Training for India
Trip Start Jul 03, 2008
19Trip End Dec 07, 2008
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Today was filled with equal parts anticipation and trepidation, as we were about to experience the most of famed Indian institutions: the train system. Originally built by the Brits to have an efficient means of transportation (both of goods and of cheap workers) the train and its brethren postal service (also British) ended up being some of the tools used to unify divergent regions of this great land during it's struggle for independence, totally backfiring on its architects in London. Anyone who has any experience with India, either vicarious or direct, will tell you that the trains are the way to go: fairly cheap, reasonably fast, and it gives your nerves a brake from driving.
Anyways, our leader took the liberty of securing us the best accommodations available for our particular journey, what is known as a two-tier AC car. Two tier meaning two sleeper bunks with benches beneath in each curtain-enclosed cabin, AC being a godsend of course. These also come in a 3 tier variety, which I'm sure is bearable, but for the particularly frugal there is the non-AC, which needs no elaboration as to its shortcomings. We began sitting separately, but through some finagling all of the students managed to sit together, which made it much more bearable. Remember, this train ride began at 10:30 a.m. and didn't conclude until 2 a.m. That's 15.5 hours. We were fortunate enough to sit with a friendly middle-aged Tamil man who was on his way to visit his parents in their village in Madurai. He was a mechanical engineer working in Yemen for a French company, and because Michelle lived in Kuwait 4 years of her life, the Middle East was a large part of our discussions. The food was reasonable but resembled something made in someone's kitchen, but we still made a blitzkrieg dash onto the platform at one of the stations to grab the packaged food, just to be safe. Aside from that....
(There are simply no words for 15 and half hours on an Indian train J)
But hey, we made it! After pulling into Allepy, we had a 1 hour car ride through Kerala, (in a government SUV no less; Dr. Luke's cousin is a high-up in the tourism branch), which is a beautiful state on the west coast of India, a bit south of Goa. The state is predominantly Christian due to a heavy and pervasive missionary presence very early in it's history, and here you will see American and European-style churches totally alien to the rest of the nation of India. A positive tradeoff of that same missionary presence is that due to all the schools built by missionaries, the state of Kerala has around a 90% literacy rate, so it exports job candidates along with rubber and some rice.
For this 13-day leg of the tour we are using Dr. Luke's home in his native Kottayam as our base of operations. And what a home it was. Right next to a major river, it is beautiful and spacious, and for a fraction of a comparable American home. Not to mention it was in the first and only gated community we have seen here.
Given that we were already up until 6am, we decided to stay up in an attempt to help our bodies sleep cycles regulate themselves, so after a bit of liquid pep we were hitting the streets. The local coffee favorite is called Bru, and it's surprisingly good for an instant blend (Relax coffee purists). The girls went off to get fitted for custom Savaar Khamises, which is a popular tunic and pants combo worn by women throughout India, as it is easier to put on and less formal than the Sari. They were able to pick the fabric, the cut, and the collar, everything for about $20 per outfit. I used the time to cruise the town, and despite being the only white guy I saw in 2 hours of walking, I got nothing but smiles and waves, a welcome change from the gawks Anglos garner in some cities.
For lunch we all had Thali meals, a south Indian staple. Served on a banana leaf in a metal skillet-shaped bowl, rice is placed in the middle and you are given around ten different curries and sauce blends and some yogurt, which you mix with the rice and eat with you hands. It's delicious and a socially acceptable way to regress to the days of playing with your food. The rest of the day was mostly R&R, as we still hadn't slept much from the train, but we had a bit of a shock when around 8:30 all power went out in the house. Our fright was assuaged when Dr. Luke told us that it happens like clockwork most nights this summer due to power shortages. Kerala has experienced 80% less rainfall in it's monsoon season than previous years, and this has obvious consequences for its hydroelectric dams, the main source of its power, so rolling brownouts are a conservation measure of sorts, however abrupt and non-consensual they may be.