I’m on a Night Train, or am I?

The back side of my amended ticket.

You check make sure train go Varanasi.  You know about train derail.  Many train not go.”

Although my train was from Tundla, 45 minutes by bus from Agra, the rare, super-helpful hotel desk man informed me that I can go and check at the Agra station right down the road.

After questioning a handful of people along the way, I finally found the enquiry booth and presented my ticket to the man.

Train from Tundla not here. This Agra.”

I thought:  Do I look that clueless?

Yes but I need you to check to make sure that my train is not cancelled. Because of the train derailment yesterday many trains are cancelled.

The man pushed a few keys and looked at his text-only computer screen.  What I could see on the big tube monitor reminded me of an operating system being phased out back in the mid-nineties.

Your train NOT cancelled.”

Sweating profusely from the power walk there, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to the hotel to get my red backpack.

After power walking in intense heat once again, I easily found a bus with an available and comfy-cushioned seat.  It would take me directly to the Tundla Junction Railway station.

As I paid the 20-Rupee fare, my mind conjured up:  This was so much easier than I thought it would be.   I’m relaxing and watching the state of UP go by, and no one’s asking me the same questions that may soon start popping up in my sleep.  No one is even talking to me.  What an auspicious start to this journey that will include my first night train in India.

I got off the bus just before the station.  I stopped and watched a group of boys playing cricket.   I wanted to ask if I could jump in.  I thought: It looks so close to baseball that I must be able to smash the ball and easily catch it, even though they don’t use a glove, and what they call a bat looks more like a paddle.  I guessed that they would have said yes.  But the salty sweat was already dripping copiously from my forehead, and down my nose and chin.  It was hot.

I ventured into the station and over to what I thought was the Enquiry booth.  It was impossible to know as everything was written in Hindi.  A non-threatening boy told me that I was at the wrong window and pointed me to the right one.  He looked at my ticket and said that my that my train was cancelled.

NO!”

I consulted the enquiry man who reassured me that YES.  It’s cancelled, BUT:

I call Station Managah, you take othah train to Varanasi.”

My new task was to find the Station Superintendent’s office.  After getting directional help from a couple of kind Uttar Pradeshians, I was sitting at his desk waiting while he answered multiple phones simultaneously.  There were about nine traditional telephones in front of him, positioned in a half circle on his desk.

Big, fat mice were crawling around on the open floor and against the walls.  A ceiling fan blew warm air while the man sipped the omnipresent, warm Chai. The mice innocuously foraged for food.  I made it a point to keep a glance at the two
bags that I’d set on the floor beside me.  Thinking of the almonds in the smaller pack, I didn’t want a mouse to crawl in there.

I pondered: At least these meandering creatures are hellishly hefty mice and not grossly gargantuan rats.

After a bit of inoffensive prodding, the man eventually got around to scribbling a bunch of stuff on the back of my ticket, see top photo and telling me that I could get on any train bound for Varanasi.

I’ll definitely get a bed on a Varanasi train tonight?”

Yes, just show ticket to conductor.”

All I wanted to do was relax somewhere and read my book.  Getting on my laptop would have been even better, but at a station in India.  I doubt anyone would try to steal it from me, I’d just get even more stares and attention.  Reading is never possible as people like to start conversations.  The ones who can speak English love to ask about my life and many seem to love it when I tell them I’m from the USA.  Often it goes something like this.

Where are you coming from?”

The US.”

Ohhh USA, very nice country.  I want go USA.  I like Ah-may-Ree-kah very much.”

Just after leaving the superintendant’s office, I was approached by a boy/man in his
mid-twenties.  He kept rattling off names of action movies.  When he got to “XXX” it hit him. I was the clone of his Hollywood hero Vin Diesel.

Indian stations don’t provide many benches.  People usually put blankets on the floor for sleeping, sitting and eating. There were a bunch of Spanish and English girls sitting on their backpacks waiting.

You get email addresses of pretty girls for me.”

I’m not gonna ask them for their email addresses for you.  It doesn’t work that way.  If you want their email addresses you have to ask yourself.”

Before I knew it I was sitting on my pack next to the girls.  After a minute or two the young guy said:

Can I have your email addresses?”

We don’t have email in London.”

I pondered: I don’t know what foreign women travelling in India go through and I don’t think I ever will.  It’s impossible for me to empathize.  I get so much attention as it is, for them this interest is even more intense.  Still, the guy had also asked me for my email address before that.  I gave it to him.

My cancelled train was to leave at 8:22pm.  I then planned to get on the 9:20pm.  That 9:20 didn’t arrive until almost midnight.

I got on but had no sleeper to go to.  Every spot seemed full.  I was determined to get to Varanasi.  I didn’t wanna be stuck in Tundla or be forced to go back to Agra to try to get a room in the middle of the night.   By this point I was exhausted, not to mention still a little bit weak and nauseous from a stomach bug I’d suffered a few days prior.

The first two conductors I came across said:

Numbah 51 that way.”

That place is taken.  Look.  My train was cancelled.  The station superintendent
guaranteed me a bed on this train.”

