STEALING SLEEPERS: LOW-BUDGET TRANSIT, PERSERVERANCE, AND A PINCH OF LUCK

“Life is too easy,” you wrote to Angus on Facebook. “You know…” Yeah, he may not like it, but he gets you.

Another friend commented that she didn’t understand the appeal of your India travel—the struggle, the fighting, the austerity. Didn’t sound like fun to her.

“What’s the appeal? I dunno,” you responded. “I’m a heavy person. I like a challenge. I like a struggle. Keeps me interested.” Otherwise you get bored. What if you had a huge budget? What if someone paid all of your expenses?

What then?

It would suck the fun out of travel. It would turn travel into “vacation.”

You and Maeva have been bombing across India at a pace much more agreeable to your 48-hour attention span. Two to three nights per city, tops, followed by 24-hour stretches of transit. By now, you are so familiar with Indian train stations that even they have gotten a bit boring.

But even though the train stations are all the same, the how of your train travel is always up in the air.

In the beginning, you’d scrupulously reserved sleeper-class tickets before boarding the train. This required either a booking agent, or a friend’s online railway reservation account. Even using these means, a sleeper is never guaranteed the day you want to leave. So you and Maeva learned how to tough it out in Gen Pop. Eventually, with enough practice, you learned that with a Gen Pop ticket, you could slip onto a sleeper car, and if a bed was vacant, you could occupy it until the rightful occupant arrived, or until a ticket guy came along and offered you an upgrade, at which point you would pay the difference.

This worked only half the time. Often, you found yourselves crammed into Gen Pop cars, and you learned to fight tooth and nail for a space. This wasn’t a problem if your train was on the beginning of its course. If, however, the train was mid-line, or near the end-line, there wouldn’t be a snowflake’s chance in hell that you could travel horizontally through the night.

You were lucky the last time; on the platform, waiting for your delayed train, Maeva not-so-surreptitiously smoked a cigarette—something prohibited. A man approached her, told her it was prohibited.

“Yes but,” you began, “When we get caught, we never actually get in trouble. Usually the policeman uses the admonishment as a way to start a conversation and start flirting.”

The man laughed, and then five seconds later you learned that he was railway security, or really, train police. He brought out his very large rifle, plunked it into your lap. You held it in your hands, wondering why, for whatever reason, this was not the first time an armed official had handed you a loaded firearm so willy nilly.

This very responsible official.

This very responsible official.

The man spoke with you for some time, and you joked with him about being cheap. He didn’t believe you were going to ride Gen Pop. You showed him pictures of your previous journeys. Then he insisted, “You will ride in my car.”

No kidding? Sweet upgrade!

You felt slightly guilty when, once on that particular train, the guard uprooted a sleeping Indian—kicked him right out of his bed so that you and Maeva could ride more comfortably. It was a mere four hours, but considering how crowded Gen Pop was likely to have been, you weren’t sorry.

So that was luck. But you can’t be lucky every time, right?

Wrong.

You were in transit from Varanasi to Darjeeling—a feat that would take 28 hours in total. It was no picnic, either. Escaping Varanasi on the cheap isn’t easy. The two of you realized that going four kilometers out of town to the bus stand on foot would be faster than riding in a rickshaw (traffic was so bad), and it would save you 150 rupees. Busted a move in heavy traffic, dodging cars, cyclists, jeeps, loaded trucks and everything else, inhaling exhaust the entire way. But you were winning. So you did, until the last confusing kilometer. Not wanting to marinate in sweaty clothing, you paid a cycle rickshaw guy 20 rupees for the home stretch.

This pic absolutely does not do the traffic justice.

This pic absolutely does not do the traffic justice.

At the bus stand, you’d planned to grab a governmental bus for pennies—something to take you the 16 kilometers to the main railway station. India, unfortunately, was being uncooperative.

“Buses finish.”

“All of them?” you asked, incredulously. What about everyone else who had trains to catch?

Other option: a rickshaw for 450 rupees.

Hell no.

You hemmed and hawed about the injustice for 45 minutes before one good-natured rickshaw driver, clearly aware that you wouldn’t consider shelling out more than pocket change for transit, walked you some distance down the highway. There you waited perilously close to traffic until a random private bus bounced to a stop. Eight Indians or so scrambled to the doors to smash themselves into an already over-crowded situation. Your rickshaw driver yelled and garbled at the driver, who kicked everyone off and let you and your bags on board.

One hour of elbows, butts, and shoulders. Bumps and lurches. Coughing, hacking, spitting beetle pan. But you made it out of town for the low cost of 20 rupees (or 33 cents).

