Monday, June 23, 2008

The train ride from Chennai, South India to Agra, North India

Monday, May 26 through Wednesday morning, May 28
Dawn spent the entire day frantically doing laundry and packing for our trip up to North India.

All day long, Heidi kept asking for jasmine flowers for her hair, but I simply didn’t have the time to run up the street and purchase them from the nearby jasmine lady on the corner. I toyed with the idea of sending Erin, Lily and Heidi up to the jasmine lady, but thought that wouldn’t really be a good idea. About 4 p.m., Mani arrived in our apartment with a gift "for Heidi." Don’t ask me how he found out, but he had bought each of the girls a string of especially fragrant jasmine flowers. He told us that these flowers were smaller than the normal jasmine flowers (they were quite a bit smaller), but much more fragrant (and they were!). I took the time to braid the girls’ hair and put the jasmine flowers in. (Jasmine simply doesn’t work in hair unless your hair is braided. A ponytail might do in a pinch, but not really.) Heidi was much happier after that.

Sahji and Chandra-shake-uh seemed nervous about us venturing forth to other parts of India, and asked if we would like them to make us some chapatis to take along on our trip. (Chapatis are a round, flat bread, similar to a tortilla, but with a thicker and more interesting texture.) They made us 21 chapatis. We found out later that you can make quite an acceptable sandwich with peanut butter and chapatis.

Byron arrived home a bit earlier than usual that evening from work (about 7:45). Our train for Agra was leaving at 10:10 p.m. Some tense minutes passed as he ascertained that Dawn had over-packed, and he unpacked everything and re-packed it in a frenzy of panic. (So much for Dawn knowing where everything was, or even if Byron had even included it in the re-packing process!

Byron managed to pack everything he thought we’d need into three suitcases. In addition, each of the girls carried a backpack, and we brought the stroller, and a large cardboard box holding 12 two-liter water bottles. Dad brought a compact backpack and impressed me with how lightly he could pack. We loaded up the car, and were off to the train station.

Mani helped us unload, and walked us over to the train station’s entrance ramp. He stood there looking at us like he wasn’t at all sure we could handle this trip on our own. He looked like he wanted to say something along the lines of, "Now, don’t talk to strangers. And don’t get separated, and for crying out loud, don’t do anything stupid!" He watched us until we were out of sight, just shaking his head.

After wandering in generally the right direction (following Mani's instructions), we decided to ask someone for directions (can I just say here that I LOVE always being able to find someone who can speak English, wherever I go in India? This doesn’t happen in every country!), and found our train. We pulled all our luggage onto the train, and found a rather delightful sleeper car, with 6 bunks to a berth. We began to get settled in an empty berth, when it occurred to us to see if our ticket indicated which berth was ours. Indeed, we were in the wrong one, so located the right one and the girls immediately started climbing bunks and bouncing around delightedly. Children under 5 years (Heidi) didn’t pay for tickets, but they also had to share a bunk with an adult, so the Nesmith/Burke clan only took up 5 of the 6 bunks in our berth.

We soon met the brave Indian gentleman who would be surrounded by an American family during all his waking and sleeping moments for the next 30 hours. He had the bottom bunk on the right, and couldn’t have been more friendly, helpful, and curious about us. Dawn and Heidi slept above him, Lily across from us, and Dad beneath Lily. Byron slept on the bottom bunk across the aisle, and Erin quickly set up a little bedroom for herself in the bunk above Daddy.
Pillows, sheets, and blankets were provided, and I attempted to make Lily’s bunk first. After struggling with the sheets for 10 minutes, I gave up and said, "Just lay on the sheet and pull the blanket over you. The Indian gentleman said, "Why don’t you make it like mine?" and gestured to his perfectly-made bed. I came close to asking him to make up each of our beds, but grinned and said, "Americans don’t know how to do things like this," and left him chuckling.

It was about 11:30 p.m. by the time we got the girls all settled, and the luggage shoved under beds. The girls were tired, and we forgot that perhaps we should take each of them to the bathroom before bedtime. We would find the folly of this forgetfulness throughout the night. Every time someone needed to use the bathroom, Mama and Daddy were awakened. We would fumble in the dark for our toilet paper, then walk to the next car where we found an interesting squat-pot set-up. The squat-pot was porcelain, but everything that goes in just dumps out onto the train tracks below. I suddenly remembered a newspaper article I’d read the week before about how many people do not follow the rules about waiting to use the train bathrooms until the train has pulled out of the station.

Fortunately, metal bars and handles were in front of and to the side of the squat pot, so you could hang on while using the facilities. This was totally necessary, as the swinging and swaying of the train made it hard to walk, much less balance in a bathroom.

To Dawn’s utter joy, the train bathroom also featured a very nice, clean sink with running hot and cold water, and a full soap dispenser!

After multiple midnight visits to the squat pot with each of the girls, Byron and I didn’t have the greatest night’s sleep. Also, sleeping with a four-year old on a narrow bunkbed is superior only to sleeping on an airplane, which is the worst form of travel for sleeping, in my opinion. At least on the train you could stretch out, sort of.

