Tag Archives: trains

An Unexpected Journey


If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – especially when it comes to booking train tickets in India. In my four months in India, I got to understand the train system fairly well and always managed to get where I needed to go, albeit sometimes creatively. Like my trip to Rishikesh.

When I re-entered India in Gorakhpur after leaving Nepal, my next destination was Rishikesh where I had signed up to take a month-long yoga teacher training course.

In India you have several ways to book your train ticket. The first, obviously, is to reserve it in person at the train station. This option often involves standing in long, crowded “lines” where you must literally push and shove to get to the front. If the train station is distant from where you are staying, it can also require extra time and costs to reach the station.

The next way to book train tickets, and my preferred option, is to book online via Cleartrip. This choice clearly shows you your options for times and availability to reach the destination you want, and if the train is full, it allows you to add yourself to the waiting list and monitor said list easily. This option, however, got changed during my trip making it extra difficult for foreigners to book tickets themselves.

Another way to book train tickets is to use a travel agent, of whom there are many located in popular traveler destinations. These agencies will give you your travel options and personally book your trips for you, for a small charge (often using Cleartrip). Sometimes agencies are allotted a certain amount of seats for trips, which can be beneficial if the train you want is “booked.”

Additionally, services like “tatkal” reserve last-minute seats for travelers who book within two days of the scheduled trip, also for an extra cost. And special seats designated just for tourists allow foreign travelers the chance to get on popular train routes, although it does require booking the ticket personally at the station and making copies of your passport.

And when all else fails, you have one last option: to get on anyway.

In this instance, you jump on the train you want and take any vacant seat you can in the hope of finding a cancelled ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, you simply purchase the seat you want and enjoy the ride.

When I first arrived in Gorakhpur, it had already been more than six months said I last set foot in India, but luckily my Indian friend Naren, who had been traveling with me in Nepal, was there to help me re-navigate the country.

The train I wanted was a 14.5-hour night train from Gorakhpur to Haridwar, which would then allow me to take a 45-minute bus to Rishikesh. Since I usually managed to get the trains I wanted, I did not think this would be an issue, but just in case (and at Naren’s nagging), I decided to book my ticket more than a week in advance. What I didn’t realize was that my Rishikesh trip coincided with the Kawadia pilgrimage, during which THOUSANDS of Hindus travel to Rishikesh to bathe in its holy waters at the mouth of the Ganges River.

Naren and I tried all the options.

Cleartrip had me wait-listed somewhere in the 80s, a number I was sure would go down before the date of my actual trip. When that didn’t happen, we visited the station the day of in hopes of a better deal. There were no tourist options for this trip, and again, I purchased a ticket with a waiting list in the 60s.

As Naren and I were headed to different parts of the country, this was a train I would board alone. But after already having done more than a dozen trains in India already, I wasn’t worried. I always made my trains.

Naren’s train had left later that morning, and I chilled out in the station waiting room, hoping to receive a message on my phone that I was officially booked before my train left that evening. When evening came and that still didn’t happen, I prepared for my last resort – to get on anyway and hope for the best.

I hauled on my backpacks, headed to the platform and hopped on to the second-class A/C cabin – the class for which I had purchased my waiting list ticket – found an empty seat and began to relax.

Soon after, I didn’t feel so relaxed. Turns out that vacant seat wasn’t so vacant after all – and neither were any of the others.

I stood by the end of the cabin waiting to speak with the conductor about purchasing a ticket, and when he finally talked to me, he was not happy. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and that I had to get off and go to the sleeper class cabin – the lowest class of seating – to try to get a seat there.

I understood this as, “There are no vacant seats here, but there are vacant seats in the sleeper class.”

So at the next stop, I jumped off, ran down a few cabins and hopped on to the sleeper-class cabin.

Now, I’d done lots of sleeper-class trains before, but they are definitely not my favorite. They are by far the most crowded, dirty and uncomfortable and where you’re most likely (as a foreigner/female) to be stared at and harassed. But as I didn’t really have other options, I didn’t really care.

So I began to walk from cabin to cabin – the only foreigner around – looking for spaces. In vain. I finally asked the conductor where I was supposed to go – naively assuming there had been a space available for me – to which I was gruffly rebuffed again. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and had to get off.

This point I started to get nervous. I had only been in the country for a couple days and was still getting my “India legs.” I began to fight back the tears as I retreated to the end of the cabin to figure out what to do.

Situated near the open doors and bathroom stall, I sat on the floor with my guidebook in an attempt to find a solution.

