I always have had this fantasy that if I were ever went to India, that I would ride the train. It just looked like one of those insane adventures that you could not skip. It was a totally romantic notion built in my head because all I knew, about rail travel in the country, was from the movies, or documentaries. Either you were on a magical, elegant train, something from a bygone era, where traveling was a beautiful and breathtaking experience. Or you got on one of those crazy packed trains, with people jammed in like sardines, hanging from every doorway and riding on the top of the cars. Now I figured that the reality of would be somewhere in between those two fantasies, so I was determined to try it out, when I went to India. Boy did I learn a lesson.
We were working with a travel agency, Scott Dunn, out of London, and they highly suggested that we take a car not ride the train. They were trying to move us from Agra, where we visited the Taj Mahal, to Northern India, Ranthambhore, where we would go on safari. Now, get this, the travel expert told me, begged me, not to take the train. Even a First Class berth was something they didn’t feel great about for their clients, which sounded crazy to me. I refused to relent and insisted on taking the train.
Here’s the crazy part, I should have known better. Two years earlier after nearly dying from food poisoning in Madrid, I hopped on a train in Morocco. The four hours between Marraketch and Fez were the longest four hours of my life. I thought that with a First Class ticket, I would have some kind of comfortable seated area and a semi clean bathroom in case of emergency. Instead we were crammed into a berth with five other people, none of whom spoke english, and of course I don’t speak Arabic. It lead to lots of long awkward stares, barely understood gestures, and hours of excruciating bubble gut for me. The people were nice, and seemed friendly enough, and I m sure under normal circumstances we would have hit it off, but I was in misery and the train was every third world stereotype that you could imagine. But the icing on the cake was the fact that the bathroom, besides being the home to every fly in the country, was simply a hole in the trains floor, that I’m sure had never been cleaned. On top of that, there was no sink, no toilet paper, and no place to clean up. You were literally on your own to do what had to do.
So that experience and the warnings from my travel agent should have been enough, but it wasn’t , and to this day, I can’t explain why. Once they realized they couldn’t dissuade me from making the trip, they insisted that someone travel with us, Basically a travel babysitter/bodyguard/parental figure. Somebody to make sure we made it safely to Rathembore.
So at the train station in Agra we were met by our companion and we hopped on the train. The company purchased our entire berth so nobody would be sleeping or sitting with, or above us. It seemed silly at first, but honestly thank gawd they did it. Here’s the first thing you need to know, the train in India is dirty. Dirty like the bad part of the subway in New York. Dirty like you don’t want the bottom part of your shoes to touch the floor. Its dirrrrrrrrrrrty. Its one of those adventures that you really have to be up for, cause if your not, its no bueno. The windows were so dirty that you could barely see out of them. They were brown and scummy, and so disgusting that they became part of a running comedy skit.
This was First Class, and everything I had imagined about the beautiful landscape of India that I would watch unfold outside my window as we rolled down the tracks was colored in a horrible brown haze. I literally wanted to get the window washing contract for the rail system and make millions.
Another issue, people were everywhere. Above, below, sleeping, eating, basically living on the train. They had full meals, snacks, there were families picnicking on the train. There were also servers who came by every few minutes with a big jug of soup or some concoction that they would spoon out into your bowl or a bowl they would provide. There was no shot I was going to touch that stuff, and I damn sure wanted nothing to do with the bowls they were providing.
After assessing the situation for about 20 minutes, I decided it was time to explore the train, which freaked out our travel sitter. He could not understand why I wanted to walk around, and suggested we stay put. At the same time he wasn’t about to let me take a step without him. Same flavor for my wife, who damn sure wasn’t going to be left alone, so we all hopped up and together off we went. Once again I don’t understand why, if the guy from India, the local, was concerned, why wasn’t I? Dude had a legit “WTF is this guy doing”, look on his face, and I, quickly found out why. In my mind, I thought, lets go to the back with the regular folks, but in a country where personal space is a luxury, regular is just not an option. We started walking and the further back we ventured, the tighter the quarters got. In India people can get so close, that they share the same oxygen molecule. And they were not thrilled about the Black Guy, with a camera coming to document their misery. People were packed together like your clothes in a suitcase you have to sit on to close.
I must reiterate, the concept of personal space simply doesn’t exist in India, so if you dare purchase a coach train ticket, then be prepared to get intimate with lots of other people. Intimate, like people sweating and breathing on you. Intimate, like a moving mosh pit of questionable smells and roving hands. It was right about the moment that we entered that mosh pit that we all decided it was time to turn around. When we got back something really cool happened, all of a sudden we realized our less then accommodating first class berth, was a hell of a lot better then where we had just been, and that made us happy.
Now listen, I think I need to remind people that I am a travel snob, so some of you, who have been on the train in India, may say its not that bad. And my reply would be, have at it, cause I won’t be doing that again. Don’t get me wrong there were some cool parts of the trip, like standing in between the cars, or hanging out the doorway while the train was moving. But all in all, I would not suggest traveling on the train for women by themselves or anyone who can not fight off a thundering herd. Tv makes the train look so sexy but in reality, its just not that cool, its really crowded, and there are other ways to move around India.