A 20 Hour Indian Train Experience

by Ekua on March 10, 2011 in backpacking,India,solo travel

4:30 pm
The panic I felt while stuck in mind-boggling traffic is fading. I’ve made it to the Varanasi Junction station in time for my 4:45 train to Agra. I step inside, and India assaults me full force. It seems that not a single spot in the train station is unoccupied; people are sitting and laying everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I walk through the people to the train tracks. I have no clue which one I should be at. I have no idea how to find out. I begin to question how savvy of a traveler I actually am. Panic returns.

4:35 pm
I spot hope: fellow foreigners. They are a pair from France, also on their way to Agra on the same train as me. They are unaware of how they have prevented me from collapsing to my knees and sobbing. I stick with them. Panic eliminated.

If I hadn’t run into them, I wouldn’t have known that there would be a haven in the train station —  a tourist office. As we search for it, I notice a man following me, smiling at me, and generally being creepy. I walk faster.

4:40 pm
We find a tourist help desk. The clerk tells us our train will be one hour late and points us in the direction of the tourist office. As we make our way back through the crowd of people and their bags, I admire the kind of flexibility and hardiness that allows a person to endure hefty delays and just take a nap on the pavement in a humid room while they wait for a train to arrive — if it even arrives at all.

But I’m not quite ready to explore this approach. When we find the tourist ticket office, we enter a backpacker oasis with worn couches and airconditioning. Fellow tourists look up from their books and give us smiles that say, “I understand. We’re all in this together!”

The French duo and I plop down on a couch and take turns watching each other’s stuff while we try to find dinner.

5:00 pm
It’s my turn to stock up on carbtastic train station eats to tide me over until the following morning. I feel instinctively that I’m being watched. Sure enough, the same creepy man is right behind me.

“Go away,” I say firmly, as my guidebook has suggested I do in the event that this sort of thing happens. He doesn’t leave. Eventually, I think I’ve gotten rid of him. But as I resettle into the tourist ticket office, I see him standing in the doorway staring in.

5:45 pm
We learn that our train is now two hours late.

6:30 pm
The tourist ticket office is now as full as the rest of the train station. There are backpacks and backpackers on every inch of space. There are two trains bound for Agra that have growing delays. Travelers reconnect with people they’ve met previously, make new connections and continue to exchange smiles of understanding.

Every so often, the ticket agent looks up at a sign on the wall and reads it verbatim in a monotone voice. “This is not a waiting room. Do not leave your luggage in here. We are not responsible for lost luggage…” And we giggle as we ignore him and he clearly does not care enough to actually enforce the rules.

6:45 pm
Our train is now three hours late.

7:30 pm
No additional delays have been announced, so we cautiously leave the comfort and camaraderie of the tourist office and head over to the train tracks. The creepy man is once again hovering around me as we make our way up the stairs and over to the tracks where our train will pick us up from. I am relieved when he doesn’t follow me to the other side of the station. I chat with some Aussies while I wait for the train to arrive.

8:00 pm
The train arrives. I am in an airconditioned 2nd class car, the nicest they had available. All of the seats are reserved in that class, and yet people rush onto the the train in manner that would lead you to believe that we were going to have to fight for a spot.

Inside it’s nothing like The Darjeeling Limited, but it’s decent and fairly clean — much cleaner than potentially bedbug ridden  “first class” on the trains I took in Vietnam in 2008. I find my berth and settle in.

9:30 pm
I learn quickly that booking a bottom berth on and Indian train may compel you to unwittingly partake in an extended social hour. The man sleeping in the berth above me wants to socialize with everyone while sitting on my bed.

10:30 pm
I tell the man that I want to sleep. He tries hard to convince me otherwise, but I insist. The father in the family across from me looks at me like I’m crazy to not let the man continue to sit there, but his wife gives me a smile of understanding.

7:00 am
I wake up from a mediocre night of sleep to the sound of my bunk mate tapping on a table next to my head. He insists that he needs to sit on my bunk and read his paper. I shake my head to say no, point to a man across the aisle who is successfully reading a paper in his top bunk, and remind him that he should’ve booked a bottom bunk if he wanted constantly sit on the bottom bunk. He doesn’t speak English, but understands my message. The man across the aisle once again looks at me like I am crazy, his wife nods her head in agreement with me, and his daughter says, “You’re right.”

8:00 am
A chai wallah comes through the car and I snag a little cup of syrupy milky clovey goodness. My bunk mate snags the opportunity to take a seat on my bed once more. I let him have the corner. I look out the window and notice that this “express” train is moving super slowly. When are we really getting to Agra?

10:00 am
My bunk mate sees me reading my guidebook and asks to take a look at it. I hand it over. He holds onto it for an extended period of time while he chats with everyone on the train and invites them to charge their cell phones in the plug next to my bed. He eventually gets around to thumbing through my guidebook. As he hands it back, he reassures me that it is indeed a good book, even though he can’t read English.

11:00 am
When are we going to be in Agra?!

12:00 pm
More than once, I see children squatting over train tracks and defecating. Countryside has morphed into shantytown. We are passing through more and more train stations. We have to be getting close.

12:30 pm
We finally arrive in Agra, nearly seven hours late. I join forces with a fellow solo traveler I’d seen back in Varanasi, a woman from China. We successfully make our way out of the station, dodge touts, and arrange for auto rickshaws to our hotels. Next stop: Taj Mahal.

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