They inspected the scribble on the back of the ticket and understood it.

OK, you wait half-hour.”

I thought: WTF!  Wait.  Where?  There is no Fu*#in’ place to wait.

My patience was being tested.  I just wanted a place to rest.  The aisles were thin.  Hawkers and train workers passed by.  Passengers were getting settled, taking space in the aisle.  I had a pack on my back and another in my hand.  This situation was beyond uncomfortable.

I saw an empty aisle sleeper and heaved my stuff and myself up into it.    10 minutes later the man checking tickets came by and said that I had to get out of there.

OK, where is there a spot for me?”

He then had to inspect the scribble before sending me to the next car.  My ticket was for a 3-tier a/c sleeper, formerly called third class a/c.  There was absolutely nothing free in third class.

I was sent to general class which costs three times less than what I’d paid.  This lowest class boasts open seating, standing and squishing.  People even overflow into the bathrooms.  They cram in as many people as possible.  It’s a nightmare for a foreigner or someone who’s not used to this mayhem.  This is especially true on a night train going 549 kilometers.  There were no sleepers there.  It was mobbed with men who welcomed me with smiles and a ton of incomprehensible Hindi.

There was no place for my backpack, never mind my body.  In my extreme fatigue, reality was ultra lucid:

Was I about to endure being crammed against people cuddling up against me as they slept in awkward positions.  Was I gonna play a version of torturous open-train-car Twister for umpteen hours?  Absolutely no way!

I marched back in the opposite direction.  The conductor tried to send me back.  Feeling possessed.  I put my face right into his:

Look!  I paid 644 Rupees for three tier a/c.  The station superintendant told me that I would have a place to sleep on this train.  There is NO way I’m standing in general
class.  I don’t care if you have to give me second tier or first.  You HAVE to find a
way!”

He immediately gave in by getting a subordinate to take me up to second class.  We We passed a few train cars. One or both us had to explain the situation to a conductor in each one before we could proceed.  Finally, we met the conductor at the very end of second tier.  The worker left me there.

Nothing second class, only first.  You pay difference?”

“OK.”

He thumbed through a book and found a chart.  I would have to pay 900 Rupees to upgrade to first class.  I was more than happy to comply.

Here’s 1,000.”

I gave him two, 500 Rupee bills.

Do you have 100 change?”

No receipt?  No receipt?”

I don’t care about a receipt.  I just need a bed.

He handed me 500 back and slid the other 500 in his pocket.  He then brought me over to a second class sleeper.  Happily bewildered, I put my stuff under the open lower right sleeping unit that was now mine.  The other three passengers in my cabin seemed asleep.

For second class I was probably charged about 100 more than I should have been.  If I’d had exactly 900, I probably would have been in first class.  None of that mattered, I was just relieved to have a place to let my body colapse into.

–   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –

It turned out that the route was the same as the train that tragically derailed a day prior.  The tracks that connect north and east India run through Uttar Pradesh.  It’s the most popular route in the land, as these two regions are the two most populated.

Upon arrival, in my sheer state of fatigue, I pondered:  I have nothing to complain about.  The situation wasn’t a disaster like the train that derailed.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. ANNIE: Yes! Exactly: been writing more .transport than I’d planned. As for enjoyment: I’m enjoying the fact that I’m getting to experience this functionally chaotic land. As for touristy, well, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Taj Majal is something to see and learn about for sure.
    Honestly, this is a tough time to be in India because of the heat with 99% humidity in most of the land. It’s tough to get things done when it’s so hot. It wipes you out. A/C is shoddy in some places, cuz the power supply tends to cut out often. The worst is when the fan stops working, because then you’re forced to sleep in a sauna. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Posted by Annie on July 16, 2011 at 15:42

    So with all these horendous train and bus rides…have you actually enjoyed any of the destinations they take you too? It seems all you do is ride trains and buses and don’t have much time to write about what you’re really experiencing. My opinion anyway. At least you got to see the Taj Mahal even if its a touristy thing to do.

    Yes your train didn’t derail. It was a good day overall! Stay safe!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Seantonio on July 13, 2011 at 16:57

    wow sounds like a rough ride. But, like you said, compared to the train that derailed, you’re ride was closer to first-class.

    Reply

    • SEANTONIO: After the hell of trying to get a berth, I got one, and all was well, a second class a/c sleeper does the job. The cause of the fiasco was was my original train getting cancelled.

      Reply

  4. I am in complete agreement regarding the aggressive hawkers. Funny how you took a train today, my boyfriend and I traveled first class from Mumbai to Goa today too. And yes, even in first class there was at least one mouse and definitely a small roach.

    I just read about how Mumbai got bombed this evening, slightly close call.

    Reply

    • JENNIFER: I’m in Varanasi now. It’s too hot to cope. The touts here are the most aggressive I’ve seen yet. I’ve had to be incredibly rude to a couple of them.
      Tonight I’m slated to board a train for Kolkata, second class sleeper, looking forward to the a/c.

      Reply

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