It was pitch black outside, and I had no idea where I was at this point. Other passengers rattled off the names of the passing cities, but Lonely Planet did not have sections for these places and stopping in the middle of the night to find a guest house in the middle of nowhere seemed quite dangerous. On the other hand, I was constantly having to move for the people who were frequently coming in and out of my cabin to use the bathroom or get on and off the train, and I couldn’t very well spend the night here either, especially if the conductors came by. I really didn’t know what to do.

And then, like an angel from heaven, I made a friend.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one desperate to get on this train and soon found myself chatting with a young Indian man who was also traveling from cabin to cabin in search of a space.

He was relaxed about the whole situation and told me to make myself a bed on the floor in between one of the rows of three-stacked sleeper seats that filled up both sides of the cabin.

I was not entirely comfortable with this idea either. Aside from the fact that these floors were nasty, I worried I’d put myself in a vulnerable situation for theft (or worse), lying between rows of strangers, most of whom were men.

Seeing my apprehension, my new friend led to me to a row with a man and a woman on the bottom levels and proceeded to make me a “bed” of newspapers on the floor and told me not to worry, that he would keep watch sitting at the end.

Though I was putting a lot of trust in this random stranger, I decided this was probably the best option I had at this point. I thanked him, shoved my big backpack under the seat next to me, placed my little backpack (with my valuables) under my head as a pillow, covered myself with my sarong and took out my iPod. As I lay there throughout the night – definitely NOT sleeping – I found myself in this little happy place listening to my music, letting my thoughts wander lazily and blocking out the fact I was sleeping on a bed of newspapers on the floor of a dirty train among strangers.

The next morning when my train arrived, my guardian angel was nowhere to be found, but the worst had passed. I was safe, my belongings were safe, and I had survived my less-than-ideal journey. Though semi-disgusted, part of me was quite proud to have “roughed” it, rightfully earning the “backpacker” title held so dearly by those determined not to be called “tourists.” On the other hand, I was grateful this was one of the last legs of my trip and the experience, though valuable, was not likely to be repeated.

And I can still say I’ve made it to every single destination I wanted on time :).

Why You Shouldn’t Drink on Trains…


The drinking culture of different countries is usually pretty interesting.

In China, the ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol when pressured by friends or making a business deal is necessary in order to “save face” and maintain your reputation (ah, binge drinking, always a healthy habit). With the words “gan bei,” one must down the drink without question, often the ever-terrible and ever-potent “baijiu,” a distilled liquor usually made from rice, wheat or barley that can only be compared to drinking rubbing alcohol. Repeat this procedure throughout the night and you can get some interesting events.

Like when taking a night train in the seated class.

With our last-minute planning, my travel buddies Kaleb and Wade and I found ourselves forced to spend the night in the chair-only section of the train on our way to Pingyao. While Kaleb had his own seat in the section behind us, Wade and I found ourselves sitting across a table from a Chinese woman and a Chinese man who spoke no English but seemed pleasant enough. As I leaned against the window to attempt to sleep, I heard the words “gan bei”, as the Chinese man and his buddies across the aisle attempted to engage Wade in their drinking game. Always a good sport, Wade happily obliged, and as I glanced at the silver bottle containing the nasty baijiu, I was grateful to be a woman and, therefore, usually left alone in the drinking games.

As I continued to doze, I heard laughter as the men delighted in Wade’s participation and their own progressive inebriation. Awhile later, further into my sleep, I felt something shoving against my leg and was forced to awaken fully to discover our neighbor passed out, slumped across from us, trying to stretch his legs under the entire length of the table. The woman, who had originally sat across from me, had been displaced. I looked at Wade at what to do and together (or really, Wade), moved the man to lay on his back with his legs away from us and into the aisle.

Chinese drinking

Again, I attempted to sleep.

A short time later, I awoke to a gurgling noise to find that our Chinese neighbor had begun to vomit on himself. Quite disgusted, I waited in vain for one of this man’s buddies to take care of him. The guys across the aisle from us made no attempt to help this man, and in fact, found the situation pretty funny. Though I’ll admit I was part annoyed, part amused by the circumstances, I did not want this guy to choke and die on us and called the attention of one of the train attendants.

Chinese drinking

I have little experience taking care of drunk people, but I thought the SOP of these situations was to turn the person over so they don’t choke. To my surprise, the train attendant, finally dawdling over to us, simply wiped off the man’s face before covering it with newspaper. No joke.

I looked to Wade for help on this on to whether or not I was overly worried. He said that he was not planning on sleeping that night and would keep an eye on our drunken neighbor and make sure he kept breathing.

Semi-relaxed, again, I tried to sleep.

