Originating in Goa, an eventful fifty-four hour train journey took us through diverse scenic and barren landscape into Northern India; our final destination was the city of Lucknow.
When innocently purchasing train tickets for this very long journey, the total price amounted to a mere four hundred and fifty rupees. Not entirely aware at that time of the varied levels of comfort relating to ticket prices, this low-priced purchase seemed astoundingly favorable. After boarding the train and seeing what we had actually paid for, an upgrade at a further cost of eight hundred rupees was well worth it!
Trains in India are always full and it’s necessary to buy tickets well in advance, preferably first class air-conditioned. There are various options to choose from and until one is familiar with the numerous choices, it’s a baffling game of chance. Even equipped with this essential information, events can nonetheless go horribly wrong as the incident three months later proved, even though we had in fact become quite experienced by that time. Having cheerfully bought and reserved two first-class, air-conditioned seats in a compartment for two, with a somewhat premature and complacent certainty we thought no more about our reservation. There was little or nothing we could do about it when things started to go very wrong. Two very comfortable overnight berths in a cabin for two – mysteriously transformed into a four-berth cabin when the day arrived
After three hours of sleeping in this fully occupied four-berth cabin, the conductor woke me up at two in the morning and instructed me in no uncertain terms to go to the second-class compartment. Someone else had also booked the bed I was now occupying, and what is more HE was about to claim it! There had obviously been an error in the bookings, men do tend to receive respect over women in this country – thus I can only presume that the conductor deemed it an obvious act of courtesy not to wake Scott, but to wake me instead. It didn’t seem very gracious to treat foreign visitors in this way, and most definitely objectionable to me at that moment was the factual evidence of a male stance shown towards a woman. A little indignant at the bad manners of this official in uniform, as well as the gentleman claiming his bed – I made my futile objections quite audible for the following half hour.
Scott and I huddled in one narrow berth after that. Our carriage associates were not the quietest sleepers or boasting the cleanest fragrance – nevertheless they were select male members of society!
I later discovered that there were separate ‘ladies only’ carriages available for women travelling alone; in view of the inherent attitude shown towards females, this was useful information.
We initially began our overnight journey from Goa to Lucknow sharing a cabin with a raucous family of four. It could have been much worse according to the horrifying accounts I heard from friends who had travelled this very same route. We actually managed to retain our own bed for the whole night without an overflow of passengers flopping down on a bunk that was already occupied; or else covering the floor with sleeping bodies – using newspapers as a mattress. We were fortunate to be spared all of these possibilities on this eight-hour journey from Goa.
The train stopped at Mirage station, where a two-hour waiting period was expected before our next train. A European couple on the same platform were engulfed in a flurry of commotion. The duo who had a metal footlocker as well as two or three suitcases, were being sent from one end of the train to the other, and told each time: “you can’t put your luggage on here”.
Having known comparable challenges, they had our deepest empathy. They had actually paid for the whole trip – including their luggage, and had obediently followed tenuous instructions without fully realizing that regulations seem to be the creation of whoever voices them at that moment. Rules could just as easily change or become non-existent according to the next voice that appeared to be in charge of things. It was certainly wise not to be too fixed by any rule – which was guaranteed to be exchanged, replaced, substituted or deleted.
During the time the woeful girl was explaining all this to me, her exhausted boyfriend could be seen racing from one end of the soon-to-depart train, to the other. We all clearly heard the announcement – their train was about to leave! Finally he burst into a stream of exasperated swearing and shouting; perhaps someone finally felt sorry and allowed their luggage on in the nick-of-time. Why on earth they were not permitted to bring their belongings on the train was one of those many puzzles I was still to encounter. Were they expected to hop on the train and leave it all behind? Difficult to fathom some of the customs in a foreign country, but I sense it had a lot to do with ‘baksheesh’.
For the following leg of our journey we again upgraded to a comfortable upper/lower unit with individual curtains. I happily settled into the lower bunk, drew my curtains and enjoyed some comfortable privacy for the next thirty hours. Meals and teas were served throughout this trip, and the views were spectacular. Our luck was in!