Morning dawned through our large picture window on the train, and a major form of entertainment for us throughout the day was to just sit and watch the countryside pass by the window. We saw water-buffalo, monkeys, little huts out in the middle of nowhere, people working in fields (maybe rice-fields?), cows, goats, and many cultivated fields. Many of the fields looked too uniform to have been planted by hand, but not really uniform enough to have been planted by the kinds of tractors we have in America (as if I know what an American tractor is really like!).

We passed through tunnels, and through mango groves, and saw small, remote villages where I wondered how they eked out a living. Our Indian berth-mate was more than willing to answer questions and talk about what we were looking at out the window.

The landscape between south India and north India is basically pretty dry and sparse. Definitely not lush and green like a jungle. But not sandy like a desert. There was wild grass and scrubby trees growing almost everywhere, and the land was very flat.

During the daylight hours, Byron and the girls taught our Indian friend how to play Uno, and watched him eat his lunch (a very spicy-looking rice dish) with his fingers (I don’t know how they do it—but the Indians can eat with their fingers and keep clean and mess-free), as we ate our chapatis with peanut butter. He could also drink from a water bottle on a rocking, lurching train without letting the bottle touch his lips and without spilling. Vendors also walked throughout the train cars calling out their wares, such as various kinds of ready-to-eat food, and drinks. I was awfully tempted to buy some "Chai" from the tea-vendor, as the girls and I adore Indian tea (which consists of a small spot of tea with loads of cream and sugar!), but wasn’t sure it would be as sanitary as we would need it to be.

We did a little homeschooling, but soon tired of doing math problems when there was a window to look out of. Dad, Byron and I took turns reading the book, "Swift Arrow," to the girls. It’s an old book, but a very interesting true story about an American pioneer boy who is kidnapped by the American Indians and raised as a chief’s son, but when he reaches adulthood, escapes back to his pioneer family and village. It did feel odd reading aloud within our Indian friend’s hearing passages such as, "George watched as the tall Indian brandished the scalps on his belt and waved a tomahawk in front of his friend Robert’s face." Parts of that book don’t really put Indians in a good light, and I was worried that the Indian Indians would think we were making comments about THEM. At one point we ended up drawing a picture of a tee-pee versus a wigwam for our Indian friend, and he didn’t seem at all familiar with these terms which are so second-nature to Americans.

People would go past our berth on their way to the bathrooms, and once they noticed we were Americans, they would stop and talk to us, or wave. (It hasn’t stopped amazing me how unusual and compellingly interesting we are to much of the Indian population, just because we’re white and/or American) Two women just came and sat with us for awhile, staring at us, listening to us read "Swift Arrow," and finally talking to us. They kept asking Heidi if she understood what the book we were reading was about. I was surprised that they would think a 4-yr old wouldn’t understand a storybook being read to her, but perhaps they couldn’t believe that such a little girl could understand English so much better than they could.

The girls had a wonderful time playing on their bunks, crawling and climbing back and forth and up and down. Our Indian friend (whose very long name we obtained just toward the end of our trip, and which I now can’t remember) said he had three daughters of his own, just about Erin’s, Lily’s, and Heidi’s ages. He enjoyed holding Heidi and talking with her for awhile, and laughed at how the girls enjoyed looking out the window and playing in the train.

One older Indian woman stopped to chat with me about Heidi’s limbs, and told me that the best place in India to obtain artificial limbs is in the city of Jaipur (about 3 hours from Delhi). She insisted we stop there. I smiled and told her we aren’t big fans of prosthetics at this point, but maybe in the future Heidi would appreciate and use them more. People who aren’t amputees (or very closely associated with them) usually don’t have a clue as to the true usefulness of prosthetic limbs, and sometimes I just wish they’d keep their opinions to themselves. Anyhow, this lady told me about a famous Indian dancer who lost her leg in an accident, and who got a prosthetic at Jaipur and came back as a brilliant dancer again.

Then, she left and returned with her 3-yr old granddaughter, Tusha. Heidi was enchanted to meet a little girl her age (doesn’t happen very often), and the two enjoyed sharing a couple of picture books and coloring a few pictures together. Then Tusha dashed down to her berth, and Heidi wanted to follow her. Byron took her down, where they met all of Tusha’s family.

Towards the end of our train ride, Dad found a western toilet at the other end of our train car, which we tried to get into several times, but always seemed to find it occupied. Dad also found a train car with 3-tiers of bunks, which I was so, so glad we hadn’t booked. With three-tiers, you either sit up, or lay down (and all three people in your row have to agree). I am sure that God led us to the travel agency and agent who knew that we would be miserable if we couldn’t lie down and take naps during a 30-hour train ride, and riding in the air-conditioned two-tier cars made that possible. In our complete ignorance of Indian trains, who knows what we would have booked if we had tried to do it ourselves? (For future reference, traveling by 2nd class, air-conditioned, two-tier is a perfectly acceptable way to travel with children. Just remember to bring your own toilet paper, hand sanitizer, water, and food, an alarm clock and a few things to entertain yourself and your kids during the ride.)

