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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Cohen

Trainschooling: Everything one needs to know in life I learnt from the trains

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

India is known to be extremely intense, therefore it's highly recommended that the visitor chooses to experience India from a safe distance. India attacks all of the senses, and for the unprepared, this can be an overwhelming experience. Some choose to travel from site to site with a driver and air conditioned car, but we chose to feel India up close. We reached India after nine months of rugged travelling, and despite a certain amount of accumulative fatigue, we had a sense of resilience and felt prepared to cope with India. The trains are an excellent option to experience India in an authentic and low budget way. Just walking through the sea of people sitting or lying in the station waiting for a train or God knows what, is stimulating enough. In the 100 degree heat most tourists opt to pay a little extra and ride the more comfortable a/c class.

We arrived to the Indian border overland from Chitwan, Nepal, and spotted a fancy tourist bus which was returning empty to Varanassi. We managed to convince the driver to take us on board, and therefore the Cohen family enjoyed a private bus, with each one of us sprawling out over a few seats. We travelled in this bubble for 14 hours until reaching Varanassi at dawn. With no foreplay, our senses were exposed to India's most intense and spiritual city. We hopped off the bus and into a row boat for a sunrise tour of the Holy Ganges river including early morning activities like yoga for the masses and cremation for the chosen ones . Our eyes witnessed the charred skull and bones after the deceased's family and friends dipped the corpse in the Ganges and cremated the body on a pile of wood. Our olfactory bulbs were bombarded by the smothering cloud of ashes until we felt that we had experienced enough. From the river we walked through the alleyways of the old city, crowded with thousands of locals, motorcycles, cows and monkeys, which are as common as cats and dogs. All of the above were rubbing up against us either by accident or on purpose, which kept our sense of touch on guard. We enjoyed an hour of peace and quiet and the tastiest breakfast of our entire journey at the "Varanassi Bakery". We dove back in to the chaotic hustle bustle, equipped with a tuk tuk and agitated driver who bulldozed his way through the city streets until the train station. The ride was paved with the ear pearcing screeching of horns and bellowing cows. We arrived at the station with our neurotransmitters on fire and all five of our senses begging for mercy.

Only in Varanassi do people dip dead or alive

It turns out that ordering train tickets in India is quite complicated, and there are handbooks dedicated solely to this topic. In order to ensure a decent spot, one must reserve far in advance. We were lucky to have found any tickets at all for the night train to Agra (home to the Taj Mahal). We boarded our non a/c wagon, which was packed with locals and hot like a furnace. At this stage we were after 36 hours of rugged travelling, and had the privelage of spending another 15 hours in a smelly sticky triple decker submarine style bunk, with no toilet paper or soap in the bathroom. The locals were very generous, and offered us food, hand soap and useful advice for the way. After two nights on the road, we were very proud of our rugged kids who had learned to deal with extremely tough conditions without complaining. Upon arrival to Agra, we proceeded directly to the fanciest hotel in the area to enjoy the pool and other well deserved amenities.

Submarine style bunks with no a/c

After a few days in Agra and Delhi we continued northwards to Amritsar in order to escape the overbearing heat. Once again we somehow found the last tickets in the non a/c sleeper wagon. We negotiated our way through the Delhi station, jam packed with people lying on the floor, which made it quite challenging to drag our heavy bags without treading on others.

(Photo: The waiting game is popular in India)

