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.
When the train pulled out of Darjeeling Station, we found ourselves in a heavy cloud of black smoke, fighting for space, clutching our tickets – and still on the platform. Seconds later, the locomotive whistle was little more than a ghostly howl, the tail of the train swallowed up by the fog.
“Run!” a voice howled at us from inside the ticket booth. A plump female head popped out, examined us, and added, “I am serious. This train is not very fast. You must run and get on!”
Urged forward by a mass of waiting customers, Dave and I hopped off the platform and bounded down the tracks following a trail of billowing smoke and cursing any film that had shown train-chasing to be rewarding, or even remotely possible. We never caught up; our first Indian rail ride ended before it began.
Taking the train is always an adventure. On an eight-month trip across Asia and Europe, my fiancé Dave and I got intimate with many forms of transport – none of them topped the Indian railway.
We boarded our second train a few days later. The overnight North East Express would arrive in Varanasi at 7:05 in the morning. Since we had been travelling on a budget, we wanted to treat ourselves to a first-class Indian train. Sanitized visions of leg room and private compartments danced in our heads. If not first class, then we would get at least second. As it turned out, the first two classes were completely sold out – and at $35 each – well out of our price range. (The disparity between classes in India never failed to amaze us.)
We lucked out with the last two sleeper seats in economy class: two padded slates that fold out from the wall, one above the other, on the window side of an eight-bed compartment. By the time we entered our chamber, there were 12 men and three women inside. A bony man sat on the edge of our two-person seat. Another luxuriated against our window. He wore a pressed suit with ribbons on both lapels and a mustache that curled up onto each cheek. We nicknamed him “the General.”
“I have never seen this many people,” he reassured us, catching me frowning at the multiplying crowds in our sleeper car. “They will get off soon.” And though the General himself got off, freeing up our valuable mattress space, more and more people got on and filed into our compartment. Since it was right next to the toilet, we took in the bathroom lineup (and the smells) as well.
By nightfall, there was one body per square foot in every aisle. I pressed my legs against the wall and beckoned the young woman in the heap of men on the floor. She was a bridal vision in a clean red sari and gold bangles up her arms. “Woman to woman,” I thought, and cleared a spot for her on my bed.
I awoke in the early morning short of breath, with my face pressed against the wall. A man leaned heavily into the nape of my neck, sitting on a cushion made out of my hair. My legs were cramped. The young bride had made herself majestically comfortable at my feet – and so had her new husband.
Dave couldn’t relate: By morning his bed was no longer a luggage dumping ground and he was resting peacefully in the upstairs compartment.
Our third train was much like the second. We couldn’t get tickets for first or second class, and despite plenty of vague tips from locals, we couldn’t bring ourselves to bribe the conductor. A family of eight camped out on one of our sleeper compartment’s six beds, conveniently disappearing when the ticket-checker came by.
The last train, a commuter during rush hour, was free. It was paid for by a young student who saw the looks on our faces after a 16-hour bus ride from Udaipur to Mumbai, and was determined that we shouldn’t hate India.
And believe it or not, we really, truly didn’t.
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