Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Overnight Train Ride in South Asia

My parents are unique. Most people, when they have visitors, treat them to the best of the best of the local area. My parents, on the other hand, want us to see the nitty gritty of the local culture. That is GREAT, just... sometimes overwhelming! Taking a two day train trip was certainly a heavy dose of South Asia for a big family straight from the US

Lugging our stuff to the train was just painful - being in a crowd with 10 white people and lots of baggage means EVERYONE is watching you. Thank God for the head scarves - every time we were in that situation, us girls did our best to hide underneath then. In any case, when the train finally pulled up, we each grabbed two bags and squeezed on.

It was one of the most bewildering experiences I've ever had. I mean, the walk space is only as wide as a suitcase, so here I am dragging one behind me that takes up the entire aisle. Meanwhile, people in front of me are SHOVING their way onto the train and down the car. I shove too, and begin to make painful process, but then comes about five people shoving their way the opposite direction, towards me. Soon I am in the awkward situation of having people stacked up behind me and stacked up in front of me (literally, I couldn't move) with old ladies trying to get past me. They looked at me like - what the *** are you doing in my way? I looked at them like - I don't have anywhere to move to get out of your way! I sat there in awe as they managed to get around me and my suitcase that took up the entire aisle, and past all of the people behind me as well. I've never seen such talented shoving.

In any case, we made it to our "room". My dad had booked two private rooms, one for the girls and one for the guys. Unfortunately, he had specifically asked the guy if it was private, and the ticketing agent reassured him that it was. Well, our definition of private and theirs ended up being different, because while we had our own space, there was no door on the end of it (as there was when my family took the train last Christmas). We were open to the public.

Note the blue on the walls - those are bunks. There are three layers of them, so as soon as we got tired, all the beds came down and we laid down. Desperate for privacy (western women lying down is just too scintillating to expose to the public), we hung shawls from one wall to the other and managed to block the view. Beggars here have no shame, though, since they are really entitled to charity by one of the five pillars of Islam. Blind people would come up, stick their hands through the hanging shawls, and just wait a few minutes. The little kids were much more bold. They'd just lift the shawls and come in and beg and beg - sometimes they wouldn't even leave if you gave them something! One girl wanted our bottle of Pepsi and was mad that we wouldn't give it to her.

At train stops, people walk up and down the inside and outside of the train chanting their wares "chai, chai, chai, chai!" We ordered chai through the window a couple of times - it is safer then anything else since it's boiled. All other food came out of our own baggage. The bathroom was what we were dreading, and it wasn't nearly as bad as we'd worried, but still - it emptied straight out onto the tracks so there was a sign saying "do not use bathroom while the train is stopped." Lol...

All in all, it was entirely out of our comfort zone, but it was a great experience, which is really what my parents did it for. We read, played card games for hours, and chatted. We also had our closest brush with disaster of the entire trip. My brother started to get sick to his stomach, and it just got worse and worse. Poor guy! In any case, he and my dad and Matt got off at a stop to try to find a nicer bathroom. As it turned out, it was one of those five minute stops rather then the longer ones. Inside, the whole family panicked as the train began to move, thinking the boys were in the bathroom and not knowing the train was moving. After about three minutes of mutual terror, my dad's head appeared at the end of the car and we all sighed with relief.

That wasn't the brush with disaster though. My brother stayed at the back after the guys hopped back on the train, waiting in line for the bathroom. One of the doors is just open to the outside, and he went and held on and stuck his head out to see the countryside and see if the cool breeze would calm his stomach.

Next thing he knew, he was opening his eyes to see three concerned local men looking down on him. He was laying on the floor inside the train. Disoriented, he hopped up and went into the bathroom, and then went back to the room, slowly realizing that he must have passed out. His flip-flops and the toilet paper roll he had been holding were gone. Since he was leaning out, he must have lost consciousness and begun falling OUT of the train, and must have been caught by a one of the local guys and pulled into the car. Geez louis! They must have been so confused - white guy passes out, and when he wakes up he just hops into the bathroom and then walks away... lol. We had a great (and somewhat terrifying) conversation about what would have happened had he awakened on the train tracks in some tiny village...

In any case, the best part about the train was seeing the countryside, the villages, and the local scenes. The villages are like the one we went to for the wedding, and just blew me away. Doesn't it just look biblical? Straw and mud. So simple. In reality, this whole area is desert, but much of it is green now thanks to the Brits, who irrigated the whole area (and built the railroad as well). They sure ruined a lot of things politically, but they did leave some great infrastructure.

See the men below? They are on their beds, which are often outside. In this area it was in the 80s while we were there, and this is the middle of the winter. In the summer it gets up to 110 and 120 degrees, so outside is the coolest place to be. The bed are a simple wood frame with a woven springy mat in the middle. People sit on them outside all over the place.

These are also everywhere - brick factories. Seems like a lot of people make their money this way.

I love, love, love the guys with their long beards. I also love that the men often wrap up in shawls just like the women. It's a coat - and I love it.

This little kid appears to be washing his face at a local barber shop. These little hair-cut and shave stands were also everywhere. I saw them under over passes, in the middle of markets, on busy city streets...

This guy was at one of the train stops, selling his wares.

In the south, scenes like this with trash everywhere were common. People were practically living among the trash. Up north, they had a street cleaning system and it was much cleaner. Villages were cleaner too, because of the smaller amount of people producing a manageable amount of waste.

Camels carry such crazy loads - see the guy on top of all those bags?

This one was taking out of a car window, actually, but it gives you a look at one of the local taxis. All trucks (their version of a semi), buses, and even tractors are decorated with tons of color. Cars, however, are just simple. I don't get it.

This was most sobering of all - the thousands of tents that were scattered around the cities, particularly in the south. They seem to be mostly refugees, which makes sense because this country has either a war or a conflict on every border, and some major conflicts in one neighboring country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have converged on the cities. I don't know how long these people have lived in tents - if it's been years and years, or if they are new. Regardless, there are a lot of them. In 2002 and 2003, something like 2 million refugees were repatriated out of the country. Evidently a lot of them are left - I just check out of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and they said that they do more work in this country then anywhere else in the world because it holds the largest refugee population in the world. Something like 30,000 are currently trapped on the border since the conflict has re-escalated this year. That, folks, tugs on my heart. You know one of the main voices for these refugees? Angelia Jolie - bless her.

This one is from the UNHCR Website, showing one of the mud hut and tent cities:

Since the tents are just open, you can see what life is like inside. You'll see men gathered in one drinking chai, women in another squatted around chatting, kids playing cricket in the trash, clothes drying on bushes. I mean, it's just life, and honestly I think there can be very productive lives without running water and electricity. What IS tough is how unsanitary it is, and I'm sure it's tough to find medical care. It's also tough to find work, and when they are congregated in the city there is no place to farm.

...more later...

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