Train Surfing

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It has almost become a cliché: hundreds of brightly dressed men and women clinging tenaciously to the scalding metal roof of a train, turbans, and saris flapping in the wind as the locomotive belches black smoke across the arid landscape of the subcontinent.  Certainly, there is something quintessentially Indian about the scene that seems to capture the crowds, poverty, and sheer energy of the country in one long snaking frame.  But what may be surprising to many is that in India the days of traveling on a train rather than in it have, for better or for worse, mostly come to an end.

In fact, traveling by train in India has become one of the easiest and safest ways to get around, and while levels of comfort vary, new regulations (that are astonishingly well enforced) make catching a free ride “top deck” no longer a viable option even for the country’s most humble of citizens.  In the new India, I was told, there is no room for such activities.  Not when it’s possible to have a secure, reliable, and modern train network.  So, I was taken aback when my plane landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and, upon hailing a taxi, I was greeted with the sight of dozens of men leisurely seated on the roof of a train their feet dangling above the passenger windows below.

A view of Dhaka and the Buriganga River

Bangladesh is what India was 20 years ago, raw, overpowering, a visceral barrage on the senses that at times forces one to cringe but all the same can’t be ignored.  It is a nation of extremes that makes India seem downright egalitarian, a country where the rich live in multi-million dollar mansions next to transients sleeping alongside open sewers, where rickshaws compete with black SUVs in crammed urban alleys, and the only thing rifer than the corruption is the genuine hospitality of its people.  It is here that despite a government ban, “train surfing,” as it’s popularly known, is still the primary form of transportation for many whose meager income does not afford them the luxury of a 20 cent ticket.

It is also rife with class connotations as one man with a long beard pointed out, “They commute to the city to find work but don’t have enough taka to pay for a seat. Nobody who can afford it would ever want to ride outside the train.” Bangladesh differs from West Bengal in that as a Muslim majority country the caste system, which although technically abolished in India is still very much a reality, has been replaced with a class system with the same general social stigmas.  Riding on top of a train is for the very poorest of the poor.

How to Train Surf
A child commuting to Dhaka to look for work

If you want to take a crack at train surfing your best bet is to catch a train outside of Dhaka (Airport Station is a good option). Kamalapur, Dhaka’s central terminal, is crawling with undercover police, who while friendly and polite, have no desire to see a foreigner on top of a train.  This is just as much out of concern for a foreigner’s safety as it is in enforcing class rules. It is also advisable to buy a ticket; it’s one less rule you are breaking!

The best way to climb up and down the train is on the engine where there are footholds to climb to the roof. From there you can jump to one of the cars.  Just be careful not to touch the exhaust vents as they are extremely hot!

Train surfing is dangerous business, and while the locals make it look easy, they travel these tracks daily in a bid to find work.  Always maintain awareness of your surroundings and stay low.  Overhanging branches and telephone wires frequently appear along the route.

Remember train surfing is technically illegal in Bangladesh, and the authorities have no desire to see foreigners breaking class barriers.  However, you will be welcomed by ordinary Bangladeshis with open arms.  Few have ever seen a foreigner ride on top of a train, and the mere act of joining them is a bit subversive, so be prepared for a few glares from the policemen guarding rail crossings.

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