26.10.2010 33 °C
The eternal chaos at Delhi station was exacerbated when our train arrived with the carriages in reverse order. A thousand passengers with reserved seats were at the wrong end of the seemingly endless platform and, in a frantic dash for the right end, collided with the passengers coming the other way. The train was full but as we had accidentally booked 4 seats we had room to stretch on the ten hour trip, (it should have been 7 hours but who’s counting?).
Here’s a Chai wallah on the train…
These tea boys constantly sing “Hai Chai! Hai Chai!” as they lead a never-ending procession of food purveyors up and down our train; the express to Amritsar. Chapatis, pranthas and rotis are offered on greasy scraps of old newspaper, (they’re big on recycling here), while others tout bags of popcorn and packets of massala flavoured potato chips. At 20 cents each item you can get stuffed for a dollar.
Railways are often carved through the ropiest of urban landscapes, but the squatters’ shanties surrounding Delhi are dismal even by Indian standards. Patched canvas and ragged tarpaulins cover miles of railside embankments and children scavenge in the garbage and swampy scrubland alongside the pigs, goats and cattle. All the city’s streets end at the railway line and all garbage is shovelled into mounds at the end of the street where it flows like multi-coloured glaciers onto the railway and into the arms of the squatters. We’d love to show you pictures but our train windows are as grubby as the peasants scrabbling for a living amongst the rubbish.
Away from the city the dusty-green fields of corn, wheat and sugar-cane, are splashed with golden marigolds and with the brightly coloured saris of the women harvesting the crops. Entire fields of wheat are scythed, threshed and winnowed by hand – men and women are still much cheaper and more plentiful than machines in this part of the world – and, as the wheat stubble is burned, the setting sun turns blood red and disappears into the acrid haze long before it hits the horizon.
Dimly lit stations come and go in an otherwise dark landscape, and the food merchants replenish their stocks and change the menu for the next leg. We travel from lunch, through tea, to supper, and worry that we might need breakfast if we lose more time. But we are the fortunate ones – we are on the air-conditioned express train where all seats are reserved and no-one stands. We pass many packed local trains, where hundreds hang out of windows and cling to open doorways, and we are thankful that we could afford the 15 dollars to take the best train. (Yes- that’s a total of $15 for 2 for the 500 kilometre trip from New Delhi – Amritsar!)