The train ride really was enjoyable. All 6 of us took naps during the day, which was easy to do because the constant swaying of the train naturally lulled us to sleep. After about 20 hours, we felt pretty "done," but weren’t at the end of our ropes yet. We were nervous about getting off the train in Agra (our train was to arrive in Agra at 3:45 A.M.!), because we had noticed that the train usually stopped at the little train stations along the way for a maximum of 5 minutes—usually more like 3 minutes. We thought, "how are we going to get three sleepy kids and all this luggage off the train in the short amount of time, and THAT time of the morning?"

We were also nervous about waking up on time. The conductor and another woman who was going to Agra both told us they would ensure that we were awake in time.

Dawn and Byron both set alarm clocks, and the kids willingly went to bed about 8:00 p.m.. At 3:00 a.m., Dawn awoke and took a full 15 minutes to force myself to sit upright. At 3:30 a.m. I started getting kids awake and taking each of them to the bathroom. Byron awoke and started getting the luggage all into a pile. Dad awoke and looked alert. We wondered how we would know when the train got to Agra—the only way to tell where you were at each stop was to look out the window and search for the sign that listed the town’s name first in Tamil or Hindi, then in English. Sometimes that sign wasn’t immediately obvious, especially at night.

3:45 a.m. came and went, and the train hadn’t stopped. 4 a.m. arrived, and the other lady stopping at Agra came to make sure we were awake. Then the conductor came to awaken us. I was glad we had not relied on them to awaken us, as they would’ve woke us up only a few minutes before we would be getting off. Apparently they don’t understand how Burkes travel—with kids and MUCH LUGGAGE to deal with.

At 4:05 a.m., the train finally began to slow down, then got slower and slower and slower. Now sure this was the Agra stop, we gathered around the door. I clutched Heidi in one arm and a suitcase in the other. Erin and Lily stood ready with their backpacks, and Byron and Dad stood with the rest of the luggage, poised for our 3-minute disembarking opportunity.
The train slowed down even more, and I figured we might as well get off. "Jump!" I cried to the girls, and we made a leap for it. We landed safely on the platform and turned to see Byron struggling with the luggage, but still on the train that was moving further down the platform. We rushed to follow him, and then the train finally stopped. We hurriedly hustled all the luggage off, then Byron and Dad rushed off the train themselves. Whew! We made it!

Fully expecting the train to start up again and leave in three minutes, we realized that the Indians were slowly getting off, taking their time, and that no one else seemed in a hurry (certainly no one else had jumped off the train while it was still moving). Later, we discovered that since Agra is a major stop, the train stops for 30 minutes at this station! We had a good laugh at that one. How ridiculous did the Americans look-- leaping off the still-moving train?

We had emailed our Agra hotel, the Hotel Sheela Inn (that we had booked through the internet), and had also asked them to send a car to pick us up at the train station at 3:45 a.m. They had responded with one word, "ok."

A young man approached us at the train station as we stood there looking rather sleepy and dazed with all our luggage, and said, "I have car for you." Byron asked him if he was with the Hotel Sheela Inn, and the man replied, "Yes, yes." Later we discovered that he was merely being agreeable, and had no connection at all to the Hotel Sheela Inn—he didn’t even know where it was!

We gullibly followed him out of the train station to a car which actually was big enough for all 6 of us and our luggage. Byron and he agreed on a price for driving us to the hotel, and we were off. The man drove to a hotel, and attempted to drop us off there. We saw no sign that said, "Hotel Sheela Inn," and refused to get out of the car. The man drove us to another hotel, which wasn’t Hotel Sheela Inn either. And another. It became very clear that either he didn’t know where our hotel was, or didn’t want to take us there. Finally, with Byron’s help, the man and he talked to a couple of people on the street who seemed to be familiar with our hotel and gave directions to the driver. A few minutes later, we arrived at yet another hotel—this one had NO sign out front. Byron decided to go in and investigate, and soon gestured that we should come in. (We are still wondering why the Hotel Sheela Inn doesn’t post a sign out front.)

Byron found a lobby full of sleeping hotel owners and workers, and was surprised to find that the hotel had not only skipped sending a driver to pick us up, but also had no idea we were coming and didn’t have a reservation for us, much less at the price we had confirmed via the internet. We still wonder who we communicated with via email. It turned out that since we were visiting at the off-season, the hotel had rooms available (in the whole three days/nights we were there we did not see any other guests), and gave them to us for slightly more than we had arranged via email (with someone!). Byron went to pay our driver, who looked rather disgusted at the price he had agreed upon but which had ended up being a whole lot more driving than the driver had originally thought he’d do.

We settled into two rooms, and all the adults and Lily gratefully fell asleep, still feeling that swaying, jolting sensation of being on the train (we were to retain that sensation for about 24 hours after getting off the train). Erin and Heidi were fully awake by the time we got to the hotel, so stayed awake coloring in a coloring book together. (This wasn’t a good idea, but Dawn was too tired to make Erin and Heidi lie down and try to sleep.)

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