Saturday, March 5, 2011

Trip To North India!

We were so busy our last two weeks in India I didn’t have the opportunity to blog! I’m home now in Tennessee working on a presentation of our journey and experiences working with the Rajahmundry church. The last weeks were busy and I have a lot to tell you about, so I will keep adding to the blog as long as I have something to say. Everyone who knows me will tell you I am seldom at a loss for words! LOL!!

My last report was about the building dedication in Seetanagaram on Monday, February 15. With everyone back in the game there was a revival of me going to Agra and Delhi for a few days to see some of the sights in India.

Harry had encouraged me from our first meeting about the mission to take a few days on the train and see the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, India Gate, etc…  He argued that if for some reason I was not able to return to India, I would regret not seeing one of the greatest wonders of the world. With everyone displaced and Raja, who was going to accompany me on the trip, sick with strep throat, I had pretty much written off the idea. I was the only one there to preach the meetings that Sudarsana had scheduled in the villages and those were my first responsibility. However, Harry and Sudarsana were back, Raja needed to rest, and Bobby and Swetha decided on Tuesday morning they would like to go with me, so the trip was on!

We went to the train station to purchase tickets to Agra and from Agra to Delhi. I was dreading the long train ride! The train from Chennai to Ongole and then to Rajahmundry was miserable to me. I hoped my dislike of the trains was because I hadn’t recovered from the 25 hours of travel by air before boarding the train, but 28 hours from Rajahmundry to Agra is a long time to be stuck in a sleeper birth! I would’ve preferred to fly, the airlines in India are very good, but Bobby and Swetha are a young couple only married for a little over a year and I didn’t want them to incur that kind of expense. A 2nd class air-conditioned sleeper birth for a 1200 mile trip costs about $50! It’s a hard price to beat, even if you lose a day traveling.

Our train was supposed to leave at 6:18 pm that night and arrive at 1 am in Agra on Thursday; however, the trains there run on Indian time. Indian time is much slower than normal time, much as the people themselves, they are not very punctual. For instance, church services are supposed to begin at 10 am on Sunday and that’s about when Sudarsana begins to dress for services, and he’s the preacher! A few people will be in the meeting hall when the singing starts, and by the time you are ready to preach, it will be full. When you finish your sermon the hall is packed all the way out the door and it’s noon! Except for the airline, nothing I participated in while I was there for nearly five weeks started or finished when it was scheduled. Starting times are merely a suggestion.

We arrived at the train station in time for the 6:18 and we left around 7:30. Not too bad… considering. I wondered about the bunk mate we would get on the train. The sleeper births are two bunk beds coming from the wall with a little table in the middle, also coming from the wall. The only privacy is a curtain that separates the birth from the aisle. Against the wall opposite those births, on the other side of the aisle, are a bunk type bed against the other wall. I had one of these from Chennai! With only three of us traveling together we knew we would be 28 hours with a stranger on a train in a fairly small space. We were fortunate.

Jonathon was the very nice man we traveled with to Agra. He is an Indian dentist who does some mission work with the Seventh Day Adventists. His parents are doctors working with The Leprosy Mission International. They have 20 hospitals in India that research and treat people with leprosy. Jonathon said their work has moved away from providing only medical based care for people affected by leprosy to a more holistic, integrated approach that encompasses healthcare, education, rehabilitation and training. There are a lot of misconceptions about leprosy, so I am going to post a blog about what I learned.

Being educated and from the north of India, Jonathon spoke very good English and we had a couple of conversations that lasted over an hour. I thoroughly enjoyed his company and conversation. He helped me to understand a little better how the Indian people think and the political winds that are beginning to change about Christianity in India.

While we were settling into our bunks Bobby warned me that he had already seen a rat! Because the little tables were against the wall and on these long trips people had to eat several meals, rats scurry up and down the train cars against the walls eating the crumbs. The Indian railway is supposed to keep them clean of rats and cock roaches, but we had plenty of both. The roaches actually bothered me more than the rat. I didn’t keep any food in my luggage and kept it away from the wall, but several times in the night I woke to see roaches crawling across the bottom of the bunk over my head and I smacked them out of the birth!

Bathrooms in India can be western, seated performance, or eastern which requires squatting. The cleanest, yet more challenging, on the trains are the eastern bathrooms. This is the common style of bathroom in India and is simply a pan built in the floor with a place for your feet and a hole. There is either a bucket of clean water with a hand pitcher to pour water from or a sprayer like we would have on our kitchen sink to take care of cleaning up. The only difference with the western style is there is a toilet bowl to sit on. Neither style provides toilet paper. On trains the holes simply open to the tracks below. I was very careful what I ate on these train trips and didn’t have to use the “facilities” provided… thankfully.

The train had a pantry car and guys would come up and down the aisle with meals, fruits, coffee, tea, etc, and when we would stop at stations along the way Bobby would jump onto the platform where the venders had kiosks and buy us water and food. When the train made these stops it was usually for ten or fifteen minutes, plenty of time.

I’m glad I was able to travel by train in India because trains are so much of what has made India the country it is today. I met several interesting Indians and saw many characters along the way. The sights along the tracks were beautiful, sad, funny and sometimes familiar. The strangest thing I saw, and would have loved to have a picture of, was a large group of shacks in a garbage dump with corrugated metal roofs held down by big rocks, all with satellite dishes! Such a contrast of poverty and technology is everywhere. China dumps all their phones with manufacturing problems in India. Usually it is nothing more than a software glitch or something that doesn’t affect the phones intended use, to make phone calls. An Indian can pay just a few rupees a month for basic phone service, so nearly everyone there has a phone. Kids on old broken down bicycles living on the street have cell phones!

Now would be a good time to tell you a little about the train system in India. In 1951 the 41 train systems in India were nationalized creating what is now the third largest train system in the world. There are 39,777 miles of track, 7083 stations carrying 25 million passengers’ and 2.5 million tons of freight daily across 28 states and 2 union territories. The Indian Railway is the largest employer in the world with 1.6 million employees. They own more than 230,000 freight wagons, 60,000 coaches and 9,000 locomotives. There are several specialty trains for sightseeing and luxury across the country and in the mountains.

Our trip was pleasant but long. Even when you are able to sleep you have to be aware if there is anyone unexpected in your space because of theft. Some passengers use chains and padlocks to secure their luggage under their seats. It’s not unheard of a passenger arriving in Delhi not able to find their shoes and find them for sell on a cart outside of the train station as they are leaving. Usually the price isn’t much to purchase your own shoes back! LOL!!

We arrived late, as expected, at about 3 am in Agra and hired an auto rickshaw to take us to a nearby hotel. I rode trains to Delhi, Gudur and Chennai after Agra, but this trip was my favorite. I really got to know Bobby and Swetha on the train and our short adventure up north. They are in their twenty’s and this was their first trip away from home and family. It did this old guy a lot of good to watch these kids wide eyed excitement on our journey.