How not to catch an Indian train

Most seasoned travellers would never be racing through peak hour traffic yelling at their driver ‘Chello! Chello! Dhanyavaad!’ (Faster! Faster! Thank you!) while the nice man drives as fast as he can, attempting to weave through the notoriously crazy Delhi traffic… with no horn. Yes, the only taxi in India without a horn, right when we need one with a horn.

We accidentally mixed up our station of departure to Varanasi. I thought it was the railway station up the road, but the station in question was, in fact, 40 minutes away.  And now our train was leaving in 30 minutes. We were going to miss it. Lisa looked at me like I was mad, which I am, but she isn’t, thank goodness.

Still in island time from our Andaman Paradise trip, we are never-the-less keen to get to Varanasi, India’s holiest city. Right now Delhi is the last place we want to stay in.

We screech to a halt outside Delhi Anand Vihar Train Station at 6:05pm. The train is set to leave at 6:10. Lisa is half carrying and half dragging Otie who has fallen asleep in her arms while we lug two bags into the terminal. The guard rushes us through security not bothering to check for the grenades in our luggage. We burst out laughing when we see the massive set of stairs in front of us and start to race up them.

In India, there is always someone to help you, whether you want it or not. Today we want it and a good Samaritan has come to our rescue. He whips our suitcase onto his head, grabs our ticket races us down the platform and installs us in our carriage with 1 minute to spare. We offer him a tip but he puts his hand on his heart and shakes his head, backing out of the carriage, never to be seen again.

We can’t believe we’re on the train. But we don’t have time to marvel at this because soon we find ourselves battling through the compartment to our berth with the sweat dripping from us. We are surprised to find the berth is over-capacity already. There are eight people here instead of four. Now, one can’t get mad because one has to spend the next 15 hours with these new friends. So we calmly negotiate with them that at least two people leave so we can sit down.

On it and over it.

Soon I notice a steady stream of people flowing down the aisle and coming back with bedding. In 2nd class AC sleeper you arrive to a berth with only four bunks and the bedding wrapped nicely in brown paper at the end of your bed. We could only manage 3rd class AC Sleeper and here you have to get it yourself. I motion to the people and our new friend Ravi says ‘Run! Run!’ I join the masses with Paloma on my front in the ergo carrier. I didn’t realize I would have to fight for my life, well my child’s life to be precise, just to acquire this little package of linen.

We head into the small hallway connecting the two carriages and immediately get squished on both sides from others desperate for bedding too. I squirm my way to the tiny counter and thrust forward a 50 rupee note, as everyone else seems to be doing. But the pillow wallah dealing in sheets and blankets seems oblivious. At least 50 people are surrounding us and pushing in harder and harder. Paloma is asking nicely ‘Please, Mummy, can we go?’ and then after a while ‘MUMMY!!!! HELLLLPPPPP!’ and screaming at the top of her lungs. ‘Batcha! Batcha!’ (‘Baby! Baby!) I yell at them motioning to her as the temperature rises and she is pulled in all directions. A woman turns her squashed face to me, sandwiched between three other peoples shoulders. ‘Will you control your child!’ ‘Are YOU serious?’ I exclaim. She then softens for some reason and goes nuts, ordering the men to provide me with my bedding ASAP! I reach out to grab at the enormous pile being handed to me but it disappears down the hall on a sea of hands. It is gone. Then all hell breaks loose. The lady who is now my defender starts hitting the crowd, yelling at the pillow walla who yells at me and I yell at him and Paloma yells at everyone. I grab sheets and pillows, abandoning the blankets, offer a quick thanks to my guardian goddess and turn to leave. On my way out of the melee I face the crowd who have been pushing me into a ball from behind for the last five minutes. A passage parts like the Nile.

Ravi, our fellow passenger, questions me as to where my blankets are. And don’t I know there is a blanket racket going on? They turn the AC up so high we freeze, so people buy more blankets, he says. But then at midnight they turn it off so we will all sweat. Luckily I abandoned the blankets.

Before we retire the kids race up and down the carriage loving the adventure of travel. Paloma disappears for 20 minutes and I find her entertaining a berth of Indian gentlemen with her stories and telling them all her name. I love having so many child minders on hand…and all for free! Otis loves the ‘Train Hotel’ and we make cubby houses out of sheets once the old men on the bottom bunks let us go to bed, that is the curse of having the middle bunks.

These bunks feel like they have shrunk since last month when I shared one with Paloma. She hogs the remainder of the space we have. After a crazy afternoon we are finally all cosy and snug and fall asleep to the rock and rhythm of the train.