Saturday, March 12, 2011

Midnight Train to Goa


(Written in Anjuna – Mar 9th.  Internet access here is very sketchy, so you’re seeing this a few days late!)

I love travelling by train.  I have been known, while in a foreign destination, to decide my next port of call solely based on the fact that the train goes there.  I love the whole experience of trains, from the cheapest economy version to the most deluxe sleeper train, from the retro elegance of Via Rail to the humble and practical GO Train in Canada, from plush faster-than-a-speeding-bullet trains in northern Europe to the crowded cattle cars of the south.  The only thing that begins to compare to train travel, for me, is riding a cama bus in Argentina; but even there, I’d take the train if it was an option (which it isn’t, except for suburban trains in BA).

And then there’s Indian Railways.  It’s an enormous system, covering most of the country; it employs something like 1.5 million people, and an estimated 20 million passengers ride the rails on average each day.   Train journeys can take you pretty much anywhere and can cover vast distances in this huge country; going from the south to Kashmir in the very north will take you about 66 hours, if everything runs on time.

But running on time is definitely not guaranteed.  I’ve waited in train stations and listened to announcements of trains delayed by 5, 10, 15 hours; a couple of backpackers I met in Kochi had taken a train to Goa from the north that was delayed by EIGHTEEN hours.  It’s not something to be undertaken if you’re on a fixed schedule; to get back to Delhi for my flight back home, I’m opting to fly from Goa instead of taking the train (getting there a day after my flight had already left would be a real downer). 

But, despite the haphazard schedules, if you come to India, whatever else you choose to do you MUST take the train.  Riding the rails in this country is fascinating; not only do you get to see something of the countryside, it also puts to up close and personal with Indian daily life in a way that is hard to find elsewhere (when you often just become a source of potential income, or — if you’re female — an object of pursuit).

So I decided to take the train to Goa instead of flying; I hate flying and avoid it where possible, and there are no direct flights from Kochi to Goa anyway so it’s not particularly convenient.  Far better, I think, to hop a night train; just be prepared to be flexible about when you leave and when you get there, as night trains often sell out well ahead of time and, as previously mentioned, may not run exactly on schedule.

I got lucky with my train to Goa, though.  I’d bought a ticket on the Rajdhani Express, a slightly more expensive train with only air-conditioned carriages and with breakfast included in the ticket price.  It also has fewer stops en route to Goa so gets there in just under 12 hours instead of the 15 it takes other trains.  And, at about 1,000 rupees for my ticket, it still didn’t cost much more than $20, far cheaper than flying and much more fun.

I’m getting the hang of how trains work here, so I knew more or less what to expect.  You have a choice of classes on Indian trains:  day trains will usually offer second-class or AC chair cars, and night trains have the various options of sleeper, 3AC, 2AC and first-class AC.  Second-class is basically a free-for-all, with no reserved seats and as many people squeezing into a carriage as it can physically hold; AC chair cars give you a reserved seat in a air-conditioned carriage.

On night trains, “sleeper” is the cheapest class, with berths arranged in groups of six perpendicular ot the train, and two berths across the aisle running parallel; there’s no air-condtioning, just pane-less windows with bars across them that let in the night air (and the mosquitoes, probably).  The “AC” classes are in air-conditioned cars, and go upwards in price from 3AC to first-class.  “3AC” berths are arranged similarly to sleeper-class carriages (berths in tiers of 3) but with sealed windows and air-conditioning in the cars.  2AC is a similar configuration, but with two-tier berths instead of 3, and first-class AC having just two berths per compartment (no upper bunks).  You get a pillow, blanket and sheets in any of the AC classes, but nothing in sleeper.

When buying a ticket, or getting on a train, I learned to forget every polite Canadian instinct that I have; if you don’t push your way to the front of the line or into a carriage you’ll never get anywhere.  There’s no point at all waiting your turn; everyone else will just keep shoving ahead of you.  And trains might only stop for a minute or two in a station, depending where you get on, so if you aren’t prepared to put your elbows to work in muscling your way onto the train you’re going to be left behind.  If you’re buying an AC ticket, you get to jump the head of the queue; this felt very rude to me, but it’s normal and expected.

I bought a 3AC ticket for my trip to Goa, reserving the upper bunk in a tier of 3.  This, I reasoned, was safer as a solo woman; less likely that I would wake up (as happened to another sole female traveller I met) to find a strange man’s hands groping me.  I got to the station in Kochi (in the Ernakulam district) in plenty of time for my 10:30 (pm) departure, but had to wait around a while before I could get the information I needed about where to board the train.

Finally, after about an hour, someone wrote my train’s details on the whiteboard near the Information counter (the electronic signboard being broken); I’d be leaving from platform #1, and my train carriage would stop at position #9 on the platform.  (Indian trains can be immensely long, and don’t necessarily give you much time to find your spot before they pull out again, so it’s a good idea to wait near where your carriage will stop so you can jump on board immediately.)

Train arrived just half an hour late — pretty much on time by Indian standards — and I got on without much difficulty (I have sharp elbows to shove my way on).  I found my berth easily, at the top of a tier at one end of the carriage.  I climbed awkwardly up to my bunk on what passed for a ladder (really, just a few tiny footholds) and hoisted up my bags; there was no room to put them under the bunks below as the other travellers in my compartment appeared to have several bags apiece.  This made the bunk a little too short to stretch out comfortably, with my backpack wedged at one end, but at least I could go to sleep without worrying about it disappearing in the night.

My bunk was comfortable enough, but location was a bit of an issue; located right at the end of the carriage, the door leading out to the washroom was right next door.  So every time it opened, it would catch the curtain closing off my compartment and pull it open again, letting light spill in from the hallway directly into my eyes.  One of my compartment-mates snored, too, so I don’t think I actually slept much all night.

I did get breakfast on the train, though, with a choice of “veg” or “non-veg”; I asked for “veg”, but realized after I’d eaten my omelette and bread that I’d actually received the other.  (For some reason, eggs aren’t considered “vegetarian” here.  But butter and other dairy is, so go figure.)  At least half a dozen train workers scuttled around the carriage, collecting breakfast trays and sheets and sweeping up litter; with that many people working on board and tickets still being very cheap, I can`t imagine they get paid very much.

So I was prepared to tip, if that was appropriate, and it seemed to be as I looked around at other passengers.  I refused to tip one guy, though, after he stuck his hand in my face and demanded a tip — not just asked, which would have been fine, but demanded, rudely and imperiously.  He got my back up, in a big way; I resent the implication that just because I’m white and foreign that I therefore automatically owe everybody money.  He got very incensed when I refused, and berated me vociferously, pointing out with gestures all the work he’d done collecting the sheets; an Indian man travelling with his wife finally intervened, telling him not to “compel” me to tip, as he received a wage for his job and the service was included in the price of the ticket. 

Fortunately we arrived at Madgaon station (my destination) shortly after that, and I could jump off and escape.  The irony is that I’d have tipped him well enough, had he just been less rude in his demand; had he said politely that it was customary to tip, and did I want to contribute anything, I’d have handed something over happily enough.  I’m sure he’s probably paid peanuts, so I wouldn’t have minded chipping in a bit.  (Except for the surly attitude of entitlement.)

At any rate, I got there in the end, and hopped in a prepaid taxi to Anjuna, where I am writing this now in a little cafe on one of the back roads.  I’ll tell you all about the place in my next post.  Till then, I think I’ll go lay on the beach for a while.

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