A different culture from a train perspective

24 Apr

Have you ever thought about your train travels from a cultural perspective? A few months ago I would have said no but lately I have realised how much of my cultural learning and reflection is related to my train travels in India and Australia. The train was every bit as much a part of my cultural experience and learning as I caught it everyday to get to the school I was volunteering at and when I was travelling around.

It was almost like the train was a mini culture within itself. There were certain do’s and dont’s but they were just taken for granted and no one really talked about them. Learning and making explicit the do’s and the dont’s was upon reflection a fun process.

The do’s for Indian train travel:

  • Do select your appropriate carriage be that 1st class, females only, males only or disabled and people with cancer.
  • Do learn a little of the local dialect, language barrier becomes all too apparent when all train announcements are in another language!

The don’ts of Indian train travel:

  • Don’t worry about being late for the train it runs on Indian time not the timetable.
  • Don’t attempt an Indianan Jones and jump from the moving train. The Indians do may make it look effortless but don’t be fooled. This one was learnt the hard way by my volunteering friend; she was okay by the way. Utter embarrassment was her biggest scar.
  • Don’t worry about the bridges and infrastructure that have been built to change platforms, just jump the tracks, it’s so much quicker. As one of the volunteers commented the first time he did it “It was naughty, it was wrong, but it was exciting”.
  • Don’t go shopping in the markets. Sit back and let the markets come to you on the train. Get anything from Samosa, Chai, Chikki , jewellery, even Saris.

But apart from learning the practicalities what was it that made the train so memorable and a framework for organising some of my cultural experiences?

Well most importantly I got to meet someone new everyday, from school children to working mums, other travellers. I got to know their story and they got to know mine. The train also was part of my immersion process. Some days I got stares the other volunteers and I named these constant starers stare bears. The stares were often clear in conveying your white and different, defiantly a new experience for me. While other days a warm accepting smile would melt all that insecurity and cultural difference away. The most memorable experience on the train was something that made me fit in, a simple action that took me from outsider to insider, quite unexpectedly. On a crowded train back from Mumbai, It go so crowded that I could not have my backpack on or even hold it in front of me. What did I do? I put it on my head. Some Indian men that some volunteers and I had been talking to started cheering, with one of them commenting that was very Indian of me.

This sort of train reflection has continued even since coming back. I can’t help but see the stark contrast between the cultural experience of the train in India vs. Australia. In Australia I almost feel disappointed by my train journey and nothing exciting seems to happen. Everyone wants to keep to themselves, always wary not to sit too close and invade someone’s private space or talk to them. It feels like it is all about your phone or your Ipod. And this is where my dilemma comes. If someone foreign to our culture was learning about our culture from a train perspective, what would they deduce? For me I would say we were a rather anti social bunch or are we?

So I ask you this my fellow bloggers, is there some framework that you came up with to organise some of your cultural experiences?


Cultural Immersion on the train


2 Responses to “A different culture from a train perspective”

  1. stellainindia April 25, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    clared22 You made me think of a big realisation I had in India, that really changed my experience from then on; people stare cause they are interested in you, maybe partly because you are a freak, but in a nice way…

    When I had only been in India for a few weeks and I saw people staring at me on the bus or train or walking down the street I felt intimidated, I would associate their stares with the stares we give to caged animals, or really freaks in general.

    But!… I suddenly realised Indian people see no shame in staring when they are interested. In Australia if I see someone I recognise I won’t eyeball them down the street, or a good looking boy on the bus, I can’t glare at him for a whole trip, that’s rude! But you can in India!

    I learned in India, if I was sitting on the train and a person had intently locked their eyes on me, to say “hello”, introduce myself and soon we would be chatting like best friends. The conversation would usually end with an invitation to dinner!

    So, two variations between Indian and Australian etticate on train travel:
    1. India: If your interested in someone, gaze intently until the subject has been well studied.
    Australia: Take devious looks when they can’t see you, maybe use the window reflection to score sideways glance.

    2. India: If you are in the mood for a chat, chat. Why not make a friend on what is otherwise a monotonous daily ritual of public transport?
    Australia: Keep to yourself, public spaces are for private time.


  1. The frustrated volunteer « EthnoSense - June 19, 2011

    […] My experience was different in many respects to that of the average Aussie. It is hard to confess, but I find it hard to relate to the feelings of guilt or resentment that I’ve seen are common among international volunteers. I lived most of my life in Bogota (Colombia, not ‘Africa’, as my girlfriend once thought… she’s almost as bad in geography as me) and the truth is that for anyone to be able to live there, you have to get used to all the cruel realities that seem so foreign to the regular Australian. Every day, you go out, you catch an incredibly crowded bus with people coming out of the windows (similar to the Jeepney or the Indian bus), you see a few families in starving horse-and-carts carrying recycling stuff, and face two or three random beggars or quasi-beggars that open your door or give you directions to park your car (that you never need) or wash your windows (usually the day after you’ve actually washed it!). This is why when I went to Hanoi to volunteer, I didn’t feel shocked (well, just a bit with that swarm of zigzaging motorbikes). I actually felt a bit relieved… I felt like I was in a homely and warm place, after a  year and half of studying in Sydney, a city with nice and open people, but sometimes a bit cold, self-conscious and extra-polite. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s