The Deadliest Catch

In the popular cable TV show, The Deadliest Catch, outdoorsy big-bearded men in heavy knitwear and galoshes routinely take on the elements as they attempt to harvest King Crabs in one of the world’s harshest environments. Reeling from side to side as their boat is pounded by massive waves in the Bering Sea, the drenched fishermen try futilely to steady themselves on deck while simultaneously trying to grasp and secure wildly swinging nets crammed with large gangly crabs. As water gushes and sloshes from left to right and back again, they try to remain upright on the dramatically heaving vessel calling out loudly to each other over the din, barking terse instructions and tactical safety advice.

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These are the scenes that flashed through my mind as I looked down nervously at a big menacing aluminum pot of swirling pish in the bathroom of the Hanoi-Saigon Reunification Express Train. It was circling ominously in a near-regular clockwise manner threatening to deluge seemingly more and more with each revolution. All the while the floor gleamed lucidly like the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial on a solemn overcast October evening. As the old French colonial train clattered forward on the 1930s era tracks, the lateral rhythm of the carriages drove the synchronicity of the oscillating privy, achieving some sinister state of restroom resonance. My first thought was to step on the flush control, which filled it up even more. Aaaargh! My second idea was to try that again, but that was interrupted and superseded by my immediate third thought which was to leave it alone and try to work with the harrowing situation.

I was hoping there was another powder room somewhere for the ladies as this one would’ve been a bit of a smoocher. There was a Belgian woman in my sleeper cabin who made a trip out at one point, presumably to the bathroom, but she didn’t say squat or make eye contact when she came back. I think she was traumatized.  But for men, you could stand well back and just fire right into the middle of it, or for dart enthusiasts, aim just above the bull’s-eye on the triple ring for the optimum shot. The experience overall was quite hypnotic, like some aquatic introduction to the Twilight Zone—I found that before long I was swaying my hips to the tempo of the soaker cycle. When I got back a Spanish guy in my compartment asked where the toilet was–I told him just to follow my footprints.

Notwithstanding the plumbing, physically getting to and from the John was quite a challenge. It was at the far end of the carriage: There were actually two lavatories there—a western style commode and an oriental squatter. But there were Vietnamese folks camped out everywhere in the corridors, especially at the ends of the carriages, sleeping on plastic boxes and other regional bric a brac. The squat toilet was completely blocked by itinerants leaving only an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom form of access to the head from hell. You had to pick your way through the snoozing squatters one careful step at a time over their luggage and legs and so on, all the while the old wagons rattled from side to side in sheer darkness, adding a comical layer of difficulty to the process. I was, of course, in one of the few first class coaches, where they advertise “soft” beds, with four couchettes to a compartment. But out on the corridors anything goes on the set of Blade Runner.

From my experience, there were three distinct, sequential phases of the night train—noisy natives, drunken dudes, and snoozing squatters, the latter described heretofore. The noisy native segment commenced as soon as the train had left Hanoi at 7:30 PM. In our compartment, over the loud aging rattle and rolling stock we could hear a piercing, continuing cacophony of commotion right outside our door. But it wasn’t a fight or anything like that—the locals were yelling oriental overtures at each other in order to communicate from far corners of corridors and coach ends where they had settled for the night.

Then, at just about midnight, the racket from the rambler encampment died down as the next phase began. Two doors or so down, we could hear the clickety clackety unlocking of the first of several ill-fitting compartment slide doors. “Dude, whatever happens on the train stays on the train,” said some emerging American extra from The Hangover. We couldn’t see this fellow but didn’t need to; it was now time for a little French Indo China railroad frat party in compartment 15.

Nevertheless, the details of this colorful account are not intended to convey criticism but to depict the memorable uniqueness and adventure that can be found even in the day-to-day minutia of what is nothing less than a fabulous journey throughout a beautiful, engaging country. Should I want merely to complain about trains I’ve got numerous British Rail stories. No, for I will never complain about voluntarily inserting myself directly into the fabric and context of a friendly, striving, vying nation with such a rich and troubled heritage. The train trip was all that I wanted and more and for that reason I’ll give it five stars on TripAdvisor should they care to publish my pish.

