Ecosystem of the Train

Posted by Kate Strathmann • Thursday, July 1. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
I recently found myself on a cross-country, East to Left coast, train adventure on Amtrak, the national railway company in the United States. We were a group of twenty like-minded artists, journeying to a conference together and intent on spending three days talking, ideating, and drinking whiskey together. Amtrak is the transportation of Amish families who eschew automobiles, elderly couples, and young vagabonds; there’s a curiosity surrounding train travel in the United States. How quaint and old fashioned (!), we think. One of my artist companions fully expected chandeliers and an elegant service in the dining car for dinner and was disappointed when Tony, the waiter, shouted the dessert options to the entire car en-masse between off-key snippets of Elvis tunes. It was a disappointing and high-priced meal, with an atmosphere only notable for its similarity to crass and cheap small-town diners. (I should note that seven of us, gratefully not including myself, fell ill after this meal; apparently a lack of sanitation standards for train food is an international phenomenon).

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We mostly carried our own food aboard: bread and peanut butter, granola, and many, many bottles of whiskey and wine. I found myself feeling nostalgia for train rides in India - for the Indian aunties carrying their tiffins of home-cooked food, bundles of chapattis; or seasonal fruit purchased through the barred windows of the car. Green guava, quickly sliced and sprinkled with brown salt, delivered in the ubiquitous recycled newspaper bags of Indian street-food vendors, and so many tiny bananas.


I love train travel above almost any other form of transportation, mostly because time unfolds in an alternative universe of its own nonsensical devising. The gentle rocking and the endless, often monotonous, scenery moving past the window; minutes stretch out into hours and hours compress into minutes seemingly at random. As the extraordinary writer Pico Iyer notes, the root of the word “ecstasy” is “ex-stasis”; revelation and peak experiences arise when we are not stationary. To be moved, in the literal and emotive sense of the phrase, becomes the goal of travel.

The United States and India both share the distinction of being countries of vast space and radically varied landscape and climate. There are ways to experience these shifts in scale at rapid-speed and a bird’s eye view (and, believe me, flying into Kathmandu for the first time, the whole of the Himalayas framed in the porthole window, will stop your breath), but commercial airline travel often feels like email: functional, instant, perfunctory. Train travel is handwritten letters; intimate communications, thoughtfully penned, and delivered in envelopes bearing the marks and creases of a journey across vast distance.

To travel and live in India is to experience a freedom and responsibility of choice the sedentary Westerner has never imagined, where questions of personal safety and risk are generally left to the individual. On the Amtrak train, only the car attendant can open or touch the door; the drawn-faces of the smokers crowd into the entry space before every smoke break, like cattle waiting for release. My multi-day Amtrak train journey felt slightly empty without the awesome pleasure, often experienced traveling in India, of sitting in the open door of a car absorbed for hours into the passing landscape as if in a dervish’s trance. Sometimes, empowerment is knowing that if you lose your grip and fall off the train, it is your own damn fault and there would be no one to sue.

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As you move from East to West in the U.S., the sky expands, sneaking up on you gradually until the landscape seems made almost entirely of blue and clouds; the transition from the great plains to the awe-inspiring mountain ranges of the Western states is perhaps a little more sudden. In India, especially in the middle of the country, the landscapes shift less epically, but far more interesting are the subtle cultural shifts that occur. To fall asleep to the gentle rocking and incessant incantations of the tea-vendors (“Chay-ee, Chay-ee, Masala Chay-ee”), and awake the next morning, in the same country, to realize that the train-platform menu has changed completely overnight is to truly experience local food systems - to say nothing of the styles of saris and clothing of the families who patiently wait with their bundles of possessions and food on platforms across the nation.


In India, trains exist as public spaces; the lower the class of car, the truer this statement. In second class and 3 tier cars passengers, hijras (the class of eunuchs), holy men, beggars, and pint-sized child-entrepreneurs hop on and off at will. A total economy and city represented in a car: do you need a bootleg Bollywood DVD? A Pokemon keychain? Chai? Samosas? A bejeweled tablecloth? A new shirt? Better still are the fast friendships and camaraderie found with fellow car-mates. As exotic, strange, and exciting as India and Indians often seem to me, I am no less strange a sight to take in. This exchange is at the root of the romance of travel; out alone, in foreign surroundings with cultural and linguistic barriers in full force, fellow travelers provide a mirror for self-study.

Never have I been lonelier than when, having left my heart in Delhi, I embarked on a 60-hour journey to Trivandrum, on the Southern coast of the country. I began in Delhi, where, upon finding my 3-tier, AC class berth, a gentleman brandishing a ticket for the same seat that I occupied confronted me. We argued back and forth over who could claim this seat, before he trumped me by pointing out that his name was listed on the registry on the outside of the car. Fortunately a young Indian student found himself in a similar predicament and perceived through what I assumed was some magical sixth sense that the confusion portended a mysterious upgrade, rather than certain chaos and doom. Normally a free upgrade is a celebrated event; in this case the experience left me with a quiet and lonely journey. Settled into my two-tier AC berth, I sank into the silence of a car with sealed doors and no entry for the teeming masses. My fellow passengers kept to themselves and remained disengaged from the curious reciprocity that a solo-traveling, tall, pale-skinned, blond woman normally provokes.

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In contrast, this past December I found myself, weighed down with a head cold, stranded on the train platform in Varanasi waiting by myself for a train that ended up arriving nine hours behind schedule. Unable to leave the station, as no one could say when the train would actually arrive - every announcement only pushing back the time by an hour or so - I settled in with my backpack and became a citizen of the station, watching a few cows go by, and cringing every time a pack of monkeys would race across the overhead beams, or clatter over the metal roof. A nearby student and I traded bag-watching duty to get a snack or visit the restroom. I quickly became familiar with the beggars and touts, the rhythm of their beat; the vendors and their hierarchies; the ragged, small, and vacant-eyed filthy boys with their collections of plastic bottles and tightly clutched, glue-soaked rags. The chaos turned into pattern as I sat and sat, cold-dazed and exhausted from my days of solo travel. A journey that began in Assam and Nagaland, led me through the beautiful decay of Calcutta, to the holy Ganges and Shiva’s city of dissolution, until I finally found myself absorbed into the chaos waiting for my final ride home.

We Americans are accustomed to the instantaneous. We measure our time in seconds; indeed, waiting for a computer to turn on and boot up becomes a momentous exercise in patience. Time is money, and in some ways we value our time more than currency. Sitting for so many hours on that train platform, I gave into a new calculus based on experiences, stories, and interaction; my irritation waned as the hours passed and I forgot about time or where I should be. Instead I found myself, perhaps with the delirium of illness, finding a sort of ecstasy in stasis. Some small part of me could have spent an eternity on that train platform, as banal as the monkeys, and cows, and the fruit-wallahs: a pale-skinned train platform dervish amongst the teeming masses.

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