You remember hearing all the stories about Indian transport. The trains, the buses. The, “I was standing on the platform, waiting for the train to pull in, and then I noticed the men running down it, away from me. I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized what was going on. The men were pitching their bags through the windows—then climbing in after them. I was standing by the door, like a fool, and dozens of bodies started flowing off the train. There was no getting on, since everyone was getting off. And by the time I did manage to use my size to shove my way on the train, those cheeky bastards that had jumped through the windows had already filled the car.”
One of the first stories someone told you in the beginning days of your travels was about a guy who endured a malaria fever while hanging onto the outside of a train for hours and hours. When he finally got to his station, he collapsed on the platform and people just walked on by him.
It seemed a bit hyperbolic. You weren’t sure what to believe. You’re not sure what it was like twenty or thirty years ago. But today, rest assured, there are bars on all the windows. The politics of seat claiming have changed.
You remember your first train ride.
You’d just left the Taj hotel in Mumbai, after sipping a delightful fresh-squeezed passion fruit “welcome drink,” offered by the staff to you and the party you were with, if only for a few minutes. You’d taken enough time to sip the drink and then stress out about the logistics of getting from Colaba to Lake Powai, an hour’s ride up north to the suburbs. It would involve a treacherous walk through the heart of Mumbai, past her sleaziest salesmen, con artists, and beggars to Churchgate station, where you would then have to buy a ticket and figure out the particulars of the commuter train. For someone as clean, chubby, and green as yourself, it was terrifying. A bit like going off to college—to the unknown—aware that you have to fashion a brand new identity.
It actually wasn’t so bad…
Perhaps the best part of traveling in India is the sheer number of people at your disposal. You are literally never more than five steps away from a source of information.
“Excuse me. Where do I buy a ticket?” Head bobble, point-wave, smile with eyes rolled. “Excuse me. Which platform?” More of the same. “Excuse me. This train to Jogeshwari?”
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
“This is your train, Madame,” said a nice young Indian girl. “Go there! Go there, right now!” You happened to be standing on the very end of the platform, and you hopped onto the first car. You realized in short order that you were in an empty ladies car.
You forgot all about these.
You had your choice of seats, so you took one by the window and wedged your bag between your knees.
Over the next two minutes, women entered the car and filed neatly into the seats. So orderly. So polite. So feminine.
You could laugh now, because it was rush hour. And after a few more stops, you began to learn.
“Ladylike” was a forgotten past time. Women pushed and shoved and crammed themselves onto the car with countenances like linebackers. The interior of the train car was one large writhing mass of handbags, saris, bracelets, babies, and furrowed bindis. They squawked at each other and bumped their hips and shoulders.
It wasn’t nearly as entertaining as watching them shove their way off the car. You saw through the windows the eager faces of women yet to mount the train. The way they arranged themselves in a tight, selfish wall, toeing the line, just waiting for the first travelers to descend. And the women in the car braced themselves, ready to kick some bitch in the face lest she try to jump on-board before sufficient space was available.
You realized that you were trapped. Yes you, with your giant body and your cumbersome backpack. Were your train to suddenly arrive at your station, you wouldn’t have the slightest chance of reaching the door in time. So you studied your railway map feverishly and began to plan your escape.
Height and size are frequently advantageous in situations you’d least expect them to be. While you require more space on the train, you also are too big to push around. You politely threaded your way through the crowd—no, more correctly, the crowd flowed and threaded by, around, and under you, like a body expelling a foreign object. You flowed towards the door and slipped down to the platform seamlessly, and then you congratulated yourself on a job well done.
The Mumbai commuter train was a piece of cake after that, and you took it frequently with Maeva in your first days—fortunately, seldom during rush hour. You really enjoyed the simplicity of transit. Ask a local, jump where he points. Wait, listen, ask some more, and jump off when no fewer than five locals tell you to. You didn’t mind the bodies. Didn’t mind the shoving. It wasn’t so different from the T in Boston, or BART in SF—barring the fact that Westerners are far more apologetic about shoving each other.
