12/31/13

School Vacation: A WorldTeach Bangladesh Volunteer Travels India by Train

Just as students and teachers in the States are enjoying winter break, many WorldTeach volunteers abroad are taking advantage of school vacation and a break from teaching. WorldTeach volunteers often use their time off to explore new places and travel around the region in which they are volunteering. One WorldTeach Bangladesh volunteer, Emma Radovich, spent part of her break exploring India. Read on to hear about her experience travelling in India by train...

My journey in India started in Kolkata. There I visited a friend, attended a Bengali wedding and ate delicious street snacks. From Kolkata I took an overnight train to Darjeeling, where I nearly froze. After a few days in the mountains, I was eager to see warmer parts of India. I caught a shared jeep to the train station in New Jalpaiguri and then rode the Rajdhani Express all the way to New Delhi. For any future train travelers, I rode 2nd class/AC and it was quite nice; be sure to request a lower berth, ideally one of the side sleepers with a big window.
It took more that 26 hours to travel overland from Darjeeling to Delhi. Here are a few brief observations along the way:
1:00PM
Down from the foothills of the Himalayas, India stretches out in a vast plain. This is the subcontinent.
I begin in New Jalpaiguri (NJP), a nearly four hour, winding journey by jeep from the hill station of Darjeeling. Here, I am back in the vivid green of West Bengal. Cattle, nibbling at the tufted grass bordering fields, dot the flat expanse of farmland, and egrets appear as shocking white paint splashes against rich brown earth.
3:00PM
Within a couple hours, West Bengal gives way to the state of Bihar. Farmers working in the fields pause and watch as the Rajdhani Express whizzes by. The quilt of brown and green is interrupted by highlighter dashes--plots of yellow mustard plants. A woman in a brilliantly patterned sari walks alongside the railway tracks, carrying a basket on her head and talking on a mobile phone.
3:30PM
There are goats everywhere. They wander along the train tracks, frolic in tiny garden plots and stand, nervously, tethered too close to the kitchen. The goats are invariably solid colors: brown with a smudge of black across the shoulders, all black or all creamy white. Occasionally, by some genetic fluke, a solitary baby goat is wildly spotted both black and white, as if wearing an overly festive coat.
4:00PM
It's time for afternoon tea. I'm handed a tray with a veggie samosa (my first in India as I've been too busy with Bengali specialties to sample this more ubiquitous street treat) and a pitcher of hot water. There's something rather delightful about drinking tea while nestled in a sleeping berth aboard a gently rocking train.
5:00PM
But it's not all just beautiful countryside. As we pull into Katihar Junction, the tracks are littered with garbage. Snack bags faded to the same dull silver and empty lunch containers (soon to include mine?) bake in the afternoon sun. Trash is pervasive in India, as it is in the West, though it usually goes unseen.
As we pause at the station, young men hastily load crates of pre-packaged dinners. The timing is quick and careful; there are at least 16 passenger cars stretching out along the platform.
5:30PM
We've entered the land of the diminutive palm. Acres upon acres are planted of palm trees with their tallest fronds reaching the height of a man with his arms outstretched.
8:00PM
After dark the scenery becomes nearly impenetrable. Small towns cluster along the tracks, but beyond that, night extends as far as the eye can see. Perhaps there are pinpricks of light from cooking fires, but the electric grid doesn't appear to reach beyond the immediate surroundings of railway stations.
6:00AM
I am awoken in Utter Pradesh before sunrise by a man with tea and a pitcher of hot water. The strong, sweet tea helps ease the transition into morning. I'm feeling especially grimy after a night on the train as it was too cold for a bucket shower before I left Darjeeling. (My hostel was charming and very clean, but the bathroom was open to the frigid air. The floor tiles would become so cold it was painful to walk without shoes. I'd taken to standing in a bucket half filled with warm water in order to brush my teeth.)
7:30AM
Mist rises from the fields. The farms in Utter Pradesh appear larger and more orderly, similar to the plots bordering rural highways in California's Central Valley. It also looks cold. Women are wrapped in wool shawls, and even the broad backs of water buffalo are draped in burlap sacks.
8:00AM
Breakfast arrives with more tea. This is the most disappointing meal on the train ride, which is too bad as I love Indian breakfasts: pullao, parantha with mildly spiced potatoes and vegetables, sambhar, etc. Oh well.
9:00AM
As we near Delhi, farmland becomes increasingly broken up by clusters of buildings, the tiniest of towns. Some are colorful concrete structures, like sun-faded Lego blocks. Others are straw-thatched mud huts, too small for people. Perhaps they store food or fuel. Everywhere dinner plate sized disks dry in the sun, likely organic material to burn.
10:00AM
Soon farmland gives way to urban sprawl: first slums then cookie cutter apartment complexes along a gray-green reservoir. There's trash everywhere. Curly-tailed dogs and pigs sniff around for food. There's an enormous rotting carcass of a cow, partially covered by a tarp. Tiny tea stands pop up alongside smoke stacks and rusting industrial machinery. Yet there are also dashes of brilliant color. A turmeric yellow sari hangs to dry from a balcony.
We pass another passenger train as we near the final station. Women and children gaze pensively from the seated carriages while hordes of young men hang from the doorways. They excitedly point, laugh and wave as our cars pass--it's a riotous welcome to Delhi.

-Emma Radovich, WorldTeach Bangladesh 2013-2014

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