All Aboard the India Express

To arrive you first must depart. That seems logical? A simple case of cause and effect. But in India where anything can happen, departing and arriving have their own peculiar challenges, especially when catching cross-country trains. For young backpackers on a limited budget, here are some tips to help you enjoy train travel in one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

Getting onboard.

In Mumbai, if you are travelling to the south or east, you will depart from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Station. This huge Victorian-era landmark was built to impress as an enduring legacy of the British Raj. The building survived, the Raj did not.

At the appropriate window purchase a third-class unreserved ticket for the train you want to catch. Don’t worry, signs are usually in Hindi and English. With single purpose get to your platform. The vast interior hall is one large bedroom for travellers waiting to depart into the hinterland. Just pick your way through the maze of sleeping bodies. Keep focused, it is not a time to get distracted.

On the platform look for any of the red-coated porters. As a foreigner, they are more likely to single you out, even if you are a budget-minded backpacker. The porters offer an invaluable service; the guarantee of a seat in an unreserved carriage for the investment of a few Rupees. But remember, you will have to haggle and pay baksheesh. This still works out much cheaper than a reserved ticket in second class.

Having reached an agreement with your porter, keep a close eye on him. When you see the porters disappear from the far end of the platform, you will know the train is about to be shunted into the station. Your porter will be on one of the unreserved carriages waving frantically from a window or open door. Follow his hand signals while you jostle with other passengers to get onboard.

Your porter will guide you through the hubbub to a seat, upon which he has thrown a shawl or towel. Surprisingly, no one who has not paid a porter or the service will attempt to take the spot reserved for you. When you are ready to sit, he will whip away the shawl. If you want, the porter can also reserve a luggage rack for you to rest in for an extra fee.

Finding a taste of home.

One thing you may hear when your train crosses into South India, is a sudden change to the cry of the hot beverage wallah. In Northern India, you will usually hear the call “chai, chai, hot chai” down the carriage. But as soon as the train passes into a Southern Indian state, the hot beverage cry immediately turns to “coffee, coffee, hot coffee.” No need to look outside for a border sign.

If you want some relief from spicy food and crave for a taste of home, then you can find this at many of the larger station restaurants. The best toast, with butter and strawberry jam I ever had in India, was to be found at the Pune Junction Station.

If all else fails: Jump.

Many young backpackers may want to explore out of the way locations. But be mindful, getting back on a crowded cross-country train is not as simple as it looks. At rural stations trains only stop for about two minutes.

If your train begins to move without you onboard, hold your nerve. It is now you must take a leap of faith. At the urging of other passengers throw your backpack in the nearest door or window of an unreserved carriage, then jump in over the crowd. Hands and arms will guide you to a place where you can stand with your backpack. It will be a moment of great comradery as the crowd retells your exploit with laughter and many comical gesticulations.

Finally, learn from the locals.

There is a joke that circulates in India which explains a lot about the relationship people across the country have to their railway system. It is summed up in one word; patience. On one of my journeys, I missed my connecting train and slept on the platform overnight. Life on the station was a rich microcosm of India itself. When the next connecting train arrived on time, I expressed my surprise to an Indian gentleman standing beside me. He in turn looked at me, and with a straight-faced expression replied; “Ah sir, your train has arrived exactly twenty-four hours late.”

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