We were pretty excited about our next train ride. We’d splurged before we left the UK on a first class 29 hour journey from Howrah to Bengaluru in the South. To get to Howrah from Gaya we had an 8 hour train, and a 4 hour lay-over at Howrah (near Kolkatta, in the East). Plenty of time, or so we’d thought before we’d had any experience of Indian trains!
It was a good thing we’d arrived at the train station early, because when we looked at the board, we couldn’t find our train at all! In a bit of a panic we found a station master, who in broken English explained that our train was very late.
But we have a connection in the morning at 10am.
You will not get that train.
We totally freaked out. It was our most expensive journey, and being long-distance, would be impossible to get a ticket for on another train the next day. Luckily, he had a solution. He sent us to a counter to buy a ‘general ticket’ for an earlier train that would get us there in time. Then we had to come back to show him we’d got the right ticket. We managed that, and he explained that we would be in sleeper class. This is basically the same as third class but a lot cheaper because it has no A/C, and instead of windows it has bars, presumably to stop you falling out! We’d been pretty nervous about sleeper class, given how incredibly hot it is here – well over 30 degrees at night. But we needed to get our train, and this was our only option. At least it was overnight so we’d not be in the heat of the sun.
The station master told us to look for the “Titti” man – or at least that’s what we heard. Turns out he meant the TTE man, Travelling Ticket Examiner. We were told he’d get off the sleeper class coaches wearing a white shirt and black blazer. He’d have a list of all the bunks, and we were to ask for ‘any available berth’, so that if any were free he could allocate one to us.
We did find him in what can only be called a ‘scrum’ to get on the train. All he kept saying when we asked was ‘last carriage’. No berth number, just get on the carriage. The problem was we were half way along a huge train that was leaving any second. Cue a ton of running and shoving, and we finally pushed our way onto what may or may not have been the last carriage. Inside, in the dark it was standing room only in the vestibules. We squeezed through into the main carriage and found what looked like two empty bunks, so relieved we settled down. They weren’t. A bit later a guy sat nearby came over to claim his. Then a young guy came to claim our other bunk. However he was with a family who had a few next to each other. One of them was a young boy who said Maeve could sit on his bunk, so she squeezed on the end. So at 11pm, with another 6 hours at least ahead of us, we were in a baking hot, dark carriage; one of us was crouched on a middle bunk trying not to get in the way of a teenage boy, and the other was standing in the gangway with nowhere to sleep or even sit down. We must have looked utterly pathetic, because the boy opted to share a bunk with his brother, so we could have one between us. We were so relieved, having been building up for a very miserable night.
It was a lovely gesture from the family, but it felt really uncomfortable. There were other people in the carriage without a bunk or anywhere to sit, including a young woman with two small children who needed somewhere to sleep. But we didn’t feel able to offer it to them, because the guy who’d given us the bunk had very much not offered it to them all the time he could have. It didn’t sit well with us though.
So in the dark, with our huge rucksacks filling the floor between the bunks, and our day packs in the narrow bunk with us, we squeezed in, top to tail, to try and sleep. It was a surreal and uncomfortable night, but also remarkable. In sleeper class, there’s a constant breeze so long as the train is moving, because of the lack of windows. Overnight, it would have been sweltering but for that. The humidity was at least 85% and although the breeze moved the air, we still felt damp in it, like walking into a bathroom after someone’s had a shower and not opened the window. Laying on your front, you could see a little through the bars below. The land rushing past was moonlit and beautiful, and the noise of the train with no glass barrier between us and outside was a soothing clack that drowned out the snores of other passengers, the whirr of the overhead fans.
Strange things woke us during the night. Occasionally guards with huge guns came through turning on the lights, shining torches in people’s faces, shouting at people seemingly at random. We were grateful to be in a berth with our heads in the dark, hidden a little from sight.
Despite the guards, it was kind of magical, waking up intermittently from light, hot dreams, to the sweltering rushing darkness, the smells of outside. At one point there was a brief but torrential downpour. We could see it as we passed through a lit station. We could hear the monsoon rain over the sound of the train.
Around dawn people began to stir, so we got up, nervous of missing our stop. We arrived at Howrah, and exhausted we made our way to the roasting platform, steaming even before sunrise. In the huge station, vaguely reminiscent of old King’s Cross, we found that there was an A/C upper class lounge, which we could use because our next train was first class. We had 5 hours before it came, so were grateful to have somewhere cool to rest. On the roof terrace leading from the station to the lounge, we were lucky enough to catch sunrise over the Howrah bridge.
It turns out that another thing that’s different about India and the UK is the first class waiting room. When Jay was commuting from Cheshire to Lancashire every week for work, if booked early enough in advance, first class tickets were cheaper than standard class! He got into a Monday morning routine of getting to the station early, heading to the lounge where a TV quietly showed the news. Pots of coffee and tea were abudant, with bowls of fruit, packets of crisps and nuts, and fruit juice. He’d relax in a comfy chair and sip coffee whilst catching up on the headlines, a brief moment of calm before boarding the train to start the working week. For some reason, that’s what we pictured when we stood outside the door to the first class lounge. After a sweltering and cramped night, we were very much looking forward to the A/C and the quiet.
