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Memories of Train Trips in India

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| Jo | Margy | Phyllis | Gwen | Betty |


HOMECOMING. One of my favorite memories of India is about the time we went back to India when I was 10. We landed in Madras and then took a train up to the Shamshabad area. I hadn't been in India since we had left during the war five years earlier, and so I felt like I was coming to a new country.

It was really exciting to go through the bustling, noisy train station and then we got into a 2nd class train car. There were long seats going the length of the car, with windows that opened right up to the outdoors. Above there were fold-up beds that you could pull down at nighttime. I remember Dad ordering something to eat at the station (didn't we get food from the Brahmin Hotel service, or something like that?), and we ate while the train pulled out.

The train headed north and the night came. I was way too excited to sleep so I sat looking out the window to see everything I could see. There were little fires in the village areas, and tall palm trees dotted around in the moonlight. Cinders from the engine swished past. Everything seemed so peaceful. Then the smell of the land around us permeated my senses, and all of a sudden I had a deep feeling that I was back home. I felt SO good--it was such a strong feeling of home-coming. I'll never forget that.

Little Jo at a Train Station

FLOODED TRACKS. Another time I remember going on the train was when there were tornadoes and terrible floods between Kodai and Mahabubnagar. Dad came up to Kodai to get us (I think Paul, Betty, Gwen and I were on this trip), and when we were coming back we came through areas just devastated by the floods.

The train had to go very slowly because the tracks had been damaged by the floods. Dad let us sit in the open doorway and watch the water swirling by; Mom would have had a fit about that. I THINK I saw water snakes--or I might have imagined them and by now they are reality! I do know we saw dogs desperately trying to swim to safety and people on top of their homes, and many homes were crumbling and washing away.

At one point the engineer said the tracks ahead were too damaged and everyone would have to get out and walk, so we took our luggage and trudged along the railroad tracks for what seemed like miles and miles until we got to the next station (probably actually about a mile). We finally did make it home several days late. Dad hadn't been able to get a telegram through to Mom, so by now she had decided we were all dead and was trying to figure out how to make plans for our funerals. That was Mom--always the optimist.


I remember traveling with Mom, Elmer & Phyl in the 80's, after we had visited the Taj and were heading back to Bombay. I had only vague memories of childhood train travel, but what little floated about up there in my head was vastly romanticized. The reality was hard, hard wooden benches--no food or drink available (good thing we had some oranges and crackers along!)--and a long slow trip. Nevertheless this was all part of the indescribable thrill of revisiting India after all those years, and thus not only tolerable but also the stuff from which new memories are made.

The more vivid train rides I remember are the European trains on our trip back from India in the 50's. I remember eating on the trains--scrumptuous Swiss chocolate, frankfurters with sauerkraut--sleeping in special compartments, watching the scenery flow by, the train whistles, the brisk efficiency of the system in Switzerland, smokey smells, maroon velvet upholstery. Little bits and pieces of memories...all very special. I'm so thankful for our adventurous and wandering upbringing.


My memories of train travel in India are brief...

...a clear image of bundling suitcases and baggage through 3rd class windows onto those benches running lengthwise down the carriage so as to save as much sleeping space as possible--but people crowded in

...scratching my leg on a trunk the day before leaving for Kodai, and the scratch got infected on the train so that I went to Miss Matthews (Battleaxe) in the dispensary every day for months and wore a bandage around my leg, she was in despair because the thing wouldn't heal, then finally folks came up and Mom put on an antibiotic and cleared it up, and now all I have is the shiny scar

...the story of Irene Wiebe holding a kitten on the train--the kitten started wetting her so she grabbed it by the neck and held it out the window, and when she took it back in the poor thing was stiff with fright

...when we came down from Kodai to the train station the air was so heavy and humid we felt like we'd gone under a blanket Madras train station, a mother monkey and her baby sitting on a steel girder high over our heads, way up there, we felt sorry for them

...then of course the time the Wiebe kids hid on the church roof, with food, in order not to have to get on the train to go back to Kodai; their parents not too surprised or ruffled, merely found them and off they had to go

...the vendors yelling "orangezz...Birdi cigarettes..." and pouring a customer's unfinished tea back into the main pot


I remember Indian trains very fondly! American trains will never catch up to what that was like. I remember ordering food at one station, having it delivered at the next, and returning the trays at the next stop. The food was on large trays, silver pots, utensils, china plates, etc. the best you could have gotten in an expensive London restaurant.

You could not go from one car to another; each train car had two compartments only and a bathroom each. When you looked in the toilet you could see the ground flowing by underneath.

