P and I were taking our last train across India. I was actually sat aboard train #2334, the Vibhuti Express, as I wrote. As we set off for the station I was almost feeling a little sad that this would be our last journey before we get on a plane, that our true ‘travels’ in India are over.
However, as this was our final train trip, fate appears to have conspired that we get the last train to ever arrive at the station, and this excursion seemed destined to include all the elements of a true adventure in sleeper class.
To begin with, we waited forever for the journey to begin. Arriving at the station before 5pm for our train at 6pm (a usual precaution when we often spend at least half an hour trekking in circles trying to find snacks, water and, of course, the right platform), we were then told it was two hours, no three hours, wait, maybe four hours late. In true Indian fashion, even the stationmaster couldn’t be sure, but we eventually boarded at roughly 10.30pm, only four and a half hours late. Unfortunately, boarding is not the same as actually moving and the train didn’t get underway until around 11.45pm. The ironic thing was that another train to Calcutta had since come and gone, but due to the complicated nature of Indian train bookings, we couldn’t board this unless we wanted to sleep in a doorway.
Once in our own, correctly numbered vehicle, we found our proper place (two upper bunks in Sleeper car 7 to be exact) and settled in for the next 14 hours. Making your bed on the train involves attempting to clean off the layer of grime, but at least this is something we are used to. I am now well practiced in cleaning them the Indian way: sprinkling with water and scrubbing with newspaper (or in our case the many ‘Rules and Regulations’ pages ripped out of the back of our timetable, a book the size of a small phone directory). You would think that the delay on the platform would have been a nice opportunity for the conductor to come and check passengers were in the correct berths, but no, he decided to wait until 2.30am to come and wake us all up with demands for tickets. During the night, the train seemed to be stopped more frequently than it was moving, so we had no idea how much further behind schedulewe were.
Travelling as foreigners on the railways, especially on less common tourist routes, inevitably means that we attract attention. I awoke in the morning to find two little faces peering over the divide from the next bunk. In my semi-comatose state, I found this slightly off-putting and instinctively looked to my bags, however it was not my belongings that the ragged little girl next door was fascinated with, but just me and everything I was doing. Sweet, but somewhat disconcerting when you have someone intently watching you washing your face at seven in the morning.
Unexpected railway delays are also slightly inconvenient when I had been counting on a late breakfast in Calcutta, but ended up devoutly hoping we would arrive in time for dinner. As the journeys are so long, hawkers are constantly traversing the carriages selling everything from tea to biriyanis. Yet the nature of the trip itself as an exceedingly long one means that we were just a little wary of ‘omelettes’ they had been selling for the last four hours in the heat – just imagine the state of the toilets by that time and I’m sure you’ll understand why. Living off snacks seems a possible alternative, but even purchasing peanuts is never as simple as appears. I tried to buy a banana; we only wanted two, but apparently were not allowed anything less than ten.
P went to stand in the door with the GPS; despite the fact that we had been travelling for nearly 12 hours, we found we were apparently less than half way. I guess I’m glad that we were used to Indian railways and decided that allowing 24 hours before our flight was a sensible decision. I spent the rest of the journey just hoping we make it.
*For the record, our train that was scheduled to arrive at 7.55am eventually crawled into Calcutta sometime after 6.30pm, at which point we gave up all hopes of seeing anything of the city except traffic and headed to an airport hotel.