TALE: Top class ticket to ride
Somehow I had bought the wrong ticket. Due to some miscommunication – which so frequently occurs when traveling I was surprised it had not resulted in more mishaps before now – the train I should have been on had left the day before. It was just turning midnight and I had checked out of the Salvation Army hostel a good 12 hours ago. As I stood in Mumbai Central under a sign saying ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, surrounded by hundreds of people, their tiffin trays and life belongings, sleeping anywhere they could find space, the ticket clerk laid out my options, ‘Madam, we only have third class tickets to Varanasi tonight, or you can come back tomorrow’.
I adore travelling my train, especially in India. Things are more fluid on the train that on a blocked-up bus: people come and go, exchange seats; you can sit, stand or lay down; attendants come by every two minutes selling tea, coffee, academic text books, bhajis, sewing needles, fresh Bombay Mix; and you can take a seat on the steps at the open door, watching the scenery go by and no one will tell you to move because of ‘safety regulations’. Furthermore, I particularly like to travel second class. First class, well, it’s decidedly lacking in character, a little too neat and you cannot avoid the air-con freeze as the windows don’t open, probably for the safety of the first-classers. In second class: you get a bench that you can make into a bed; you can order your dinner and it is brought to you at your seat; the toilets usually work; and although a little cozy at times riding in second has always made me feel like I was getting the authentic ‘traveler’ experience. Third class, well that was un-chartered territory: unassigned seating, no food delivery and about 500 people squashed into space for 100.
Standing on the platform and feeling a little nervous about the journey before me, I showed my ticket to the attendant asking his advice on where best to wait. Unperturbed he looked me, his head wobbling slightly, his eyes smiling and then he chuckled so loudly his proud Sikh moustache rippled with the sound waves coming from deep within his big, paid for, belly. It was only seconds but the wait for his response felt as long as a verse from the Mahabharata, my nerves shifting from butterflies to locusts. ‘OK, come with me Miss. When the train doors open you are running with me, as fast as you can, you are strong and you are wanting to get your seat with all your heart’. At that moment the train rolled in, the whistle blew and I was suddenly in the air, flying down the platform, his hand holding mine as tightly as I was holding on to my breath. He dragged me on to the carriage and dumped me into a seat and with a parting chortle declared, ‘You are not moving for the next three hours, not even to go to the toilet. Guard your seat like you guard your soul!’ And then he was gone, his booming voice herding the hundreds of people desperate to squeeze on.
I didn’t move. Again and again people tried to coax me out of my seat, or tried to somehow to push me off it, but I remained firmly planted, afraid even expose my seat for the seconds needed to move my backpack to the overhead compartment. With my heart still pounding the Mahanagari Express pulled out of the station and we began our 27-hour journey to Uttar Pradesh, across the entire width of the country west to east. Not realizing what I was letting myself in for, and used to having my meals brought to me at my seat, I hadn’t brought sufficient food or water supplies. The flurry of emotions whirling round my head had finally subsided and I started to lament my urgency to quit the city and get to the holy Ganga. How long could I sit there needing to pee? By getting up I could risk having to stand the rest of the way. What would I do when I ran out of water? The fear of losing my seat was making me want to pee even more. How many hours, minutes, or more like seconds had gone by now? Surely I could have waited just a day or two for a more pleasant ride. Feeling the frown lines setting in on my forehead I heard my own voice counseling myself, as I had countless times to anyone else who’d listen, that far from being all about the destination traveling encapsulates the entire experience, the journey, what happens between A and B as well as the end-goal. Accepting my own advice, I sat back and allowed myself to stop worrying and I began to look around at where I was.
Sitting opposite me were a young couple and their baby, all three sharing one tiny wooden seat. The baby wore nothing expect black kohl around his eyes, as protection against bad spirits. It made me think about my childhood, when I wore nothing running around on the beach of the East Coast of England. I could almost feel my feet in the water, but it seemed warm, not cold like the North Sea. Pulled back to reality I realized that the little boy opposite was actually peeing on me, right there in the carriage. It was running along the wooden boards and gathering in a dip next to the beautiful saris of the poor ladies who’d had no choice but to sit on the floor. His mother was not fazed, indeed she continued to pointing him straight at me, despite my vigorous hand gestures.
I dried off my feet but my bag was totally soaked. Travelling alone often turns the simplest of actions into strategic maneuvers. Enough was enough, I stood up, put my bag up top and decided it was time to take action. If I wanted to go to the bathroom I had to make some friends. I got out the only food I had and offered a banana to the guy who had been hovering over my seat like a vulture for the past few hours. He smiled, bowed with his hands, but didn’t take one. Maybe it was the ‘refuse politely three times before accepting’ game, played throughout Asia. I hadn’t much time to ponder this cultural phenomenon when he said ‘Madam, the WC is down the corridor but I think it is broken’.
What that kind man had tried to shield me from was the mess that tried to pass for a bathroom. It was truly lethal, and I’m not just talking about the giant toilet-bowl-hole I almost slipped down on to the tracks. Nevertheless, that small but significant banana ice breaker was the turning point and after sharing around the rest things started to pick up. When the train stopped at Naski Road I was desperately thirsty but not desperate enough to give my seat up to the circling vultures. I hadn’t seen Deepak (as I later came to know him) get off but he returned with a cup of chai for me and some samosas for everyone. Smiles were exchanged all round. At Burhanpur station I saw others filling up on water from the taps on the platform. A fellow passenger must have seen me looking and came back with a full bottle for me. Even with the water purification tablets it tasted so sweet! And that’s how it was for the rest of the journey. People started to practice their English with me, we began sharing our names, stories, photos of our families and a road trip atmosphere began to filter through our little section of the world. I felt content with where I was. So much so, that I didn’t notice the mosquitoes biting at my ankles and when the baby needed to go again I just opened the window myself, aiming the baby in the right direction.
We arrived at Varanasi Junction 1533 kilometers-, several bhajis, innumerable cups of tea and piles of new emails addresses later. Despite only a few hours sleep, I was feeling replenished. Life was good, even in third class. We said our goodbyes, waving each other off from the back of rickshaws as the sun began to rise over the Ganges. Unfortunately, as with anything in life but especially on the road, you never know what it round the corner good or bad. I checked-in a hotel and awoke four days later after a bout of dengue fever. Would I have been bitten so badly by dengue mosquitoes in first class? Who knows? All I do know is that that third class journey allowed me to get up close and personal like never before with the overcrowded, chaotic, grubby but sharing caring melting pot that is India.
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