Every other year we take a special holiday and this time it was to India. The star attraction was a 1,000 mile journey through Rajasthan travelling by rail at night in the “Palace on Wheels” and sightseeing by coach during the day.
The sleeper carriages and restaurant cars had been renovated to recreate a velvety Victorian and slightly tacky bygone richness. And throughout the journey, uniformed butlers with turbans and jodhpurs were in constant attendance. The palace management was out to create a dream.
Rajasthan itself was remarkable with magnificent mansions, palaces and forts. Camel-mounted soldiers, unimaginable craftsmanship and rich arable land, all existing cheek by jowl with abject poverty, beggars, slums, street-roaming cows, open sewers and desert.
Our Palace on Wheels dream was always going to be fragile, and never more so than on day one. The trip was scheduled to start at 18.00 and passengers were asked to gather at a Delhi substation for a ceremonial welcome two hours before departure.
We were well-heeled, predominantly white and all arrived on time. A red carpet had been laid for us up to and through the station entrance and on to the platform. We were shown to 10 rows of chairs draped in white on which we duly sat. Opposite, were two musicians playing on a makeshift platform. Over the next hour or so we exchanged niceties with our immediate neighbours; the sun set, the temperature fell (it was soon down to 5 centigrade) and we became colder and listless. Why the delay?
Then, to applause, our train pulled in. Or so we thought. In fact it was a scheduled passenger train. Carriages were packed, grubby and unlit; seats and windows were broken. The hundreds bound for Delhi swarmed on to the platform. There were families, children, older people, men carrying 30kg sacks of rice and salt. All looked frozen and bedraggled, many were without shoes. None looked up, none cared about us; we were invisible. All was hushed, as were we and the musicians. And then, a very surreal moment, as they threaded their way out of the station along the red carpet.
But there was more to come. The train stayed put and, some three or four metres in front of me, I noticed four giggling, pointing children, girls and boys from 5 to 13 or so, who had got down from the train to stretch their limbs. I was standing in my beige linen suit and Panama hat staring at the train. Clearly they found the site of me amusing. In response to their smiles I doffed my hat, to be greeted by more giggles as their numbers swelled. More smiling, pointing and doffing followed and somehow we were as one – barriers had been broken. Then the engine tooted and the children climbed back on board. As the train pulled out we waved our goodbyes, they with their hands, me with my panama. Then, in turn each poked his or her head out through a half-open door for a last smile. And for each there was another wave of the hat. Then they were gone – off to Kashmir where it would be even colder
Within minutes the Palace arrived. This time the applause was hesitant as we waited for confirmation. The musicians re-started and upped the tempo, wine bottles were opened, toasts were drunk, garlands were placed around our necks and we made our way to our allotted carriages and our new quarters. But it was those few moments with the real train, with the real poverty and with the children who breached the divide that I won’t forget.