If you’ve ever wondered if you’re claustrophobic, I know a way you can find out for sure — ride the sleeper car on an Indian train.
Last week we had our first encounter with the Indian Railway system. We knew it’d be a very different experience and we were both looking forward to the adventure, but let me tell you… we got more of an adventure than we bargained for.
The story begins the day before our intended trip. It’s a Saturday afternoon and we’re in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We’ve had a wonderful time there but we both feel ready to move on, so we get online to book a train for the following morning.
Now, we’d read that you should book train tickets at least three days in advance — but we took that as a suggestion. Turns out, it’s a cardinal rule.
“So… we’re 6th and 7th on the waitlist for 2 AC,” Kim informs me. 2 AC is an air conditioned car with two tiers of seating, the business class of Indian trains. “I don’t know if we’ll make it, but I think we should go to the train station anyway and try.”
“Yeah, someone will probably cancel. Plus I’m sure there are more seats available than it says online,” I confidently reply.
Famous last words.
We get to the train station about 6 AM Sunday morning and from the moment we arrive we’re flustered. The signs are all in Hindi and we can’t find the ticket counter, which we need in order to know if we’ve made it off the waitlist.
Finally we locate the information desk. The attendant tells us that the train we want is departing from Platform 2, but he can’t tell us if we have seats. We decide to head to the platform anyway, figuring we’ll try to get on the train and just see what happens.
At a quarter past six the train pulls into the station. We stealthily attempt to board the 2 AC car, but an official stops us. The car is full.
“So… I guess we didn’t make it off the waitlist,” I brilliantly observe.
“Maybe we can get seats in another car.”
“Yeah, let’s ask. I’m ready to leave Agra today.”
So we ask the official if there are available seats anywhere else on the train. He says we should try the sleeper car, which has two-tiered seating and no air conditioning.
“Should we go for it?”
“I guess so.” The thought of a 10 hour ride in a stuffy enclosed space doesn’t particularly enthuse either of us.
We decide to give it a shot. We board the sleeper car, wiggle our way into a couple of empty seats, and pretty soon we’re on our way.
The first few hours are fine, to our pleasant surprise. We’re by the window and there’s even a little space to stretch out. Kim flashes me a big smile.
“This is much better than I thought it’d be,” she says.
“Totally,” I happily agree.
Then — the pivotal moment. Our train passes through New Delhi, a major transportation hub as the capital of India. Suddenly our car is FLOODED with people. An elderly couple promptly instructs me and Kim to move. We know we don’t have assigned seats, so we scramble to get out of their way.
For a moment we freeze in the aisle, unsure of our next move. Do we get off? Hunt for a seat? Stand?
A gracious couple notices our confusion and offers us the bench above them. The compartment is for their luggage, but they’ll let us sit there. We thank them profusely and start to climb up when a kind voice shouts down to me.
“You can sit here,” the man says, gesturing to his compartment. He has the top tier all to himself one row over.
This man is Abul, my train angel. He is responsible for Kim and I not having to share this palatial accommodation:
I scurry up next to Abul as Kim settles in amidst the luggage. The top of my head is less than a foot from the ceiling. I grab my book, cross my legs, and mentally prepare myself for spending the next 6 hours in this position. I’m a bit far from Kim, but that’s okay. She’s feeling ill and needs to sleep.
“Maybe the train will clear out as we go and we’ll be able to get a seat again,” I shout back to her.
The train actually becomes MORE crowded. At the next stop about a dozen 20-something guys pile in. They swarm Abul’s section of the car, tucking themselves into every nook and cranny, high and low, straddling tiers if necessary.
“Do they have tickets?” I ask Abul. They can’t possibly. At this point ratio of people to seats is probably 4:1.
“No, likely not. They’ve come from their soldier examinations,” Abul tells me, overhearing their conversation. “They are riding till the last stop.”
Well… so much for getting my own seat again.
I can’t see the floor of the train anymore when I look down. I’m completely flabbergasted. People are perched and positioned every which way; clearly there are no safety regulations.
After the guys settle in, they notice me. I’m the only white person in the section since Kim and I are separated, and I happen to be a young woman to boot.
It’s a peculiar feeling — knowing that people are talking about you in another language, especially when you’re sitting right next to them. I can feel that all these guys are looking at me as they confer amongst themselves, but I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re saying.
One guy tries to get my attention. I focus on my book, hoping he’ll get the message.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? …ma’am?”
Finally I give in. “Yes?”
My fatal mistake. If I wanted to be left alone, I should have never responded. But oh well, too late.
I’m bombarded with questions. “What country are you from?” “What city?” “Will you pay for us to come to New York?” “Can I take your picture?” “Why do you have headphones in?” “Who is your favorite singer?” “Why are you wearing glasses?” “What book are you reading?” They grab my journal and investigate it like archaeologists would an artifact, studying my cursive English scrawl as if it were hieroglyphs.
Their English isn’t strong, and my Hindi is nonexistent. Abul translates when necessary.
“They say they will give you buffalo milk and sugar cane,” Abul relays, “if you go home with them.”
On my left, there is Abul, a generous and respectful friend who offered to share his compartment with a foreign stranger. On my right, a group of men who are treating me like some kind of zoo animal, offering me a reward if I follow them home.
I don’t wish to accuse these men of intentional disrespect, but the fact remains that I feel utterly trapped in this scenario — and in fact, I am trapped. Short of my jumping off the train, there’s nowhere else for me to go. They know that, and they seize the opportunity to inspect me. I was prepared for the fact that I’d stand out in India, but come on. I’m a person, not a case study.
After about an hour of their incessant probing, I lose my patience. I stick my nose back in my book and stop engaging with them.
By some miracle, we eventually reach our final destination. Kim and I reconnect on the platform.
“Do you realize that we didn’t eat, drink, or pee for that entire 10 hour ride?” Kim points out. She’s right — our bodies must have literally gone into hibernation mode.
“Were you okay up there?” she then asks. “I fell asleep. I definitely have a fever.” She says she saw the guys storm the train, but that’s all.
I laugh in disbelief.
“What?” Kim innocently inquires. “What did I miss?”