It wasn’t the jostling of the train traveling along the tracks that woke me, but rather the lack of movement. That, and the soft crooning of a Bollywood song coming from a radio somewhere in our train car. I was surprised by how well I’d […]
The heat seemed to have a sound of its own. It hissed and sighed, pricking at my skin with razor teeth as we made our way across the scorched parking lot where yellow autos crouched like enormous beetles—their drivers waiting out the heat of the […]
The heat stung my skin like the prick of a thousand cobras’ scalding fangs. We made our way across the scorched parking lot where hundreds of autos looking like hunched yellow beetles hovered, waiting out the heat or perhaps hoping for a customer. New Delhi’s main train station was packed. People lay on the ground sleeping, squatted against walls, and stood in line to get water from the one of the few faucets outside the restrooms. It stank of urine and too many bodies packed together in the 115 degree heat.
I pretended not to notice the stares as I made my way to my train platform, but they were so frequent it made them impossible to ignore. As far as I could see, I was the only foreigner.
The train was waiting when I arrived, a faded red beast looking slightly unsteady on the tracks. People were lugging bags on, settling in, and waving through the windows. I found my name on the list next to my car and stepped on. My first adventure on an Indian train was about to begin.
I, along with my three travel companions, found our seats. Along the length of one side of the car were compartments with seats horizontal to the windows. There were six beds in each compartment, one was the top bunk, the second was flattened against the wall and could be flipped out and hooked from the top one to form another bed, and the third was the seat we were sitting on. Across the thin corridor were beds in pairs running parallel to the windows.
Coming from a culture that values personal space, the concept of sharing this with strangers was completely foreign to me. Two men occupied our compartment with us, and across the way a family of four was settling into the two bunks. I’d have to get used to sleeping near strangers and get used to it fast.
People mulled about the platform, some sitting on sheets waiting for their trains to arrive. A blare of horns signaled that our train was leaving and right on schedule. A twelve-hour train ride stretched out before me like a long undulating snake gliding into the night.
The train rattled to life, easing its way out of the station and chugging along at a steady pace.
“It doesn’t go any faster than this?” I asked.
My husband laughed. “It’ll speed up.” He reassured me. “I’m more worried about that baby. She has chicken pox.”
I leaned around the seat, pretending to look down the corridor, and spotted what he was talking about. A baby, less than two-years-old by the looks of it, was being bobbed up and down by her mother. Every inch of visible skin was covered in red spots. Five minutes later, the mother was up taking her sick child on a tour of the train car.
“Okay, don’t touch anything.” My husband said nervously as he eyed the baby grabbing the corridor handles. “And if you do, use hand sanitizer afterwards.”
To our relief, the baby soon disappeared back to her bed and we were able to settle in for the long night ahead. Food and drink vendors walked through the train aisles constantly, shouting out what they had for sale.
“Maggi noodles!” One yelled, lugging a vat of hot water and a bag of Maggi instant noodle containers along.
“Chai!” Another shouted. I had to admire their ability to keep their balance as the train started to pick up speed and shake like a rattle in a baby’s overly enthusiastic hands.
We waved down the soda guy and bought some Limca (lemon – lime soda) and water. I was thirsty, so I gulped down most of the Limca and part of the water. A couple hours later I regretted my decision because I really had to pee.
“It’s early enough, so the bathrooms shouldn’t be too bad.” Someone told me. “Better to go now than later when a lot of people have already used them.”
I’ve always hated going to the bathroom on moving vehicles, whether it be planes, buses, or trains, because when you’re crammed in with a hundred other people using the same loo, things can get a bit nasty. But how bad could it really be? I reasoned to myself. I’d peed in lots of terrible places, I’m sure I could manage.
It didn’t occur to me that this being Asia and all, the toilet would probably be very different from those on the planes and trains I had ridden before. When I stepped into the tiny room and latched the door, there it loomed: an in-floor toilet. Oh joy, I’d be squatting with my butt inches from the ground on a trembling train while trying to aim my stream of urine into the toilet itself.
I bunched up my pants to my knees and rolled up my kurta, tying it around my chest so that it wouldn’t accidentally fall and hit the dirty floor. Then I straddled that pit of doom and hoped for the best. Little did I know, I was facing the wrong direction and my view for the next fifteen seconds was of a mound of feces jiggling with each jerk of the train. When I finished, I high-tailed it out of there, returned to my bunk and doused myself in sanitizer.
Outside my window the scenery was finally changing. We’d passed mile upon mile of garbage piles, some floating en masse on top of black and thick sewage. Then slums where children stood by the tracks waving as we sped by, then herds of massive pigs rooting through trash for their dinner, then finally countryside. Neat farms with acres of newly tilled soil decorated the landscape. I could have been in Europe, or anywhere else, had I not known better. As the hours passed, everything was gradually covered under the thick blanket of darkness and the train roared on through the night.
We placed an order for dinner (there wasn’t much left to do but eat and go to bed now) and settled in to a hearty meal at 9:30. Dahl, paneer, roti, and rice, some spicy, some not so much, made up our night-time meal and I had a hard time finishing it all off. Then the middle bunk was flipped into place and we had our three beds ready…or not quite.
Brown paper packets had been stacked on each top bunk alongside piles of pillows and brown blankets. The proper way to make your bed on an Indian train was then explained to me: you get two sheets, one for the bottom and one to cover up with. The brown blanket goes on top of the top sheet, but try to avoid body contact with it as it is the least likely out of all the items to have been washed.
The top bunk was doled out to me as the safest and so, grabbing on to a couple of the metal bars lining the aisle, I managed to pull myself up – only getting stuck in an awkward position with by butt facing the opposite beds for a few seconds. I took my camera, my personal bag, and my shoes with me and tied them all together in an intricate knot since people had been warning me of thieves practically since I’d gotten on the train. Then, curled around my things and safely between the sheets but NOT touching the blanket, I fell asleep.
I won’t say it was the most restful night I’ve spent. After all, even though the compartment had a sign saying up to 76 people could fit, I’m pretty sure I passed the night with at least 90 temporary roommates. Some of them snored, some of them got up and banged the door loudly in the night on the way to the bathroom, some of them woke up super early and decided to serenade the rest of us with loud music, and others just never seemed to shut up. This, coupled with the speeding of the train which caused me to wake up in a panic several times throughout the night thinking that this time, for sure, we’d derail or crash, made for an interesting time.
When the train ground to a halt at Katra station early the next morning, I was dirty, had a back-ache, and was really craving a semi-clean bathroom and a good night’s rest. But as I walked out of the station and saw the sun peeking from behind the mountains and casting its first warm rays into the sky, as I breathed in the dewy, cool air, I couldn’t help but smile. I’d made it safe and sound. And after all, an adventure wouldn’t be an adventure if you never stepped outside your comfort zone, would it?