As the train crawled out of the station, a short man began pacing up and down the aisle. He was one of the many vendors who made their living selling goods on trains. Carrying a metal bucket full of Bisleri water bottles, he shouted: Pani, thanda pani. Pani, thanda pani! (Water, cold water!). A few minutes later, another man came–this time selling chow mein and paneer pakora. My friend, Arjita, laughed when she saw my expression of surprise. “Trust me,” she said. “This is only the beginning.”
It was mid-afternoon and we were taking the Ipsaat Express from Jamshedpur to Kolkata. Located in Jharkhand (a neighboring state of West Bengal), Jamshedpur is known as “Steel City.” India’s largest (and oldest) steel plant, Tata Steel, is located in the center of the city. It’s also home to a Tata Motors factory that used to manufacture railway locomotives and currently manufactures construction vehicles. (These are just some fun facts. We didn’t go to see the steel plants–we went to speak with teachers at an NGO.)
The strangest thing I saw on the train? Probably the man displaying a red, checkered bedsheet to the passengers and shouting, “One bedsheet for Rs. 60; two for Rs. 100!” Either that or the vendor who had fifty colorful rumals (handkerchiefs) draped over one arm and fifty pairs of socks slung over his other shoulder.
Watching the vendors was, to say the least, very entertaining. On the train ride to Jamshedpur, we didn’t see a lot of vendors because we rode in the air-conditioned car. (Indian Railways doesn’t allow too many vendors to sell goods in the AC cars).
On our return trip, we saw many more because we sat in the non-AC car. Most of them walked through the train cars multiple times. Every time I heard the words paneer pakora, I was tempted to buy one. But being from America means having a relatively frail immune system when it comes to eating street food in India, so I had to say no.
The non-AC car wasn’t as hot as I expected it would be. Probably because it was July and the height of the summer was in April/May. Halfway through the journey, I did however feel myself catching a cold. It was probably from all the different waves of air rolling over my skin. The air inside the train was warm; cool, dry air was blowing from the ceiling fans; and warm, humid air was blowing in from the open windows.
By the end of the five-hour journey, I was sticky and shivering. My cold was gone by the time I woke up the next morning, so I don’t think I was really sick–just confused by the changing temperature inside the train.
Taking a train is definitely a must-have experience for anyone who is visiting India. I tried to capture my experience here, but it’s really one of those things that are better experienced than simply read about. Traveling by train–even in the AC car–is also relatively inexpensive in India.
And who knows? You might just find sipping Indian Railways chai and reading a photocopied book to be the best part of your journey.