This is British writer-journalist Monisha Rajesh’s second book. Earlier, she had travelled around India and the journeys made for the book Around India in 80 Trains (Roli Books, 2012). Five years later, the writer decided to hop on and off trains around the world. In Around the World in 80 Trains (Bloomsbury, Rs 599), a title she borrows from Jules Verne’s acclaimed adventure novel, we ride along with Rajesh and her fiancé Jem (now her husband) on their 45,000-mile adventure on some of the best rail services — Euro Rail, Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. They also travel around South-east Asia and Japan and then move to North America to ride The Canadian and Amtrak. Excerpts from an email interview:
Does train travel fascinate you?
The most fascinating element of train travel is the variety of people you meet on board. Whenever I board a sleeper service and I’m the first one into a compartment, I always look at those empty berths with a mixture of trepidation and excitement: any of those people could make or break the journey and sew the most unexpected and colourful thread into my story. As for the trains themselves, they allow me to become a harmless voyeur — peek into the backs of people’s houses, smell their cooking, watch them weed their gardens, dry their laundry or have a private moment in a book. I get to see deep inside the guts of cities where no secret is kept, as a train rattles past the grime and the graffiti. From what other mode of transport can you watch the world from under a warm blanket while sipping a hot cup of tea?
In your writings, you take away the romanticism of travel. Even if it is a bad experience, you write it as it is.
If I’m writing non-fiction, I have to be true to that. There’s no point in airbrushing travel stories because no one would believe them; we all know and have experienced firsthand the frustrations of delays, reeking toilets, awkward companions and long sleepless nights owing to loud conversations on mobile phones. Besides, no one wants to read a book where the travel is seamless, the trains on time and the passengers a collection of angels. It would make for terribly tedious reading.
What are the commonalities you have noticed in people and places across the world?
We all want the same things out of life — to be happy, healthy and loved. In more material terms, we also live in a globalised world and in addition to a roof over our heads and a warm bed to sleep in, everyone likes to enjoy the finer things in life — be it Chinese students tucking into KFC hot wings and Starbucks Frappuccinos or Tibetan monks wearing New Balance trainers and using gold iPhones.
Which has been your most favourite country or city?
Japan was my favourite country, and even though I spent only three weeks there, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. The Japanese have achieved a level of efficiency and functionality that no one else will ever match. Hotdogs come with a single packet of mustard and ketchup that squeeze out in two parallel lines, toilets have harnesses on the backs of doors for mothers to place their children in while they use the facilities, bathroom mirrors have a square of anti-fogging glass in the middle, and passengers board trains in a single file.
You travelled around India for your first book. How do you view train travel here as compared to abroad?
I still maintain that Indian Railways has a life and soul of its own and it’s up there for me as having the most frustrating yet entertaining trains in the world. Even one journey will produce enough material for a book. However, India has a long way to go to improve safety and comfort. Thailand and Vietnam have far superior services to India, and Chinese trains are some of the finest in the world.
You travelled alone in India and had initially planned the world tour also on your own, but later Jem decided to join you. How do you imagine the journey if you had been on your own?
In India, I had mostly positive experiences with the odd instance of being groped, chased down platforms and leered at. That was part of the reason why I was pleased to have Jem join me: white women travellers are received and treated very differently around the world as compared to brown and black women. In a lot of places, there’s still an element of awe when white travellers appear. Even with Jem around, I was still spat at in the Moscow suburbs and treated with hostility on board the Trans-Mongolian and in Kazakhstan.