A real account of what it is like to travel on an overnight train in India
Eight years ago Jmayel and I spent two months traveling through India, we trawled up and down the country, through the bustling culture shock city of Delhi, sat peacefully in the Taj Mahal as Jmayel’s shoes were stolen in Agra. We roamed the Pink City of Jaipur and accepted an invitation to attend an Indian wedding from a Rickshaw driver.
Us in the Taj Mahal….Jmayel couldn’t look more like a tourist if he tried!
Our rickshaw driver, Ram invited us to his cousins wedding
We sat looking down on the ruins and stared wide eyed at the otherworldly rock formations in the unusual town of Hampi, walked across the bed of the (at the time) dried up lake in our favorite place of Udaipur and enjoyed the un-hassled air.
Jmayel looking out in Hampi & over the town ofh Udaipur
We walked along out of season Goan beaches and gorged ourselves on the gorgeous southern Indian foods. We watched a traditional Kathakali show in Kerala and explored the backwaters on a wooden boat before mingling with the locals in the hip and trendy town of Ernakulam.
Me on a beach in Goa
Our trip through India was filled with blood, sweat and tears, literally. We spent our first night in India sitting in our Delhi hotel room crying and wondering what on earth we were doing.
A group of random children
We had a run in with a scam artist who stole our money, we were chased through villages by gangs of street children and I was almost gauged in the chest by a random horned but sacred cow. We both got badly ill and as well as suffering many nose bleeds from the pollution, Jmayel contracted a skin infection and we both battled with the side effects from taking malaria tablets every day. We considered on more than one occasion the possibility of getting a plane out of there early to our next destination of Malasia. Yet we stayed.
Ancient fishing nets & a sunset in Kerela
The reason I am talking about our travels through India is because I recently entered a travel writing competition documenting ‘the worst journey of your life’ unfortunately I failed to reach the final three candidates but I thought I would share my piece with you and give an insight into our travels before we came to Thailand.
The fortress in Jaipur – ‘The Pink City’
When I first ventured out at the age of 18 and began to travel, starting with a much anticipated month in Australia with a good girlfriend of mine, the years that followed have since brought me many more adventures as well as rather a few ‘bad journeys’ including a 12 hour bus ride through the dead of night over some incredibly bad roads also in India, which was the stuff only nightmares are made of. Throwing up overboard as we crossed some very rough seas and high waves in New Zealand and having our car attacked by Kangaroos as we road tripped to Alice Springs in Australia, not to mention almost getting car jacked in Morocco.
A local Indian bus in Monsoonal rains…
We have experienced a bus crash and many vehicle breakdowns and worrying moments on the road, yet this one night as I boarded a train in India has stuck with me. I remember the smells and sounds so vividly, after 6 weeks of constant travel through India, this particular night it all got a bit much and this is a moment of travel that is fully ingrained into my mind…
A Night on Indian Rails
It was 1:30am when the train inched its way slowly into the eerily empty station, lit only by a single orange light that managed to feebly cast its dim hue just a few feet, being more of a magnet for flying insects and nocturnal bugs than any actual illumination.
The muggy humid air of a late Indian summer coated my fatigued body with a clammy film of perspiration despite the un earthly hour and the sun long ago faded.
The monstrosity of a train stopped with the screeching sound of metal on metal, the brakes seemingly struggling to halt the giant steel can with windows. I boarded the rickety metal carriage with trepidation and with my 25kg bag strapped tightly to my back, I heaved myself up the high steps just as the train started moving once again, almost flinging me ungracefully back out through the opening. I clutched the rail tightly to get my footing before venturing into the overcrowded tube.
The dingy muted glow from the ceilings florescent strip failed to light my way as I continued through the swarm of people in the near darkness. A musty smell hung heavily in the air, a strange mixture of rich Indian spices, cardamom and cloves entangled with stale sweat and body odor which made my nostrils tingle.
I inched my way on tiptoes over soft, lazy bodies strewn across the floor, my ticket stub crumpled in my weary hand, I searched along the rusty posts for my cabin number only to find two men already occupying my sleeper section. Unsure of the correct procedure to eject a man from my space, I looked down once more at my ticket number to confirm what I already knew and showed it to him, ‘Excuse me, I think you’re in my seat’ I explained in my oh so polite British manner. With no response from the blank brown eyes staring back at me through the gloomy lighting I resorted to pointing and putting my bag down as an indicator of my not moving. A few tense and awkward seconds past before the men muttered something between themselves then peeled their bodies from my bed on the night train, shoving past me and making a noise that came from deep inside their throats as they begrudgingly relocated.
At the sight of a bed I let myself become filled with relief, after being on the road and walking around the manic streets of India for almost a full 24 hours, the thought of some horizontal down time was enough to elate me. I crawled into the shadowy section thinking only of sleep, as my hands became covered in an unknown gooey substance left behind on the sticky plastic. Immediately the dreamy and dozy thoughts evaporated from my mind as I searched my bag for tissues and sanitizer. Grainy crumbs covered the area and the light from my mini travel torch revealed a mound of maggots crawling over one another in the lint filled corner of my allocated space.
This was me for the next 8 hours and with nowhere else for me to go on the packed transport I blocked out the dirt and maggots and shuffled myself far away from the unwanted creatures.
Feeling irritable and groggy I used a paperback book as a makeshift pillow and a shawl to cover my bare arms, I closed my eyes and went through the motions of sleep on the plinth like bed, trying unsuccessfully to shut out my surroundings.
The rocking motion of the train did not send me to sleep like a baby, I turned and fidgeted for hours trying to get comfortable. Every muscle in my body ached and just as I found a tolerable position, my eyes getting heavy with overdue sleep, the hint of dawn breaking through the darkness outside, the carriage turned into a hive of activity.
Chai Wallahs came out of nowhere shouting of their wares ‘Chaiiiiii, Chaiiiiiii’ as they pushed their way through the train, masterfully holding onto trays of chai and coffee without spilling a drop. Their shouts were followed even louder by ‘Puri Bhajiiiiiii’ as men selling the north Indian breakfast past by me. The scent of the deep fried breads and potato curry seemed to have awakened the carriage and my fellow passengers began to feast greedily.
Breakfast time had come around as we pulled to a stop at a bustling station and more passengers bordered the already crammed train. Another day in India had begun and as I pulled myself up into a sitting position, it became clear that I would have to wait for my longed for sleep.
Despite India being a tough place for long term travel for many people, it also provided us with hundreds of great stories and memories and it is one of the most vibrant places albeit sometimes confusing, challenging and shocking destinations we have ever been.
Jmayel has since returned to the country for a father and son trip with his dad and we hope to return together one day and revisit some of the places that kick started our travel love affair. We also want to capture the unique country through film and photography, both of which we had no knowledge of on our first visit.
India is a place where we experienced many novice traveler fails and have had some of our best and worst travel experiences here.
Apologies for the average photography – this trip was pre photography skill-age!
So now you’ve heard one of mine, What has been your worst travel experience to date?
Sacha El-Haj – 8 Miles from Home