Monday, September 12, 2011

My journey across the continent

While I spent about 3 days on the train, I would try not to bore you with minor details. The idea began with an impulse to travel from the East coast to the West coast by land, perhaps influenced by Lewis and Clark- Great journey west. Originally, on a Harley-Davidson, but I will save that for another day. I figured train was the best option if I wanted to do it alone. Swati, my wife, is sane enough to not attempt this with me.

The plan
So I booked my tickets for the second week of August (2011), and not surprisingly train journey is both long and expensive than air travel, which made me wonder who travels on a train across a huge continent? I figured that out, as will you, by the end of this post.

Journey across the continent
I planned to travel from New York to Chicago (18 hours), stay in Chicago for a day with friends, and then continued to Las Vegas (40 hours). Swati flew into Vegas and we stayed there for a few days, before continuing on to LA (6 hours). Thankfully we flew back from LA to New York. The route totaled approximately 3000 miles from New York to LA. 

The beginning
I really had no idea which platform, which seat, what to pack, what to expect etc. When it comes to travel I am - will figure it out as we go - kind of person, not to mention that annoys the hell out of Swati at times.

Penn Station
The train station is a chaotic place compared to airports. Apparently, the information screens tell you the platform 5 minutes before the arrival of the train. At that time, as I found to my annoyance, there is mad rush to get the best seats. Really there is no seat assignment for such a long journey, run and grab the best ones!

My seat
The seats are somewhere between an economy seat and a first class seat of an airplane. Which explains the unusually high number of obese people on the train. Oh... and there is no arm rest between the two seats!

The seat gets uncomfortable after a few hours, only comforting factor is the sleeper class is about 7 times more expensive (upward of $1,500). So, I sat in my seat waiting for hostess to come with a pack of snacks and water bottle, which never happened. I found out you need to purchase every thing yourself. There are a couple of options (a) the snack cart and (b) the restaurant.

Only research I had done before boarding was that there is a bar on-board. For some reason, I imagined it like a regular-familiar bar, with a happy bartender, wooden bar tables, over-hanging wine glasses, comfortable bar chairs, dim lights and so on. So not entirely unreasonable that I imagined I would spend a lot of time there. As I grabbed my evening coffee from the snack cart - which looked like a roadside food stall in New York City, I asked the tired looking cart guy about the bar. Well, he said, this is it!

Community seating  
View from the on-board restaurant
The best thing about traveling on a train is community meal experience in the restaurant cart. Since the space is limited on a train, passengers have to share the dinner table with 2-3 fellow travelers. It is a great way of interacting with people; I met a number of people over meals. After a while, as you frequently run into those same people again and again, the train starts to feel like a warm and friendly small town where you know everyone else. My tip, if you ever travel by train, try to go for dinner before the sunset so that you can enjoy the magnificent landscape.

A warm cultural experience
The train connects some of the remotest parts in the US, which are not serviced by big airlines. All of the people I met on-board were exceptionally warm and very welcoming, especially so after I told them I was from India.

I found people were curious about who I was, where was I headed, where was I from and so on. They asked questions that you would not expect from strangers in the US - such as are you married, do you have kids, your religious preferences etc.? Well, being an Indian I was in a culturally familiar territory. In hindsight, if you are sitting next to a person for hours on end, and you run out of conversation topics - what are you going to talk about? And long distance trains are a common medium of transportation in India. As I think a professor once told our class, culture is a function of circumstances.

An old man, perhaps in his late 80s, from southern mountains was especially nice. Though our conversations were mostly monologs, he spoke and I listened, asking only an occasional question. I find it very interesting to listen to old people reflecting back on their lives. It provides an insight into what is important to a person in the long run. “I have made several mistakes in my life.”, he said, “Some I wish I could change, but ...” he continued after a pause “overall I am satisfied that I accomplished most of my duties towards my family and lived a reasonably well provided for comfortable life.”

For listening to him patiently, I guess, he gave me a sack of fruits, a bottle of green tea, and his parting advice “Son, don’t let them take your money!” referring to the Las Vegas casinos. As I reached Vegas at 5 am, hungry and nothing to eat except what he gave me, I certainly appreciated it a lot!

The books
When I travel, I tend to read books that go with the travel theme. For instance, on my last visit to India (the Stern spring break trek) I read “In spite of the Gods: the rise of the modern India”, and on a recent cruise vacation I read “Treasure Island”. I picked two books “The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to go with my train journey. While you know what the former is about, the later is about African Americans in the US before the civil war. It is one of the first literary pieces about the community in the US.

Kindle has this great feature- it reads the book to you. So I would put on my headphones, listen to the story while I watched the country go by, slipping in and out of sleep, loosing track of time. It is kind of relaxing if you were to experience it.  

Now the scary part
Some of my friends joked to me about ending up in a scary place, like the movie - Texas chain saw massacre. Looking out, especially while train was passing through New Mexico, reminded me of No country for old men. Though, somewhat less scary.

A guy in his late 40s sitting in the seat in front, who had this crazy look in his eyes, chose a quiet moment to turn back for a conversation- selecting perhaps the weirdest opening sentence for a conversation with a stranger.

“Would you like to listen to my ringtone?” I guess I was more amused than scared. “Sure”

New Mexico
So he played the ringtone: [edit] Ah... its best to leave out the details here. Ask me when you see me next time! It was the scariest ringtone you can't possibly imagine if you haven't heard it. 

“What do you think?” he said, with a grin.

“Its good!”, trying not to sound scared. Well, I thought I am stuck with this crazy guy for the next 30 hours.

It turned out not to be that bad. We got along pretty well after the awkward beginning. We talked about my crazy idea of this journey, family, his gambling addiction(!), work, economy, India, US and some other random things. In fact, we shared a cab ride in Vegas, and he would not let me pay, after some deliberations we settled that I will pay for the tip and he would pay for the fare.

We parted with a firm handshake and mutual goodwill.  

Final thoughts
On my flight back from LA to New York, I was actually overwhelmed by the realization that the airplane covered the distance in 5 hours that took me about 65 hours by land. It is easy to overlook the scientific progress we have made in the last hundred years. At the same times it makes me wonder- the times until the first few decades of the 19th century - no gadgets, certainly no GPS, no Google to tell you what to expect, no user ratings - must have been very exciting and adventurous!