at the time Buddhism was born like alcohol. Both monks used theirs with ease and showed us a mobile app that listed the names of the train stops for the next day, and strongly cautioned us to set an alarm to wake up in time for our stop. He also solemnly presented us with small bags of powdered soymilk, which is not a thing in India. He had to explain to the U.A.E. guy where it came from and how delicious it was. (I needed no convincing.) I still can’t believe India doesn’t do soybeans or tofu, with all these vegetarians. Instead of tofu in my hot and sour soup back in Amritsar, they put paneer! Inconceivable.
It was genuinely nice to talk to people instead of avoiding their attention and eye contact. I also had a longer conversation with the U.A.E. guy this morning and someone else, an architect from Kochi (the monks got off the train late last night) about what to do in Kerala. They recommended the ayurvedic spas and massages, which I will have to explore. Two more stops until Ernakulum South, which is the name of the train station in Kochi. Farewell, Kerala Express!