Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jul 11, 2012

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Where I stayed
Sweekar Hotel
What I did
Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Flag of India  , Tamil Nadu,
Thursday, March 1, 2012

On our first train ride in India, from Ernakulam (Kochi) to Coimbatore, we sat in comfortable chairs surrounded by people using laptops, iPads, and eReaders. Novel to us, every passenger was seated. I reveled in the comfort of the AC 2nd Class Chair and the smooth ride, the freedom to read the newspaper or take out my own computer if I liked, and to charge it if it ran out of power. In Sri Lanka, in spite of always buying a second-class ticket for our train journeys, we never made it out of third class; the 2nd class car was too small and the tickets too far oversold for us to ever get a 2nd class seat. This train provided unaccustomed luxury.

The day of our train journey there was a 24-hour general strike across India, called by eleven trade unions. Although train travel seemed not to be affected, Nagesh had called for a rickshaw to take us across the bridge to the train station as the ferries and buses were not running. Shops were closed as well. It was difficult to ascertain the issues of the strike, as the newspaper reporting was more about the effect of the strike on people's lives on that day than about the reason for the strike. Shamala had said it was because of the rapidly rising costs of petrol, cooking gas, and other amenities, but my reading between the lines of a newspaper editorial indicated it had more to do with labour issues. Another editorial opined that striking is outdated and doesn’t advance the cause. It seems a favoured mode of protest, however, because there was also a twelve-hour strike in Munnar when we visited that small town. The issue of the Munnar strike, according to one person I talked to, was the opening of a big-box supermarket, which would negatively affect the many small businesses in the town. Democracy may falter here in poverty and corruption, but people can still exercise their right to speak and be heard.

Our five-hour idyll in the AC Chair car to Coimbatore ended with the next bit of the journey, when we were back in a sleeper car (basic benches without AC) for the hour-long trip to Mettupalayam, where we stayed overnight for the purpose of being at the station at 6:00 the next morning to get on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway toy train, a UNESCO heritage site. We had bought tickets a week before, but we were actually waitlisted and needed to get there an hour in advance of the 7:10 departure to use our charm on the conductor.

It probably wasn’t our charm, but we ended up in the prime spot of the front car, which had the best views of the valley and the track ahead as we left the hot plain and ascended into tea plantations and pine and eucalyptus forests. The steam engine pushed the train from behind, so our view in the front was unobstructed, except for the driver and his mate, who continuously took photos. Large trees in full bloom with red flowers and others in purple punctuated the greens and blues of the valley; orange and pink blossoms accented the scene as we rolled slowly upward. In our carriage were two Indian couples, one of them honeymooning after their marriage three days before. Our interaction was characterized by shyness at first, but by the end of the journey we had learned a little about each other. The new bride works in Coimbatore in a call centre for the American chain Walgreens, and I asked her if it was easy for young people to find jobs—oh yes, in IT it is very easy, she said, once you have the qualifications.

As we entered a tunnel, the honeymooners in our carriage, facing forward, gasped: there was a cow standing on the tracks. The driver waved his red flag and the train slowed and stopped. The cow stood there as the driver hooted and yelled for some minutes at it to move. It didn’t budge. Then he waved his green flag and the train moved slowly forward. The honeymooners breathed in—and then out again as the cow finally shifted and started to trot out of the tunnel and off to the side of the track. Although Dan is sure one of our bus drivers hit a goat, and in Pondicherry we saw a dog hit by a rickshaw (the dog registered its indignation with a long series of yelps), I think you can’t hit a cow in India without serious consequences.

In Ooty, the air was cool but the town was as busy and dirty as any other we’ve been in yet, disappointing for a famed hill-station town. We found our way into the refuge of the 55-acre Botanical Garden, where hundreds of Indians were enjoying the late afternoon. Groups of young adults were playing running games and shrieking with laughter. We encountered as well ten young women with their teacher—at first Dan caught their eye, but when he said I was a university teacher, there was a chorus of screams and hands thrust forward to shake mine. "What do you teach?" asked one girl—English, I admitted, to more screams and excitement because they were from the English Department of their university. A photo taking session ensued. And again, as we exited the park, a group of young men asked us for our photo, to our bemusement.

The next day, as an antidote to the pollution and noise of the town, we opted for a guided full-day trek with about eight other tourists in the hills near Ooty. It was exactly what we needed after two days of train travel—18 km of walking and some uphill hiking through eucalyptus groves, tea plantations, and small villages and farms, all without having to wonder about which way to go. Small groups of our ilk must pass through almost daily, yet the children and some adults in the villages were excited to be photographed and see their images on the digital screens, so a few of our group obliged. I wonder about the impact of our passage and how long we will be as interesting to them as they are to us.
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Jas on

Thoroughly enjoying reading your blog, Catherine. I'm feeling slightly envious, but also inspired to start planning my next journey.

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