An all-India train journey

Howrah Station in Kolkata at night. Howrah is one of the busiest train stations in India

Howrah Station in Kolkata at night. Howrah is one of the busiest train stations in India

I’m staggering around the blazing mid day heat and chaos of the Esplanade district in Kolkata. In my right hand I hold a fat jug of (hopefully) purified water.  In my left hand I’ve packed a used rice sack full of snack food, a few books and a change of clothes. On my back my beatup rucksack contains my important possessions: cash, wallet, camera and passport.  I’m looking for a bus to get me across the Hoogly river. A giant red bus comes around the corner.  I set my rice sack on the ground between my legs and wave my outstretched arm in repeated downward motion.  The conductor sees me and slows the movingbus enough to allow me jump on.  There are no seats left.  I’m standing. At the next stop some forty more people get on the bus. I’m packed in like a sardine. Welcome to India!

Mumbai Central in the State of Maharashtra. Built by the British when Mumbai was known as Bombay, the station boast Victorian era architecture

Mumbai Central in the State of Maharashtra. Built by the British when Mumbai was known as Bombay, the station boast Victorian era architecture

Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh

The ticket in my hand is for a second class sleeper carriage on the Gitanjali Express train bound to Mumbai Central in from Howrah Station. This trans-India route of nearly 2000km will take me from West Bengal in the northeast to Maharashtra on the west coast. 

Its my third crossing of the sub continent on the rails. In the winter of 2010, I travelled mostly by train from Tamil Nadu to the Punjab over the course of a month. Last week, I took a ride from New Delhi to here in Kolkata. From the previous trips I’ve learned to bring lots of water, books and snacks to share with fellow passengers. And most of all to have patience. 

Yesterday I spent some time and planning for my arrival in Mumbai, a city of over 20 million people. The Gitanjali arrves at 10:00 p.m. My buddy Josh was also enduring a train trip across India and I was stoked on meeting him there in a few days. Using my favorite online travel resources, I found phone numbers to guest houses in Mumbai. Most were full and accepted no reservations.   

After digesting all of these details I call up a local friend and we create a plan. It dosn’t sound great, but it will have to do. He says Mumbai Central has a “retiring room” which you can rent per hour. I’ve used these rooms before.  Once in In the Punjab in 2010 after being assualted on a bus, I was happy to pay for a night in a retiring room. Too exhausted to look for anything else. My experience with these rooms ranges from pretty bogus to A grade.  I figure its worth another try.  After a few hours of rest, the sun will rise the former city of Bombay andI’ll find a proper place to stay for a few days until Josh arrives.

Back on the bus, although it is a mere 4km as the crow flies from Esplanade district to Howrah Station,  the ride takes a sweaty 30 minutes. With my awkward two hand-full setup, I get off the bus and began plowing my way through the crowds of thousands of travelers.  Look at my watch, I’ve got an hour before my train leaves, just as I had planned. Lunch time!

Find a nice vegetarian Thali for lunch in an air-con restaurant on second floor of railway station.  After enjoying steamed rice and the spicy curry,  I buy another rice meal to go for dinner and some deluxe-looking chocolate cake treats for desert. Now I justneed to find the platform and I’ll begin the 32 hour ride.

I ask the female security guards. My train is 15 platforms away. In both of my arms I’m carrying 5kg dumbbells and I realize all of a sudden how little exercise my arms have gotten in a long time.  The air temperature is nearly 40C (100F) and I’m walking in the sun.  My deltoids and biceps are pumping out. I get lost in the station. Put the dumbells down and ask more people how to get to my platform. “Take the pedestraian fly-over, up those stairs.”  Up the stairs? I feel like I’m going to pass out...

Victoria Palace in Kolkata, West Bengal I finally I find the platform. There are thousands of people waiting to get on the train. The train seems to be a mile long. Approximate carriages locations are marked with overhead signs. I find my carriage and find my seat. There are two bearded men sitting in the seat next to me. I sit down around 1:30 p.m. and arrange my various items. I'm already sweating hard. Although I showered before leaving Esplanade, my shirt is fully soaked again.  I begin gulping my warm water.  Vendors pass by up and down the aisle of the train touting “ice cold drinks, pani, ice cold drinks!”  They are swaggering under the heavy loads of steel buckets with cold sodas and water bottles. Inside the buckets,  ice chunks the size of grapefruits pour coldness down on the glass bottles. A soda sounds delicious but I resist the purchase. I have enough water to hold me off, albeit warm. Only a few minutes later than scheduled, the whistle blasts and the train begins to roll. A nice breeze enters the non-air-con carriage and I feel a giant relief.  I start reading some travel stories in my book and for most of the afternoon I keep to myself.  Before the sun sets I give way to my fellow travelers who need the extra space on the bench to make their thanks to Allah.  Last week when rolling from Delhi to Kolkata I also shared the berth with Muslims and became familiar with the prayer timings.  When I sat down today and noticed the long gray beards, I expected to move out of the way before the sunset for the evening call to prayer. After the sunset I began getting ready to climb up to my upper berth and pass out when loud noises of what sounded like rocks hitting the outside of the carriage caught my attention. Passengers make a rush to close all the windows. Sounds like rocks! I suspect the causeof this loud noise to be young kids throwing rocks at the passing train. I’ve seen it before. A few moments later we pass through an epic cloud of dust. I grab my bandana and put it over my mouth and close my eyes. With my eyes close I smell like burning tires. The dust, smoke and sweat on my neck and arms are infusing intoto my skin in a disgusting film. I’m afraid to open my eyes.

