|Planes, trains, and auto-vindication
||[Nov. 23rd, 2009|02:26 pm]
I've taken three short-haul domestic flights in the last month, working for Greenpeace. It's terrible. I've done a lot of overnight buses, too, attractively hunched in the back row with a scarf wrapped round my head and a bottle of whiskey to smooth out the spine-crushing jolts of pot-holed roads, but on those three occasions deadlines meant overland wheels just weren't an option. You feel a bit of an idiot refusing a plastic bag and opting for the vegetarian meal in the departure lounge of a domestic airport.|
Still, I've taken trains wherever possible - probably about a fortnight of the last 3 months has been spent rumbling and clattering through the Indian subcontinent altogether, and it's a great pleasure to be able to watch the varying countryside go by, even if you do sometimes also catch glimpses of your life going by between the trees.
That said, I've just been released from a 3 day Delhi-Bangalore-via-Mumbai epic and if I never see another fat, snoring man again in my life it won't be too soon. Good job most of the journeys have been alone as I don't think I'm very good company on these trips.
You have some pretty funny encounters, though. Like the guy who started talking to me about his year studying in the US, where he'd met a man from Aberdeen. They speak a different language in Scotland, he said.
"Do they?" I said, quickly scanning myself for stupidities.
"Yes," he replied. "I couldn't understand what this man was saying, and so I asked him what language they speak in Scotland. He told me it is called Swahili."
Or the girl who told me she had come to Nagpur, a second-tier city in Maharashtra to do her MBA. At the tail end of 3 days in a hotel room waiting for a train out of Nagpur, I never wanted to see its concrete ramble again. MBA + Nagpur, I thought. Poor girl. But she was obviously proud, so I smiled, said that sounded great. Then she asked me what I was doing there, and it was my turn to be proud. "I'm here with Greenpeace!" I swelled. "Erm, an NGO?" I added, seeing she had no idea what I was talking about. She laughed, stopped making her bed for a minute.
"You came all the way from the UK to work for an NGO?" I climbed into my bunk for another night lying on my laptop, well and truly told.
There's a code of conduct on the trains to make women travelers feel more comfortable, though you don't see many women traveling outside of family groups. It includes no staring, which is very nice in principle but, aside from playing your mobile ringtone over and over again and eating, there's often little to do but stare, especially if there's anyone slightly attractive or wierd-looking in sight. I do it all the time. Parents sometimes like to try and pick up spouses for their unmarried children too, which is certainly more ambitious target than I ever board the metal carriages with. A friend of mine, to his horror, was doing rather well with a scouting potential mother-in-law recently, until she asked what his job was and he gratefully deflected her attentions with the reply that he worked for an NGO.
Assuming you're spared the mobile-phone-and-snoring cacophony for a few hours, the train is anything but quiet. The uniformed guys from the pantry car tour the aisles constantly, calling out their foodstuffs. Platform hawkers scramble on at stations too with huge baskets hoiked on their shoulders and sell what they can before boarding another train at the next station. They must go all over the country, jumping between carriages.
"Cor-fee, cor-fee, chai-a chai-a pakorapakora choc-o-lit samohsaa...." The croaks blend with the clatter of the train wheels into a strange lullaby, rocking you to sleep on your bunk high in the ceiling, wrapped up like a mummy in Indian Railway bedsheets. A cup of cor-fee is only 5 bucks, hot and sugary and delicious and no doubt not much good for your rapidly spreading waistline.
On some of the trains - those which come from the capital, or end up there - all meals are included. You're served tea kits, flasks of hot water, chappati, rice, dahl, subzi and cake, the table carrousel a welcome punctuation to the passing hours. If you can find an empty section and draw the curtains round yourself you feel like a Prince. I'm told the carriages used to be huge open compartments, where families would set up for the 5 or 6-day journey it would take to cross India. The kitchens would take orders, the top end of the menu boasting an entire roast duck, and upscale - static - restaurants still offer 'Railway Mutton Curry' today. Despite Richard Branson's attempts to sex-up the flapjack, experience of train food in the UK makes this sound anything but appealing (congealing, perhaps), but you never know.
But the very best thing, in my opinion, is the freedom to open the door and feel the air rush past your face. I suppose it may also be the same freedom that allows people to fall out occasionally, but it is wonderful. Sit on the step and peer down the outside length of the train - not to far, watch your nose on passing poles - and you'll see a row of feet and toes, each sitting on the steps and watching the fields and pockets of ordinary life snatch by.
Peering out on this last journey, two and a half smelly days into my guilt-free eco travel, I noticed billowing clouds of black soot coming from the front of the train, and realised the bloody thing was running on diesel. Not all train track has been electrified yet, apparently, though I'm not sure how much greener the electrified trains will be, given India's profligacy for burning coal. Then there's this paper from the University of California, Berkeley, which factors in the carbon costs of laying and repairing infrastructure such as track or roads, producing fuel, manufacturing or repairing vehicles in addition to the emissions from fuel comsumption. I can't find a similar study conducted in India, but it's evident the choice of greener transport is far from simple.
Until a definitive answer is published, I'll stick to the trains. Even if they don't turn out to be greener, they're certainly more colourful.