* * *
Given your Mumbai commuter train experience, your 3AC ticket from Mumbai to Udaipur, your Gen Pop ticket from Jailsalmer to Bikaner, your sleeper buses and government buses, the private taxis and the rickshaws, even the occasional hitchhike both in cars and on motorcycles, and a few boat rides—well, you felt like you’ve experienced it all.
That is, until you traveled from Bundi all the way to Mumbai.
You needed to head south. You had to be in Goa in a matter of days. The plan had been to take a 2am train from Bundi to Udaipur, a sleeper class train from Udaipur to Mumbai, and then another train from Mumbai to Goa. Given the hoops you would have had to jump through in order to register for online train booking, your only option has been to go directly to ticket counters and ask what is available. Unfortunately, all sleeper trains heading that far south were wait-listed 30 people deep.
Maeva convinced you to stay an extra night in Bundi, and you couldn’t say no. Then she had a sudden change of heart about heading north to Jaipur, and declared she would head south with you to Udaipur. The boys, too, had plans to travel that day—all the way to Delhi. So the four of you, after saying adieu to your goat companion, Esmerelda, tramped your way to the bus station, where you boarded immediately on a bumpy bus to Kota, a regional hub for trains in all directions. From the bus stop, Federico bartered like a sonofabitch for a rickshaw, talking the guy down from 120 to 60. Take no prisoners.
Once more, you have nothing positive to say about the Indian train ticketing system. You were head-wobbled up and down the station, window by window, and never were left with a moment of clarity.
“You have ticket to Mumbai?”
Well, yes. If you wanted the super fast 1AC train car for approximately the price of an Indian’s first-born son. The best you could do was sleeper to Ahmedabad.
“Great,” you said. “Sleeper class. We’ll take that.”
“You must go…” wobble-wobble, point-wave “…ticket there. Come back here.”
You did as instructed, and made your way to the front of the line. A little beggar boy tugged at your shirt. You stared down at him, blankly, as one stares at a discarded, common object found on the streets. Then you turned back to the window. The clerk was speaking with Maeva, who spoke tersely.
“We need a ticket to Mumbai, sleeper class.”
“I can issue your general population ticket here, then you must…” something something, walk in circles, pat your belly and tap your head. Upgrade it elsewhere.
You suddenly threw and arm across the chest of an Indian man pushing his way toward your window, cash in hand. “Oy! You see this? It’s called a line. Get back in it, or I swear to god–” you gave him a persuasive nudge, and he fell back in place for a matter of seconds before attempting to cut the line again. Maeva was ready to rip his head off, and the ticket man shouted in Hindi “Can’t you see these white ladies!” and jerkface was escorted away.
You purchased your tickets and made haste back to your original window, not first without shoving the little beggar boy off your flank.
“Okay,” you said, breathlessly. “Sleeper class!”
“3AC,” the man responded.
“No! Sleeper!” you and Maeva said in unison.
“No sleeper class,” he said.
“You told us there was sleeper class.”
No sleeper class.
“How much is 3AC?”
You already knew. Over two days’ worth of your budget. Unacceptable.
You stared at your Gen Pop ticket and thought about your train ride from Jailsalmer to Bikaner—that six-hour ordeal on the first car behind the engine. The deafening blare of the horn, the people sleeping on the floors, the cramming onto seats, and the two blissed out Indians using luggage racks like upper sleeper berths.
“It’s going to be 12 hours,” you said to Maeva. But she already knew. There was nothing else to do. You left the window, prepared for a long, tiring journey to Ahmedabad.
“When we get there, we’ll secure a better ticket to Mumbai and stay one night in the city,” you said, consolingly.
Federico and Simon had already nailed down their tickets to Delhi, and weren’t scheduled to depart for another three hours. You and Maeva had only 40 minutes. So you scampered up and down the platform, buying fried treats and miniature curries and chai teas. You commandeered a filthy concrete cube, used it as a table, and ate quickly. Another beggar boy, not older than four years old, barefoot, filthy—stared at you. He made hungry hand-to-mouth gestures.
