Early this morning, 6:30 am to be precise, we left our hotel with the same driver accompanied by an assistant from the travel agency who’s only responsibility was to get us on board the train to Amritsar. It is a 447 km, six hour “express” ride, which turned out to have numerous stops along the way. A delay getting through the traffic and a long line to pass security had us feeling anxious but we were assured we would make the departure time. The line passed a number of people sleeping on the ground, separated from the floor and the elements by only a thin wool blanket. Our escort explained they probably missed a train or it was cancelled; and could not afford to wait inside. We thought they were homeless.
We rode Executive Class Chair Car which has the sound of luxury. While clean and spacious, the title did not match those expectations except by comparison to the other India rail options. Clearly the quality of the train and the class of cabin is measured by the size of the windows. Narrower glass versions, only a 1/3 the size of our 8 by 4 foot view, were for first class; second class consisted of even smaller cutouts, without glass, encased in bars with elbows and arms hanging out from overcrowded compartments. For protection from the elements, passengers would need to roll down the battered metal shutters.
I really don’t know if the other classes had access to toilets, but I am sure they did not have choices between the Western style or the other. The latter wasn’t labelled but a peak inside showed a stainless steel hole in the floor.
I also imagine the other cars did not receive the breakfast of the Executive. We were served by the same two moustachioed, expressionless servers who balanced the tin tray in their left hand while distributing or collecting with the other, stopping every few seats to balance the load. They traversed back and forth in the car, shelling food on the first pass, gathering the leftovers and dishes for a breakfast which stretched from 7:30 to 10:00 am. In order, we received a tetra pak of buttermilk, followed by a bottle of water with a paper cup. Shortly after we were served tea with biscuits and later a bowl of Kellog’s Cornflakes with warm milk. Lastly we dined on a two egg, plain omelette on finger chips and boiled peas, topped with a final serving of tea. All in all, a hearty and civilized meal.
We decided to take the train to Amritsar rather than fly so we could talk about the train experience. The sights along the way were an eye opener, but Olga and I both commented on how many aspects reminded us of our bus ride in Mexico, or our driving through cities in Tanzania. The train crawled out of the city past mounds of refuse, grossly pocked brick walls, shanty towns of various material, and laundry strewn in every which direction. The scene was similar outside the city as the sun struggled to pierce the smokey haze enveloping northern India. People were scattered among the debris standing, squatting, walking, seemingly aimless. Long abandoned factories, half built houses, and garbage abound.
At one stop we witnessed a grandfather brandishing a big, broad smile with a colourful bouquet of flowers as he welcomed his family with hugs and kisses to the city. They all walked off the platform, arm in arm, talking and laughing with blissful joy.
The scene reminded me of the essence of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: “You have to maintain a balance between hope and despair…In the end, it’s all a question of balance…. There is always hope – hope enough to balance our despair. Or we would be lost.”