Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.
Maybe if I hadn’t been so desperate to catch some shut-eye, and maybe if my friend hadn’t been so eager to escape the nest of cockroaches rustling above our heads, we would have noticed that our tickets didn’t match the departure screen.
We simply boarded the first train to arrive; Sonal and I were starting a weeklong holiday in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, followed by a camel trek through the Thar Desert.
We found seats in a carriage loaded with commuters and chai-wallahs and settled in to bid Jaipur adieu with a box of sticky gulab jamun and then a snooze.
When I woke up, it was dark and the seat next to mine was empty. By the time Sonal returned, it was obvious that something was amiss.
“This isn’t the train to Jodhpur,” she said.
“Where to, then?”
“I didn’t catch the name. Somewhere in Orissa.”
Under any other circumstances, we probably would have embraced our new destination in the spirit of adventure. We had completed our undergraduate exams earlier that summer and had no appointments pending.
But Orissa, that year, was not the place for a couple of young Western women: the region was in the grip of civil unrest in the wake of attacks on Christians by Hindu extremists. Churches had been burnt, pastors murdered. Riots were predicted to continue to erupt at the drop of a dime.
We talked to one of the conductors and learned there were no stops for several hours. When we explained our predicament, he nodded and grunted, then told us that we couldn’t stay on the train without valid tickets. We would have to get off at a quiet backwater station, which we would reach at 3 o’clock the next morning.
At this point, a gentleman with the bouffant hairdo, bling sunglasses and rakishly unbuttoned shirt of a Bollywood leading man interrupted to suggest that we bribe a conductor to get us on the next train back to Jaipur.
We had barely considered the idea when the conductor presented us with one final option. In half an hour we would pass another train travelling in the opposite direction and headed to Jaipur. Both trains would slow down as they passed, and we should grab the opportunity to jump from one to the other – crossing about nine metres between the tracks.
Sonal and I exchanged glances, steeled our resolve, and shouldered our knapsacks. It may have sounded crazy but we were in India, and the rules were different. (It would, however, take me several months to share the details of what happened next with my mother.)
As our train slowed, the conductor opened the carriage door and pointed at a distant light that was growing steadily larger. We jumped down. The grass beneath our feet was cool and wet; the darkness around us profound. The conductor pointed at the approaching train, its open doors showing as squares of light against the black landscape.
“Run, baby, run!” shouted Mr. Bollywood.
We ran. We threw our bags into one of the carriages that had been left open and allowed ourselves to be pulled up by sweltering workers in work-ravaged dhotis (loinclothes). The commotion that greeted us as we boarded gave way to silence and stares. The carriage was already crammed with passengers, and so we made ourselves a space in a connecting car on a few pieces of cardboard squashed between stinking refuse sacks. Somehow we slept.
We arrived in Jaipur the following day – hungry, tired and triumphant.
Happily resuming our original plans, we set out for Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, and trekked by camel through the Thar Desert. But nothing would measure up to the raw exhilaration of that moment, running from one train to the other through the vast Indian night.
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