“No!” Maeva said. “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” She always articulated her annoyances in French, directly into their faces, knowing full well they couldn’t understand the words, but could the tone.
Without looking up from your meal, you planted your hand on the boy’s chest and gave him a proper shove. He went away.
You exited the train station for a final group smoke, exchanged email and facebook addresses, and declared your appreciation of one another. The boys escorted you to your platform and when your train finally arrived, made a great show of kitschy romance and farewells.
“Okay,” said Maeva. “This time, we take a car far from the engine.” There was no way she could suffer 12 hours of the horn. “And let’s get some good seats.”
Your heart sank. Car after car after car: all the same. Stuffed with people. Every available seat was taken. There was only room to stand. Seats that did appear empty were adamantly defended in a sort of “Now see here! My companions are just off buying chai and samosas right now. They’re coming back.”
Like Forrest Gump.
It didn’t matter that you were women. That you were foreign. Nobody gave a fuck.
“Let’s just barge in on one of them and own the floor,” you said. That floor, covered in chai cups, newspapers, and peanut shells.
As you argued with a group of men over this very plan, another group of men further down the car started calling and waving to you. You went.
A Sikh man in an orange turban had commanded a whole number of boys to rearrange themselves, thus opening one of the luggage racks—a narrow tier of steel-slotted-bars—nothing like the more comfortable looking luggage racks you remembered from Bikaner.
“Holt shit,” you muttered after offering your most grateful “Thank you, Sir!” You and Maeva chucked your bags onto it and climbed up. The bars introduced themselves with undeniable pressure against your body—its weight distribution. The luggage rack was too narrow for you to sit with you back against the wall and still keep your knees bent. The bars, furthermore, were terrible, and you ass started throbbing, or going numb.
Even now as you write this, laid out on the top berth of your sleeper train car, en route to Goa, you chuckle over it: a 12 hour train ride in Gen Pop, perched cruelly on steel bars, gazing down at dozens of Indians.
“Here, you can put your head in my lap,” Maeva said, folding her tiny, pliable French body into lotus. You maneuvered about as gracefully as a G.I. Joe, curled into the fetal position, and dropped your head into her lap with a grimace. The bars, against your hip bone. You shifted. Ugh, The bars, digging against your shoulder blades. Shift again. Jesus Christ. The fucking bars!
It wasn’t long before Maeva shifted uncomfortably. Her leg had fallen asleep. She repositioned. “Here, put your head back down.”
It wasn’t fair. “Listen, there’s got to be a way we can both fit lying down on this thing.” You argued for a little while about the bags, about moving them to the rack across the aisle. 50 eyes watched you clamor about over their heads as you clipped and locked and secured your stuff like a paranoid schizophrenic. Then it was just you and Maeva, still unsure about the positioning.
You basically reenacted the Kama Sutra. You laughed and giggled and squealed your embarrassment, made worse by the locals watching everything you did. One moment, you were curled in a ball, head on her ass, the next, between her legs, face up, face down, face to the side, arms wrapped around her thigh, ear against her pubic bone. You used your flip flops—wrapped them in newspaper and slipped them under your hips to pad against the bars. Maeva craned her neck against the horrible day pack stuffed with books and electronics—world’s shittiest pillow. And you writhed together, bonded in the shared suffering of your pseudo-matrimonial travel partnership.
You wondered just how gay it all looked, and then you remembered: this was India. You peered through the wire of your wall down below at five Indian boys occupying the floor by the exit doors. They spooned each other intimately—rather romantically—preciously. You peered at the bench across from your perch at the three young men who writhed like little maggots, seeking comfort. One boy, curled in a ball on the edge, another using his hip as a pillow, legs extended into the lap of an upright third, who hugged them like a blanket. Fifteen minutes later, they’d moved again—two of them spooned; yes, two compact, skeletal bodies fit together like Lego blocks, and the third slept hugging his knees in the corner.
