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Monisha Rajesh: travelling the world by train

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Monisha Rajesh is a writer and train travel aficionado, whose travels around India (in an epic journey consisting of 80 trains) made up debut book nearly a decade ago. Her second book, Around The World in 80 Trains,  in which she records her adventures and train escapades across the world with her fiancé, is out now. 

Image credit: Monisha Rajesh

Your second book, Around the World in 80 Trains, is out now - what was your motivation for the book?

The (first) book came out 2012. I then went back to work for three years at Time Magazine and it was really nice to be part of a team, as book writing can be really isolating. Once the travels were done, it was nearly 11 months at my desk alone… when writing, your life seems to disappear. You miss out, stop going to people’s weddings and those kinds of things, and I needed to be back in an environment surrounded by people again.

But you know, the grass is always greener and after a few months I thought that I would love to do another, as the first one did quite well. Trains were never something I was really interested before the first book, but it fired something in me. The more I thought about it the more I thought I could do a similar thing, not replicate the first trip - maybe in a different country.

However, I realised it would be very difficult with the language. Travelling around India, most people speak English and it was really easy for me to sit and chat to people on the trains, hearing their stories whilst working my way around the country. I think that’s where I would be limited. I chatted to my agent and he said, why don’t you go around the world? What a huge and daunting task!

How exciting!

It crossed my mind, and I thought that it would be really fun! But logistically, it sounded like a nightmare to plan and I had no idea where to even start! But once I started thinking about it and looked up some routes, I figured it could be possible, if I limited ten trains to one country or a few countries. I started simplifying it, looking up interesting journeys, fascinating trains, and then it just came together. There was too much to ignore it for any longer! I just decided to send off my proposal and see what happened!

I'm very much looking forward to reading it as I loved hearing the stories in your first book. In the first trip you were travelling with ‘Passeport’, your companion and photographer, who you weren’t the greatest friends with… but for your second book you travelled with your fiancé.

My fiancé wasn’t actually supposed to come with me originally, and when we first met I was toying with the idea of the second book. As things were going so well with him, I thought "do I really want to leave for eight or nine months, making it difficult to maintain any sort of relationship?" So I put it on hold.

We then got engaged and I thought "this seems to be cemented now, so I don’t need to worry too much!" I sent the proposal off and we then got the news for the book. We both decided, for such a big trip, that it would be silly not to do it together! Also, it made things a lot easier as it opened up lots of routes that I would probably not have done on my own. There were certain countries or days when we would spend time apart, I would go off and do things whilst he stayed in the city to work. I felt safer that there was someone to touch base with.

It was also nice to have someone to draw my attention to things I hadn’t noticed. He would get into conversations with people and it was nice that he would make inroads so that I could listen in the background, it made my writing, I think, quite unobtrusive. It was lovely to share together. We never run out of things to chat about and we constantly see stuff that reminds us of the trip.

Was it more enjoyable or at least easier - to travel with your fiancé in comparison to your previous companion?

In the first trip my photographer and I we were just such polar opposites, but it made for fun writing as he was such an awkward character… but I am sure that I was just as awkward from his perspective. It did, however, give me a lot of food for thought in what he did and said! In the same way, my fiancé did too, but we obviously got on better and have similar ways of thinking. It still gives you a different perspective on where you are and what you are seeing. It was really fun and lovely to do it with him. Also when I was writing the book it was really helpful to have someone there, who was with me if I had forgotten things - he would read each chapters or offer his photos and videos and that would help me piece it together.

How do choose to document your trips? Do you take journals, photos, or do you chose to reflect after the trip has finished, so you can enjoy it whilst you are there?

I do a little bit of everything actually - I tend not to do a daily diary as it can be quite tedious, and as it is nice to be in the moment and absorb what is happening. But you do miss tiny details that you think you remember the day or even week after, but when you are sat at your desk in London you realise you’ve forgotten. I have a little notepad for the train, which, if they are ok with it, whilst I'm chatting to people I jot down the smells, what they are wearing, what they are eating. It’s the other colour! It is not just what they are telling you, it’s the sounds, smells, landscape, time of day, smoking, which brand... You just don’t remember. You think you do, but you don’t! Photographs really help, iPhone cameras, and I also had 60 or 50 short videos that helped me clarify certain things. I photograph menus in restaurants, receipts for trains, the names of conductors. So it was like a jigsaw. Sometimes I would just nip off to the loo and write down a few things they said. For the most part, people were quite intrigued with what we were doing.