Victoria Palace in Kolkata, West Bengal

I finally I find the platform. There are thousands of people waiting to get on the train. The train seems to be a mile long. Approximate carriages locations are marked with overhead signs. I find my carriage and find my seat. There are two bearded men sitting in the seat next to me.

I sit down around 1:30 p.m. and arrange my various items. I'm already sweating hard. Although I showered before leaving Esplanade, my shirt is fully soaked again.  I begin gulping my warm water.  Vendors pass by up and down the aisle of the train touting “ice cold drinks, pani, ice cold drinks!”  They are swaggering under the heavy loads of steel buckets with cold sodas and water bottles. Inside the buckets,  ice chunks the size of grapefruits pour coldness down on the glass bottles. A soda sounds delicious but I resist the purchase. I have enough water to hold me off, albeit warm.

Only a few minutes later than scheduled, the whistle blasts and the train begins to roll. A nice breeze enters the non-air-con carriage and I feel a giant relief.  I start reading some travel stories in my book and for most of the afternoon I keep to myself. 

Before the sun sets I give way to my fellow travelers who need the extra space on the bench to make their thanks to Allah.  Last week when rolling from Delhi to Kolkata I also shared the berth with Muslims and became familiar with the prayer timings.  When I sat down today and noticed the long gray beards, I expected to move out of the way before the sunset for the evening call to prayer.

After the sunset I began getting ready to climb up to my upper berth and pass out when loud noises of what sounded like rocks hitting the outside of the carriage caught my attention. Passengers make a rush to close all the windows. Sounds like rocks! I suspect the causeof this loud noise to be young kids throwing rocks at the passing train. I’ve seen it before. A few moments later we pass through an epic cloud of dust. I grab my bandana and put it over my mouth and close my eyes. With my eyes close I smell like burning tires. The dust, smoke and sweat on my neck and arms are infusing intoto my skin in a disgusting film. I’m afraid to open my eyes.

Train stationsigns are often printed in many languagesto accommodate the many ethnic groups in India

Train stationsigns are often printed in many languagesto accommodate the many ethnic groups in India

Eventually I open my eyes and climb down the ladder from my upper birth to conduct a brief scan of the carriage. Seems as if no one was injured. People are resuming their normal routines. After these scary and sticky events, I decide its a good time for my chocolate cake and sleep. Climb back up the ladder to onto my bed. Arrange my stuff:  important bag under my head and not so important rice sack of goodies under my feet. Water jug port side.  Close my eyes. Note the sweat dripping down my chin.

Sleep is restless. Interjections from loud passengers on mobile phones and late night shenanigans. Do they ever sleep? After a major celebratory cheering from a nearby card-game victory, I’m awake again. I decide to use my time wisely and climb down my ladder and make my way to the bathroom.  As the urine falls it mixes with the fast moving air and is blown towards the back of the undercarriage of train. Some of the fluid splashes on the railroad tracks below. 

Early morning wake-up on the train.  Who was actually asleep anyway? Around 5:00 a.m. in the pre-dusk light I climb down the ladder to find my shoes are missing. I conduct a quick scan to my fellow passengers faces and feet. Has anyone seen anything? Nothing.  Although I’d like to scan the area in more detail, I’m paralyzed. Surrounded by very bogus walking surfaces. I’m likely dehydrated and defiantly low on blood sugar.  Now getting very concerned and borderline angry. I imagine arriving in Mumbai at night: stepping on some broken glass then into piles of human feces that are everywhere on the sub-continent. One thing is certain: I do not want to be walking around barefoot in India even though millions of people do a daily basis.  I’ve seen cheap sandals for sale on the train platform before. I had my shoes stolen once before outside a guesthouse in Malaysia. As per Muslim custom, shoes are to be left outside of the buildings. I left my shoes out front in a pile of other traveler’s shoes. In the morning when I was about to head out to catch a bus my shoes were gone.