On the luggage rack across from you, the Sikh man arranged a few odds and ends. He looked very comfortable, despite the stranger at his feet, with whom he had to share those menacing bars. But the Sikh man didn’t seem at all concerned. He made a show of first pulling out the cardboard he’d brought for the trip. He tore it in half and offered you and Maeva the much needed padding. Then he pulled out a little blanket and offered it to the stranger at his feet. Something in Hindi. The stranger balled the blanket under his head and used it to pad the bars as he shifted his body down and along the luggage rack until his feet were in the Sikh man’s face. They sixty-nined, in such a fashion, holding each other’s feet. The Sikh man waved his hand to gesture that “this is how it is done.”
You balked and slapped your broad ass. “No way, man. Have you seen the size of me?” The dimensions of your body were nothing like theirs. And your feet, for god’s sake, were just about as dirty as they’ve even been. Their soles, dark black, stained primarily from the melting rubber of your flip flops, further embellished with layers of dirt, dust, and definitely mottled with splash-back urine from visits to the latrine. You wouldn’t dare stick those babies in Maeva’s face.
The men in the car laughed at your outrageous reaction to the Sikh man’s suggestion. You accepted your most-awkward oral-sex-like position in Maeva’s crotch, feeling somewhat at home, and nodded off. The position adjusted itself now and again, until you were lying side by side, Maeva’s body smashed face-first lengthwise against the wall, and yours stretched out next to hers, with half of it jutting off the edge of the rack, without support. You offered your armpit to her face, which she took, and your arm extended above your head, like a prisoner manacled by the wrist.
All things considered, you fared pretty well. Every twenty minutes you awoke to agony in your hips—relentless cramping. Shift, squirm, grimace. Sigh, and sleep. Eyes snap open to check on the bags, to be sure nothing has been stolen. Hour, after hour, after hour.
At four-thirty in the morning, you moved to some vacant seats on the ground, unable to tolerate the rack any longer. That’s when you made a friend, Mr. Creepy.
Mr. Creepy wore a bright red t-shirt and had the best-worst example of an Indian mustache. It sat on his upper lip, like a mangy caterpillar, and you wondered why you couldn’t stop thinking about child molesters. Maybe because in the West, mustaches are downright icky.
No matter. Mr. Creepy, hours earlier, had snared your attention with a few sharp whistling noises. He’d been one of the five young men stretched out on the floor in front of the train door, intimately involved in the orgy of floor cuddles. You’d peered down at him through the grate to ascertain the source of annoyance, and then promptly ignored him.
But now that wasn’t possible. He sat directly next to you, and stared at you without blinking—with a toucher smirk plastered on his face. He didn’t blink. He just stared. At all parts of you. Maeva tried to ignore him, but you couldn’t stand it anymore. You stared back.
His smirk broke into a grin, revealing little chicklet teeth—mouth like simpleton. Teeth like a child’s. Gross, you thought, but bared your own in a kind of shit-eating-heartless-grin, in an effort to reflect how stupid he looked. He loved it. So then you chided him, made a noise like you didn’t think much of him, but he didn’t stop staring. By now, the other men were watching your odd exchange with Mr. Creepy, and you were running out of ideas.
Meave barked at him in French. To no avail.
You stared at the man’s crotch for a couple minutes. Then looked him in the eyes. You made a face like, “I… think I just… figured it out!” and made a “how cute!” hand gesture.
He never stopped grinning. Never blinked.
For fuck’s sake!
You began to feel angry. Needed a piss break. Stood up, achieving your full height, lifted your heavy bag off the luggage rack and pulled out a few feminine odds and ends; then you made a show of effortlessly replacing the load on the luggage rack—some kind of demonstration that while Mr. Creepy might be larger-than-average for an Indian, you could squash him at will. You were unlike Maeva, whom you tapped on the shoulder and told not to get raped while you were gone.
Mr. Creepy hadn’t moved.
It went on for over one hour. Maeva smoked a cigarette out the open train door, and Mr. Creepy’s friends engaged with her politely. But Mr. Creepy was still staring at you, standing in front of the group like a chump, arms folded over his puffed out chest.