After your first book, Around India in 80 Trains, did you feel that your perspective on India or its trains had changed? After travelling around the world on many more trains did you have a reviewed opinion?

Part of the reason why I set off was  a challenge, as I wasn’t convinced that any country could rival the charm and character and legacy that India has. I still do feel that it is the one country where the trains really are the backbone and lifeline of the country. But I think I feel a bit sad, as they haven’t maintained their trains the way they have in other countries such as Vietnam or Thailand - the trains (there) are lovely. It seems like that is something they really could do in India if they wanted to.

I still came away thinking that there is an intrinsic fun in India that I didn’t really find elsewhere, but maybe that was because of the language barrier. Japan was incredible for its railways, but it is very sterile there is no noise, no people running around, no delays or breakdowns. Maybe in China to an extent you would find this, but still, people are moving away from characterful rickety old trains to high-speed bullet trains. They read or sleep… no one talks.

Image credit: Monisha Rajesh

What are your thoughts on the trains in the UK?

I am not a commuter, I live in Central London, so I don’t use the awful South West trains. I do use Virgin Trains to visit my parents in Birmingham - it's such a contrast being on trains here. (More) than anywhere else in the world it's so boring, stale, rife with delays, no one chats… I honestly think they are some of the worst trains in the world!

In the recent light of the tragic death of Grace Milllane, do you have any wisdom or top tips to impart with our readers who want to solo travel?

It is so difficult - you don’t want to come across as victim blaming. When I was in India, I think you have to be realistic about what the situation is when you are there. Do your research, look into the areas, find out simple things, nearest hospitals, local emergency numbers, travel insurance, credit on your mobile on a local sim card. Social media is great to keep updated with people and touch base with people let them know what you are doing. Don’t take night trains, (take) enough cash, and be aware of local customs. But importantly, have someone in the local area that knows you're coming.

Travelling for you seems, from your books and articles, more about the experience of the journey than the destination - is that accurate?

Yes, very much so!

After this trip do you have a favourite country?

I think Japan - it really stuck out for me! I’ve never been before and it is one of those countries that has movies and a reputation, but it almost didn’t live up to that… because it was so different, so different from anywhere I have ever been. Each region is so different from the next, each one has its own charm and unique character. The people are so lovely and try to connect with you, even if they can’t speak English. It is also so easy to travel in Japan; the trains are absolutely phenomenal with the trains being so fast you can get to somewhere that normally takes nine or ten hours in three or four. Travel is so easy; if you fancy lunch in Osaka and you can do that! Or visit the other side of the country for dinner. We covered a lot of distance without realising it. They make everything so easy and efficient, you think "why can’t we do that at home?" For example, in every bathroom there are steam free mirrors, packets of mustard and ketchup in two perfect lines for a hotdog, or harnesses on the back of toilet cubicles for mothers to put their babies.

The country of the future?

People always said that to me. I just see that it has gone onto its own tangent and I just don’t see that anywhere else… but it was great, and really made me want to see more of the place.

Finally, do you have any more trips or plans on the wish list?

I would love to go to South America and I am saving it up for when I have an extended amount of time to do properly and can go to four or five countries all together. Maybe another book… I don’t know. At the moment travels will be a bit limited as I have an 18-month-old daughter and I’m expecting another baby in June, so I think for a while we will be a little grounded. But you have to think outside the box, as there are different ways to do your travels.

Around The World in 80 Trains is out now, priced £15.99, from www.stanfords.co.uk    

Monisha Rajesh will be speaking at Stanfords’ Travel Writers Festival at Destinations: the Holiday and Travel Show, 31st January – 3rd February 2019 at Olympia London.




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