We opened the door, and a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells assailed us. There were metal chairs at the back, comfy(ish) chairs at the front, but insufficient numbers of either. Whenever anyone moved from one there was a rush to take the place. Luggage racks lined the walls. Families slept on plastic sheets on the floor. Men took off their clothes down to their pants, and went to wash in the shower/toilet room attached, which turned out to be so dirty that Jay decided not to use it (and he’s not that squeamish). Above all though, was the noise. It’s a huge interchange station, and over the tannoy came messages about every train coming and going – in three different languages – preceeded each time by a piercing clanging chime that went right through you. It was so loud we could barely talk to each other. So it was in the dirty noisy room that we eventually managed to find a seat, and slept barely and fitfully for a couple of hours.
At 10 we found food in the station canteen, a huge amount for a tiny price, and we went and found our platform. It was in a different building, and we walked through the station yard following the crowd, between train sheds where huge barrels and bundles were being loaded and moved, along with the mail for the inter-city mail trains.
We were soaked with sweat by the time we found our platform, but luckily our train was 20 minutes early, so it wasn’t long before we were able to get out of the heat into our carriage. First class carriages have A/C, and consist of a corridoor with rooms coming off it, each seating 4 people. These rooms can be locked from the inside, and have darkened glass to stop people peering in. We were fully expecting to share a cabin with a couple of business men, who are apparently the folks who use these the most. After our cramped night then, you can imagine how ecstatic we were to open the door and find we’d been allocated one of the coupe berths. A cabin split in two, for only two people! It was incredible, and we were utterly overjoyed to be able to shut a door and have peace and quiet.
Our journey was beautiful. The landscape was lush and green, and for the first time since the Himalayas there were small hills to break up the horizon. The soil was red and the rivers here were, unlike the Ganges we’d passed on our last journey, surrounded by fields and cows not houses and towers. There was less of the ubiquotous litter, the waterways looking healthy, people swimming and fishing between the fields. Sitting in our A/C carraige where people came to the door to bring us food and drinks, we couldn’t help but feel extremely grateful to have the opportunity, knowing that the vast majority of people in the train were cramped in sleeper class, or general second class on wooden benches, or with nowhere to sit at all.
On the 26th, at about 5pm we found ourselves in Bengaluru being held at a station which was not on the schedule. The train was many hours late, and it looked like we were going nowhere fast. We checked the map and were actually closer to our next accommodation than our planned destination. We shoved our stuff in our bags, opened the carriage door, and got off the train, whilst trying to communicate to the TTE that yes, we did know this wasn’t the final destination of the train! Who knows what time we would have got there if we’d stayed on.
Outside the station, waiting for a taxi, it struck us that for the first time since we’d arrived in India, no one was interested in us. No one was staring, no one was asking for a picture with us, and no one was trying to sell us anything. We were just there, and it was brilliant.
As our taxi wound through the city we noticed how much more like a western city it felt than anywhere else we’d been in India. It was familiar, it felt recognisable. There were shops with glass fronts, rather than the small stalls we’d got used to seeing, which often seem to sell everything. There were shiny new cafes and restaurants, familiar looking food places, where the people cooking were wearing hair nets and gloves. The streets had some litter, but it was more like the level that we’re used to seeing in cities. There were fewer dogs and no livestock. Bengaluru is India’s IT capital, and there was clearly money around. But we wondered what the other areas of the city would look like, where people lived who weren’t raking it in from a global IT industry. The city was so much more recognisable that we had a weird pang of homesickness, feeling somewhere familiar.
For this leg we were once again being hosted by someone from Servas. If we’re honest, we were pretty nervous about it. Our last experience had been incredibly challenging, and we were afraid that this might be what Servas was like, that we’d have another few difficult days, unable to get away. But our fears were totally unfounded, and it was with complete relief that we met our new host at her apartment building, whose first words to us were “Would you like to try some watermelon vodka”? Yes, yes we absolutely 100% would, you lovely human being! After travelling for 48 hours, there was nothing more perfect that could have happened. Our host was an exceptionally friendly and generous woman, who really encapsulated for us what we thought the spirit of an organisation like Servas would be. We had so much fun with her and her incredible family – her dad and son – all of whom were very kind. As someone who had travelled too, she knew exactly what we needed: a good drink, a comfy bed, and laundry! We showered for the first time in days, which was very welcome, and the incredible Bengali meal we were treated to was perfect. Exhausted, we were asleep by 10!
The next day we had a lovely breakfast, a good tonic to all the greasy train food, and an actual mug of coffee, which was incredible. Our host had generously arrranged for a driver to take us whereever we wanted for the day, and we got some good recommendations from her. Her dad came with us and we set off to explore. We were heading out to Pyramid Valley, a meditation centre she thought we’d enjoy, a chance to see modern spirituality in India. On the way, circling the city on the Southern ring-road, we passed a jungle. Our incredibly knowledgeable and friendly guide asked if we’d like to do a safari through the park. Hell Yes!
