We’re traveling from Madurai to Villapuram on a local train – traveling time is about six hours total. The scenes outside the train move too fast to photograph, but I’ll tell you about what I experience for an hour or so.
First, there is the sound of the train’s horn – used liberally it is honking more than it is silent. Long bursts punctuated by short silences. The snack salesmen stroll the isle of the train selling local fried foods, tea, coffee, and travel meals (like the ones you get on an airplane on a long flight). Their sales pitches sound like the political rally cries we hear from the loudspeakers on the top of trucks in the cities – something between a chant and a preacher’s sermon (only in Hindi).
The windows are all open, and ancient fans encased in metal cages (covered in years of dust) run continuously overhead. Did I mention the train’s horn? It hasn’t stopped yet. I’ve only seen one proper crossing barrier for the tracks, so the horn is likely the only warning for locals, cows, dogs, and those who are cleaning trash from the tracks to get out of the way.
It’s not actually that warm in the car – the temperature outside is likely in the 80’s (Fahrenheit) and we are shaded from the sun’s direct heat. Metal bars run in a grid across the windows to keep you from falling out, although the bars can easily be slid up to give you an unobstructed view (or emergency escape route).
The land we are traveling through is agricultural and we pass fields with grapevines, rice paddies, hay, and spice plants and bushes. Between the fields are rows of palm trees, fences to clearly separate the boundaries of the land. Occasionally we see a stuffed scarecrow on the edge of a field – these are Indian scarecrows, wearing the standard male dress of India, brown pants and a long-sleeved dress shirt.
We pass rows of women, all in different-colored saris of bright color. They are all bent over harvesting the fields. If it were a different setting, you could believe that they were merely all bent over in a sudden moment of group prayer.
Now we pass through some land that has not been claimed for farming. Perhaps this is pastureland for the flocks of goats, tended by leather-skinned men. Cows dot the landscape, wandering here and there as they like. I’ve seen cows with polka dots, cows with painted horns, and cows lounging on the shoulders of roadways (unaffected by the horns of the cars, tuk-tuks, and trucks that pass within inches of them).
The buildings we pass are partially constructed foundations, staw-roofed shacks, Hindu temples with statuary of all color of the rainbow, and well-kept schools painted in pastel oranges, greens, or blues. We pass a simple church, distinguished by it’s steeple – a wooden cross made from two bamboo poles.
The train slows down, the horn is, for a few minutes calmed from its frantic warning song. We now hear one of the children in the next compartment wailing. The family has two little girls. One of them has had her head shaved in a Hindu ceremony (the first haircut is a big event). They have used a packed sari to fashion a hammock between the seats and the girls take turns sleeping in it. As the train moves down the track, the makeshift hammock swings slowly back and forth. It is, without a doubt, the most comfortable location on the train.
We’re stopped at a station, which means the breeze has also stopped. The motors on the fans above whir loudly and provide us with some air moving over our sticky skin.
There is a new track being constructed parallel to ours. This track is being laid on concrete railroad ties and we’ve been speculating on whether this is entirely wise. We have to remind ourselves that there are no harsh winters here and construction with no winter can be entirely different.
John is reading a novel by the window. Ali is listening to music and nodding in and out of sleep. Val reads the paper with her feet up on the seat next to me (my feet are up on her seat). Emma has been folded up into a small package on the seat beside me – sleeping for a while. Joel works on a New York Times crossword puzzle with neon pink earplugs in his ears to block out the sound of the horn. I almost forgot about Jason, who is sleeping on the top bunk of the sleeper bunk above us.
We slowly begin moving again, passing two old women in pink saris who are seated Indian-style by their home, an old man with a cow, and a boy wearing a turban and pushing an ancient bicycle. Power lines run parallel to the train tracks, at the moment. These are organized cables of power, unlike the spaghetti-style power cables we see in the cities.
On my left there is now a marshy area occupied by white birds, then a string of rice paddies, and a blue tractor with large wheels moving down a dirt road. On the right, another line of women bent over in the field. They don’t move up and down, but stay bent over as they pick the crops. They look like a new species of multicolored grazing farm animal, moving slowly across the field. My back, sore from the strange sitting position, gives a few sympathy pains for these field women, who must hold that position for hours every day, sun blazing on their backs.
A strange mound of rock outcropping, like a miniature Devil’s tower (only three stories high) passes by, surrounded by a moat of water. A row of pastel colored houses with thatched roofs comes and goes. A flock of goats, a woman carrying a basket on her head, a three-storied police complex (painted light pink). Vines of flowers grow up the utility poles and in the gullies next to the railroad tracks. A green and beige train sits idle on the track beside us
Laundry of magenta, royal blue, and deep orange hangs on a line. A roof of terracotta tiles houses a satellite dish, caving in a little from the weight. Yellow signs with brown Hindi writing, a Pepsi billboard covered with a thick layer of dust, and political banners with the smiling chubby faces of politicians indicate that we are now in a larger town. Goats run along the tracks of the track next to us as we pull into the station to pick up more passengers. A dog jumps down onto the tracks to chase them.
The tempting song “Ice cream, vanilla ice cream… Ice cream, vanilla ice cream” passes by. “Water, water, water” cries another vendor. In the background you can hear the collective murmurs and conversations of the crowd of people on the platform.
We are inspected by a new crowd of passengers, walking by in the aisle through our compartment and giving us strange looks. We are a strange sight – a compartment full of white people, surrounded by a sea of brown faces.
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