It’s been 20 years…
Wow 20 years…seems almost unbelievable. I really can’t believe its been that long. I had to recheck my math to verify that.
But yes strangely in fact 20 years since my last train ride in India. And you would probably think so much has changed in that amount of time, but maybe not as much you would imagine.
To be honest I’m not even sure how we ended up on the train, trying to figure out if we had a seat or not, wondering if we’d even be allowed to stay for the entire evening. Before we get into the journey, lets take a moment to rewind back a little…
* * * * *
It was a cool morning in Bangalore, well cool for Bangalore that is; a beautifully warm contrast from the winterish hell that had been plaguing the North Eastern US. If there was ever a time to not be home, during the Polar Vortex madness was it.
We got to Bangalore fine, on some stuffy smelly overnight bus, but we thought it might be interesting to try to see if a train ride back might be a nice change. My cousin wasn’t too convinced given that you usually need to book well in advance. But it doesn’t hurt to try right?
We dodged traffic, open sewer grates, and other hazards to get ourselves over to the train station, a bustling area not far from our hotel and the bus station. To our left were several travel agencies lined up in a row calling out to us for business. To our right taxis and rickshaws beckoned to take us away. There were buildings in ever direction. There was a huge line to our left as we walked towards a large building that we imagined was the ticket line. It was for a bank, which just added to the mystery of the line. In fact we saw folks lining up in various areas for things we couldn’t figure out why. None of them seemed to be for tickets so we were at least ok for now. Beyond the bank was a large building and we made our way upstairs to the train ticket area.
* * * * *
Inside was a large unadorned room. There were ticket windows all to the one side and large train schedules on the walls surrounding it. People didn’t seem to necessarily be in one line but were just milling about. I stared up at the printed train schedules with just wide eyed bewilderment. I have traveled the world over, taking trains in many foreign countries and I had absolutely no clue how to figure this out. I couldn’t tell you even now what train we ended up taking let alone what train I should have taken then. My cousins –M- & –S- were no help as well, –M -saying this was a great idea and –S- constantly complaining that we should have booked it days ahead.
“It was too late” –S- said.
There was a computer that seemed to be a saving grace, allowing me through touch to try to input starting and ending destinations only to consistently error out. We started to attract a crowd forming around us as we were inputting. No one spoke however, I wondered if they were waiting for us to finish with the computer or were curious if we may have somehow discovered a secret to decoding how to book here. There was an information booth, that according to my cousin we could not use unless we already knew what we wanted. With that kind of circular logic it’s amazing anyone got anywhere around here.
We left dejected and ready to book our bus ticket when my cousins stopped at a travel agent and struck up a bit of a conversation. Before we knew it I was putting down funds to reserve our place on a sleeper train for the evening. I guess for the price of a booking fee you get the expertise of actually knowing how to umm….book a train. At least that is the generally assured understanding. My cousin said they insisted we would be able to get a reservation.
* * * * *
After bus rides, bad tour groups, overpriced tourist sites, and a Starbucks grand opening we finally made it back to the train station and travel agency and as –S- supposedly predicted, we were waitlisted. I didn’t realize how bad that was, but he was fuming and complaining how he knew this was going to happen and how it was all “-M’s fault”.
Oh and by the way…the ticket is from another train station, and it’s far, and the time is short…so good luck!
Wading back through the crowds, dirty puddles, and traffic we located our bus and our way to the other train station. We found ourselves in an unrecognized area of Bangalore dropped off at the side of a crowded city street. A large gravel yard lay ahead of us, and large groups of people making their way across. We followed assuming they were going in the same direction. All of us in several groups all carrying luggage kick gravel stones and stepping over train tracks like we were all fleeing into the night.
The train station was dark this time of night, but with most things, completely crowded with people. There was a small stand selling snacks in the center of it and a few benches spaced out along the wide platform. Various people both passengers and non passengers seemed to occupy whatever space they could find, with everyone seemingly in a rush but with no where particular to get to at the moment.
We had time for the train and we just waiting. -S- was still angry and fuming about how we should have taken the bus, and how bad this situation was. I was in no mood to argue or agree as neither really helped with getting us home at the moment, and that was the most important thing. I found an area to sit down on that had enough space for me and figured it was better than standing for who knows how long. As we sat there discussing what to do next, or how to know whether we “had a seat” I noticed someone bump clumsily into me. Somehow someone had injected themselves into the few scraps of space remaining on the seat as he was trying to curl up and sleep with his sweaty body pressed against my back. Lovely…
I figured this was a good enough time as any to take a walk around and see if we could learn any more information. I barely stood up before my seat had been claimed by two other individuals who managed to fit into the spot that barely fit me.
The waitlist items were supposed to be posted somewhere on the track. We found ones from other trains but none that seemed to match our train. I was getting a bit more panicked as I really had no idea what we were supposed to do or even which train would have been appropriate to board. I kept making rounds to the various boards that were along the track length while my cousin just kept saying it was pointless.
And soon it was. Our train was pulling into the station.
* * * * *
“Follow me.” –S- said as the train was slowing into the station.
We followed along the edge of the train looking at the numbers and classes of the various cabins. I didn’t really know what he was looking for until he found the one we were going to enter.
