Our story unfolds with a loitering young man, an invalid ticket and an overbooked train. My friend Jenny and I were sitting comfortably in our supposed seats, preparing for the overnight, 27-hour journey from West Bengal to India’s capital city. We were approached and told we were in the wrong berth. I argued belligerently. The conductor was summoned and, surprise surprise, he informed us that our second class A/C tickets are for the right day but the wrong month. Duh.
Lesson #1: When buying a train ticket, confirm all details and check the date before making a fool of yourself.
With nowhere to sit, we hopped off that train and killed time in yet another train station. Three hours of waiting before train #2 destination Delhi finally pulled into the station. We hobbled under heavy backpacks, through a thick crowd of commuting locals before reaching the new conductor. He explained that, without a reservation, we were again out of luck. Desperate to be anywhere that wasn’t a train station, we hopped on board anyway, keeping our fingers crossed that seats might open up.
The conductor was right – all compartments were packed. Jenny and I shared worried glances. Where were we going to sit for the epic cross-country ride? With the promise of a long, uncomfortable night ahead, we had to improvise. We found a nook, positioned our backpacks and tried to get comfortable. We made the best of it: card games, Soduku puzzles, Pringles chips and “if you’re stranded on a desert island” type conversation. We couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of our situation.
The train pulled into the station and our ‘seats’ were overtaken by passengers. “Chai, Chai” yelled a vendor, carrying a big thermos of hot milky tea. Leprous beggars with emaciated children hopped aboard to sell jasmine flowers.
Reluctant to move, we were jostled around by the luggage-carrying crowd scrambling to exit. The scene was cramped, hectic and some jerk stepped on my toe. A bag of water, which looked more like a silicone breast implant than it did a beverage, exploded on the floor and muddied our once comfortable nook.
Seated in the aftermath of what looked like a train Tsumami, we once again inquired about vacant seats. The conductor shook his head apologetically. With no place to sit, I stood in a corner between train compartments. It was time for dinner so the waiter shoved a tray of food in my hands. Hovering over my backpack, next to a public squat toilet, I ate curry and chapatti with a wet, semi-washed hand. Ahhh, the glamour of travel….
A man from Delhi befriended us and warned us about certain train dangers: “be careful of your bags and don’t drink or eat anything offered to you by strangers.” Great. Thanks buddy. that’s just what I wanted to hear. “Sorry, on behalf of India,” he said apologetically before disappearing into his air-conditioned compartment.
Our situation had turned from comical to desperate; our outlook chipper to miserable. “This sucks,” said a frustrated Jenny.
Typically, overnight trains are the most comfortable and painless way to commute long distances through India. But, I learned the hard way that bookings must be made in advance.
The train is divided into several classes of compartments: 1AC (Air-Conditioning) ,2AC, 3AC, Sleeper and then non-air-conditioning section and chairs. Each class differs in price, service, privacy and clientele. 2AC is a favorite among travelers, with four bunks per cabin, fresh sheets and a curtain for privacy.
Lesson #2: For long-distance rides always reserve seats a couple of days in advance.
A man from Mumbai saved the day. He invited us to sit with him and his family in one of his sleeper cars. We curled up at the foot of their beds and, despite the discomfort and freezing cold air-conditioning, tried to get some sleep.
Lesson #3: Trust strangers (within reason of course).
All over the world, countless kind people have gone out of their way to assist me. In my experience, strangers in foreign countries are more likely to help you than hurt you. The altruism I encountered over my travels has taught me to trust in humanity and pay-it-forward.
Though a complete saint, the man snored like an industrial generator. I looked at my watch. It had been seven hours of cramped travel and this veteran backpackers was beginning to crack. A determined Jenny flew out of the berth and stalked the conductor with a determined, almost psychotic gaze.
Whether it was good fortune or Jenny’s don’t-mess-with-me-attitude but two sleeper bunks miraculously opened up. We gave our deepest thanks to the family, climbed into our very own beds and happily fell asleep to the lullaby of a moving train.
Have you traveled by train in India? What were your experiences? Post your comments below…..