Leaning Out of Trains at Sunset

Originally published iamnotinengland.wordpress.com 2014

The best kind of thrill

Trains are plentiful and affordable. Ride with the locals as the locals do to experience some truly unforgettable views. Admittedly, not every train ride is bliss. People rub against people in the most uncomfortable of ways, but if you’re able to find an empty enough train and to stand in the open doorway over-looking the countryside as your rumble along the tracks, then you open yourself up to some wonderful interactions and sights. 

There’s something deeply romantic about riding a train through Kerala’s landscape as the sun sets. There’s something terrifying and utterly thrilling about standing in an open doorway while the train chews miles of track, and you happen to look down as the train shoots across a bridge crossing a river. It’s shocking to see the floor of that carriage underneath your feet then to adjust your vision and notice the ground beneath you turned to muddy water. What you thought you knew was there is gone and there’s only a drop to water eddying.

How amazing to be awakened to the possibility of danger yet to feel in control of my own fate: I shan’t fall, I shall hold on, but I will enjoy the thrill of thinking ‘What if?’ I recall hermetically sealed shiny white-and-green air-conditioned trains of Southern railways, loaded with rules, where we can’t open the windows, where we’re micro-managed into behaving accordingly. Forget that. Throw micromanagement out of the window along with your trash and a small child, if the wish should take you when riding a train in India.

Ascend the train from either side, alight from whichever side you wish. Don’t bother with the foot over bridge; instead, dart across the rail tracks and manage the jump up to the platform on the opposite side, if the will takes you.

There is freedom to break your neck, to tumble from a high-speed train if you wish to dangle too freely out of any one of the multitude of open doors, and it feels so deeply satisfying to be aware of such choice, so deeply enlivening to be able to do this: to take risk in this way. I am not a thrill-seeker, but why ride trains facing the direction of travel or the reverse when what you can do is stand in the door way, lean out of an open, no-glass window and inhale the air as it changes for your carriage rolls through landscape and time.

A blind man, somewhere in his sixties, boarded the train (no cane, no dog). He sold lottery tickets. When the train next stopped, he alighted not onto the platform side but onto the side where three further sets of broad, brown metal train tracks and gravel lay between him and the other side. Fellow passengers advised that he was about to get out on the ‘wrong,’ side but he assured them it was the side of his choice. We watched the man manage his way, arms ready to stop himself, successfully across the tracks, across uneven ground and make his way to the platform. This is the choice he had.

Let’s return to the romance: the air cools; the dark monsoon clouds hang above extraordinarily tall coconut trees that are ink runs and still-frame firework explosions in black, and the stunning Kerala green water-logged fields where buffalo wallow and egrets (I think) roam. These are the environment for this sunset ride. Air cools. People get on, get off, sway with the train’s swaggering gait, ker-chunk, ker-chunk.

Dusk comes and fruit bats fly from their roost to cross the night. Then darkness. Complete darkness drops herself into the space light occupied. There are no fringes of dusk that I can see from my rolling metal hulk. The train punches its ways through the night’s blackness and infrequently there bursts from the depths the light of a single house – small and isolated by the pitch, surrounded by a density of jungle. There is a sense this house and its inhabitants are the only survivors in the world. The train carries forward and snatches of lives appear infrequently like frames plucked from a zoetrope only there’s no repetition only a persistent move forwards through blackness.

We traverse more rivers and plough through more darkness and myself and the 80-plus inhabitants of this fluorescently lit blue-grey utilitarian compartment are in our own capsule. Air breezes in from outside, and it’s cool. It reminds me of England, yet it’s an incredible England; an England where the senses are awakened and where everything is new, and it’s so new I can’t absorb everything I’m witness to or sensing and so a part of my brain draws connections to places I’ve experienced before to help me to understand and to connect this strangeness to something familiar. My mind considers everywhere I’ve ever been, recalling all the senses I’ve ever felt, yet in this night I am also only in Kerala at 1900 on train 56363 between Thrissur and Angamaly. A kaleidoscope of experiences – new and old – are fractured and pieced together to make up the romance and the brilliance of this sensory treasure.