Memories and Indian Train Rides
On what I thought was to be my very last night with Tash and Lana in Goa, we enjoyed a stunning sunset at an old hippie bar called Curlie’s. As we were relaxing on some compfy cushions overlooking the Arabian sea, sipping beer and snacking on hummus and calamari, we decided to take turns telling our most memorable experiences together during the last couple of months. Lana mentioned the three of us sitting on top of the sand dunes in the middle of of the desert late at night near the Pakistani border, watching Babu and Bilal at the bottom of the dune put out the final flames of the small fire they had used to cook our meal. The three of us meanwhile were giving each other massages, watching for shooting stars, and playing word games that only two out of three of us could ever manage to catch on to at one time. We found it hysterical that we were having such trouble comprehending each other, and at the same time pinching ourselves at how surreal the moment was.
Tash brought up one of our afternoons during our trek to Poon Hill in Nepal. We were freezing cold and drenched from torrential rains by the time we finally reached a lodge that we were to bunk up at for the night. All the guesthouses looked identical, so we randomly chose one and walked in to discover they had a fire going and blistering hot showers (all for free- rare!). We each took a hot shower and then cozied up with our books in a corner table near the fire with Sam and Marco, our other travel companions. We then discovered there was a shop downstairs that sold wine and cheese, so we excitedly bought a bottle of wine and lots of cheese, and gracefully stuffed our faces, embracing false ambiance. The moment was perfect.
When it got to be my turn, I thought of the word “memorable” and what immediately popped into my mind was naturally a somewhat darker scenario we faced at the train station in Agra (Agra is where we visited the Taj Mahal- Taj Mahal is beautiful, but Agra is dump that has a continuous wave of shit smell floating through it). Train stations in India have now won the much deserved award as being my very least favorite part about traveling through this country. Complete chaos, but in a very grim and dreary sort of way. But, in keeping with the theme, I mentioned the moment we were leaving Agra. This was to my very first train ride in India. As we were waiting on the platform for our overnight train that was to to take us to Varanasi, all eyes were on us- we didn’t know whether it was because we were all foreign females or because Lana was wearing an outfit that looked like she had just jumped off the moon. Probably a combination of the two.
In any event, all we knew was that we had “sleeper class” assigned seats- in other words, essentially the compartments that anyone can pile on to, with or without a ticket. When the train suddenly pulled up, complete havoc ensued. People were hanging out of all ends of the train and nobody could get on. People were running around and shoving each other all over the platform. We frantically ran up and down the platform trying to figure out which train compartment we were assigned to without losing each other. When we finally figured it out, we were too late. We could not even squeeze on to the train it was so jammed packed, and nobody was budging. As we we were struggling to squeeze just a foot in, I glanced over my shoulder at Lana and Tash and noticed the color drain from both of their faces, and mild panic in their eyes. I realized we were all experiencing an “Oh, shit, I’m in India and I’m freaking out” moment. The three of frantically pushed each other on the train moments before it took off. We had no choice but to aggressively shove our way through the crowds, trying to detect which sleeper “bunk beds” belonged to us. When we finally found ours, they were about 10 people hanging from our beds. Being ferocious, assertive, and slightly anxious as we were, we demanded that everyone get up; they were in our beds!
I had unfortunately lost to Tash in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors before we had hopped on the train, so I was penalized by having to deal with the awkwardness of the middle bunk (There is a top, lower and middle). As hoards of Indian men and women surrounded us intensely scrutinizing our every move, I somehow managed to squeeze my way into the middle bunk, between my big backpack which I had at my feet, my small backpack with valuables that I used as a pillow, and cradled my purse. I fished out my blanket and tried to find the most comfortable lying down position this bunk bed could afford to give me. There were about 6 inches at best between my head and the bunk that Lana was staying on above me. I was in shock at the intensity of the situation and dreading the discomfort I was to endure for the next 15 hours or so. But I felt relieved I was in my nook. In fact, we all were simultaneously relieved and appalled. That’s when I heard Lana shout down at some man “Excuse me, stop looking at me!” We all looked at each other and exchanged a few nervous laughs. I held out my palm so Lana could drop me a couple valium, as the only way to endure this type of situation is with chemical assistance.
I naturally woke up in the middle of the night needing to pee. I felt someone leaning against my bag so I shot up and glared at him with the most evil eyes I could muster. He returned the evil glance, and I’m also pretty sure he won. I leaned over my bag and glanced down the corridor of the train to where I would need to make my way to the toilet, only to find it absolutely covered with people sleeping in any nook they possibly could. Some people were just standing, ominously staring into space. Others were dangling from bunk beds. Others were curled up on the floor in the midst of heaps of trash. It was a complete obstacle course trying to make my way to the toilet. I will spare you the toilet scenario I had to work with, but it wasn’t pretty. I made my way back to my bunk, shimmied my way back in to my nook, and had no choice but to pop another valium and crank up the volume on my headphones.
The next thing I knew, light was pouring in and my iphone was dead. I opened my eyes and tried to peer out the barred up windows. I felt like I was in prison. I then heard the magical sound of a man walking through the train compartments singing “Chai! Chai!” Music to my ears. Lana and I shot up, bought two tiny plastic cups of masala chai tea for 5 rupees each and made our way to the door of the train that was wide open. We sat there and woke ourselves up by sipping chai and polking our heads out the door to allow the dusty wind of India to blow through our hair. Good morning! We were almost in Varanasi, known to be the most culturally and spiritually intense place we had yet to come across. We smiled at each other, wiped the sleep from our eyes, and gave a quick cheers to making it through our first train ride together.
Great description – though, what a nightmare. The pictures are amazing – just the way I imagined trains in India – and then some. Am so glad you had two such great travel companions. Can’t wait to see you! Love mom
Emily – that train ride sounds like a game of sardines gone horribly wrong. Glad you survived the experience and that you had kindred spirits with you.