Full disclosure: I stole my title from one of my favourite travel books by Paul Theroux. I thought of him when I boarded the 7am Vasco-Shalimar Express at Margao (Madgaon) to Hosapete Junction, from where I’d be taking a tuk-tuk to World Heritage site, Hampi.
I’ve ridden Indian trains before in Rajasthan, but never a sleeper like this one, that travels a total of 2,000 km across India. (I forgave it for being an hour late on the way there and three hours late on the way back). I always book 2A class (second-class, air-conditioned) which is a decent standard class on any Indian train. The journey each way cost me around £8. People always tell horror stories about Indian trains but I haven’t seen any of it because I book this class. I was nervous about the loo situation but it turned out to be close to my berth and relatively clean, with handsoap next to the sink! It was a squat toilet but it didn’t open onto the tracks as people had warned me – they’ve fitted new ‘bio’ ones.
The real theatre of Indian railways begins almost as soon as you board (before, even) as the mad scramble for seats takes place and everyone sizes up their neighbours. I was ‘of interest’ to the family opposite me who did their best to work out where I stood in the social order. Where was my family, my husband? Was I travelling alone? (shock) Why wasn’t I ordering lunch? (greater shock).
My head is still ringing with the sound of ‘chai-eee, chai-eee’ as the seller goes back and forth, pouring hot chai into tiny cups for 10p each. The same with ‘samosa, samosayyy’ which is also living rent-free in my head. Because they’re so busy and so long, everything comes to you on Indian trains. No walking to a buffet car – someone takes your order for lunch and it gets delivered onto the train at the next big station (Londa, in our case). Water, chai, samosas, batata vada (spicy potato patty) – everything you need comes past at some point.
Every seat has a charging point so I worked for part of each journey on my laptop. Cue more questions from people around me.
The most amazing element of these journeys for me was the seating arrangement. Both times, my sleeping berth was on the lower of the two tiers. I want to lie down for the whole journey and watch India go by out of the window, but if the person above me wants to sit down, then I have to give that up and let him (or her) sit next to me. I kept thinking about how this would never work in the UK. Can you imagine two strangers coming to an agreement on sleeping and sitting?
The journey back, even though three hours late in the end, culminated in a reminder of the boundless joy of Indian families as we passed the spectacular Dudhsagar Falls near the end. The whole family opposite me squished into my berth to get a view, then asked for a pic with me afterwards.
One thing’s for sure, it’s hard to be an introvert when you’re on an Indian train.