Train travel is what you make it. In the old days, when we first came to India, one of the best parts of travelling was planning for the journey: the food we would prepare, the entertainment we would carry, the small comforts we would pack.
In those days, a journey meant a predictable amount of discomfort, occasionally verging into squalor and misery. Overcrowded compartments, no AC, dust and grit, filthy loos, children (our own) who would throw up on the floor, and children (other people’s) who would pee on them – it was all expected and endured.
The baskets full of aloo-poori, karelas, fruit, chips and biscuits, the travel games, the singing sessions, the long novels, the aimless staring out the window at worlds unfamiliar and strange – made up for the suffering (I love that the Hindi for journey is safar!).
Now we have Shatabdis and Rajdhanis, air-conditioned and reasonably clean. We still bring our own entertainment, mostly I-pods and laptops, and train travel is still great fun - but I do think we’re selling ourselves short by accepting the food. The fact that it comes with the ticket isn’t reason enough to eat it.
I do the Dehradun-Delhi Shatabdi two or three times a month and I can no longer choke down the same meal they have been serving for the past fifteen years.
So here are a few quick tips for a happy journey.
1. Make friends with the waiters on the train. They are hard-working and bored. They do the same thing every single day. If I, who travel this route three times a month, am tired of Veg/Non-Veg, imagine how they must feel, doing it twice a day, six days a week. They enjoy oddness and variety and they will help you in many unexpected ways.
2. Bring your own cold milk for the tea/coffee ritual. That powdered stuff (or Goat’s Dandruff) really should be banned. Once or twice we had only warm milk at home as I was rushing out the door and you know what that means.
3. That means malai. To avoid such a catastrophe (unless of course you are a Punjabi and you LIKE malai), pack a small strainer as well.
4. Unless you are travelling in Executive Class, you will be given a thick blue plastic cup to drink your tea from. This should be avoided. Pack a small teacup from home. Now don’t make a fuss. It’s only one more small thing to pack, not such a big deal.
5. Pack your own dinner. Be creative. This evening for example (I am writing this on the train) I brought soup (I did have to spring for a little stainless steel flask, but I consider it a lifetime investment). When they handed out the blue plastic cups (same as for the tea! GROSS!!!), I asked for an empty bowl from the Executive Class compartment (see point #1) and my waiter was only too happy to oblige. While everyone else drank that red, insipid, chemically liquid, I sipped my curried pumpkin soup and munched on a piece of homemade bread. For dinners in the past, I have brought leftover eggplant parmesan, hummus and baba ganoush, and once, memorably, quiche, sliced tomatoes and green beans sautéed with toasted almonds. Usually, I admit, I just pack a sandwich, but always on homemade bread and usually with a salad on the side.
6. Extras. Consider a glass of wine. Strictly forbidden by the authorities, of course, so this is best done only if travelling with a companion (and then only in stainless steel glasses like all those furtive men at the back of the wedding shamiana). Drinking nonchalantly alone is hard to pull off with waiters (however friendly) and Ticket Takers constantly striding about.
7. Special chocolates. A bright red apple. A little katori full of pomegranate. Some roasted cashew nuts.
Everything tastes better, seems more interesting and feels more uplifting on a train. Share with the person beside you. Tip the waiters. Look out the window. Life is beautiful.