I spent some time before I left Guernsey thinking about the places I would be wandering and getting lonely planet guidebooks out of the library to research my trip before I decided,
‘screw it, I’m just going to see what happens long the way’
I thought that before there were guidebooks people travelled and now travelling was easier and more common so why should we need one now.
It took a few weeks to get used to this and at first arriving to a city and not knowing whether to walk left or right when leaving the train station was daunting but after a while it became exciting and fun. The true test of my theory came when I arrived early morning into Mumbai Airport, the smelliest airport I have ever had to smell. They say that to truly get to know a country you first have to smell it, I believe they had just landed to India when they first said that.
I had not had too much solo travel experience before I arrived to India but I had my common sense and understood enough about the ways people would try to rip me off and how I would have to be careful to not let it happen.
As soon as I left the arrivals area of the airport I was pounced on by people behind counters yelling at me to go and buy tickets for their shuttle buses, I held strong and declined and headed for the exit. One man demanded that I go back to see him, so I did. He asked me where I was going and I told him to Bombay and that I would get a local bus outside as it would be cheaper than his express shuttle. I guess the man took pity on me and knew that I was a naive traveller and that he would have to help me get safely to town.
He explained to me that I was about 1.5 hrs from town and there were no public buses, just taxis that would really rip me off. He said that I would be taking one of his shuttle buses and that I would have to give him 40 rupees and go sit in the corner and wait for it. I knew he was right and that I was out of my depth and best to do as he said.
As we arrived into Bombay I could not believe what I was seeing, I had heard the reports about India before but ,my god, to see it for the first time in person is something truly shocking and scary. The street was full of people laying down, lines and lines of them for blocks and blocks, I didn’t know if they were sleeping or dead, I had never seen so many people lying like that before. We continued into the city and I got more and more nervous as to exactly what I was going to do there. I had nothing planned and was obviously way out of my inexperienced depth so I decided I would get to Delhi as I was bound to meet other backpackers there who could tell me what to do.
I told the driver to drop me at the train station and I headed for my ticket. I was told that I was at the wrong train station and would have to take another train to get to that station. As I waited for the train to arrive I had two young boys come and sit with me, one either side and both with their hands on my knees. I got a little worried that they were going to pickpocket me by getting me used to their touch and stood up and made them both sit on one side of me. It turns out they were both just friendly kids and wanted to chat, not like the lady who came next to see me on the train.
As I boarded the train immediately a very poor looking lady came up to where I was standing and held her hand out for money, using her other hand to show that she needed food. I always hate when people do this and wonder why we, as tourists, are expected to go to other countries and solve their poverty issues, let the locals of the country look after their own and I will do the same in Australia.
The lady was unhappy that I would not give her money and spent the next 30secs poking me in the ribs, when this didn’t work she grabbed a piece of my flesh and twisted it hard as she could between her fingers. At first I was shocked and could not believe what was happening, but I held strong and knew she would give up eventually if I just kept ignoring her. I didn’t know that it would take 2mins though.
She gave up and went to the next person in line, a local Indian man who lasted only 10secs into the stomach twist before he gave her some money and she continued her way down the line. I must admit that I was pretty satisfied with my effort of holding out when even the locals couldn’t.
My stop came and I walked the 10mins across the train tracks in the 35c heat to the platform on the other side. I left Guernsey with nearly everything I owned and was now realising that I was very quickly going to shed a lot of the 22 kilos I was carrying on my back, 2 weeks later I was down to 15kilo.
I saw people lined up to buy train tickets at a booth and fought my way in amongst them. It was a real fight in this group and no line existed, if you tried to do the decent thing and let someone go before you then all that happened was that another 15 people would come after that. So I elbowed my way like everyone else and at the front asked the guy for a ticket to Delhi, he asked me when for and I told him for today. Apparently this section only sold tickets in advance and I would have to go around the other side for tickets for today, that was a very uncomfortable way to waste 45mins of my life.
Once at the other side there was no line and I could not understand why people would have such a hassle to buy tickets in advance when they could just buy them on the day of travel in a leisurely manner. I very quickly understood why they did it this way when I bought my ticket, $5 for a 24 hr train trip! Bargain I thought, and the man said as I walked away that I had better line up quickly to make sure I got a seat. I thought this was a bit weird but shrugged and headed off to line up.
I had been in line for 2 hours waiting for the train and noticed I was about a third of the way along, excellent, if all these other people can get on the train then I will get a seat for sure as I am at the front of the line. I could not have been more wrong as the train approached and people started to board. It was all very orderly and quite calm until I reached my turn to get on the train, at this point someone from behind pushed me forward and I fell into the ladder of the train and had people start pushing past and over me to get on board.