At night you could sit at the window, open either the shutters, the screen, or just open the window up with nothing between you and the outside air. If I woke up at night I would sit up and look out at the sleeping villages, the open land, the cattle, or whatever. I usually was feeling lonesome and fearing the months ahead at board school but looking out at night gave a special feeling I will never forget.

The one trip I will never forget is when Dad came to get us and there had been a hurricane in the territory we were to traverse. The train crept along as the tracks were under water. Finally, at night, it stopped and we were told the bridge was out ahead. We took what belongings we could carry and walked about a mile (over what was left of the bridge) and came to a small town. We were directed (by gestures as we did not speak their language) to some missionaries home (a different denomination) and they took us in until we could get a train out. Mom met us with tears of gratitude that we were safe. She had the special guest towels out for us to use that night when we took our "pour water over yourself" type of bath (no bathtubs or showers). What stood out in my mind was the fact that those towels disappeared the next morning--everything back to normal; we weren't special anymore.

I also remember when the Kaspers died in the accident and Betty, Marg and I were told to take the train to Madras where Dad would meet us. We were upset about the accident; knew mom and Jo and Lois were OK, Mrs. Kasper and Jackie had drowned, but that was all the information we had. Quite anxious, we arrived in Madras but NO DAD there to meet us! We did not speak the Tamul of the natives, had no money, and no way of contacting anyone. I was very frightened. Betty took charge, had us move our baggage to a corner of the station and very soon Dad showed up. What a relief!

I also remember the waiting rooms you could rent in Madras if you were delayed there for some hours or a day or so. Large rooms, ceiling fans, beds, and chairs. What luxury it seemed. The food in the restaurant in the train stations always seemed to include mutton, which we hated. Mom, I think, packed a lot of food to take so we did not have to buy much along the way. The trip to school lasted several days so she had to do considerable organizing.

What great memories!


My impressions of Indian trains include open windows, soot, unpredictability, hard seats, and many people. We were able to open windows and look out, but of course this meant taking a risk on getting a face blackened with soot. I can still imagine the clackety-clack noises of the train. Once when returning from Kodai we went through a flooded area for a while, and we opened the doors and dangled our feet in the water as the train was inching along, unable to see the state of the tracks below. We were told that men were checking the state of the rails by walking in front of the engine. We dangled our feet until someone saw a water moccasin and then we all got scared to do it. Finally the train came to a halt and we had to carry luggage to the next station where we stayed with a missionary for a day until we could get through on the train. It was awesome - seeing houses floating by because they were made of straw or seeing homes dissolve because they were made of mud.

On one memorable trip, the train came to a stop. Everyone looked out and people were very excited. Finally we found out that Gandhi was leading a group of people in peaceful tactics against the British by lying on the rails and stopping train travel. Dad was excited and took us down to see the event. He was always keen on a sense of history and said we would remember seeing Gandhi.

On one trip from Kodai, Dad put Paul and me in charge since he could not come get us. I can recall staying awake all night because I was so afraid we would miss our station only to find out the conductor woke us up anyway. We would get out at a station and run visit a few minutes with friends and then run back to our places again. I was so worried Gwen and Joanne would not get back on when they did it and I felt responsible.

I went along on one trip to Madras to pick up some new missionaries (Schmidts, I think). They were awed at the size of cockroaches on the train. We giggled when they noted they had seen many people in the bushes praying when in fact they were simply answering the call of nature.

Trains were rarely on time those years so we had many long waits. We often went third class but second class had reserved seats, if I recall correctly. Third class was catch as catch can.

Since we could not drink water without knowing it was boiled, we ordered tea at one stop and would get it at the next stop. Spencer's tea, I think the company was. In Madras we would go for curry at a restaurant and thought that was bigtime stuff. At many train stations, monkeys would swing in and if you were holding food, you soon found the monkeys had grabbed it in a split second. I was not going to argue in any case. We learned to keep food hidden from them. Sometimes it was crows that got very bold.

In my mind's eye I remember vendors going by the windows trying to sell Bidi cigarettes or children begging "No Mama, no Papa, all hungry" one said. One would see a person peddling five peanuts or two bananas. Poverty was so common. There were coolies to help carry bags - seemed a luxury - but they worked cheap.

Sleeping was hard but we unrolled our sleeping bags and tried to get a little sleep. The benches were wooden and very hard.I recall that the toilets opened right on to the tracks and one could see the tracks. I wondered whether the tracks were lined with feces and urine. Is this a faulty recollection?

Even so, the trains were the most usual mode of transportation as India had no highway system one could use to go to and from Kodai. There were roads but often it meant going through a stream or using a ferry to cross rivers etc.

We had many a farewell at train stations and I associate the song "God Be With You Till We Meet Again" with all these farewells. What was the scripture they used so much?

(Paul, you know which one; I think you read it at Mother's funeral. Jo)