A short time later, I was woken up again to the feeling of someone pulling my backpack out from underneath my legs and seat. My sleepy instinct was to fight to hold my bag with my feet, and then I realized it was Wade “stealing” my bag and asked what was going on.

He said that our “friend” had begun to wet his pants and he was trying to save my bag so it didn’t get peed on.

Now I was annoyed.

As Wade tried to find a place to store my backpack on the already-full train, a distinct smell of urine filled the air as a pool of liquid began to form on the ground beneath the table.

I decided that I had had enough.

Like the woman before me, I found myself displaced and was lucky to find the one open seat remaining a few seats down.

Returning to my original seat in the morning, I was pleased to find the man sitting up, alive, relaxed in his chair, carrying on as if nothing had happened the night before. As I stared at the dried vomit on his face and the newspapers on the ground, I wondered what was going through his mind. Was there any sense of shame or remorse to the previous night’s activities or was this just another evening for him? If one was required to drink excessively to prove himself to his friends, was alcohol tolerance a factor or were these drunken and seemingly expected occurrences all part of the game?

I never did get my answer to that one. I’m just glad he didn’t piss on my bag :).

Why You Shouldn’t Jump Out of Trains


If cinema has taught me anything, it’s that when you’re in a hurry, especially when running away from a bad guy, it’s perfectly fine to jump on or off a moving train. Especially in India.

Think about it.

Jumping on the train is what allowed Jamal and Salim to escape from the evil gangsters in Slumdog Millionaire. James Bond managed to prevent a major war by jumping on and off trains in Octopussy. Hell, even those three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited managed to catch their trains with an entire collection of Louis Vuitton suitcases!

So when I arrived at the Churchgate train station in Mumbai, semi-lost, I didn’t think twice that jumping out was a bad idea…

Now, to begin with, the day had started off pretty bad. After days feeling restless and frustrated waiting to recover from my food poisoning, I forced myself out of the house to finally do some sightseeing.

Despite still feeling weak, I had made plans to meet a friend that afternoon to show me some of the city’s major sites. But after two hours of my friend’s work-related delays, my sick, frustrated and impatient self decided to head to South Mumbai on my own.

As I took the hour-long train ride into the city, I tried to remember where exactly I was supposed to get off. While I couldn’t recall the exact name of the station, I did remember my friend saying it was the last stop on the line, so I figured I would just wait until they announced the last stop.

When we arrived at Churchgate Station, I vague bell went off in my head, but since they had not mentioned that this was the last stop (as they obviously would), I figured I’d just hold my place. But when the train started moving backwards, I began to panic.

After already losing a number of days to illness and the delays in the afternoon, I was determined to not waste any more time by having to travel all the way to the previous station and back again.

So I decided to jump.

Now, if I had had time to actually think about the consequences of jumping off the train, I probably would have imagined a light, graceful Erica leaping off the train like a doe before landing softly on my feet and casually walking to the nearest exit. Actually, given my imagination, I might have thrown a few turns and a toe-touch into the landing.

But in the few seconds between when the train started to move and when I decided to jump, any notion of thought, and certainly any notion of physics, went out the window.

The next thing I know, I’m lying face down on the Churchgate Station platform, gawked at by what I imagined to be hundreds of Indians laughing at me from the train.

As I wobbly stood up, examining the damage on my throbbing, scraped knee and elbow, I forced myself not to cry. Though the damage was minimal, days of frustration at my body now added with a sense of stupidity and humiliation, and it took every ounce of strength to hold back.

Once I left the station, a few tears slipping out, my pride vowed never to tell anyone, especially my parents, about this incident, not if I wanted to retain any strand of self-respect or prevent my mother from personally coming to fetch me home to stop me from doing anything more stupid.

But the massive red welts on my arm and knee weren’t in on the secret. The next thing I know, I’m on the receiving end of a series of lectures by my hosts, Geeta and Suresh, and all of their friends on how dangerous jumping off trains is and how tons of people die every year from falling in between the train and platform. Even Ananyah, their 15-year-old daughter, took on the Mom role in telling me how stupid it is to jump out of trains.

But I think the best reaction came from my doctor, affectionately deemed “Dr. Handsome,” who noticed the welts during my food poisoning check-up. His lecture started with, “The problem with Americans is they never get properly yelled at as children…”

As appreciative I was of all the helpful advice, I’m pretty sure eating the pavement in front of hundreds of strangers is as effective as any to prevent me from jumping out of any more trains.

And, sorry Mom, cat’s out of the bag :).

The 18-Hour Train Ride From Hell


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.

A particularly crowded train during Diwali

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.

Me before the train ride: happy and proud after finishing a cooking class with Tom and Gloria

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.

Me after the train ride: feeling half dead

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 :).