Reflecting on riding the rails

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Photographs courtesy Christine Negroni.

 

If there’s one thing that separates people who travel by train from those who go by air, it’s that rail travelers wholeheartedly embrace the journey. It may be the luxury, as on The Ghan, a nonstop party train that connects Australia north to south. Food, drink and private sleeping cars are all included in the ticket price. It may be the ground-level view of otherwise inaccessible regions of a country as offered by two train lines in Canada, VIA Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer. It may be the people one meets in the dining car or the insight into life and love brought about by the rocking of the coach or the whistle of the locomotive.

I’ve taken some of the best trains and some of the worst, but even on Vietnam’s Reunification Express — a two-day/two-night ride along the coast, with an ever-changing cast of cabin mates interrupting my nights and making for some mysterious days — I do not regret a single ride. The stories, good and bad, make some of my sweetest travel memories.

Contemplating a life in transition on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight
There are events in your life in which every step in the process seems monumental. The wedding of my daughter was such an event. She would be married in San Francisco and, independent girl that she is, she and her then-fiancé were handling all the details. All her father and I had to do was get there and safely transport the topper for her wedding cake.

That demands a significant mode of travel, or so I thought. Amtrak’s 11-hour Coast Starlight along California’s Pacific shoreline seemed just the right way to get from Los Angeles, where I was on assignment, to San Francisco.

I had taken this train before, on a crystal clear January with the sun beaming through the window and warming me as I looked out over the spectacular beaches occupied only by the hardiest wetsuit-clad surfers. On our trip in September, it was quite a different story.
The train rolled along the cliffs above the shore, not as high or as fast as an airplane, but with all the benefits of elevation, we could see that roadside parks were packed with colorful campers and vans. Beachgoers of all ages filled the sandy expanse below. The sun setting over the Pacific was a heart-stopping display of orange and gold.

Yes, this train, this route, put me in the proper contemplative frame of mind. From my purse, I pulled out the bubble-wrapped bundle I was delivering to the couple — the small bride and groom that had adorned my own wedding cake 31 years earlier. I propped it by the window and took a picture. The photo provides a memory but also a metaphor for life: The porcelain figures representing a new life together are in the foreground and everything behind them flies by in a blur.

Finding yourself in the landscape from Vancouver to Montreal
The marketing material suggests that Canada’s VIA Rail connecting the country’s East and West is the trip every Canadian longs to take. My fellow travelers confirmed to me that the four-day transcontinental journey is as Canadian as moose and maple leaves.

What struck me was the “show-within-a-show” nature of being on the VIA Rail. Travelers can watch the vast countryside transform before their eyes from anywhere on the half-mile long train. There are generously sized windows in each compartment. In the dining and lounge cars, every table has a view. Reclining armchairs in the domed observation car encourage looking out by day and looking up at the stars at night.

But sometimes amid the vast prairies of Saskatchewan or the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains, I would suddenly catch sight of the locomotive rounding a bend and soon my car would be part of the landscape, too. It was an unexpected treat and it never got old.

Amid the traveling masses in India
Like the frog in the pot who does not recognize the warm bath is getting hotter until the water begins to boil, I decided the best way to ride in India’s infamous trains was to begin with a short two-hour journey, Delhi to Agra in a first-class coach.

I could tell I was in a premium car, because there was only one person in each seat. Otherwise, there was nothing about the threadbare upholstery or the filthy windows that looked classy, first or otherwise.

Shortly after dawn as the train left Delhi, a boy of about 12 walked through the cabin and tossed a sealed plastic cup of water at me.

Breakfast, consisting of a warm bun, eggs in a tin-topped plate and yogurt, arrived in the same way. I’m thankful the coffee was placed into my hands. All of it was surprisingly delicious.

Green fields passed by the windows, opaque with age. Still, the colors of the saris worn by the women working in the field were vibrant enough to penetrate the haze.

I would remember that trip fondly on board the seven-hour train from Ajmer to New Delhi on the Shatabdi Express two weeks later. I’d been on other trains by then, trains so crowded that young men sat in the laps of their mates while elderly women hoisted themselves up into the overhead luggage rack and spent the entire journey horizontal. The trip eastward back to Delhi was my personal boiled water, but I survived.

Again, I’d dialed up, not to first class mind you but to a sleeper car. Clever Indians pile in with a friend or family, turning the bed into a couch.  I squandered the space, sitting on top of the blanket, my back against the wall, book in hand.  First though, I had to buy some of the samosas (savory pastries) the vendors at the train station were pushing through my open window. Then the chai boy started down the aisle with tiny Dixie cups of sweet milky tea. He may have been no older than 8, but he had figured out how to market his product. A 10-cent serving was just enough to leave me and every other customer purchasing second and third servings.

The glassless window meant there was nothing to interrupt the enthralling view of the Indian desert, as always punctuated by throngs of people. They clustered at the railway crossings. They threshed in the fields. They hung out laundry and shopped in the markets as the train roared through.

I turned my attention back to the inside of the car when I could no longer bear the sensation that I was being watched. And indeed, I was. As the only Westerner and the only woman traveling alone, I seemed to be creating enormous interest. Eventually, I drew the curtain around my cot, the universal signal that the show is over, and I did what you’re supposed to do in a train berth: I slept.

For more of Christine’s adventures, visit gohowknowhow.com

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