Trains, Savings, and My Favorite Indian Moment

Trip Start Apr 24, 2011
Trip End May 13, 2011

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Another full day started early in Deogarh, this fairytale village in Rajasthan, India. We wanted to test as many walking trails as possible, so our new guide friend, Khushwant, suggested a pre-breakfast walk out of town and through a couple of villages. It was a disappointment and we learned that morning is a much quieter time in terms of village life - yesterday's route and timing were better.

Following breakfast at our palace/hotel lodging, we met for a jeep ride to the train station in nearby Khambli Ghat. This old train system is built on a different gauge than track in surrounding areas and now has a very limited run in this area of Rajasthan. It's been in service since the 1930’s and has become something of an icon of the railroad days instigated by the British Empire.

We hopped aboard in the last of five cars and were just getting settled in for the ride when Girish called to me that I was going to be allowed to ride in the locomotive. I grabbed my pack and trotted to the front of the train, feeling a bit sheepish to be the only recipient of this bit of string-pulling. I shared the cab with a couple of Indian engineers, one of whom seemed to have primary responsibility and was all business, the other with whom I shared a limited, if engaging, conversation about how the train operated and his background (ten years Indian Navy and 10 years with the railroad) and family (2 kids).

The route we were taking was only about 20 kilometers, but dropped about 800 feet in elevation. The safety precaution against burned out brakes and a runaway train was ingenious. At three intervals on the long downhill grade, there were side tracks heading up the hill to the right. The track switch was set to take the train off the main track and up the side track. Each time, the train was required to stop at these switches. A special key was then used by my engineer friend, who had to get out of the locomotive and walk over to a junction box, use the key to open it, which allowed the switchman to move the switch back to the main track.

The default was to take the train off the main track. If the train did not stop and use the key to reset the switch, it would be forced onto the side track. The default was to assume a runaway train scenario.

We disembarked at a tiny place called Phulad and used our jeep to backtrack up the valley. We wanted to check out the possibility of disembarking a few kilometers early and walking down the valley to a lake that should be full of migrating birds about the time we return in February. The trail proved to be a nice blend of natural acacia forest, village life, and the lake at the end. We took a break there at the lake to visit with a local farmer who demonstrated rural hospitality by going out into his field to pick the tasty local cucumbers for us to snack on while we chatted with him.

He was in his 70’s, had seven kids, two of which were living with him and his wife with their families. He owned this excellent farm land on the banks of the lake, and lived comfortably in what looked to our western eyes like a shack. After we left, I quizzed Girish a bit further and learned that he was probably set up pretty well by Indian standards. The rural lifestyle is exceedingly simple and expectations are low. His farm provides a living and all the food he needs. He sells surplus for cash in the village markets. His livestock provide additional food and income. He probably has a pretty decent bank account that would allow him to survive for a couple of years or more should his farm fail completely, and he probably has a cache of gold and silver stashed away someplace on his property.

Indian savings rates are very high – perhaps 30 to 40 percent. Indians value security and the poor probably save even more than that to offset their more unstable circumstances. Gold and silver are almost an obsession, and whenever they have additional funds, they typically purchase more gold and silver jewelry. Indian banks are conservative and are not tied with Western banking systems, did not get involved with the subprime mortgage fiasco perpetrated by American traders, and therefore the Indian economy did not get hit nearly as hard as Western economies by the 2008 Great Recession.

I pondered the simple concept of spending less than you earn and saving a healthy margin, and what that meant to a nation as a whole, let alone the individuals who buffer their lives against the future with this discipline. Girish warned me, however, that attitudes are changing, that younger generations who’ve benefitted from a more affluent India are adopting a Western "spend today and let tomorrow take care of itself" lifestyle. Prosperity, it seems, is a blessing it is difficult to survive for more than one generation.

My favorite moment of the day came in the evening. We met around 5:30 pm to do a walk through Deogarh itself. It was a leisurely affair, stopping to talk to locals and take photos, entranced with the richness of life on the street. It is impossible not to be fascinated with every part of this kind of street experience since there is always something interesting either happening right in front of you or coming your direction, or unfolding just around the corner.  

The moment I refer to above came during the third wedding party (remember I explained in yesterday’s blog that May 5 and 6 are auspicious dates in the Hindu astrological calendar for weddings and weddings last for 3-4 days). The third wedding party of our walk was heralded, as usual, by drummers, followed by a group of women and girls walking with the bride. Robert, Girish, and I were filming the colorful drama and Girish, as usual, was engaging the party and coaxing them into smiles and laughter.

All of a sudden, a mother nudged her beautiful young daughter of about 10 years old towards me, and she came sheepishly, smiling over to me with an outstretched hand to give me a welcoming handshake. As she was running back to her mom, another smaller girl came running back to me and jumped right into the “I want to try my English with you” conversation. We exchanged basic pleasantries about my name and her name and she went running back to her mother. Then both girls came running back and “Madri” asked with an irresistible little Indian accent – “One photo please”.

Both of them posed for me and if I had the presence of mind, I would have asked to get the parents address to send it to them. For some reason, this minor exchange touched me more than anything on the trip so far!
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