Your train, of course, was late. About three hours late. But not bad, considering its average lateness of four hours and forty-five minutes.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a very crowded, very dirty, very uncomfortable situation,” you said. The train, after all, was coming from Delhi, probably 10-13 hours away.

And when you boarded… oh yes, you saw it with your own eyes. Gen Pop was smashed. And the sleepers were 100% occupied. You shoved and slid your way through the narrow aisles, car by car, and sank lower and lower into your melancholy. Your train ride was going to be 16 hours, and you really didn’t want to spend them next to the toilets.

But leave it to Maeva. She’s fiery and determined. Even though you were comfortably nestled on the urine-and-mud-sticky steel floor by the doors, scrutinized by five men taking turns spitting pan out the side door, you could not persuade her to wait a couple hours to see if anything freed up (as had happened in the past).

Smelly toilets, by the door.

Smelly toilets, by the door.

“We can sleep there,” she said. “On the floor, between the two low berths. I don’t think it will bother anyone.”

This is where you and Maeva differ: you wouldn’t dream of just occupying the floor of a compartment shared by eight paying people already. What right did you have?

She whined. She talked to the guys. She sulked. And then, miracle of miracles, a gentleman invited you to do exactly that: occupy the floor of his car.

Granted, you didn’t get the permission of the seven other occupants, but you didn’t care. It was 11:30pm, and you were ready to crash out after a previously not-so-good night of sleep.

You shuffled to the compartment, stared at the teeny slice of floor and thought, How the fuck are you gonna do this?

Down went the bag, out went your mats, your wool blanket, your puffy coat, your bag of clothing you used as a pillow, your bag lock, your torch, you baby wipes. Everyone stared at you (as they do) but said nothing.

Squish! Oh man, it was a tight fit. Your hips, you dare say, are a bit too broad for India. A rickshaw driver thinks a bench is made for four butts—but really, only three of yours. You couldn’t lie on your side, not without crowding out Maeva. You lie down on your back, squirmed halfway under the seat, and then cursed silently about needing to pee—not once, but three times.

Every time you needed to pee, it was an effort. You had to extricate yourself out from under Maeva (who used your puffy coat arm as a pillow, and as a means of compromising with your broad shoulders). Then you had to squirm. Inch your way down, down, down your yoga mat until you could sit up and not strike your head on the mini table. You bumped and kicked your neighbor’s bed in the process. Off to pee!

Damn! Pissed on your trousers again. Ugh!

Then you repeated the process in reverse. Maeva moaned, shifted, tossed, wished she could turn. You got fed up and slipped a Valium under your tongue. Ten minutes later, you were out.

But Maeva’s back pain and your cramping hips were too much. She sniffed. You coughed. She moaned. You both squirmed. It wasn’t easy.

And in the morning, you woke to a sore throat.

Sonofa…

That’s not good. You hailed the chai guy, got some hot liquid on it. Wrapped your head and neck better. Applied Tiger Balm. Went back to sleep. Maeva gave up and let you have the space. You tried to disappear. Curled into the tightest ball of your life. Folded yourself neatly in half and tried to slide as much of yourself under your neighbor’s seat as possible.

Hey! Down here!

Hey! Down here!

Until train security found you. Woke you up. Demanded to see your face. Then mentioned a fine. No jumping sleeper cars without a sleeper ticket. You’re not sure what happened. Maybe the look of your puffy eyes. Maybe Maeva’s adorable curls. Maybe your white skin. Or maybe some of your good-natured neighbors. Whatever it was, they said it was okay, and you could stay where you were.

The face of someone who slept like crap.

The face of someone who slept like crap.

Bam! Back to sleep. A few more hours.

And your throat was still sore when you woke.

You got another chai, was pleased to score some sprouted chickpea salad, ten bananas, and five slices of pineapple for 30 rupees.

“Gotta load up on vitamin C today,” you said to one of your neighbors. “Can’t be sick.”

You passed out sitting up. One of the men offered Maeva his sleeper bed. She took it. Later, he offered you another guy’s bed. You didn’t look for the owner’s approval. You climbed up without another word and passed out again.

How you managed to sleep 14 out of 16 hours, you’ll never know. But what would otherwise have been extremely tedious and uncomfortable turned into another free sleeper ride. One of your neighbors got off the train at the same stop, personally escorted you to a 20-rupee rickshaw, and then explained how to get to Darjeeling from there.

Total cost of six vehicles comprising 28 hours of transit from the old town of Varanasi to Darjeeling: 380 rupees ($6.25). Total cost of food from departure to arrival: 130 rupees (just over two bucks).

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Categories: Budget Travel, India | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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