“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” ~Edith Wharton
We have been in India one week, but it wasn’t until we took a simple 3 hour train journey that I really felt the satisfaction of traveling in India. Our time in the old fort city of Cochin and the beautiful beaches and cliffs of Varkala, had been lovely. But, there was also something missing. It could have been that it always take time to get into a traveling grove, especially when in a new country. But I think it comes down to the fact that we hadn’t had any meaningful connections with local people. Everyone had been friendly at the restaurants and guesthouses where we stayed, but we were treated as customers. On our little 3 hour train journey, we were treated as guests and friends. As I laid awake last night before bed, my heart was warmed from the smiles, chai and conversation we shared.
Trains are ubiquitous to India and we knew we wanted to take a few train journeys in our time here. We got ourselves a rickshaw to the train station and had thought we could choose between two classes of train: coach chair AC or sleeper (non AC, not assigned seating and hard benches). While Paul and I would happily have picked sleeper to experience it, the kids were vying for the AC coach chair. When Paul went to get tickets all he could get was sleeper class and so we sat there waiting for our train watching other packed trains go by, wondering if that was what we were in for. It is school holidays here in Kerala, during the Onam celebrations, so lots of families are traveling.
We got on the train and Paul managed to find 5 seats and we were feeling pretty good The kids got their audio books and snacks out and we enjoyed the first hour comfortably. The train zipped over bridges through the lush backwater canals with the wind flying in from the open air windows. We had suspected that some people in our carriage had reserved seats and we talked about moving, but decided to take the chance. Eventually a family showed up with reserved seats where we were sitting, so we packed up our stuff and stood in the aisle. Not sure exactly where to go, we had a family give up some of their seats for the kids to sit down. There was lots of smiling and gesturing. By this point 18 year old Alan had started talking to Paul and what followed was a conversation that lasted the rest of the journey. Another older man, a former teacher, took it upon himself to help organize us and asked the ticket checker if there were an unassigned seats in the carriage. We ended up getting two assigned seats apart from each other. Our kids don’t love sitting next to people they don’t know and it was hard to convince Ella and Miles to sit by themselves, but eventually they did. So we happily sat (and stood) like this for awhile enjoying watching train life go by. I watched a couple feed their sick little girl rice, numerous sellers rushing through the aisles with hot chai, snacks, cooked food, and observed all the colours and styles of dress.
Our teacher friend and Alan’s family invited us again to take some of their seats so we could all sit together. As Paul chatted with Alan about everything from school to Hollywood movies, I spoke to his Mother and their family and the teacher. We would chat and when there was a break in the conversation, I could hear bits of the info being disseminated throughout the carriage in the local language, Malalayam. The ladies across the aisle from me did not speak a lot of English, but constantly smiled at us and the Mother would relay the information to them. When the chai seller came through, they bought us all cups of chai. There was definitely part of me that wondered, “should I be drinking tea from a seller on the train”, but I could not deny their hospitality and it was steaming hot, so it must be okay. They watched happily as we sipped our tea and wanted the children to drink theirs too. Ella found it scalding and even though they tried to cool it for her, by passing it back and forth between two cups, she declined. The boys on the other hand loved theirs and asked for more. The lady gestured for me to pass her the empty paper cups that I had been holding and I knew right away what was going to happen, but was powerless to stop it. I handed over the cups and she tossed them out the window of the train.
I learned so much from our conversations – about the school system, the Onam holiday, wedding ceremonies, food, the different languages of India. The former teacher wanted to know if we disciplined the children in the schools in Canada and I am sure he would not be happy with the casualness and lack of discipline in Canadian schools. Alan invited us to stay at his “crib” in Cochin and kept telling Paul how much he looked like Brad Pitt with his beard. But even more than the conversation, I will always remember the warm smiles and welcome nature of these people on the train, who treated us as guests and friends. I was so wrapped up in the moment that I didn’t take any photos with our new friends. But this little train journey reminded me that it isn’t about the landmarks and beautiful landscapes that you see while traveling, but about the people you meet. These connections and real interactions show the common humanity throughout the world and are the reason we travel. In the end, even the kids realized what a special experience this was and why it was only possible because we were traveling in sleeper class, and not in a sterile AC cabin.
When it came time to disembark, our new friends helped us off the train and make sure we didn’t miss out stop. It was 9pm in a rural, small, dark train station that was shutting down for the night and there didn’t seem to be any rickshaws around. Eventually one showed up and we squeezed in for the bumpy ride to our homestay in the Backwaters. By the time we had woken up, Paul had already received numerous Whats App messages from our new friend Alan. It might seem like a very small moment, but on that train journey, I felt like we passed over the point from being merely a tourist here to something more.