The digital board indicated that the train to Amritsar was to leave in five minutes from platform number one. We show our tickets to a number of people who tell us that this is our train, and point us towards our wagon. There is a piece of paper glued to the outside of the wagon with the passenger list, but even though we didn't see our names, we boarded anyway. We arrived to our seat numbers in the middle of the wagon, and noticed that an Indian family was sitting in our place, but I still am not alarmed, because we're in India after all. I show the ticket to the gentleman in my seat, and he tells me that even though this train is going to Amritsar, it is a local train which will take 25 hours instead of 10. He informed me that our train has a different number and has been delayed by one hour. I understand our mistake but am still not worried until he points out the window at the moving platform. At that moment it dawned upon me that it’s not the platform, but our train that’s moving. "Get off the train!!!" I yell at my family. At this stage we are in the middle of the wagon at the farthest point from the door, with five bags each weighing at least 50 pounds. We stampeded many feet as we bolted towards the door. Orit jumps first and screeches while Noga jumps after her. The train is gathering speed with each passing moment. I throw Noga's bag to the platform and jump with my 90 pound bag on my shoulders. Maya hops off athletically, and Yali jumps last with his heavy bag as I run alongside the train. Everyone has reached the platform unscathed, and all the bags are accounted for. The train is already speeding out of the station, and hundreds of bystanders are staring in disbelief at the Cohen family who just jumped off a train. A nice backpacker compliments us on our smooth execution and shares his horror story of being injured while being pushed off a moving train in the Bombai station two weeks earlier. We gather ourselves in a family hug and I ask if they realize what we just did. Noga is very emotional and tells us that her legs are shaking. Maya says she's upset because she would have liked to jump at a faster speed. We realize that there could have been a completely different ending to the story. We could have been stuck on the local train for 25 hours, or even worse someone could have been injured during the jump. Even though it was a scary and unpleasant experience, after the dust had settled, this would be added to our long list of experiences and one to be learned from. Besides for the technical lessons like the need for a more meticulous checking of the train number, there are many meaningful lessons to be learnt. For example, the need to stick together as a family, especially during critical situations like transitions. I don't even want to imagine what could have happened if we weren't close together and one of the children would have been afraid to jump and had gotten stuck alone on a train for 25 hours.

Regaining composure after the train jump

We reached the conclusion that the ability to jump from a moving train is something to be added to our "tool box" which we are enriching during our journey. It is symbolic for other situations in life where we feel that we are stuck in a certain track, and it takes courage and belief to make the shift.

After a three hour delay, we finally board the correct train to the Golden Temple of Amritsar. I look out the window and reflect upon the schools that have taught me what I need to know in life. I lost my father at the age of six, and even though our only source of income was from social security funds, my brother and I were granted an amazingly generous scholarship by "Ramaz", one of the most prestigious Jewish schools in America. Public school students would supplement their Jewish education with "Sunday School", and I supplemented my life's education with "Subway School". On my way to and from school, I travelled three hours on the New York City subways during the dangerous era of the seventies, before Guliani's overhaul. For a skullcap wearing teenager like myself, it was a matter of survival in the concrete jungle. Shifting my wallet to the front pocket, pressing my back against the subway door, and avoiding eye contact were the abc's which I learnt at subway school.

When we departed for our journey around the world, we believed that the children would learn more during this year than they could from any formal school setting. At this stage after nine months of travelling, we know that this is true. In recent years, many people and organizations are reaching the conclusion that formal schools do not equip children with the tools they need to succeed in life. There is a growing number of super patient parents who "home school" their children, and we decided to opt for the "world schooling" option for one year. Who knows, maybe we'll start a new fad called "Train Schooling".

I continue to stare out the window and think of the stations in my life where I "jumped" from a moving train. The most meaningful one that comes to mind was my moving from the U.S. to Israel at the age of 18. I had a ticket to the "Golden Temple" and the "good life" in America. The track was clear- after high school I would spend a gap year in Israel before going on to play basketball at a University in Boston. In those days the options for a good Jewish boy were to either be a doctor, a lawyer or a Rabbi, and I had chosen to become a lawyer.

During my gap year, there was a terrible tragedy where 75 Israeli soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Tyre, Lebanon. I attended the mass funeral in Jerusalem, and while walking along the thousands of people paying their respects and hearing the wailing pain of the mourners, I had an epiphany. I realized that if I would like to consider myself to have an equal stake in the state of Israel, I too, must serve and be willing to risk my life for the country. At that moment I decided to shift tracks, and instead of heading towards a career as an American lawyer, I decided to dedicate my life to the protection of the state of Israel. Here in India, I reflect back on the past 30 years of my life which have been spent in the Israeli military and defense establishment. As the fields are passing by, I thank the lord and all those who extended a hand and helped me gain the courage and belief to enable me to jump. When I was 18 I adopted a verse from Psalms as my motto: "Those who seed with tears, shall glean with joy" (Psalms 126:5 ) I look at the harvest of the fields and my family at my side and feel the eternal wisdom of the verse.

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