by Lex Pelger
In India, they have a saying that the people truly take to heart: “The guest is god.” For this reason, ditch the Lonely Planet for everything but a cheap place to stay. Everywhere you go in the subcontinent you will find Indians happy to recommend the best places to eat and explore. Best of all, when you ask strangers for advice they often will invite you to their home or shop for chai, the ubiquitous drink of hospitality. If lucky, you might get to meet a rickshaw driver’s large extended family, see how they make jewellery in Calcutta, or even be whisked off to a dusty village frozen in time. There lies the secret to India: the people are more interesting than the sights.
I’m sure you have heard horror stories about India but I’ve never been anywhere safer or more interesting. I lived there for eight months with my sister. I lived in a slum, walked through 1500 kilometres of northern India, and never refused an adventure. My worst experience: I paid too much for a pair of pants that fell apart in two weeks.
On the India Express
It’s a damn big country. You will spend a lot of time travelling but this can also be the most fun part of your trip. On the trains, everyone loves chatting with the goras (foreigners). Often, a family would take me under their wing for the duration of the journey. On a ride from Delhi to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), I spent most of the 24 hour journey sitting with a devout Hindu family who stuffed me with food and sang from the holy Ramayana. The white haired grandmother sang the verses from memory after she gave me her granddaughter to hold. I loved that cute baby girl and the little rascal loved sticking her tongue out at me. When conversation lulled, I watched the fascinating landscapes and colourful people of central India drift past the train windows.
Depending on your toughness, you can choose from two classes of travel: sleeper or unreserved. With sleeper class, you get a guaranteed bed with nice padding. You tend to meet more families here and end the day with a comfortable sleep. To book a sleeper class, go to the International Tourist Bureau found in the major cities. They set aside seats for foreigners so bring a passport and the helpful staff will help plan your trip. Try to book all your tickets here so you don’t have to worry about picking them up later when farther from the big destinations. Use the Indian Railway website (icrtc.gov) to find the fastest trains because mail trains can double or triple your travel time. The trains are great, but that’s a little much.
If you feel tough and want to see how people really travel in India, take the unreserved train. The railroad sells an unlimited number of tickets so the number of passengers is simply the number that can cram onto the train. On a busy line, the number of people on board defy reason. It’s an amazing sight. Every inch of the floor and benches are jammed with people leaving no room for personal space. People sleep all over each other like a big pile of puppy dogs. Some stand the entire ride while others string hammocks above the entrance doors. To reach the bathroom, most people climb along the luggage racks like monkeys because otherwise it can take twenty minutes to slowly work through the crowd choking the narrow aisles. People maintain an amazing temperament despite the crowding and the heat.
On long journeys, food and entertainment become important. Make sure to bring plenty of 10 Rs notes because that’s the price of every samosa, bottle of water, and sweet passed through the window at station stops. I saw one enterprising businessman climb in through the window of the unreserved car with a pot of lentils and a bag of accessories to feed everyone at 10 rupees (2 rand) a plate. While preparing the food, he kept up a running commentary that made everyone laugh thus fulfilling the two most necessary needs of train travel.
For the most surreal of your entertainment experiences, keep listening for a double clap followed by gruff feminine voices. The hijra, or eunuchs, pass through the cars soliciting 10 Rs notes from all they pass. Dressed in colourful saris, these men with the naughty bits removed live their lives as women. The passengers give them money for a variety of reasons. Some think that the hijra can curse you with the evil eye while others simply don’t want to be embarrassed by these brassy creatures who sit on your lap or loudly ridicule you if you don’t dish out the rupees. Feel free to watch them when they come through and give a note if so inclined. Either way, sit back and enjoy the ride through the heart of India.