Dealing with the rail system in India is, frankly, a total pain in the arse. Not only is obtaining tickets practically impossible, but every person employed within any kind of travel industry role (in Goa anyway) seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for you to get anywhere. The trains become full weeks in advance; the online booking system is incomprehensible, and if by some miracle you do actually manage to book a seat on a train going somewhere near where you need to be, there is still no guarantee it will turn up.
Last Sunday, having packed my backpack, locked up our rented house in South Goa for the last time and said goodbye to new friends; I happily trotted off to Margao train station, a train ticket to Mumbai clutched hopefully in my sweaty little fist. This being my first solo railway experience in India, I was a little nervous, but I was prepared – I had my overnight transport bag packed with essentials, I had a confirmed ticket, I was arriving at the station an hour before the train was scheduled to depart – what could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out.
Jumping out of the taxi and heaving my pack onto my back, stained and straining at the seams by this point, I handed the driver a fistful of rupees and made for the station entrance. I passed under the security barrier, which bleeped angrily at me as usual, and emerged into the rushing chaos of the average Indian station concourse. Hundreds of people rushed back and forth, a blur of bright saris and white shirts and raven black hair. Chai wallahs patrolled the platforms, their distinctive call of chai, chai, masala chaaaaaaaaiiiiiiii uttered in rough chattering shouts, and piles of sleeping bodies lay comatose on the floor between mounds of tattered luggage.
I sought out the nearest uniformed security official and proudly presented him with my ticket. He gave it the most cursory of glances and thrust it back at me.
‘Train is delayed. See information counter’.
My stomach dropped. ‘Oh, ok’ I said, the smile still plastered across my face. ‘Do you know how long the delay is?’
‘Ten hours. Maybe twelve’.
I laughed. ‘No, seriously’.
‘Seriously. Ten hours is delay. Train will arrive tomorrow in the AM’.
I was no longer smiling. ‘So what should I do?’
Right then. I made my way to the information desk, knowing what the woman would tell me but still clinging to the last vestige of hope.
‘Train is delayed’ she said as I approached the window, not even bothering to look up. ‘Maybe it will come at 6am. You wait.’
A worm of panic slowly uncoiled itself in my stomach. To go back to South Goa would mean another hour in a taxi, another 1000 rupees each way and another nights accommodation, and there was no way to know exactly when the delayed train would turn up in the morning. The last time I was in a train station, I spent most of my time exchanging death stares with flat eyed Indian men who seemed to think my face was located on my breasts. Now I was going to have to sleep here.
I made my way to the ladies only waiting room and sat on a cold, hard bench, trying to decide what to do. The first thing was to find somewhere safe for my backpack, so I went and stood in line for the best part of an hour to check it into storage – a ridiculously bureaucratic process involving numerous receipts and signatures, and handing over my passport to be copied. Next, I enquired at a shop within the station which had a sign proclaiming ‘cyber cafe’. I was told that it was closed (it clearly wasn’t). I bribed the surly shopkeeper to let me use a computer for 10 minutes so that I could message a couple of people to let them know where I was. Then I bought a tiny cup of chai, a bright yellow fist of bananas and a greasy samosa wrapped in newspaper, and settled back in the ladies waiting room. I had killed exactly an hour and a half.
In the waiting room, the women slept head to tail, wrapped in coloured shawls and curled together like chess pieces in a box. I stared in resigned dismay at the floor. Maybe at some point the tiles had been a pale grey, but now they alternated between murky brown and a mottled dark grey and black. Discarded food and spilt chai scattered the floor under the seats, along with a smear of something sticky and unidentifiable. Sighing, I flicked away a used plaster with my foot and unrolled my yoga mat to lie on. My head nestled against the head of the woman nearest to me, I tugged my shawl around me, pulled my beanie over my eyes and plugged headphones into my ears; and spent the next few hours falling in and out of fitful sleep.
I was woken at 5am by the clattering rush of an express train. Groaning, I packed up my things and went in search of chai. 6am came and went, and I returned to the information desk. The sallow faced man now behind the window looked at me nonplussed.
‘Train now will come at 7am. You wait.’
At 6:45am I dragged myself and my backpack up about 5 flights of stairs and across the footbridge to the platform. With nothing to indicate which section of the half a mile long platform I might need to be on to board my carriage, I sat myself in the middle and hoped for the best. Resting my head on my pack, I watched through half closed eyes as the sun broke through the pink and grey haze of early morning. At about 7:15am, a round faced moustachioed man in a black fleece strode down the platform towards me, muttering into a walkie talkie.
‘Is the train coming soon?’ I asked him, almost past caring at this point.
‘Train will be arriving most certainly madam. Do not worry. Train will arrive most likely at 8am’.
‘Oh, ok. Thank you’ I sighed. He waggled his head at me and marched off.
Half an hour later, the platform thronged with people, two trains pulled in at once and chaos ensued. Running, pushing and shoving, bodies piled through the doors of the trains on both sides of the platform. I squinted at the numbers and letters painted onto the sides of the carriages in an apparently indiscriminate fashion, lost amidst the crowd. A man in a suit grabbed my ticket from my hand.
‘Here’ he pointed and pushed me gently. ‘This one’.
‘Thank you so much!’ I called over my shoulder as I ran, jumping onto the train with moments to spare.
Finally on my way, I gazed glassy eyed at the landscape rushing past the window for a minute, then climbed into my bunk, wrapped up against the ferociously icy blast of the AC, and slept for the majority of the ten hour journey to Mumbai.