One of my worst fears in preparing for India was getting sick. Alone. On a train.
Everyone hears the horror stories of travelers getting sick before going to India: diarrhea (a given), sometimes vomiting and, worst of all, some bad tropical illness like malaria or dengue fever that leaves one incapacitated for days, sometimes forcing the person to return home, or worse.
And then there are the trains. Though not consistently bad, you never know what you’re going to get. Air conditioned classes are exponentially better. Aside from the cleaner, softer cushions, freshly laundered sheets, blankets and pillows are a guarantee for every traveler, and the fewer number of passengers provides at least a little privacy, at least fewer creepy stares.
The sleeper class, on the other hand, is a different story. Being significantly cheaper than the A/C classes, these compartments are usually chock full of passengers, entire families of seven crammed onto one berth in a space meant for three or four. Creepy men also tend to fill these compartments, sometimes lounging on the top berths, gawking intently at the random white women, no sense of shame when caught in the stare. The constant layer of grime (no sheets) that covers the berths, combined with the sight of an occasional cockroach or mouse, makes the sleeper class the most uncomfortable traveling class by far, second only to the general standing ticket or the equally bad non-A/C’d “chair “class. (Side note: nearly all train compartments carry “sleeping berths” unless otherwise stated, “sleeper” denotes the lowest class while first, second and third class A/C are the higher ones).
But fairly universally, all Indian train bathrooms are pretty bad (to be fair, I never traveled in first class). I’m not exactly sure how Western train toilets work, but in Indian train bathrooms, the excrement goes directly from the toilet to the tracks below. In fact, signs reading “Do not use toilets while train is stopped” are meant to prevent massive loads of crap from piling up at the train stations. Add that to the fact they’re rarely cleaned (especially the lower classes), and you’ve got yourself a pretty unpleasant situation.
Throughout my three months in India, I took at least a dozen train rides, and while I generally preferred the third class A/C, often took the sleeper class when I was with others, feeling particularly budget-conscious or there were no other options available.
So when planning my last-minute trip to Mumbai, I was lucky to land a seat in the third class A/C that should have made the 18-hour, mostly night journey from Jodphur fairly comfortable.
After mostly good health luck in my first six weeks in India, I wasn’t too worried. I’d taken tons of night trains before and was actually looking forward to a long, relaxing train journey alone before meeting up with my friend Geeta, an Indian woman who I met at the beginning of my trip, who had offered to host me during my stay in Mumbai.
I spent my last day in Rajastan enjoying a day-long cooking course with my two friends, Gloria and Tom, and together, we stuffed ourselves as we learned to make biryani, chapati, naan and two types of curries. It wasn’t until the course was over and my stomachache turned to general aches and a fever that I started to get concerned… Still, as I forced myself to run to catch my 6 p.m. train, I figured I’d pop a couple paracetamol, go to bed early and be fully recovered in 18 hours.
My body had other plans.
Soon after I got on the train, I climbed up to the top berth, made up my bed and attempted to sleep. But the longer I lay there the more I began to ache, and my first aid kit and medicine were buried deep in my backpack, which lay chained underneath the lowest berth, six feet down. As the pain continued, I felt helpless, lonely and scared, and I began to cry. Luckily, the kind Indian family below me gave me some paracetamol and, again, I tried to sleep.
A few hours later, I woke from my doze to find the rest of the train had also gone to bed, but the cramping in my stomach told me I’d need to be awake real soon. I groaned at the prospect of getting down. The three bars that made up the ladder that led to my berth were far from adequate for providing an easy way up and down. Additionally, I had been wearing my bulky, Keen sandals (instead of flip flops) and the dirty train corridors required I take the time to put on my shoes before any venture into the bathroom. And the fact that I was alone meant there was no extra pair of eyes to guard my purse, my most valuable and necessary possession in India, while I dashed to the loo. But in the end I had no choice but to go. I shoved my purse in the corner behind my pillow, pulled on my shoes and awkwardly shimmied down the ladder in a move I would come to perfect throughout the night.