We finally arrived after thirty-four hours, cheerful and ready for the next train, due in one hour.
Sitting on the crowded, dirty, noisy, polluted platform with our luggage, we were glad that the sojourn would be a short one – yep there was to be only a brief interval of one hour here.
This short interlude actually extended for seven hours, and all the while we sat on that platform. The train had apparently been delayed several times which was nothing extraordinary in India.
Motivated by a feeling that at any time a piece of our luggage could easily disappear since numerous eyes were glued to our meager gear, we felt a compulsion to be sitting on our luggage and at all times maintaining it within sight. Sitting on our suitcases was practical and crucial. I felt particularly vulnerable, as people seemed more aggressive and pushy than in the milder Southern regions.
It was a little unnerving to know that at all times, eyes were constantly fixed on us. Pretending not to notice seemed prudent, best though I thought was not to look up at all. It was quite impossible to keep my eyes lowered for six hours; when I did glance up I was immediately confronted with intense eyes, greedy eyes, curious eyes, eager eyes, and of course lecherous eyes. My bold attempt to return the gaze with equal audacity and hoping to intimidate the starer, only served instead to signify an invitation. Getting angry prompted much laughter from the onlookers. Unless we felt in the mood to entertain the crowds it seemed wise just to ignore it and relax.
Cows were stealing cabbages from the shipment of burlap sacks waiting to be loaded, in fact the cows seemed to have a considerable appetite for the burlap sacks themselves. Every now and again someone would sluggishly appear with a stick and chide the animals; not that it deterred them for very long! Looking at cows was a little less hazardous than looking at people and there were many cows on that platform – quite a typical picture in India. It’s truly amazing to see city cows serenely meandering through busy traffic or having a brief chew on something while trucks, cars, and motorbikes whiz by in all directions. Indian cows seem undisturbed by all this human activity as they calmly pause in the middle of a busy road and cars drive respectfully around them. Dogs on the other hand seem to be prime targets for speeding cars.
Lots of beggars on the platform were distinctly eager to see us there hour-after-hour, one could almost hear them thinking – “aaah…. tourists". The same beggars returned every half-hour and each time it seemed as though it were the first time – for them. They were decidedly adamant in their refusal to take no for an answer, I could envision that the further North we traveled we would be encountering even more resilient as well as harsher standards of behavior than we had been accustomed to on the beaches of Goa.
Small children running around the platform, dressed in filthy rags and dirty faces rendered a heartrending scene. Feeling a deep and impotent compassion, I gave one of the begging children some rupees. Suddenly we were surrounded and harassed by about fifteen children in tattered clothes. It’s also a common sight to see very impoverished women using their pregnant bellies or their tiny babies as a way to get alms.
Another widespread but sad technique to get hold of money was to walk around with undernourished and solemn faced babies clutching and clinging anxiously to a pleading mother. I handed a packet of biscuits to one very young girl who was carrying an infant on her arm. Half-an-hour later another little girl arrived with the same infant; babies are used again and again to encourage the sympathy of benefactors.
The toilets on this platform, a detail not to be overlooked – were distasteful. We had to use them nevertheless. Scott did find a fitting description: “disgusting, stinking monuments of dysfunctional plumbing”!
How spoilt we had become in our own country – the very idea of waiting on a platform for six hours would be a nuisance. Being gawked at for several hours would probably instigate the appearance of a policeman requested by the recipient of this gawking. Elegant cafes (it’s all relative) are provided on English railway stations; pleasantly clean toilets, newspaper and magazine stands and – ‘well you really can’t compare this situation’ I told myself reproachfully. We were here, that was the reality; ‘these present circumstances’, I told myself more emphatically, ‘had indeed a richness of their own’.
The numerous people that made this platform their home generally had blankets rolled up all over the place; sometimes the owner would return, unroll his bed and nod off to sleep for an afternoon nap. This was lodging quarters to many, this was where they survived and probably where they lived and died. I did see a corpse on a platform six weeks later, which was ignored by the passengers ambling by.