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The Innsbruck Connection

“There was nothing much to see there,” my wife said bluntly. “Just a big ski jump I recall, and that’s pretty much it—made it to their postage stamp,” she added as her singular takeaway from visiting Innsbruck, many years before, when she was a young backpacking Eurail explorer. Not that strange really, I thought: a city famous for a ski jump. Today, a single image or logo can characterize a city or country, even a continent. Fridge magnets epitomize our highly competitive sightseeing world. I can’t imagine visiting a place that doesn’t have its own fridge magnet.

As we chatted, our train pressed on smoothly at speeds over 150 kmph. It was clean, comfortable, fast and eerily empty. We were, apparently, the only folks sitting up in the stylish leather-seated first class carriage as most of the other travelers had gotten off at Linz, on this Budapest to Munich OBB Railjet train. OBB, the Austrian intercity train service, is delightfully pronounced “ooh baabaay,” eliciting little smiles every time there is an announcement in any language. Certainly we laughed audibly every time. Probably gets old for the Austrians I guess.

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I’ve always loved trains, with the notable exception of required daily commuting into London many years ago, when I was subjected to the comical vagaries and inconveniences of British Rail. Apart from that, rail travel throughout Europe is, for the most part, highly enjoyable for me. Even with the crowded Austrian and Hungarian stations this fall, with floors and aisles crammed with helpless migrants fleeing Syria, train travel easily bests air travel throughout Europe in terms of convenience.

I do feel intense sorrow and utter helplessness regarding the plight of the migrants. Yes I give to various charities to help, and I dutifully handed small amounts of cash to migrants in various train stations as they begged for food or to buy rail tickets. Nonetheless I feel dwarfed and ultimately powerless at the sheer scale of this humanitarian problem. My feeling of helplessness is almost like waiting passively for a huge storm to make landfall or watching a volcano erupt, although it really shouldn’t be. In German and Austrian cities I would confuse the homeless with the refugees, although they all genuinely need our help. In Vienna, I saw a man wake up two days in a row in a bus shelter, fold his meager belongings into a scruffy backpack and then walk off towards a nearby park. When I talked with him and gave him money for a few meals, turns out he was a homeless Austrian. A similar situation occurred in Salzburg. Strangely, the migrant situation seemed to heighten my general awareness of those less fortunate lurking in the shadows and doorways.

After her Innsbruck ruminations, my wife went on to tell to me about an article she had read in the Washington Post just the previous day. It had said, according to my fact-absorbing companion, that Germany had cancelled all direct intercity trains from Salzburg to Munich because of the refugee problem. According to some guy in a Washington DC basement, Bona fide travelers had to take 300-euro taxi rides between nearby Austrian and German cities. “I don’t believe it,” I retorted, because I thought the Post intern was maybe recounting and parlaying some isolated incident into a thematic storyline. “They couldn’t do something so interruptive to European commerce,” I reasoned.

However, some time after leaving Linz, we noticed the electronic signage in the railway carriage no longer indicated that the train was going all the way to Munich, but was apparently terminating earlier at Salzburg. Strange, we thought, and my wife again brought up the Post article with rational fact-finding demeanor. We were on our way to Salzburg, but would be continuing on to Munich in two days time, so the overall continuity of rail service had relevance.

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Then the Austrian Ooh Baby conductor cut our musings short. “Tickets please,” I assume he called out in German as he walked slowly and deliberatively up the aisle of the empty carriage. “Does this train go to Munich?” I inquired while showing my tickets. “No, you must get off in Salzburg,” he replied mechanically. “You are going to Munich?” he then probed with robot-like surprise. “Yes, but not today. Today we are going to Innsbruck,” I answered matter-of-factly only to be promptly corrected by my wife. While Ooh Baby was trying to explain that this train was not going to Innsbruck my wife, still correcting me, said that we were getting off at Salzburg. “Oh yes, we are going to Salzburg, not Innsbruck and not Munich” I said to him. Even though we were first class foreigners and the only passengers on the train this little melee was apparently mucho agitato for Ooh Baby. He threw up his hands muttering something in German and disappeared into some little hidden conductor compartment in the next carriage along. About ten minutes later he proceeded to inform the train via the public address system that we were soon arriving in Salzburg and everyone should get off the train here, and he continued to provide detailed instructions for anyone wishing to navigate onward to Innsbruck by train.