The early morning mix of thoughts were swirling around my head: Tetanus can be deadly right? Is my vaccine current? Ice cold water would be nice right now...aswould a shower.  That was a real bummer when I lost those red Vasques in Malaysia.  

Right at that moment, one of my fellow berth mates came walking back in wearing my shoes. He had borrowed them to visit the water fountain as the train was stopped at a platform. I laughed, and said out loud... “No problem” my favorite Indian-English saying.

After the near-miss with my shoes, the omelet vendor came around. I’ll take one please, thank you. Smearing my fast-food like package of ketchup on the omelet between two slices of white bread, it is the best train breakfast. For30 Rupees (about 60 cents on the US Dollar) it doesn’t set you back too far either.

Over some shared chai tea I find out the family across from me are from Bangladesh. The young man is taking his mother and father to a hospital in Mumbai where the medical facility is better than in their home town of Dhaka. Another traveler next to me is a international jewels salesman from Sri Lanka. I enjoy talking to these folks and we trade snacksback and forth throughout the morning.

Early morning scene at the train station in Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Early morning scene at the train station in Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Before I left Kolkata I studied the path we would take across India and make some notes. I realized I had visited some of the region we were going to pass by en-route. In particular, we were going to pass Nasik, a town I had visited back in 2010.  I remember that the hotel I stayed in there had exceptionally friendly staff and the cleanest rooms I slept in during my first trip to India.  

Back on the train, as the afternoon progresses the temperature is soaring high in the upper 30s.  The previous night’s sweat bath is now mixing with new secretions to create a foul concoction.

I look out the window. Fields of grapes.. Deja Vu...I’ve ridden this section of track before!  Looks so much like the vineyards near my home in central New York. A clean bed and shower would be really nice right now.  I look at my watch, and glance at my route notes. Hey, we’re coming up on the train stop in Nasik!  If I get off in now I won’t have to deal with the touts, transport and hotel owners in Mumbai at midnight. Sounds pretty good...

The train starts to slow down. I quickly pack my things. Check to see I haven’t left anything behind.  Say good bye to my new friends. The train slows and I make my way for the exit. Out the open door a beautiful sunset is beginning over the fields of grapes. As soon as train slows, I join the crowd of disembarking passengers and hit the ground running. 

I remember the station on Nasik Road is 10 kilometers from the city proper.  Quickly plow through the hundreds of rickshaw drivers touting for their services.  Walk for about 10 minutes. Feels good to stretch my legs. I get on the first bus I see that I think is going in the correct direction. Wrong. The conductor lets me off quickly and gives me rudimentary directions to the correct bus.  I walk for a good fifteen or so more minutes. Lots of busses are passing. Its almost dark. I ask another man, he helps. Now on another bus.  I strike up a conversation with a friendly engineering student.  He wants my facebook name. There is no way to write anything down, the bus is packed shut. I ask him “How good is your memory?”  He says he is bound for Oxford to do an MBA. I bet his memory is pretty good.  He’s getting off before me, but he lets the driver know where I’m headed. The driver signals me to get off the bus. I realize where I am and walk a short distance into the lobby of the Abhishek Hotel. 

The man at the front desk remembers me.  I have a short and nice chat with him as I check into a simple fan room. The best cold shower of my life! The water in washing bucket turns a sickening black color after I finish cleaning my clothes from the train.  A spotless bathroom, clean towel and sheets, a jet-airplane sounding ceiling fan looks like the perfect recipe for a much-needed good night’s worth of sleep.

After the washing, I hit the streets. In Maharashtra state, the food and language are differentfrom where I just came from in Bengal, but yet seem familiar.  I eat Pav Baji, a local speciality of bread and saucy dish.  After the simple street dinner, I return to the quiet room at the Abhishek.  Tempted to take another shower.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab

Turn on the fan to full blast and lie down on the crisp white sheets. Feeling pretty content right now. Start thinking as I often do after a long journey. Was bailing off the train in Nasik a bit of a cop-out?  I could have managed myself in Mumbai at night.  Is this all based on my own fear? Did the train defeat me?

On the other hand I was in a clean, safe and comfortable place. I considered the alternative: dealing with a giant unknown city at night. Putting it like this, I figured I made a good decision.  

I thought that this might be the first signs of fatigue after multiple months of travelling. This is my second trip to circumnavigate the planet.  I’ve been on the road for over five months.  

Only one month left. In the past 30 hours I moved 1800 km in 27 hours. I thought that might be enough for one long day.  Under the sheets and the cold wind of a strong electric fan,  I’m passed out before more thoughts can busy my mind. 

~Dave Katz, March, 2012~

Sunrise on the Indian Ocean from Fort District in Mumbai

Sunrise on the Indian Ocean from Fort District in Mumbai