Leaking water pipes at the side of the railway lines enabled the platform-dwellers to wash themselves; any leakage sites also provided drinking points for the cows. We were astonished to see how openly and publicly inhabitants would take a ‘shower’ at these leakage sites while at the same time maintaining strict ethics of decency and dignity. We were to witness this exacting achievement on many more occasions to come.
Trains came and went as excited ripples of commotion emerged when each train approached. The many vendors rushed up to the advancing train and stepped on board before it even stopped – selling tea, sandwiches, puri, samosas and the many assorted snacks and drinks.
When all the trains had gone, small boys picked up any discarded empty plastic cups that had been used for tea. While pleasantly surprised at this gesture to clean things up, I watched as the same little boys went to the tea vendors and exchanged these used plastic cups for food – and saw with shocked disbelief that they were later re-used for tea when the next trainload of passengers arrived. The cups were being rinsed out in a bowl of water that had been used for the past week. It was a dubious form of re-cycling!
My tea drinking days were over – at least at railway stations!
It was wonderful when our train finally charged into the station. I didn’t feel I had suffered; in fact, though the smoke and pollution had not done my body much good I felt a keen sense of interest in all the activities I had witnessed on that platform. It paralleled a functioning mini-town in itself. Certainly a busy place. Maybe I had simply become numb to it all. Anyway the overriding emotion for me was relief.
The next part of the journey proved tedious. Our tickets were invalid for some strange reason and another conductor with another set of rules said that we were not entitled to a seat in the decent part of the train. This was not good news as far as I was concerned. I was not willing to go third class after my adventure on the platform. There was certainly a need for discussions and ‘baksheesh’ (tips) in order to finally procure a seat, which turned out to be cramped. Sharing with two very friendly businessmen who were enthusiastically discussing various topics of interest and trying to include us in their discussion, I soon became exceedingly weary. It was to be an eight-hour journey so I decided to ignore them as I closed my eyes and dozed into blissful indifference.
Before nodding off I noticed an inordinate amount of armed guards on this train. According to our cabin acquaintances, this was deemed essential in these parts where friction and conflicts are abundant. It was also explained to us that the guard’s duties included the protection of passengers because outlaws and robbers had been known to ambush trains. I was getting a little nervous so I closed my eyes, slept and successfully shut it all out for a while.
Lucknow at last – our destination! The local people seemed even more assertive here and immediately launched into fighting over our baggage. Without having spoken to us, they began waging war between themselves; of course the sight of a tourist does invoke images of choice tips. With harsh and greedy faces these porters seemed intent on grabbing our luggage and us. The station itself was not only crowded and chaotic, but these men seemed to be taking over!
We definitely had to seize command of our baggage again, which necessitated some shouting until we finally got rid of the hard-core porters and all the middlemen trying to procure us a taxi at a ludicrous price. We finally picked out our own porters, which proved to be a vast improvement and I felt somewhat safer at that point.
It was truly amazing to see the porters balancing heavy luggage on their heads. A big metal footlocker was hoisted onto the head of one cooley – which is the name they choose to give themselves; three big suitcases were loaded onto the head of another cooley, after which a suitcase was placed in each hand. I couldn’t conceive why their necks didn’t break with the load, though I realized they must have had frequent and considerable practice.
Lucknow station was chilly, dirty and noisy; the oasis of Goa seemed a long way behind us and this place seemed seething with outlaws. I was feeling tired at that point and most everybody resembled a gangster. I instinctively knew that there was a real need to be on guard and alert at all times. We picked our own tuktuk (the local mode of transport), which was one tenth of the price quoted by the middlemen at the station. We were transported to the Carlton Hotel and safety.
It had been an engrossing and memorable trip, though not necessarily to be repeated. Indian Airlines is a tempting alternative!
Copyright reserved Charmiene Maxwell-Batten, August 2010
This story comes from my book abotu India and Thailand
SEE MY BOOK
This is a personal narrative about a train journey from Goa, Southern India – all the way to Lucknow in Norther India.