Book extract from page 43: ‘When our boys, by then aged eleven and thirteen, end up going to school in southern India they’ll spend the three days travel alone, perfectly happy to involve themselves with card games, conversations and meals with their fellow passengers. Over the next few years they’ll constantly travel from one end of the country to the other by train making friends without the slightest hint of interference or trouble.’
Olly’s Version: Despite hearing horror stories about people being stripped and mugged whilst travelling in India, we never encountered anything at all threatening but were instead greeted by hospitality and friendship. Even a previous Headmaster at Hebron who was effectively born and breed India (despite being white!) had been offered food by a friendly family on the train, ate with them gratefully and then woke up in the train toilet stripped naked and had his wallet, passport and all his luggage stolen. I always knew, even when we were first travelling, that if we kept our wits about us then we’d avoid 90% of trouble, not to say we were immune.
I remember the first long train journey to Meghalya, I think it may have only been 24 hours long, yes a ridiculous amount of time to spend on a train but nothing in comparison to our journeys to and from school. From Ooty, we’d take a 5 hour bus journey to Coimbatore then catch a 36 hour train journey to Itarsi or Bhopal and then a 5 hour drive to Pachmarhi. I clearly remember the first time Jamie and I did this journey and I remember it because the parents had decided they’d stick us in 2nd class so we were literally with everything that India could throw at us- the searing heat, beggars, chai wallahs at 5am, the dirt and flies, transvestites- the lot. We arrived in Bhopal on this one journey utterly exhausted and met my parents who were full of life after a good night’s sleep and a big breakfast and my Dad who was seemingly becoming increasingly insistent that he was not a foreigner and would only pay local rates. On one occasion after a 2 day travel from Ooty, Jamie and I were absolutely shattered and were looking forward to a hotel room, some good food and watching TV so we got in a rickshaw with all our luggage. But it wasn’t good enough because my Dad refused to pay the insulting charge the rickshaw driver had asked and with yells of how we lived in Pachmarhi and these were crazy prices, we got out and moved to the next rickshaw so that we paid 2 rupees less…equivalent of 5p!
There was something special about Indian trains, I loved opening a main door and sitting on the step as we flew through the country. It was something I knew could never happen in England and somehow it gave you a sense of freedom as the kids shouted at you once they saw the white face and the hot breeze on your face. Activity never stopped on the train, you could almost do one long journey and you’ll have seen much of what India is- the diversity of people, religions, class and having to be on your guard the whole time. I ate meals with families, got drunk with a group of lads, tested my hindi, saved fellow travellers who were being conned by police, bribed conductors and got thrown off of a train when I tried to bribe probably the only straight government official in India!
I loved travelling in India- even the nights I spent on train and bus floors for 12 hours! It was utterly unique and somehow strangely, it was liberating because it was almost bringing to life the typical Hollywood picture of someone standing up in a soft top car and putting their arms out and allowing their hair to flow in the wind- not usually the same idyllic surroundings but nonetheless the perfect way to see the heart of India.