You imitated his body language. Showed him “how strong!” he looked, and then fluttered your hands at your neckline like a woman overcome with mock desire. The men in the car laughed out loud and for a short moment, Mr. Creepy looked disarmed, but then he was back to his creep show. He became bolder. Started posing for you. Tried to be the center of attention. He was hard to ignore.
You’d run out of options, short of striking him, screaming at him, blinding him with your tactical light. Anything. But hell, what’s the harm in just staring at at woman like a creep for over one hour? He hadn’t touched you once. Any further action on your part would be inappropriate. So you looked away, bitterly, and suffered under his gaze. It was the feeling you get when a musician plays next to your table while you’re trying to have a conversation, when a beggar taps against your window at a red light, relentlessly—seeking acknowledgment. And there’s nothing you can do but look ahead, and you are 100% distracted from all thoughts other than them. The ultimate intrusion.
The Sikh man had had enough. He stood up from his seat and grabbed Mr. Creepy by the shirt and dragged him behind the wall, beckoning his four friends to follow. Some strong masculine tones of an older man. Sounds of a reprimand. “Keep your ass out of sight for the remainder of this nice lady’s trip, or there will be consequences,” you figured. You did not see Mr. Creepy again.
You could have kissed him. You looked at the Sikh man with wide and grateful eyes and a smile, but he did not seek any validation from you. He returned to a seat like a man who’d just taken out the trash and wanted to continue watching football.
Shy of 6 o’clock in the morning, just before dawn. You drifted in and out of a semi-sleep, shivering against the cold of the morning. The train rattled and rocked. So did your teeth, your bones. You hugged your knees tightly, buried your face into your shirt, and tired to exhale your warm breath over yourself. Maeve had abandoned you in order to climb up on an even smaller luggage rack positioned just below the slope of the train’s ceiling. She slept there like a house cat, mummified in endless white linen. You were jealous of her travel-sized dimensions, so turned the volume up on your iPod, blasted yourself a lullaby.
An hour later, your train arrived in Ahmedabad. The city felt… uninviting. You hated it immediately. The rickshaw drivers fell upon you like vultures.
“Maybe we should just get the first train out of here.”
You wandered around, stood in lines, were redirected to new lines.
“Next train to Mumbai… it leaves at 7:10,” said the man.
“It’s 7:07 right now.”
Head bobble. “Yes, hurry. You must go now. Go to that platform, you can buy ticket next to the train.”
“Can’t we but the ticket here?”
He repeated himself. You were confused. Maeva, totally unconvinced.
But you left the ticket window and hurried to the platform. You walked down the long line of cars, looking for the mysterious ticket booth that certainly didn’t exist—you may as well have been searching for Platform 9 and ¾. “Excuse me! Mumbai? Possible to buy ticket on train?”
Heads bobbled through windows like hula girl dashboard ornaments. Fingers admonished. You grit your teeth. “Let’s just hop on. I don’t give a fuck.”
Maeva was reluctant. “I don’t think we should do that.”
The two of you sulked away from the train, back over the footbridge, back to the ticket counters at the main entrance of the station. You would miss your train, all because some chump couldn’t explain the ticketing process to you.
You made it back to the counter. “I would like to buy a train ticket to Mumbai.”
The new clerk looked at you, then began chatting with three other clerks behind him. They kept uttering “Mumbai” and they deliberated.
“Hello! Please talk to me. Can I just buy a ticket for the next train?”
“Next train… Mumbai.” Wobble bobble. You wanted to kick his head off his stupid shoulders, though a window protected him from your cranky wrath. He spoke with his colleagues. Deliberate. Deliberate.
“Oy!” you cried. “Why is this so damn hard! See that train!” You pointed through the windows of their back wall, at the train bound for Mumbai. “Sell me a ticket to that train. The 7:10!” It was now 7:15.
“That train?” he asked, incredulously.
You slapped 500 rupees on the counter. “Sell me two tickets, right now. Hurry up.”
