“This is India”: My First Train Experience 🚆

The Basics…

-Sleeper ticket from Chennai to Jabalpur: 700/£7.70/$10.80 (request top berth if possible, or 3AC if you can afford it)
-Get the ticket from the International Tourism Advice Bureau a day before (located in the building to the left of the main station, on the 1st floor, Window 22)
-Have a photocopy of your main Passport page and Visa to secure the tickets as only foreigners are allowed priority (to keep tourism funds coming into the country)

Very happy to have a train booked and ready to go 🤙

Take with you…

– A blanket/scarf, and use your dirty laundry bag as a pillow 🤣 (not necessary in AC)
– A hoody which doubles up as a mask to wear over your face
– A pair of socks as it gets colder when the temperature drops at night
– Entertainment (books, games, a film on your tablet if you have one)
– Luxury snacks – they sell Dairy Milk here that tastes as good as it does in England… just saying 😄
-Toilet roll and hand sanitizer (the toilets are exactly as you’d expect them to be in India 👍)
-Face wipes (to also use on your body, as you’ll definitely feel grim after 27 hours travelling)
-Toothbrush and toothpaste (or mouthwash if you’re lazy)

Food on board…

They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner which is cheap as chips (but sadly isn’t chips😩) – although it wasn’t half bad. It’s messy to eat, however, so a great tip is to use a newspaper sheet as a place-mat to keep things clean and sanitary 👍.
– Breakfast – Omelette and bread – 35/40p/50c
– Lunch – Veg curry – 50/55p/80c
– Dinner – Egg biriyani – 70₹/80p/$1.10
– Chai – 10₹/10p/15c
– Big water – 20₹/20p/30c
– Mango drink – 30₹/30p/45c
– Crisps – 15₹/15p/20c
– Banana x4 – 10₹/10p/15c
– A bag of 5 Oranges (not recommend it they’re green) – 20₹/20p/30c

The Experience…

I’ve only been to two places in the world where train journeys are longer than 25 hours….and that’s the supergiants that are China and India.

But whereas China made me hard as nails within the first week of being there – as a result of the harsh culture and the unwelcoming attitude towards me – my first few days in India have felt like I’m constantly being beaten into a piece of wood to test how hard I really am. The answer is simple: I’m not made of iron…

My senses have been overwhelmed and I’ve had this niggling headache just above the nape of my neck where my brain is overworked. Desperate beggar women have hurled abuse at me in my dreams or I’ve pictured myself small, wandering the dirty streets of India, feeling lost and broken, without any family – so I was genuinely thankful when my brother shook me awake on this sleeper train to watch his valuables whilst he went to the loo.

It’s 5.48am and I know there’s no chance of me getting back to sleep for a while. My eyes are damp and this train is brimming to the edge, quite literally, with locals sleeping in any space they can find.

In the filthy corridor, they lay down sheets made from crisp packets (before they’re cut up into individuals squares); men are squatting near the toilet, not to empty their bowels, but to try and sleep upon their friend’s shoulder whilst they’re nostrils and pride are violated. If it’s not the stench of pissy toilets that dominates, it’s pig shit coming in from the window or the stench of the batter that layers the potato balls.

The only scent to be cherished emits from the mango energy drinks or the milky mixture that is Chai. The only sound to be cherished is at 3am when all goes quiet for perhaps an hour before the sellers get money happy again. It’s morning in their eyes and they hop over the sleeping locals, chanting…which wakes up the bunker below. Squeezed together, in no real fit state to sleep, they play hectic Indian music on their old-school Nokia to try and send them off again…

But no mate…

I’ve given over my spare earphones to try and keep the peace, and also because it makes me feel a little bit better to give up something when I can’t give up my bed.

Travelling as a woman here is pretty daunting – so the last thing I’m going to do is invite an Indian man to share a snooze with me (and my brother is built like a brick house so there’s no chance we’re both fitting in this tiny bed). So I just have to watch as locals are crammed onto this tiny train like cattle, with more and more getting on and none getting off.

The reason for this chaos? “This is India”, the ticket man laughs as he steps over two fully grown men spooning in the corridor. “This is India”, he laughs again as he mildly avoids an old man’s weary head. But later, a scholar is to tell me how it’s actually because it’s Festival weekend. Holi Festival…and people are travelling 4 days in advance for the celebrations, just like us! However, we’re making a short stop off at Jabalpur before Varanasi, whilst the majority are heading straight there.

Most people couldn’t secure tickets for this journey, being on ‘The Waiting List’, and that’s the reason for the poor sleeping conditions in this carriage. In our berth, there are 5 brothers, none of whom got a ticket prior. Watching them curl and manipulate themselves into one free bed feels awful when there are three of us travelling ‘with reasonable comfort’ – but without sleeping on the floor myself, I can’t do much about it. Sadly, I think I’m going to be saying that a lot here.

It’s 2pm and the sun is scorching through the carriage. We’ve been on here for nearly 24 hours now and my hips ache. We’re getting restless. My brother was on the middle berth last night, and he’s now joined me in this small sweaty space so that his bed could fold up to give the other’s room to stretch.

The repetitive ‘Chai-cha-cha-chai’ song is becoming the back-beat for broken conversations with the locals below, who pass over a handful of dry Dal in exchange for some butter toffees (I gave them the whole bag in the end).

A beggar man dressed in pirate clad and his young boy wafted a feather duster around in return for rupee. A provocative woman thought she’d make some extra cash by poking men in the face until they gave in and started poking around in their pockets (I still can’t believe that worked 👀🤣)!

One man selling trail mix jipped me, insisting I gave him a 50 note when I gave him 100; the locals who wanted our beds agreed I gave him less – non-surprisingly. It wasn’t worth the fight. My beautiful cashmere scarf was though and I gripped it tightly in my sleep when an old couple with bamboo sticks tried to sneak it off in the middle of the night. Luckily, I’d acrobatted over sleeping bodies just moments before to empty my bladder, so I was awake to hold onto it as they continued through the carriage. Who knows, they might have just ‘got it caught’ on their stick , but the problem with this country is that it is hard to trust when they have so little…

Speaking of which, it sounds dramatic but tie your stuff up with a chain and padlock. This puts your mind at ease that no one can take your backpack when the train stops, as even your clothes are worth the theft here! However you can trust some people; when preparing to get off, one of the guys from the bunk below wanted to help me with my big bag and he waited with us in the long queue until the train finally stopped 🤗💗 … it just goes to show that when there’s bad, there’s also good and that always triumphs!

I’ve never been to a country like it, and I’ve definitely never experienced a train journey like it! But that’s why I’m here – to feed my brain with these powerful days, to visit new places and TRY to enjoy the journey there and to remember how lucky I am to always have a bed…whatever the circumstances!

Love always,
H x

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