Inside was a fairly aged Indian sleeper car. One one side were a set of two bunks abutted against the windows on the opposite side were open compartments of six more sparse bunks. Several were already claimed by groups of folks who had already started preparing for the night. At the far end was the bathroom, which was no more than an enclosed space around a hole in the ground. It gives baring yourself to the world a far more literal meaning. My cousin chatted with the folks nearby both in English and Hindi as I desperately tried to figure out what was going on.
He told them we were three of the nearby numbers. I looked on the ticket in my hand and I couldn’t correlate any number on it to the numbers he stated. I’m not really sure where he got those values from. I tried to speak up but he motioned me to stay quiet. No one seemed to object to what he was saying and I waited as various different people boarded the car looking for their seats as well. No one argued with us and the numbers he said we were. I started to wonder if anyone here actually had a number or was everyone trying to just claim something and hope it stuck?
He told me to just go make myself comfortable. I brushed and otherwise prepared for the night while the people around me all settled and chatted about the various on-goings of the day. Various different dishes were passed around of foods I both recognized and didn’t and everyone seemed to be both exhausted and restless. Or maybe I was just projecting my own feelings on those around me.
I hopped up on the middle bunk and looked across to my new friends for the evenings as my two cousins were partly out of view. My feet dangled slightly over the edge of the bunk as I tried to make myself comfortable, curled out against my bag for comfort and theft protection. I kept imagining that at some point during the night the conductor would come wake us all up and throw us out into some track side rice paddy. As I ran through all the scenarios equally likely and unlikely the train pulled out of the station and I tried to let myself fall asleep.
* * * * *
The train was clicking along the the track and my neighbor was snoring loudly. I could see the sun peaking in through the slits of the closed windows. In the corner of my eye I could see several folks standing in front of the open train door as the world rolled by. I look around trying to determine how much or if I had slept. The snores of my neighbor prevented me from falling back to sleep so I sat up and stretched my arms.
Before I could decide to try to sleep again I turned my head and noticed there was now someone sitting next to me on the bunk. Where the hell did he come from? He hadn’t been there the entire evening…right? He looked back at me in silence and his face held an expression as if I was disturbing him somehow. I didn’t have the clarity enough to solve the mystery so I hopped down instead.
Most of the train was still sleeping, –S- was already wide awake, and –M- still slept. I mentioned how impressed I was that we were still on the train and –S- alluded to midnight actions to keep us in place. He didn’t expound any further however.
The train was in various states of wakefulness. Most of the people still had their blankets pulled tightly around them trying desperately to eek out a few last minutes of sleep. –S- was sitting there, still complaining about the train ride. I tried to tune him out.
Various different people wandered on and off the train at the various stops. People kept asking me where we were and as usual I less than useless.
Over the course of the next hours various people came on and off the train. Those coming around begging, some with children some without. A variety of food and drink sellers came on. Various different pungent food items passed by our bunk in a search for willing patrons. The often seen chaiwalla selling his beverages out of small tin cups and a thermos calling out for customers. I waved off everyone, not really wanting to venture into getting sick on the train not knowing the distance remaining.
My cousin asked me for some money and I handed it to him straight away. A transgender person wandered down the aisle loudly talking and clapping. -S- passed her some money as she came towards us. I watched her yell and smack the guy nearby. I didn’t know if any words were passed among them, but I watch the anger in her face and the feeling of surprise and confusion in his. -S- explained the trouble transgender individuals have in India and the immense prejudice they feel through the country. It is so easy to just sit there confused, unsure how to even help in such an immense place as all these individual lives flow around your own.
* * * * *
I left –S- alone as he still tried to catch moments of calm in the morning hustle. I took a seat in the open doorway after the other youths moved on to smoking cigarettes and searching out breakfast. Outside I sat and slowly watched the fields and world pass me by. This was the India of my dreams, the ones that I always envision when my mind wanders over to the subcontinent. Kids riding and laughing down nearby dirt roads, families packing like sardines into the backs of small trucks and rickshaws, and women working tirelessly in the fields that flowed endlessly outward in every direction. It was the India that didn’t quite change at the same rate as the cities with their high-tech cities, suffocating traffic jams, and overstrained infrastructure. Live moved slowly but passed by so quickly as the train kept traveling on.
Various villages swept past my view, people exiting into the streets for their morning chores. I tried to imagine life in these small little villages occupying their tiny plots in this great big world of ours. I wondered about the people who lived here, their lives, hopes, and if they wondered about us travelers on the trains that regularly transited by.
-S- appeared at one point, trying to check on me and verify that I had not fallen (or ejected) from the train just yet. He asked me to move away with concern, but I waved him away to continue to watch the world from the door. As we approached the towns, more and more people entered and exited the train and I was forced from my coveted spot. –M- and –S- sat awake counting the minutes until we returned, still fuming about the night’s journey and wishing for the bus instead. I didn’t want to open old wounds by bringing up my enjoyment of the train even of just those few moments like these that to me made the trip worthwhile in the end.
I smiled at him, and said… “Well at least we had seats still…”
He looked back half glaring and half smiling. I think he was too tired to really fight back anyway.