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August 31, 2002
The overnight train journey to Calcutta
Some of the trains in India are so bad that the only sensible, rational response is to start weeping. Alipali and I stood on the platform at Varanasi and watched in horror as our train slowly pulled in. Even from a distance the overcrowding was obvious: there were people hanging off the roof.
The train already contained enough people to fill a stadium, and a similar number of people were waiting on the platform. The train stopped, and we watched in more dismay as exactly two people got off.
People started fighting each other to get on board. A minor riot brewed. I took another look at our tickets, only to discover that Calcutta was sixteen hours away. "Wow," I thought, "sixteen hours of densely overcrowded rioting. Should be great."
We clawed our way on to the train, found our seats, and climbed up to them. We'd had the foresight to book top bunks, so at least we could get up out of the way of the fiercest fighting. I chained up my rucksack and looked down. My tiny compartment had been designed to seat eight people. There were twenty-two people in it.
Faced with these sorts of conditions, it's amazing what the brain can do to cope. I found myself being tremendously comforted by the movement of the train. Its gentle rocking at least meant that we were getting somewhere. And it meant that fresh air was coming in, which helped to cool everything down.
But I found the best coping mechanism was having someone to share the journey with. Alipali's presence meant that I couldn't just wallow in my own misery. Whenever it all seemed too much to bear, I could see if there was some way of alleviating her misery. It's possible that without her presence I would've joined in the riot, and never made it home.
Commerce by the blatant use of volume
But if the train ride gradually approached the realms of the semi-bearable, the stations along the way were a different story. The stations were the International Conference of the Deranged all over again, on a fractionally smaller scale.
As we pulled into each station the noise of the engine would lessen, and the wall of human noise would arrive. People selling things would board the train and swarm through the carriages, making about as much noise as World War I. Bells would ring and horns would honk and ear-splitting cries would fill the air. The most frequent offerings were chai and frootys (a pre-packaged mango drink), but many other things were available: omelettes and books and lentil dishes and torches and children's toys and the full smorgasbord of all things peculiar. No matter what your real needs and secret hopes are, it's likely that you can purchase them on an Indian train.
To my genuine amazement, I got more sleep on this train than seemed likely or plausible, and I woke up feeling fantastic. That morning India seemed wonderfully beautiful. The train had largely emptied through the night, none of our luggage had been stolen and we had a panoramic view of a unique, exotic country.
"This is the life," I thought, conveniently forgetting the trauma at the start of the journey. I made a list of everything we had to do when we pulled into Calcutta. Here's the list, in full:
1. Find hotel.
A few hours later we arrived, and we found a hotel. It was an immensely satisfying day.
A few days later it was time to leave India. There was only one more obstacle, and it involved a bucket.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 09:49 PM in the Dog Biscuit category | Comments (0)
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