Sleeper Car to India

December 30, 2010: Varanassi India

The Nepal/India border is practically invisible. There is a bustling road from here to there, and it’s busy with countless samosa vendors, produce wagons, and merchants of all kinds of stuff. To my surprise, the crossing of the border is transparent and, in fact, consists simply of checking in with a couple of semi-official looking guys sitting in patio furniture on the side of the road.

From Lumbini, I had taken a bus to the border, and then once in India I hopped into a Jeep that would take me off to train station four hours away. This small Jeep was transporting 13 passengers, and while it was uncomfortable for me, I was grateful that I wasn’t the guy whose seat was literally under the driver—yes, the driver of the Jeep was actually sitting on this guy’s lap for the 4-hour journey.

From Gahorakpur to Varanasi, I was to take an overnight train in a sleeper car—my first experience of this sort. Having lived through it, I can say it was a jarring experience, but I know that when traveling in India, it’s one that you need to get used to, as sleeper trains are the preferred mode of travel here.

The train station was very chaotic, extremely dirty, bodies laying everywhere—it’s hard to know how many of them are homeless and how many were, like me, seeking comfort while waiting for their train to arrive. I had about 6 hours to kill in this station. Not a single tourist to be seen—just me drifting around in a sea of commotion. I was trying to find a place to sit that wasn’t filthy with pee or crap or sludge or who knows what, but I wasn’t succeeding.

Their was significant anxiety in me, that I would err, or that I might not find the right train, and miss it. There were no police, no railway personnel, no information booths, nor authority who could assuage my concerns. I asked a couple of people which track my train would arrive on—but not understanding English, they all just wagged their heads side to side and looked at me with a hopeless empty expression, pointing elsewhere. I was directed to one guy who seemed official somehow, like maybe he actually worked for the railway—but when I repeated my question, he looked at my ticket and summarized in just three words: “Ticket no good.” Initially I got worried, fearing I’d bought a phony ticket, but then I just smiled and assumed, correctly, this guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

My heart began to race watching the scene that would unfold each time a train approached. Due to stiff competition for a limited number of seats in these severely over-crowded cars, the commotion begins as the train pulls into the station. While the train is still moving, many are sprinting alongside and leaping heroically through the doorways. When the train finally haults, at each door there are hundreds of people, throwing elbows and pushing each other, vying to get in before the rest of the horde. I smile and wonder if that’s what I will need to do as well.

By the time my train comes I’m ready to rock—ready to wield my strength and do whatever it takes. There’s no announcement as to which train it is and with an educated guess and blind faith, I hope my calculation is correct. I jump onto the train, which is pitch dark and has an extremely narrow aisle full of people pushing to get past me.

A strange Indian guy with shifty eyes sees me standing there looking like a deer in headlights—he looks at my ticket and points to my cot. My cot is about 7 feet off the ground, in a small chamber that contains 5 other cots. Everyone is sitting around looking like zombies at this midnight hour—no one is talking. The situation is grim in these crowded, dark quarters—perhaps the best we can all do is just endure this moment and recognize transport is the goal here. Try to get comfortable somehow someway and soon morning will come and we’ll arrive at the destination.

I watch several other passengers, trying to figure how you do this sleeper car thing. I just don’t see how it’s possible to fit my large backpack and all my stuff in the cot beside me, securing all things, including shoes, in such a way that thieves can’t m ake off with anything. I watch an experienced Japanese backpacker putting his shoes under his pillow while wrapping his backpack in a large pillowcase and chaining it to the metal bed frame. Imitating him, I crawl up onto my cot and try to do the same but find it extremely difficult to maneuver in this narrow space—it’s tricky like a Rubik’s cube and I keep bumping my head into the roof.

I set my alarm clock for 6:15am, but wake up in advance. If this train is on time, I’m due to arrive at 6:30. I pack up my stuff and along with the other midnight bandits huddled in dark silence, I wait for the train to stop. At 6:30 it comes to a hault—but again, there’s no announcement. My heart is racing again with uncertainty. I look out the window and see only signs in Hindi. I say to my neighbor in questioning tone “Varanasi?” He nods his head yes and with urgency he directs me to get out while I can. Once outside, however, I feel it in my heart that this isn’t Varanasi, and the train begins to move along.

And so it turns out, I got off at the wrong station just a few miles north of Varanasi. I laugh at myself because this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Lesson re-learned: trust no one, be self-sufficient always.

It’s 6:30am, I’m standing on the platform a few miles from my destination, tired, but amused by the circumstances. I learn that I am in Sarnath, a town I was actually hoping to visit. The Buddha gave one of his four most important teachings here, and today the peaceful town contains a few temples and monasteries. The sun was rising behind thick grey clouds, and in the still of morning I exited the train station and began exploring the peaceful little town.

After wandering the quiet streets and gardens of Sarnath for a few hours, I hopped back on the next train to Varanasi. While approaching the next station down the line, there was no doubt that I’d arrived. The volume of noise even at this early hour announced it. I looked out the window and saw hectic streets bustling with busses and motorcycles and many rickshaws. The train came to a stop, and with a hopeful heart, I stepped out and greeted the fabled Varanasi.

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