I love trains. I love travelling in India. I see so much. Real people, real situations. You may be thinking, ‘oh god, here he goes again’ but I genuinely love train journeys. I love people watching and a train journey is the perfect situation to get my game on.
Booking my waiting list ticket to Varanasi filled me with excitement. The train is full. There’s over 450 extra tickets sold. This means it’s going to be rammed full of hot and sweaty families returning to their hones after Diwali in every carriage. I have no right to a sleeper bed on this ticket so I’m expecting to sit on my trusted Karrimor in the corridor for the 13 hour journey. Unless I blag a seat with a little baksheesh for the ticket inspector, I could end up sitting outside the toilet. Nice.
Its fully self inflicted though, I like to throw myself into these little situations every now and then. It keeps me fresh and my experiences varied. I’ve been meditating and practicing yoga for the last week so my body and mind are strong and very relaxed. Ashram life is calm and tranquil. Now I enter the chaos of a 13 hour train journey with hundreds of Indians returning home after Diwali. The Lonely Planet also states that Varanasi has a hardcore tout community who lethally pray on us fragile foreigners. They do say India is king of the extremes. I’ll have to adjust quick. But after finding myself in Rishikesh, I’m prepared for anything.
I arrive at Haridwar station at 11pm, I see the usual array of sleeping bodies in the station hall and on the platforms, keeping warm from the cool winter nights under thick woolen blankets. There were monkeys on the platform, eating the left overs that us humans discard. One cheeky little geeza trying to pinch a mans blanket while he sleeps on the platform. Legendary moment. I chuckle with the locals as he wakes up, startled.
As I sit down on platform 2 and wait for my train to come, I notice there’s a lot of passengers waiting. And I mean a lot. I suddenly see a boy on the track. He’s chasing a huge rat. Not wearing any shoes, he darts over both tracks, standing on the rails. I’m presuming its a steam train otherwise he would have been fried. I wince as I imagine the worst. Where’s the parents? What a crazy world I’m living in.
The train pulls in. Before I continue, I just wanted to clarify that the boy is now safe and wasn’t harmed. A mass of people descend onto the train. The pushing and shouting commences. I get to a door first, as Indians try to push me aside, a foot comes past me and kicks the door in a vain attempt to open it. Calm down matey. If you’d like to form an orderly queue behind me, I think you’ll find this a fair way to go about things in a situation like this. Obviously, I didn’t say this and I muck in. The door opens and I hear screaming behind me as the panic sets in. To my amusement, the Indians go wild. I can hear men talking like machine guns and women screeching behind them. I get pushed on and I put my bag on a top bunk which is empty. There are so many people on the train that nobody can move. Hillsborough springs to mind. There’s almost a brawl. I can feel the tension. A family from hell push everyone aside, they’re louder than everyone else. They push me aside and shout at everyone to leave their seats. They’ve declared their seats so I declare mine, pulling someone’s bag off my top bunk, I get up and assume my position. Only if someone produces a ticket for this exact seat will I shift from here.
A boy has a ticket that states he has seat number 52. The family from hell also have a ticket for seat number 52. Either someone has a fake ticket or the ancient computerised ticket system is useless. After all it is 25 years old, I’m sure it’s run on Amiga PC’s with the old black and green screens. Either way he squeezes in. Half an hour after the train was in utter chaos, there’s a relaxed and chilled atmosphere, almost silence. Bizarre. The anger and the panic gone, people with tickets settle on their seats and people without, settle on the floor.
I think I got lucky. So far so good. No one has challenged me. But that could change. There’s twelve and a half hours left.
After I settle down to sleep the ticket inspector pays us a visit. He redirects people and gets into a confrontation with the family from hell. He checks and ticks my ticket. I’m still safe. I settle down to attempt sleep on the small top bunk, with my Karrimor squeezed in on top as there’s too many bodies below to put it anywhere else. I’m cramped but in a better situation than the masses who are forced to sit on the floor or stand. I manage to keep my seat until the morning when I invite some Indians who slept on the floor to sit with me on the top bunk. The train is tight with passengers. Every stop allows a few passengers off and even more to pile on. Navigating my way to the toilet was tough, even stepping down from the bunk without standing on someone took skill. Only one toilet was in use as the other was used to store luggage, the men sat outside unfazed by the fowl stench.
Sitting back in my place I realised there were two very distinct types of passenger that enter a sleeper train. The ones who enter shouting and pushing, have a ticket and a seat reserved. They are confident, brash, loud and happy to announce to everyone that if you get in their way they will eat you alive. They know their rights and exercise these as obviously as possible. The other type of passenger has a ticket but without a reserved seat. A quieter and less social passenger, they rarely talk and try not to discuss their unfortunate ‘waiting list’ status with others in fear of being ejected from their precious seat. When the train pulls into a new station, the possibility of loosing their seat is high. The ones who don’t make it onto a seat sit, lie and stand on the floor. Sad expressions attempting to gain enough pity to wriggle onto a seat at the next stop. Walking through a carriage, you can tell who have reserved seats and who the chancers are, merely by facial expression and body language. The more hours I spend on trains, the more it fascinates me.
For someone who chanced it without a seat, my journey was successful. Note to self, book in advance, reserve a seat. Its back to the city, let’s go spot some dead people in this religiously fascinating place they call Varanasi.