As I ran to the bathroom, just making it, I was grateful the toilet and the sink were located right next to each other. Almost immediately, whatever poison that was in my body began making its way out, using every orifice it could find.
As I sat there after the first round, too exhausted to be disgusted, I was thankful I had had the sense to buy both water and wet wipes before the train ride, two tools that would keep me somewhat clean and hydrated throughout the rest of the night.
When I headed back to my berth, I thought the exhaustion from being sick would let me sleep the rest of the night. And though I felt weak, I found I could still use my arms to push off the bars and jump (yes jump) back on the ladder before collapsing on my bed.
But sure enough, a couple hours later, I felt that uncomfortable cramping in my stomach and found myself, once again, doing the diarrhea dash as I rammed on my shoes, shimmied down the ladder and ran to the bathroom, a routine that would repeat itself at least a half a dozen times throughout the night. But despite my body expunging everything in both my stomach and my intestines, I somehow managed to find the strength to jump back up to my berth.
Somewhere around 5 a.m., however, the jumping stopped. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I looked up longingly at my berth, my bed, my temporary little safe haven, but I just had no further strength to jump. So I did the only thing I could do. I sat. In the middle of the corridor.
Shortly after, the conductor came by and asked what I was doing. After explaining that I was sick and could no longer jump back to my seat, he pointed to a side berth that had recently been vacated. I immediately collapsed, grateful to have an easier trek to the bathroom, no longer caring about my hidden purse, which was no longer accessible to me.
By mid-morning, the trips to the bathroom were becoming less frequent, but by this point I was so weak I could barely sit up. The train was scheduled to arrive at 11 a.m., but every time I set my alarm to wake up in time to gather my things, I found myself forcing myself up for about a minute, before groaning, hitting snooze and laying back again, thankful the train was running late.
At this point, more people were noticing the random blond girl, even whiter than normal, laying helplessly in the side berth alone, and several helped me to retrieve my things from the top berth and unlock my backpack (luckily, my purse had also survived the night).
I had originally told Geeta I would take a rickshaw to her house, but given the fact that I could barely sit up, I finally called her and asked if she could come and get me. When we finally arrived at the train station, it took every ounce of willpower I had to haul my 30-pound bag on my back and get off the train, where I immediately collapsed onto an empty platform seat and waited.
But even sheer willpower couldn’t help me once I arrived on the platform. When Geeta found me, she barely recognized the pale, half-dead creature weakly waving at her and soon found a porter to carry my bag for me. But as I got up to walk, quickly falling back on my platform seat, determined to try again in a few minutes, I hear her speak to the porter in Hindi. The next thing I know, I’m seated in the trolley, being pulled with my backpack by the porter to Geeta’s car. I’m sure the sickly blond girl being carried on a trolley throughout the Bandra railway train station must have been quite a sight, but I was so exhausted I didn’t care and grateful to not be on that train alone anymore.
In the end, the doctor said it was not necessarily one instance of food poisoning that caused my illness, but rather, an accumulation of bacteria from multiple sources that were probably triggered during all the food in my cooking class (In fact, neither Tom nor Gloria had any reports of food poisoning). Whatever it was, it took me nine days and two courses of antibiotics before I fully recovered.
Despite having been alone and sick on that train, I was lucky enough to spend my recovery time staying with Geeta, her husband Suresh and her daughter Ananyah, who not only gave me a place to stay, but took care of me, making sure I went to my doctor check-ups, rested up and avoided all of the delicious deep fried, sugared or cheese-loaded Western food I so desperately longed for in Mumbai (the doctor had put me on a strict diet of rice, yogurt, dahl and fruit, in what I coined my “food prison”).
In an ironic twist, after weeks of drinking only bottled water, avoiding raw fruits and vegetables and eating only carefully examined restaurant food, it was my own cooking that essentially brought me down :).