On Tuesday evening I took a tuk tuk from the oppulent Sai Palace Hotel to the zen-like atmosphere of Agra Cantt Railway Station. (If you believed that, you’re not going to last long in India.) But seriously, there were no complications along the way and I arrived 90 minutes ahead of my scheduled departure.
I don’t mind being early in situations like this just in case I get lost, forget something, have a ticketing issue, total meltdown or any one of a thousand complications one might expect to pop up when traveling on a budget in India.
After stepping over about 1000 sleeping bodies and a few that may not have been sleeping, I entered the main hall to see a large notice board. At the bottom of a long list of “lates” was Train No. 13240. There was no indication of how late, and in India that could mean anything from 10 minutes (we’re just outside the station hosing down the bathrooms) to several days or even weeks (a new locomotive is being tested in Mumbai and should be here a week from Friday). And who am I kidding about hosing down bathrooms? They NEVER hose down the bathrooms.
Once I got to the platform I met two really cool Polish guys, Majki and Sebastian, who are doing a round the world trip with the help of media sponsors. Some of their expenses are covered and they have the use of every imaginable gadget in exchange for posting photos and video and doing regular call-ins to Polish radio stations. Not a bad gig, eh? Check them out on Facebook at World Expedition 2015.
The time passed quickly, thanks to a number of minor and not so minor distractions. There were several lepers scooting around the platform on mechanic’s dollies, two packs of wild dogs who had a noisy but bloodless standoff, and there was the incident with the chai wallah. I paid 10 rupees for a cup of chai masala when the sign clearly said 7 rupees and everyone one else was getting change from a 10. I asked for my change and was told “tourist price.” I’m not stressed about paying an extra three rupees (a fraction of a cent) for a very good and ridiculously cheap beverage but it’s the principle that bothers me a bit. I decided to let it pass.
Once ol’ 13240 eventually showed up, almost six hours late – you read that right, six hours late – the boarding process took all of about 45 seconds. The Indians sure know how to get on and off trains and subways in a hurry. It ain’t pretty. Cuts, scrapes, bruises and black eyes are common, and a few people get trampled, but damn do they do it quickly.
My car (S7) and berth (64) were clearly marked and to my great surprise I didn’t have to evict a family of four from my allotted berth. I settled in, chained and locked my bags to a post, and opened up a bottle of water and a pack of rock hard chocolate cookies to celebrate. (It’s all about the small pleasures!)
On my journey from Delhi to Pushkar (Ajmer) I rode in AC class which features a padded reclining seat, air conditioning, snacks and one meal, water, chai, hot towel, etc. It was pleasant but boring. For the seven hour train to Agra I switched to Second Class non-AC (bench seat, no AC, snacks purchased from a vendor). The people in that car were friendly but there weren’t the characters I had been expecting. I decided to try Second Class Sleeper for this trip. You can mark that down as Bad Choice No. 3.
If you’re expecting a horror story, prepare to be disappointed. The only reason I’d classify it as another bad choice is that it was only slightly more interesting than the more luxurious classes.
The thing they call a berth was pretty hard but no worse than most of the beds in 2 star hotels. The bathroom was pretty bad by, say, Don Jail standards, but actually pretty good by rural Chinese truck stop standards. Everything is relative.
My only issue was with the length of the berth. Second Class berths are actually in the same car as Third Class berths, they just run along one wall for the length of the train, stacked two high, as opposed to the cheaper berths that are stacked three high and arranged in groups of six, running the width of the train. I had a divider at my head and foot, and since these things are designed to accommodate your average Indian, and not a humongous white guy with a backpack and gym bag, it was pretty cramped. I would have had a bit less headroom in Third Class but at least I would have been able to dangle my toes out the open end rather sleep curled up like a cat.
Below: Third Class Sleepers shown with the middle berth folded down to create a seat back for the lower berth during the day.
One minor annoyance was the number of people parading up and down the aisle at all hours of the day and night. And by “all hours” I mean all 17 hours that I was on this particular train. We were six hours late in boarding, another 90 minutes before we left Agra, and then it took at least three hours longer than expected to make what should have been a 12 hour trip. Most of the extra time was spent idling on sidings while we waited for the “on-time” trains to pass on the same track.
At least there was plenty of time to chat with the other English speakers in my car. My cluster of eight included a farm worker, the manager of a toy manufacturing business, a PH.D. student, a high school student returning from a week-end of tutoring in Delhi, and three young guys who were headed to a friend’s wedding.
Everyone asked why I was traveling so far and for so long. Everyone wanted to know what my wife thought about me being away for two years. Hey, at least they appeared to care what a wife might think. I served up my well practiced response: “I don’t have a wife… Or a husband.” This usually splits inquisitive strangers into two camps: those who get it and generally drop it and those who are totally confused and generally drop it. I don’t know where these guys fell, but it ended that line of questioning in a heartbeat.
The only awkward moment was when at least five of the guys swore that I was a dead ringer for Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt. I don’t see the resemblance but they were adamant that I could pass myself off as Dutt and easily take a seat in First Class.
Aside from a pack of drum-beating, fire-breathing, pre-school aged contortionists who passed through the train several times, this could have been the GO Train to Oakville. Yes, that’s a bit of a stretch but you get my point.
The passengers were a mix of students, families and single working class men. This isn’t a big adventure for them. They’re just going about their lives in a country where train travel is for the masses, private cars are for the rich, and flying is almost unheard of.
There were no lepers on my train, no storytellers, no holy men, no swindlers or circus freaks. I didn’t see a single two-headed baby or any certified lunatics. There wasn’t even a Donald Trump impersonator to spice things up.
So what does a guy have to do to drum up some blog material on an Indian train? As Third Class Sleeper and Second Class Sleeper share the same car, and AC class is full of boring Europeans, my next trip on Indian Railways may have to be on the roof. At least when someone pees from the roof it blows away from you, not through the open window and into your berth.
Sorry, you didn’t need to know that, did you?