Night Train to Varanasi

India-2010 (217)“You must pay for the taxi!” the taxi driver yelled at us from behind, “1000 rupees!” Dad and I looked at each other, the hotel had paid him, hadn’t they? India was full of touts, men who will swindle you for money. After only a few days in Delhi we had developed a Don’t fuck with us attitude. We continued walking toward the train station, convinced we owed him nothing. But he followed and wouldn’t stop yelling. Then a second man appeared. To avoid a scene Dad reached into his pocket and handed him some rupee notes. The taxi driver looked relieved and walked off without saying a word. We grabbed our roller bags, proceeded through the security checkpoint and into the station.

We were taking the night train from New Delhi to Varanasi, an eight hour ride. It was our first trip to India and we didn’t feel it would be complete without a ride on an Indian train. The New Delhi Railway Station, the busiest in India, which handles 350 trains and over 500,000 people daily, was beyond what either of us had ever experienced. People were everywhere: Standing, sitting, sleeping. Entire families were camped on the floor, eating. The stifling air smelled of curry. I looked at our tickets: The Swatantrata Express. I read the departures board, all of it was in Hindi. I looked around, there was an information desk, but it was empty. I re-read the board—there it was, in small script English script—platform six.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Dad asked. ‘I think so,” I said, trying to appear like I wasn’t annoyed and that I knew what I was doing. “Platform six.” We marched with our luggage through the crowds of people, climbed a staircase, and descended onto platform six which was more crowded than the train station entrance. There was no board, no indication whatsoever of what train was coming. It was 9 PM, the platform dimly lit, and sweat poured from my brow. We stood on the edge of the crowd, trying to protect our bags containing my cameras and iPads. I felt we had a sign above us that read Rob us.

The day before we had been touring central Delhi in a bicycle rickshaw and got caught in a traffic jam. When cars honked at our driver he yelled, “Relax, this is India!” which made both of us laugh. But right now I couldn’t relax, I felt like our survival depended on me being as stoic as possible. Dad tried to crack a joke and I glared at him. A few minutes later a twenty-something man walked up to me.

“Excuse me,” he said, “My name is Salim. You look so worried I have to ask if I can be of assistance.” I melted and pulled out our tickets to show him, trying not to appear as frantic as I was.

“Are we in the right place?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “the Varanasi train will arrive shortly. When it does people will begin to run. But not to worry, you have 30 minutes to board the train. But, you have AC First Class tickets so you need to be over there.” He pointed to the far end of the platform. I thanked him, wishing he would ride with us all the way to Varanasi.

Five minutes later the train pulled in, a hulk of metal, brakes screeching to a stop. People rose into a human tide moving the opposite direction of where we needed to go. I picked up bag and began making my way upstream, stepping over bodies and dodging runners. Dad, not wanting to pick his back up, zigzagged his way around the bodies on the floor.

Our compartment had four bunks, two were already taken by two youngish looking men who were already settled in. We set our bags down and began to lock up them up under the bottom bunk with a bicycle lock that we had dutifully brought from home, on instructions from Lonely Planet. I climbed to the top bunk planning to barricade myself in for the night. One sheet and one blanket lay folded neatly at the end of the bed.

The train pulled out of the station and we turned the lights off in the cabin. I lay quietly and tried to fall asleep. Then I remembered the Xanax that I had hidden in my toiletry bag, a gift from a friend at home. I reached for the toiletry bag, fumbled around to find the pill using my headlamp for light, but couldn’t find it. I lay back down and tried to relax with deep breathing. I had to pee. I climbed down from the top bunk in the dark cabin, fumbled for my shoes, and trotted down the toilet. Back in my bunk I shivered. The air conditioning fan was right above me. This wasn’t an air-conditioned car so much as a refrigerated car. I hunkered down under the one thin blanket, not wanting to get up, unlock my bag and try to find warmer clothing. The train hurtled through the night. When I did sleep I dreamt I was flying, just above ground level, across the dark Indian countryside.

I checked my watch every hour. At six o’clock I was relieved that it began to get light outside. We were due in Varanasi at eight o’clock. An attendant came around selling tiny cups of chai. I leaned over the bunk. Dad was up, dressed and reading his book. “Were you cold last night?” I asked him. “No, I put on all my extra clothes and was fine.”

Eight o’clock came and went and we were still not to Varanasi. I couldn’t understand where we were because the conductor’s announcements were in Hindi. I checked Google Maps on my iPhone and saw us inching along.

“Where are you going?” asked the man in the bunk across from me, who had been working no his laptop much of the night.

“Varanasi,” I said.

“I’ll make sure you get off at the right stop,” he said.

We continue to chat. He was going to graduate school in Virginia and was back visiting his parents who lived in a tiny village on the Nepali border that had no electricity. He would be on this train for the rest of the day.

An hour later I checked my phone again. “I told you I won’t let you miss your stop,” our friend said. I thought about how paralyzing my fear can be that I never ask for help, but that on this trip strangers looked after us, despite my efforts to keep them at bay. The conductor made an announcement. “Your stop is next,” our friend said.

We disembarked at Varanasi and stepped out of the station into a sticky rain that came down in sheets. We jumped into the first taxi. “Where to?” the driver asked. “Hotel Ganges View,” I told him. I looked at Dad and said, “I need some sleep.”

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