We departed our hotel two nights ago well-equipped for the overnight train trip to Varanasi with enough food, drink and other supplies for what we expected to be a 20 hour journey. While I very closely guarded our bags at the train station, Richard went to check our platform number and returned with the bad news that our train had been cancelled. Over the next half hour we pushed our way to the front of three different queues only to be responded to by shaking heads indicating that we couldn’t be helped. Just when we were about to give up, a familiar sounding voice asked us if we needed help figuring out when the next train would be. As luck would have it, that voice belonged to a man who had worked as a taxi driver in Melbourne but was living in a village outside Amritsar with his family. We were so grateful to Sandi, who helped us work out that the next train would be the following day. After very kindly taking us out for a drink, he then offered to take us back to his village the following day to meet his family.
We spent a fantastic day with Sandi and his wife, mother, daughter and three uncles, and met lots of other people who were introduced to us as neighbours and close friends. We took a tour around the village and along the way saw the surrounding crops, met a group of local children, dropped into the first day of a week-long wedding celebration, danced, drank and learned how to make chapatti. We were welcomed into people’s homes with the warmest hospitality, particularly by Sandi’s family who were just as eager to learn about our culture as we were about theirs.
Feeling elated and full with delicious food, we made our way to the train station, boarded the train and said goodbye to Sandi and his wife. We located our lower-level bunk beds in the comfortable, empty six-berth cabin and settled in for the evening, trying to ignore the glimpses of cockroaches and mice scuttling across the floor looking for scraps of food (it’s all part of the experience, we kept telling ourselves!). As shocking as it might sound, this is no reason to be put off Indian train travel which for the most part seems to be clean and comfortable. Besides, the mice and cockroaches generally keep to themselves and are more scared of humans than anything else.
With just over an hour’s sleep under our belts, a family of six, including a young couple, two toddlers and two elderly women, entered our cabin and attempted to squeeze their huge suitcases under the lower bunks. Admittedly our backpacks wouldn’t fit under the bunks so we were part of the problem (note to any future train travellers in India: the lower bunks are only about 30 centimetres above the floor). Their remaining luggage and boxes had to be stacked in the leg room between the two lower bunks to be dealt with in the morning. With the lights finally out at about 12.15, we both got a surprisingly good amount of sleep, waking up only every couple of hours or so when the ride got a little bumpy.
The whole cabin woke at around 9am to the sound of one of the toddlers crying and began the process of folding down the middle bunks to create seats and relocating the luggage and boxes in the leg room. It was exhausting just watching the young wife caring for the five other members of her family – from relocating the luggage, to getting the children dressed and fed and tending to the needs of the older ladies. They disembarked the train at about 11.30am leaving us with the place to ourselves, albeit not for long, as a gentleman who had been closely observing the goings-on in our cabin all morning joined us for a chat, interspersed with his constantly ringing phone and loud (and clearly very important) conversations audible throughout the carriage.
The whole journey took a lot longer than we were expecting and despite having done very little we were exhausted once we arrived in Varanasi Junction, 25 hours after leaving Amritsar. At 7pm, the platform was bustling and overflowing with people, from food and trinket vendors to beggars and loiterers. It was probably one of the biggest, but most energizing shocks to our systems so far, particularly having spent the previous day in a small and cramped space. We hurriedly made our way through the crowds and out of the train station to our hotel where we had the best night’s sleep in a long time.
© Richard Munckton