He printed them off. You snatched them and some cash out of his hand and started running. You skid and slipped and dodged all manner of Indian obstacles, charged up the stairs, over the tracks, down some more stairs, and ran down the length of the train until you found Gen Pop. Again.
The train left at 7:20. You couldn’t believe your luck.
“Okay… so it’s going to be….” you said to Maeva, “just another… nine hours.”
The train wasn’t nearly as crowded as the prior. You found yourself a nice car, with many benches nearly empty. You tossed your bag on the luggage rack, which was made of wooden slats and not metal bars, and sat on the lower bench, faced your travel partner, and exchanged weary looks. Above Maeva, a portly fellow lie stretched out on the luggage rack, using multiple bags as pillows and bolsters, and looked about as pleased as a pig in shit.
Your body was so tired. All you wanted was to be horizontal. After ten minutes, you followed that fat fellow’s example and climbed onto the luggage rack above your head and used the remaining two thirds of it to lie in the fetal position. Your camera bag made a terrible pillow.
It was because you were half asleep. You couldn’t be sure why your seat neighbors were moving bags around. Shifting things. Repositioning themselves. It was like some odd game of chess. Maeva ignored them. Your head and eyes rolled. The train pulled to a halt.
And then you heard it.
It sounded unlike anything you’d ever heard on a train. Rumble, rumble, thump, thump, thump, slam! A bag launched into the air and landed at your feet. You opened your eyes and saw heaps of Indians piling into your car. Literally stampeding. Shoving and pushing and laughing and squawking. Asses slammed into position on Maeva’s bench, and the bodies shifted down toward the windows, squashing her into a mere 12 inches of space. You could no longer see her behind someone’s hanging backpack. But you knew she was livid.
The once placid environment of your compartment exploded in 15 voices, half a dozen crackling morning newspapers, and handfuls of fried morning treats. The noise was unbearable. The energy too high. One of the men invited a pretty young girl to sit next to him, and as she tried to study, he playfully poked and fondled her breasts.
You realized why the ticket clerk had been so incredulous about your wanting the 7:10 train. It was the commuter train. It was not nine, but thirteen hours to Mumbai, handling thousands of Indians, servicing every insignificant station down the line.
Maeva bitterly joined you on your luggage rack, and you once again played the Kama Sutra of shared sleeping space. You were so tired, so delirious from your previous two nights of non-sleep (the first, Tramadol-induced insomnia) that time lost all meaning. You closed your eyes for ten minutes at a time, frequently awakened with a start—out of certain fear that someone was burgling your belongings. The heat of noon baked the train, and you soaked through your clothes. The grime that was once limited to your feet had crept all the way to your knees, your hands, forearms, and face.
Your universe had been reduced to weakly lifting your head for a look at the faces of men and women flicking past train windows as it slowed to a halt. The way they handed their bags between the bars of windows, chucked scarves and saris on seats for ownership long before it was possible to board. All you heard was the rumble-rumble-rumble of successive waves of stampeding Indians, many of them roaming like hound dogs in search of their window-chucked belongings… and your head fell in fatigue and defeat and your eyes closed again. You listened to their squawking, their victory-laughing, and then the hawkers’ sounds of,“Chai! Chai! Chai—chai-chai! Pani, paniii, paniiii! Coffee? Coffee? Samooosa!” on and on and on with the infinity and timelessness of a skipping record. The smells infused your dreams. There was the taste of too much chai, the sticky of emergency dates on your fingertips. The sweat. It wasn’t hell. No, not quite. It was something else all together.
24 hours in Gen Pop. It was your badge of honor. Even the Indians were impressed.
“We never see tourists on local train!” one sweet woman exclaimed.
“I can’t believe you did that,” your friend Narendra later said.
You totally understand why.
On that train, you’d lain patiently, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, without the energy even to read, to write, to journal, to chat with Maeva—or anyone, for that matter. You were a fixture of the train, so stoic and immovable that in the last hours of your journey, no Indian dared suggest with inquisitive eyes that they might share your space. They moved along. You were a rock.