Stowaways

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We knew it was a gamble when we boarded the train without a confirmed ticket. Things always have a way of working out for us, though; and viewed from this naive and trusting perspective, it was a calculated risk. OK, so maybe “calculated” is a bit too flattering a description for our state of mind.

The very end of the year is, along with Diwali, the busiest season for train travel in India. This years is particularly bad, representing the end of the two-year cycle of the government’s use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy. We had made our reservation more than a week before: Chennai to Pune to attend one friend’s wedding reception, Pune to Kolkata for another friend’s wedding reception. Weddings also have their high seasons in India.

We were waitlisted for these journey segments at the time the reservations were made via internet, and a few days later when our “Journey cum Reservation Tickets” arrived by courier. We headed for Chennai early in the morning to begin our journey, hopeful that we would clear the waitlist and, as luck would have it, our reservations cleared at the preparation of the final list, just two hours before the train was set to roll. We had been assigned an aisle compartment – upper and lower berths. These are certainly comfortable accommodations, but they represent the dregs of Second Class AC, the relatively posh way we like to travel for journeys of more than 24 hours. With our luck running true-to-form, the conductor found us an interior berth, and we made the switch.

On the afternoon of our departure from Pune, our tickets still had not confirmed. Our waitlist numbers had fallen from 23 and 24 to 10 and 11 over the prior week, but now they seemed stuck in place. We checked via the Indian Railways website, and we double-checked by enduring the long line at the “Enquiry” window at the station. No movement. And worse, the seating list had been finalized.

Two things were clear: we had no seat on the evening train, and we were not likely to get a booking for another train in time for the festivities in Kolkata. So we rode our luck. We decided to board the train and hope that the conductor could find us a place – in Second Class AC or any other class of travel – as no-shows created openings.

We waited at the end of the Second Class AC bogey as those with confirmed seats moved inside car with their luggage. After some delay, the train departed; but we still did not know our fate. About twenty minutes later, the conductor finally appeared. He did not have good news for us: there wasn’t a seat to be had in any class of service. I made a hopeful tour through Three Tier Sleeper and Third Class. The crawl through bodies as I traversed each bogey told me more than the conductor could have. Every seat – and every inch of floor space — was taken several times over.

I retreated to the place at the end of the Second Class AC bogey, where Yoo-Mi was waiting with our backpacks. Thirty-six hours of sitting on the floor, essentially between the cars of the train, next to the toilets, loomed ahead of us.

Just when things seems as if they could get no worse, the porter came and told us we would have to move our backpacks aside; we were blocking the linen cabinet. One of the nice things about riding Second Class AC on overnight trains is that one receives a full compliment of linens for their berth: a pillow, two freshly laundered sheets, a blanket and a towel. These are stored, as it turns out, in a small cabinet at the end of the car.

We pasted ourselves into the corner to watch the porter collect linens sets, and disappear into the car to deliver them. Within 30 minutes, his task was complete – though it would be repeated to a lesser extent at a number of stop along the way, as passengers disembarked and new passengers, requiring clean linens, boarded.

Within a couple of hours, our luck swung again. The porter was offering us his sleeping shelf, a narrow plank which folds from the wall at the end of the train, and the now-mostly empty linen cabinet as our accommodations for the journey. We asked a fellow passenger to translate for us – although the Marathi-to-Hindi-to-English was not the smoothest process – and to help negotiate our price: Rs. 500 for the entire journey, including two nights. On the one hand, we were hesitant to take the porter’s space for the long journey. On the other hand, we knew that this would be a substantial boost to his earnings for the trip, and that he would easily find another closet or corner of the train in which to sleep.

shelf.JPG

Neither the closet, nor the shelf was long enough for me to fully stretch out on, and neither was as much as two feet wide. Sleep – such as it was – was interrupted by people coming out of the car to use the toilets, or to smoke, and by the deep bruises which quickly developed on our hip-bones. These were certainly not the most uncomfortable nights’ sleep I ever had; but it is not something I would recommend that you try, even if Indian Railways should somehow start offering this as a new class of service.

Our luck swung one last time before the journey was over. Having endured 32 hours of riding in cramped, unpadded, noisy, smelly, trash-strewn luxury, the new conductor rousted us in the middle of the night, four hours short of our destination, to insist that we move to newly-vacated berths. In the process, he recorded our ticket, meaning that we would be charged the full Rs. 4000 (Second Class AC rates) for our journey. In protest, we refused to move and rode the rest of the way in the linen closet and standing by the toilets.

I’m still not exactly sure what we were protesting and, in retrospect, the four hours of comfortable sleep should have been welcomed. But these are the kinds of goofy choices one faces and half-baked decisions one makes as a stowaway, riding the rails on the wings of luck.

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