Chapter Four: A Night Train to Delhi
After two excruciatingly hot and uncomfortable days in Mumbai, we decided to hit the road -- or the tracks, rather -- and head north out of Maharashtra. Our destination was the capitol of India, Delhi, or Dilli, as the locals say. But before we could enjoy the hospitality of the lovely French family we were to stay with and the Masala tea and Kerala chicken that would be served to us everyday by two kind Indian cooks, we had to get there. It would have been easy to hop on a plane. Let me rephrase, it would have been relatively easy to hop on a plane, considering that nothing is really easy in India, but we decided to take the adventurous route instead, opting for a 17 hour train ride.
I love trains and despise all air travel involving aircraft smaller than the 747, so it wasn’t difficult to convince me. Yet, as the time for boarding drew closer, I worked myself up into a mild panic. First of all, we ran out of time to get snacks. At this point on the trip, I was either eating at the Taj or downing bags of carefully inspected crackers and cookies. I still couldn’t stomach street food and most restaurants were just not up to "Jessy standards." But we were late to the train station because of multiple traffic jams, which we should have factored in, and when we finally arrived at the station we had to pay a bunch of guys extra rupees to run our bags to the train that was due to depart in 1.5 minutes. Needless to say, there was no time for grocery shopping.
We boarded through a door that put us in a small foyer, and not just any foyer, it was one serving as a dilapidated gateway to both a kitchen and a toilet. Since first class A/C, the most expensive and Westernized option, was booked about three months prior to our arrival in India, we were stuck with second class A/C, and only got that because of the tourist quota. I should have been thankful because booking a train ticket in India is not an easy task, but like I said, we had just entered through a kitchen/toilet. The mixture of hot Indian food and sewage was far from pleasant.
We were led through a broken door and into our car, one that literally smelled like a barn because of the rough wool blankets supplied to everyone on their slab-like bunk beds. I was beginning to think that second class without A/C would have been a better option; at least we could have opened the windows for fresh air.
The compartments on these overnight trains are set up, of course, to use space efficiently. Our compartment had four beds, arranged like children's bunks, with a distance of about two feet between them. Across from this four person compartment, separated by a thin curtain, was a slim walkway and another two bunks. In our car, those two bunks were occupied by an Indian family: mother, father, and crying son. We were a bit puzzled as we looked into our own section since my friend and I were supposed to have two beds in the compartment of four. A young Japanese couple occupied two of the beds, and an aging Australian woman sat on the third. She was kind and open, and eventually suggested that we sit on her bed (currently made up into a couch for the daylight hours), until after dinner. Dinner. That’s when I started feeling sick in earnest.
An energetic band of young Indian men, skinny as poles, began serving the evening meal. It started with a metal canteen of hot water to make tea or coffee, something the Australian woman assured me was safe to drink. I promptly told her about the kitchen/toilet and she went off on a spiel for about a half hour, detailing all the diseases she’d managed to catch while traveling in South and Central Asia. I think she was suggesting that if all that didn’t kill her, this hot water was certainly not going to kill me, but she seemed a little kooky and was definitely patronizing, and I wasn’t about to trust a woman who took pride in her Hepatitis A (and/or B) contraction. I set the water aside.
Next came the soup, then the samosas, then the main course. I was dreaming of Brick Lane and Western standards of sanitation at this point because it all smelled so good, but I just couldn't eat it. The kitchen/toilet was vivid in my memory. The Japanese couple giggled at every course; they were enthralled by all the tin foil wrapping and enthusiastic about the abundance. I envied them. My friend ate most of his meal (and mine), and the Australian woman kept looking at me with a pathetic “Oh you poor sheltered thing” look. Still, I refused to eat.
At some point during the night, I brought out my Diana mini camera with the colored flash gels to entertain the Japanese. They were really getting a kick out of my sullenness, and were trying their best to cheer me up by asking about my cameras in their cute Japanese-English. We ended up putting on a bright, multi-colored show for the whole car, with curious Indians peering into our compartment as we photographed each other in various shades of the primary color spectrum.
Eventually I had to lie down, stomach growling, bladder full, refusing to eat anything or have anything to do with the kitchen/toilet. My friend found an empty bed in the next compartment, and peered into our compartment often to keep tabs on me, much like a prison guard watches a prisoner on a hunger strike. I guess maybe it was something like that. I was feeling awfully stubborn. Morning came and so did another meal, this time with some kind of mushy egg, which made everything so much worse. I can’t stomach eggs under normal conditions, and here they were bringing them out by the runny tray-full, making a stinky train car that much stinkier.
I was so hungry I finally broke down and ate a little chapati, drank a bottle of water, and was forced to make a trip to the K/T for the T. There were trays of food stacked haphazardly outside the door of an overflowing loo (toilet, WC), and I was so focused on my pant legs and breathing patterns, I almost forgot to do the deed. By the time I got back from the ordeal the Japanese girl was standing there with a wet wipe and a smile & I was grateful for that, but then the Australian woman quickly reminded me that we still had 4 hours left and “Oh won’t it be nice to watch the scenery during daylight hours?” This woman. What a sense of humor.
Though I never thought I'd see the day, we arrived in New Delhi safe and sound. I was desperate for some food, and bought some crackers the moment we stepped into another bustling, dusty, crowded train station on another hot Indian day. I survived the train and the K/T, and felt a little ashamed of my phobias when greeted by the cheerful children of the Delhi streets outside the station. With wide smiles and laughing eyes they seemed to say: "Welcome to the next phase of your India journey."