On Wednesday, Eliana, Sudi, and I woke up bright and early to attempt to book tickets to Jaipur for later that night. We all crammed into the rickshaw shuttle to Falna (the marginally bigger town where the train station is), paid ten rupees each, and reveled in the clown car experience. The Ringling Brothers circus needs to take a trip to Bali, Rajasthan to learn how it’s done. After a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get three waitlist tickets for a train departing at 11:30 pm that night. The man at the station and our co-workers assured us that one doesn’t need confirmed tickets to ride Sleeper Class on an Indian train. We decided we’d take their word for it. It would be an experience!
When we made it to the station that night, we learned that now we had two confirmed tickets between the three of us. We sat around waiting for our train, hoping that the train that had just left the station was not our train leaving VERY early for some bizarre reason. Then some announcement that we didn’t understand except for the words “Bareli Express” (our train) came on over the loudspeaker and EVERYONE hopped down from the platform and walked across the tracks to the other platform. What was going on? What had we just missed? Was our train now on a different track? Was it coming so soon that it would take too long to use the overhead bridge to change tracks? Who could we ask? We spotted a nun walking by and decided to ask her, figuring that she would be more likely to know some English than the hordes of people gawking at us.
So we boarded the train, a process that involves a lot of pushing and shoving as you navigate the aisle, since there are people covering every surface. We walked along, searching for our seats in the fifth Sleeper car – seats 27 and 28. I thought the fact that one of our seats was number 28 was an auspicious sign since June 28th is my birthday and it was only thirty minutes away! Surely somebody somewhere would let us sit down with them. We found our seats, and an old woman in a red and green sari let me and Eliana join her on one of our confirmed seats while Sudi sat in the other confirmed seat. We plopped down and waited for the Most Supreme Train God (the conductor) to tell us our fate.
Luckily, the Most Supreme Train God was a young man in his young twenties who was incredibly amused and excited by our American-ness. We stared down at him from our perch on the top bunk brimming with elation and relief. He kicked the other people off our two confirmed seats. All would be well. There was no chance that we’d get kicked off the train somewhere in Rajasthan. We were not expecting to get kicked off the train, but it was a worst case scenario that we had collectively considered. Once on the train, we had realized that it was very unlikely that riding a train without confirmed seats was problematic. A Sleeper car has no AC and it is meant to fit 72 people. In this car, there were probably about 140 people. That’s a lot of other people without confirmed seats.
Eliana and I then settled in to sleep lying side by side on our one narrow bunk. We were using our bags as pillows and our heads and bodies as protectors of our bags. There was a wall separating our bunk from the bunk next door. At the end with our bags and our heads the wall had a small opening. So we were just lying there squished and trying to sleep when Eliana raised her arm over her head to rest it on her bag. I had my eyes closed and had no idea she had done this. I only knew that I had felt some movement over my head and that there was a small opening in the wall where I had felt the movement. Warnings from countless friends flashed through my head. I knew in that moment that my bag was probably being cut open and ransacked. I felt a mixture of admiration, annoyance, and anger as I deliberated about the appropriate course of action. Admiration for the persistence of the pickpockets. Annoyance and anger because I really just wanted to sleep! I wished that I had my swiss army knife out so that I could give the thief a little poke with the corkscrew. But since my knife was in the backpack that was being looted, that was out of the question. I decided that I would just have to grab the arm and give it a tug. So I did. Eliana and I jumped up screaming. It went something like this:
Me: “Eliana! There’s an arm back there! We’re being robbed!”
Eliana: It was my arm!!
(a few seconds pass)
Both: Hysterical laughter
Of course, Sudi was asleep while this whole drama played out. We’ve discovered that she has a remarkable ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, and under any conditions. Sadly, this is a talent that I don’t have. As a result, the train trip was exhausting since we got off the train at 4:30 am. Beyond that though, the cramped conditions, the smells, and the heat did little to dampen my excitement. When we returned from Jaipur, we did so without any confirmed tickets and I had a lot of fun meeting this group of women on their way to Gujarat. We painted our nails and drank chai. I got out of the station at one stop and passed them samosas through the window.
When I ride the train here I always think about my experiences on Amtrak when I used to ride it to school in high school. I have a vague recollection of these trips and they all blur together because there was nothing that made each trip distinctive or interesting. Amtrak was comfortable but it was very bland. Indian trains are not so comfortable, but each journey is a trip that I’ll never forget with people whose names I’ll actually remember.