I scrambled up the ladder and there were people everywhere, there was no way I was going to get a seat, I’d be lucky to even find a place to stand it seemed. I headed for the only clear space in the carriage, beside the toilets, and took up my position and watched as hundreds of people pushed and squeezed their way around the carriage. It was insane, there were bodies everywhere and until the train started moving it was so hard in that heat to even breathe.
As the train departed I realised that I could not move, I was trapped in amongst people like sardines in a can. The young boys I was trapped against started a conversation with me and we talked about cricket for a while and then they asked me to sing for them. What the hell were they on? Sing for them, bollocks to that. But they persisted and sang me some tunes of theirs and before long had me signing Advance Australia fair to them. I felt like a right Muppet then and there!
It is hard to explain the train ride in all its awfulness, it was the worst yet best journey that I have ever had to take in my life. I was so tall that people pushed their heads against me and used me as a sleeping post. One guy would always turn to look at me before coughing his disease infested breath in my face for fun, people were always stepping on my feet and by the end all my toes were bruised and bloody as I had only been wearing sandals.
As the train moved along things got a little nicer and the carriage seemed to spread out a bit and we had room to stand a few inches apart from each other. It also gave enough room for a young boy to squeeze down between my legs and try to open my backpack and steal stuff. I saw him doing it and knew that the most he could get was a t-shirt or two and ignored him, the locals saw what he was doing and didn’t ignore it, they picked him up and started beating him hard around the face. At the same time a mobile phone fell from his pocket and they realised it was the one someone had lost earlier and they started beating him even more.
When the train would come into a station we would all link arms and hold on as tight as we could so that other people could not get on the train and we could keep whatever small amount of space we had for the next leg of the journey. This also affected they way people could get off the train, if they can’t get on then they can’t get off. One big man needed to get off so he used himself as a type of battering ram to push people out of the way, as he went backwards and forwards he built up enough force that 15 people were knocked of the train onto the platform and immediately new people rushed aboard. The big man came back onto the train looking for his mobile phone that had fallen from his pocket, no-one could find it but when they realised later it was the one the little boy I mentioned earlier had nicked they called the guy and arranged for someone to take it to him. I was very impressed by this act of generosity amongst people that were so obviously poor.
The problem that came from the big man knocking all the people off the train and new people piling on was that the people that fell off had to get back on as they had all their belongings onboard. As the train pulled away from the platform these people were hanging from the ladder of the carriage and some even from the bars on the windows, I am not sure if they all held on until the next station and to be honest I did not have the energy to care, I had just decided that I was going to be sick and had nowhere to do it but on top of the guys head who was sleeping against my chest.
It is probably the closest I have ever come to needing to puke and holding it back, I was amazed that I did and also very glad I did as I don’t know what would have happened had I puked on this guy’s head? Probably nothing, no-one seemed to care about going to the toilet and squatting for a number 2 while the toilet was full of people sitting on the floor beside you, so why would they care about a little puke.
The trip continued and people on the train occasionally ran off without even asking for money and bought me bottles of water to drink. I realised that I was now 17 hours into the journey and had been standing still in one place for the whole time. I was hungry, dehydrated, tired and extremely irritable, I started pushing and elbowing people who stood on my feet the same way that locals would to each other. Despite the comradely it was still every man for himself by this stage.
At the 17 hour mark a lot of people started leaving the train and I could actually sit down, I am not sure how I did it but I managed to sit down taking up the same space as I had while I was standing up and later on I could actually half lay down and pass out for a few minutes here and there.
We were nearly in Delhi when a hippie looking guy walked past me and immediately swung around for a second look and said
‘what the feck are you doing here’
To which I replied ‘I asked for a ticket to Delhi and this is what they gave me’
They guy proceeded to rant about how the ticket seller was obviously an asshole as they have a supply of VIP tickets available for tourists to purchase on the same day and he should have offered those to me. He did finish his rant by telling me to stay where I was when we stopped and he would take me to town and show me a good place to stay.
Twenty four and half hours after the journey began I was finally on the platform and breathing fresh air at last. I was so happy and relieved and also proud of what I had just achieved. Hippie Guy returned and we walked together into the tourist area of Delhi and he found me a nice, cheap guesthouse where I got my own room and went straight for a shower, not before the owner had told me that hippie guy was a dangerous man and I should avoid him. I wasn’t bothered and told him that he might be dangerous but so far he had done nothing but help me and at the time it felt like he was saving my life.
I undressed for the shower and saw that my feet and ankles were twice their normal size and all bruised, I had bruises a third of the way up the calf of each of my legs. I jumped in the shower and proceeded to pass out in bed for the next few hours thinking about how those 24 hours had seemed like a week’s worth of experiences in India and I was so glad that it had happened. As I say it was the best and worst travel experience of my life.
I told an older local couple of the journey a few weeks later and they were amazed, they told me that they had lived all their lives in India and they had never ever taken then general class train, I told them that maybe one day they should.