Joining the 2.5 million - a train journey from Cochin to Calita

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April 11th 2017
Published: April 15th 2017
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Today we join the 2.5 million people using the Indian railway system every day as we are on the move traveling by train from Cochin to Calita. We arrive early due to the unpredictable nature of - well let's face it, pretty much everything in India, but in this instance specifically, the traffic. No major hold ups mean we have some time to kill. I find myself going on a trip down memory lane with another ex Hull Universityite comparing notes about the halls of residence and changes that have taken place in the town itself in the intervening years since our respective degrees were taken. After reminiscing about 10p a shot vodkas at Ferens and finding out about the closing of Clemenson amongst other stuff only of interest to ex Hull students, it's time to make our way to the end of the platform where our carriage will stop for us to get on - we hope! We pass lots of large wrapped packages piled high and next to them a row of mopeds also partially wrapped for protection looking like half forgotten Christmas presents that have come adrift. The the sun is blazing down again and we only manage a few minutes on the inviting benches, and a quickly orchestrated group photo taken by hanging off a nearby post, before retreating one by one to shadier spots along the platform. The station is so busy with hoards of people milling about, railway staff pushing massive crates piled high with packages, bare foot passengers crossing the tracks to clamber into a train on the other side, railway cleaners on the tracks collecting up litter with a brush and bucket.

As our train arrives we are given carriage and seat numbers and I find myself in the central set of seats with a table and, we find out later, a resident cockroach! This is in no shape or form bullet train or Intercity modernity, but this creaking old Indian gentleman of the rails begins his clickery clack journey as he's done for decades and like so many things in India it just works. We are spoiled by the air conditioning in our carriage and sit back in this refrigerated luxury to enjoy the view, read, listen to music or just relax. Every so often one of the million staff who service the Indian state railway rushes through the carriages with a tray of snacks of some sort balanced on his shoulder shouting what sounds like 'Andelay, andelay, pot leg' but which must actually be a description of whatever it is he's carrying. A girl from our group braves trying the banana dumplings (whole bananas, skins and all, encased in fluffy dumpling mixture) and also what turn out to be veggie patties that you dip in runny tomato ketchup. We will wait to see if she succumbs to Delhi belly as a result.

Whether it be the excitements of the trip, our varying levels of jet lag or just the steady rhythmic rocking of the train, one by one people start nodding off and so the journey passes. I see the changing vistas enfold with palm trees taking on the dominant role. Dotted in among the palms are houses, from new looking two-storey luxury builds to tiny shacks. Sadly, despite the efforts of the litter ladies at the stations, rubbish is strewn all along the sides of the tracks. Rubbish is a huge problem in India that seems, to an outsider anyway, to be out of control and accepted as the norm. I hope one day the drip feeding of messages like that of the Cochin fish cemetery statues engenders a concerted effort to sort it out. I fear however this might be a long time in the coming.

In the fields and by the waterside we spot elegant egrets. One of our group describes a fat black bird she's seen foraging in the middle of a field with a long white bill and long thin legs. No-one knows what it could be so we'll have to check a bird book to find out. As we approach the end of our train journey I suddenly spot hundreds of birds of prey all flocking together. To me it's so unusual to see so many together I cry out in surprise waking up some of the group. Again I've no idea what species they are but they are an amazing sight, their feather fingered wings taking them twisting and turning higher and higher.

We gather our belongings, including my bag complete with pet cockroach (I'd tried to flick it off our table and onto the floor but destiny decreed cockroach adoption as it fell straight into my bag!) and depart the train. The heat suffocates us again taking us by surprise as we leave our air conditioned conditioning. We are immediately sucked up into the crowds of people at the station and have to keep our wits about us so as not to get too far separated from our group as we negotiate our way to the mini bus. Once on board we sigh with pleasure as more cool air spoils us again. Seats taken we find out about the Happy G (the nickname for G-Adventure groups) tradition of the person in the front seat having to tell a joke. I find we have another cheese officianado as out comes 'What do you say when someone tries to steal your cheese?' 'Na-cho cheese!'. Wahh wahhh wahhh boom boom!

We have a short ride to our lunch stop in Calita but quickly suss in this time that the city is quite a bit more affluent than Cochin, obvious from the housing, the shops and the way people are dressed. The teenage lads must be spending a fortune on what seems to be the latest hair trend - short back and sides that graduates outwards at an angle to a topping of fluffed up candy floss. It's hilarious and I keep trying to get a photo. We find out that there are 3 million people living in Calita and that the literacy rate is high for India at 93%. Religion in the city is equally split between Hindus, Muslims and Christians. I manage to restrain myself from saying '... and now one atheist!'

For lunch most of us take up Muthu's recommendation to try the famous Keralan Balti. To our delight and fascination clay pots shaped like mini footballs arrive at the table, each topped by a chapati lid crimped onto the rim, the veggie ones with a V written on top. The waiters mix the contents and spoon some onto our plates. It's the most light and non greasy Balti I've ever had with large chunks of cooked onion, pepper and other vegetables mixed in with the spicy rice. We also try the fresh lime soda which arrives as a shot of lime juice in a tall glass accompanied by a teapot with sugar syrup to pour into the glass to taste and then top up with the soda finally giving the concoction a mix before drinking. It's really refreshing and perfect to take away the heat of the pot Balti.

After lunch we get on our way again and head off into the countryside climbing steadily higher and higher until we get to the scary 9 hairpin bends we'd been warned about. Scary because despite the warning signs to slow down, the many public buses, lorries and tuktuks heading towards us down the steep hairpins do so at huge speed ignoring the likelihood there is an oncoming vehicle around the bend. Much honking of horns and shaking of heads, exclamations and oh my godding from those in my group brave enough to actually be watching and many inch close near misses later we eventually make it unscathed to the top. Here to our absolute delight are a group of macaque monkeys some with babies and we are all so keen to get photos of them we almost miss the amazing views. I get my perfect baby monkey photo and just have time to also ooh and ahh at the scenery before it's back on the bus to our final destination Kalpetta, in the Wayanad district, with a quick snack food stop on the way. We arrive just as it's getting dark and sit on the balcony area outside our rooms drinking beer and watching the lightening storm flashing and crashing away accompanied by a heavy downfall of rain. It's still really warm but there is now a hint of a breeze to lift the fug. Goodnight India, see you tomorrow.

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