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The Shatabdi Superfast Train to Madras

I’ve always loved trains: looking at them, riding on them, eating on them, even sleeping on them. Anything about them except for the unusual hobby of trainspotting—that I never understood; seeing grown men all bundled up at five in the morning on a platform’s edge taking notes fastidiously in the rain as trains hurtle by in all directions. Railways lost their luster for me somewhat in the 1980s when I commuted everyday in and out of London on British Rail. The rolling stock was fine, it was the whole commuting experience that was soul destroying. I’m reminded that I once met a man by the name of Jack on that commute who would tell you how many rail miles he had travelled thus far on any given day and how many remained until his planned retirement.

The Ghan is a long slow train

The Ghan is a long slow train passing through desert for days on end, but in a good way

Apart from my commuting woes, I’ve been most fortunate to take many exciting and memorable train journeys in numerous countries, including the Australian Ghan, United States Auto Train, Japanese Shinkansen, Chinese Jinghu, Canadian VIA Rail, South American Hiram Bingham and many high-speed train journeys throughout Europe. European high-speed trains nearing on 300 km/h are not to be confused with the inappropriately titled Indian superfast trains, which amble at a modest 55 km/h. Nevertheless, my odd lifelong fascination with railroads has led to the present desire to take a train journey across the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding my mental outdated images of crowds hanging precariously from roofs and windows. While not the world’s largest rail network, India has by far the highest ridership measured in annual passenger-kilometers. As of 2014 it had over one trillion passenger-kilometers, equivalent to a per capita usage of over 1,000 passenger-kilometers—the same order of magnitude as per-capita usage in Europe, but with a lot more people of course.

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

While I enjoy an occasional challenge on my travels I had not anticipated the inexorable tests of my on-line skills in attempting to secure tickets for India’s railways. The singular company responsible for the world’s fourth largest rail network is state owned and known as the India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). Generally, with all the traveling I do I will happily use the services of a travel agent and pay a fee to assist with these types of things but there was no apparent easy go-to company in this instance and therefore I persevered tout seul in my railway arrangements. However, when I tried to obtain tickets from IRCTC I was defeated immediately: merely attempting to search for tickets was a non-starter, as the webpage appeared completely unresponsive. Subsequently, i.e., after what seemed like an age, I realized that the site was designed to ignore incorrect entries with impunity. Absent any feedback whatsoever the site apparently requires the user to correctly guess an exact combination of correct entries. Perhaps obvious to the seasoned Indian rail network traveler, required inputs include the dates, class of service, and connecting stations, which was not anywhere near obvious to the first time user. If a train and class did not exist between stations on any given date one could not proceed. Sensing some continued trouble a quick Google search revealed legions of folks encountering the same issues. On one of those useful last resort forums, some guy called Larry boasted that he booked the train with no problems using a site called cleartrip.com.

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Once downloaded, a huge benefit of the Cleartrip app is that it identifies when you have entered incorrect information, and it is far easier to use. For example, Cleartrip helpfully allows you to select a city with “all stations” instead of leaving you to guess which station in one city matches another in a different city. For example, Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore each have 5 different stations although the trains between each city don’t run to all stations, leaving you to try up to 25 different combinations on the IRCTC site. Furthermore with 8 classes of service and not all available on each train adds a few more combinations for you to guess.

The Amtrak is a  double- decker

The Amtrak auto train is a double-decker

But my favorite nuance is the mandatory requirement to provide a cell phone number. The IRCTC asks for a 10-digit Indian phone number, which of course you don’t have. When you use Cleartrip it suggests that you enter a fake number. Now the fake number has to look real so, you’re told after you try 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on that Indian phone numbers must start with a 7 8 or 9. Considering the demographics you quickly start to realize that quite a few of the 3 billion remaining numeric combinations are already in use by the burgeoning Indian populous. Forget all 8s or all 9s and go with your inner random number generator. After a few tries I eventually had my fake Indian mobile number accepted by the system. But this is where it got even more comical – Cleartrip tells you in a congratulatory tone that a verification code has been sent to your fake Indian cellphone. After a bit of head scratching it appears that there is yet another workaround for the fake number workaround by emailing a copy of your passport to Indian railways. There were a few other little online challenges but it is fair to say that this process was not superfast taking a few hours of effort over a 3-day period, taking time differences into consideration.

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan