Day 13: A City on a Train

Day 13. Never get a hotel room outside a train station in India! I hardly managed a minute of sleep as trains constantly blew their horns and the bright lights of the station shone through the window. But I guess this ensured I didn’t miss my train….. At 6am I was frantically running up and down the platform trying to understand why my train ticket didn’t have a coach or a seat number on it. Eventually I grabbed a guard, he told me to wait while he went on the train, as it started to move off he shouted at me telling me to get on and pointed to my seat. I was on a second class reserved carriage which although better than the train yesterday as it had padded light blue PVC seats, words could never fully describe this journey. Maybe it was caused by the amount of people crammed into such a small place but it was noisy, dirty, dusty, windy, smelly, cramped, crowded, bumpy, sweaty, irritating, fascinating, painful but most of all amazing. An Indian train seems to be a microcosm of Indian society from rich to poor and fat to small. The bench I was sat on was made for just three people but somehow seven had managed to squeeze on it. I had the joy of sitting with two families with over ten children between them who would not stop shouting, jumping up and down and poking me, but hey, only sixteen hours to go. Amongst this melee stewards would constantly walk up and down the aisle shouting “Chai, chai, chai” and “Coffee, coffee, coffee”, with the vowels at the end of each word reaching an ear piercing crescendo. Drinks would be served in beautifully made red clay cups designed for single use as the liquid would quickly soak in. Snacks, fresh fruit and soft drinks followed in a constant stream of noise. Men selling children’s toys walked up and down with items which would not look out of place in the 1970’s. Each made a special effort to try and sell me their wares as they thought they could get a bit more cash.

Eunuchs walked past looking like what they were, men dressed as women. I didn’t understand what they were doing but they would give people money and then walk off; minutes later they would return and the people would return the money. Next children with horrific disabilities from polio to leprosy would drag themselves through the carriages, cleaning the rubbish of discarded cups, sesame seed husks and sweet packets that passengers would just throw on the floor. They would then beg for money from me even though it was not my rubbish they’d cleaned. These would come in what seemed to be an endless line of humanity, the attention was constant, oppressive, filling my senses and emotions. How many times can you say no to a beggar with such horrific disabilities knowing that they will never be able to work for themselves or ever get support in a country without a social welfare system. I had to completely ignore the begging, pretend they didn’t exist, looking straight through them as I could not give them anything. I’ve learned that if I were to give something then they would follow me for as long as they could and others would follow. Doing this induced levels of emotion, guilt and shame I’ve not really felt before. But to survive in India as a solo traveller I realise that I have to do this to retain a certain level of sanity in what is a bewildering country. I fear travelling here could turn me into a really hard person.

After what felt like hours the train pulled into its first station but even the experiences so far did not prepare me for what occurs on a train’s arrival at a station. Hundreds of hawkers clamber onto the train selling even more food with others trying to sell things through the metal barred windows. They sell fresh mango and pineapple juice with ice in flimsy clear plastic bags with a straw placed inside, dangerously close to puncturing the bag. As soon as a hawker noticed me a huge crowd would gather around trying to sell me anything and everything I didn’t want at prices I was not prepared to pay. I got off for a breath of fresh air and a bit of peace but within seconds I was surrounded again. Most were just standing staring at me barely one foot away from my face. Fifteen hours still to go!

After six hours there was only one thing stopping me from throwing a child out of the window, it was the iron bars placed across them! There was mess everywhere so I figured it would be a while before they would notice a missing kid! Parents seem to be strict with the girls not allowing them to do anything or go anywhere while the young boys used me as a climbing frame, shouted and rushed up and down the train; boys rule here. The parents were not much better with their attitude to rubbish which was starting to get to me in a big way, they just throw food on the floor so the beggars can eat it and litter out of the window. At around this time I took a swig out of my water bottle which to my surprise resulted in disapproving looks from people sat around me. A guy next to me noticed that I was puzzled and told me that it was not polite to put your mouth around the bottle top just in case someone else wants some. I thought, well I don’t want to give you any so what’s the problem! I did notice that when people drank from a bottle they would tilt their head back and poor the water in, I guess this is to prevent the transmission of germs, it’s just a pity everything else is covered in crap.

I learned another Indian custom on the train, the “What’s yours is mine” principle. My book, newspaper and pens were all taken and used without asking, not even a “May I.” On at least a couple of occasions the person taking my book could clearly not even read English. I thought all this was quite rude, but here it seems quite the norm. As the kids were driving me mad I took it upon myself to amuse them as I knew peace was now out of the question until someone had tired them out! So it was out with the cards and a few tricks to keep them amused. From this I could again see that boys have serious priority over the girls; in this family the girls came across as being far more responsible and clever but were given less respect by their parents. The girls figured out the ‘find the lady’ trick straight away but the boys thought it was “real magic!” But through doing this the journey had started to become enjoyable, I was even dragged into a game of top trumps which I haven’t played since I was a kid so duly lost. But Power Rangers’ power ratings were never my strong point. Then I became some sort of hero! A large brown bug had started to fly around the compartment with the women screaming when it came near and the men doing nothing but trying to dodge it, so I just reached across, caught it and threw it out of the window. I was now constantly thanked and praised but the amount of gratitude I got made me think that the bug was probably quite dangerous and I’d done something really quite stupid!

By the time I was about to leave the train a man who had not said anything previously started conversation. I thought him quite normal at first when he talked about being a school teacher but when he asked whether I’d met Indian people before and eaten Indian food I wasn’t too sure. I told him that of course I had, there were lots of Indian people in the UK and curry is Britain’s favourite dish. He seemed surprised and said he thought that you only get Indian people and Indian food in India! School teacher? He followed this with the statement “I believe we have become really good friends on this trip, and I believe this friendship will last forever.” He asked for my address so he could write to but I made various excuses but he was adamant so I gave him my address, ‘10 Downing Street, Westminster, London, UK’. OK, this was cruel but I figured that I don’t want begging letters for the rest of my life.

Eventually we pulled into the station at Madgoan in Goa where all of the children and adults I’d sat with got off the train to say goodbye, hugging me and wishing me on my way. This was very moving, very genuine and really unexpected but again probably more reflects the true nature of people here rather than the money grabbing rickshaw driver and hotelier. This train journey will probably live with me forever, not only for the people I met, but what the train represents. A microcosm of India, every class and caste is on the train, you will learn more about India on long standard class train journey than visiting any tourist site. It is very much a moving city with both meanings of the word moving, it’s the best and worst of everything to enjoy and loath.

The adults from the train found me a motorbike taxi so I could get to Panaji and made sure I got the locals’ price. The journey was fantastic but quite scary with my huge rucksack perched on the handlebars while I sat astride the bike behind the driver periodically burning my right shin on the hot exhaust. He rode for half an hour like a maniac nearly losing my bag and me over the handlebars on a number of occasions, the closest being when he had to stop quickly for a mad dog which jumped out in front of us. He was a little spaced out and went on about girls, telling me of his many sexual conquests in the amount of detail only a man of very limited experience could give. Eventually after passing a number of police road blocks where they were more than happy to let a European perched precariously on the back of a bike through we finally reached Panaji. As it was now after midnight, all of the best hotels had shut but after driving around for quite a while I managed to find a room. The hotel itself looks fine from the outside however the bed is made from a wooden board placed over what looks like a stone bath and the toilet in the communal area is overflowing with faeces. All of the good feelings I’ve had about India over the past few hours have suddenly gone again. The hotel manager wouldn’t do anything about it so it will be just one night here! But I have to forget about the hotel manager remembering that I’ve had the best day of my journey so far but the most tiring. It’s time to sleep, well it will be after I kill all the mosquitoes.