Inside the reserve, huge ants nests lined the path. Jay went to have a closer look, but our guide waved him back. Apparently when the mounds are built, snakes often move in. We were herded onto a bus to travel through the reserve. Our tickets clearly stated that you cannot choose your seat, and as we climbed in everyone was directed to a specific seat. Everyone ahead of us was shown to the back, enabling the bus to fill up quickly from back to front, but when we came aboard we were siphoned to the front next to the driver. Our two companions were shown to regular seats with everyone else. We felt really uncomfortable about this special treatment, and offered to swap with a young family, but were told not to move. As it turned out, the drivers used our proximity to take lots of pictures on our camera for us, and then requested a tip at the end; presumably they assumed we’d have more cash than the Indian tourists. Definitely not true on this occasion!
The bus had no glass, just the bars, and we hoped we wouldn’t meet an irritated bear. We did see bears, but they were obviously well fed and not bothered by us. We also saw elephants, lions and tigers. Mostly they were in very large enclosures which we drove through, passing through bus-sized cages, where the exit doors were closed before the inner ones opened. It felt like being in Jurrasic Park! We were assured by the driver that the animals kept here were rescued, not trapped.
From there were went to Pyramid Valley. We wound through amazing countryside, where cormorants and egrets waited with patience, and eagles soared surveying the landscape for a stray rodent. Passing through a village we were held up for a while, as a procession passed and the harvest festival kicked off. The people carried bundles of their crops and banners created with colourful flowers adorned the roads.
In Pyramid Valley, the trees were full of butterflies. We were handed a list of rules at the entrance, and then after agreeing not to break them, we headed to the lunch area, where lunch was given for free to anyone attending the centre. The food was delicious but one of the spiciest meals we’d had in India. We were relieved that our guide couldn’t finish his because it was too hot for him too!
After lunch we entered the ‘mega pyramid’ where we were shown a video about the benefits of meditation before climbing to a platform in the centre of the enormous hollow pyramid. We stayed silent in the warmth, the dim light and faint whirr of A/C, sitting and contemplating. It was a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
Afterwards we were going to go to the Summer Palace but didn’t have enough time, so we just headed back. On the way we stopped at a roadside stand piled high with green coconuts. A young woman took one and with a very sharp machette and expert skill, stripped the top off creating a small hole in two easy strokes. She stuck a straw in the hole and passed us the coconut. The fresh water inside was like nectar. When we’d finished she split them open and carved a section of shell for us to scoop out the innards. Surprisingly, in a green coconut, the flesh that lines the inside was like egg white – translucent and slimy. It sort of made us gag, but we managed to eat it all.
On the 27th the day started with a highly adept cooking lesson from our host. We made dosas and other dishes making up breakfast and lunch. The skill involved in getting the flavours and timing right was obviously well-practiced, and our host was an excellent teacher. After we’d eaten, we headed out to the Mall. Although we’d both usually hate anything involving shopping, we wanted to get a few presents and bits and pieces. And strangely, while feeling a bit homesick, we wanted the familiarity of a Western-style shopping centre! A world that made sense to us, that we could navigate without thought or effort, even if only for a short while. We were slightly ashamed though that our response to culture fatigue was capitalism!
As it turned out, the mall wasn’t like a European shopping centre. Instead of lots of shops inside, it was essentially a large department store with different goods on different floors, a food court and supermarket in the basement, and a cinema on the roof. We wandered a bit, and then, because we were in no rush, we decided to go to the cinema. Aladdin was showing, in English with English subtitles, and it looked like a bit of easy fun. We were utterly supprised at the price – about 3 quid for us both. We were even more surprised when we got in and found it was 3D. In the UK we’d have paid at least 6 times that amount. And even better, we really enjoyed the film, even though we had songs from it stuck in our heads for a week after!
Later we headed to the supermarket. It was the first time we’d seen anything like a supermarket, and there is a kind of curiosity about what things are the same, how much things cost here, what’s utterly different. A big change were the large bins of various rices and pulses where you could fill containers. Another were the aisles devoted to different oils. We stocked up on noodles and peanut butter – stuff we could cook easily at the hostel we were heading to next.
We left before dusk to walk the few kilometres back to the apartment. On the way was a large lake and we decided to walk the path around it. In the evening light, the water gleamed. Signs along the path warned of snakes. We were utterly surprised to find that in the middle of this bustling city, the lake housed enormous flocks of cormorants, herons, eagrets, kites and eagles. Trees were full of kites that circled overhead before alighting with their kin. We’d never seen anything quite like it, coming from the UK where kites have been endangered. Eagles drifted in the laden, glowering sky as clouds built up. Boar scampered in the bushes, some large sows with piglets. Guards began cycling round the lake, blowing whistles to indicate it was about to close, so we sped up a little. Outside the calm of the park rush hour was in full swing, and it took us a while to fight our way back through the streets choked with traffic, smog and commuters, to get back to the appartment.
Later that night we headed back out into the humidity to await our sleeper bus, and the next part of our adventure. It had been a wonderful stay and we were sad to say goodbye to such lovely people, but we hope we’ll see them all again.