This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog.
Train stations in India are strange places. They smack of British colonialism, urine and the general impression of permanent crowds. This was our first one, but not our last and certainly not the most intense.
I checked the ticket for at least the fifteenth time. It still said all the same things. I watched the LED display overhead. It was in Tumil but it did have a train number on it. It wasn’t our train number, but I wasn’t too worried about it yet– we still had five hours until we were supposed to be humming gently over the tracks to Chenai.
The sun was beginning to set, one of those red, pollution fireball sunsets that knock the world slightly off kilter for the ten minutes of magic hour. Colors shift and the rules of the world seem slightly less concrete. You become unmoored from reality in the dying light and what seems ridiculous in the harsh light of day seems eerily possible in the red lit transition to complete dark.
On that day, magic hour found me worried. We didn’t understand how the night trains worked and we weren’t sure we had a spot on the train. The paperwork we’d filled out that morning in a random railway office seemed awfully casual. I tried to replay the phone call the man in charge had made. It couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds and I didn’t hear any mention of our details. What if we didn’t have spots on the train and we were simply homeless in Trichy, proud owners of train tickets to nowhere? We’d have to trudge back along the main drag and book another night at India’s loudest hotel. In the gathering darkness I could picture us stuck in Trichy forever, forced every day to schlep to the ticket building, buy a useless ticket, then hike through the city and wait for a train that never came, only to return to the hotel and do it again, day after day after day. The idea had a nightmarish logic to it. Permanent purgatory for over proud travelers who need to be humbled. No internet for information, no way out, just making the same trek until you wasted away. I told myself it was ridiculous, but as night fell and the cold florescent lights flickered on overhead, some deep, reptile part of my brain wasn’t so sure. It’s amazing how daunting any obstacle can seem when you’re tired, hungry and lost. Any dreadful scenario seems inevitable when you don’t understand what’s going on.
We sat on concrete benches waiting. The station consisted of a long building, running parallel to the tracks that housed a restaurant, about a dozen offices (chief inspector of this, chief medical officer, chief this, chief that; India inherited a love for and heavy dependence on bureaucracy from the Brits) and a police station. There was a stall for filling water bottles with clean water, but it was broken. I was too nervous to read and couldn’t settle down. I hiked up and down the station, trying to get any information I could regarding our train.
One of the things that made me nervous was the fact that nothing added up. The information on the ticket didn’t quite jive with the station numbers. We’d bought sleeper class tickets, but the station didn’t have a spot for them. One lady had told us to check in after 7 PM at an office that wasn’t where she said it was. Another man told us we didn’t have to check in at all. Someone else told us the train number was different, but we’d know what the number was. After a few similar experiences in the following weeks I realized this is typical in India. Things are relabeled and the ticket machine is never changed. Platform numbers change depending on the train. Certain buses don’t display their number, but it’s the blue bus, not the red one. It seems to be the result of a slowly changing and infrequently updated system. The things that misalign would never throw a local or anyone with a few months of time in the country under their belt, but for us, it was asking a lot to trust that a casual phone call secured us places on a sold out train that would pull up to an unknown platform and should have sleeper cars on it. Even after several weeks it was difficult to trust that the unlabeled bus stop was where the bus actually stopped (even if it was an hour and a half late) or that the train would be there and you’ll know which one is it, don’t worry about the train number. Just one of the little idiosyncrasies and joys of India.
We sat on the platform until it was dark. After that we wandered into the second class waiting hall. It was a large tiled room with metal benches along the walls. People were sleeping up against the walls, wrapped in blankets and laying on neat stacks of cardboard. They had a separate waiting room for women that men were not allowed, complete with dour looking female guards. We stuck to the main waiting room and snacked on wafers while we waited. The fear that we were going to get thrown off the train and have to stay in Trichy abated a bit with some food. From where we were sitting I could see the tracks where I was at least 50% sure that our train would pull up. Time ticked away slowly. The departure time came and went. My stress grew with each passing minute and the only thing that kept me from running back to the ticket building was the fact that no one else in the waiting room seemed concerned. Ten minutes after we were scheduled to leave a long train pulled up to the station. There was a grumbling of motion through the waiting people. I ran out to check. There were sleeper cars. There was at least one sign that said Chenai. It was looking promising. Long papers were taped to the outer shell of the train cars. I worked my way towards the front of the crowd to get a closer look. It was a passenger manifesto, printed in faded dot matrix. I scanned the list, heart thumping a bit and saw the two names that caused a wave of calm to wash over me:
“SOFI ELEITT” and
Berths 55 and 56 respectively. Looks like that casual call got the job done just fine. Sofia and I hustled on board, ready to get off our feet and maybe get some sleep after such a long day. We did get to lay down, but the it turns out sleep on the night train is a different animal.