Admittedly, it has taken a few days to digest and try to put this experience into words. I feel we need to mention that up until this point and certainly after, we’ve only had good experiences with trains in India. This is just one of those experiences, when all luck goes against you and you get progressively backed into a corner as options continue to run out. I’ll also add that yes, we could have shelled out a lot of money for AC sleeper coaches to fancy hotels in Mumbai as a halfway stop alternative, however we’re adventurers god dammit! how bad can it get!? (A mantra that continued to surprise us with new answers)
Having tried to book tickets for our 27 hour train journey from Goa to Jaipur, about 6 weeks in advance, only to be put on a lengthy waiting list, it was obvious from the get go that this train was going to be busy. In the two weeks before our departure, we had a few glimmers of hope that seemed to dissipate one after the other. Our further attempts to get tatkal tickets (tickets held for last minute release-24 hours before departure) for the week prior to and the week of our departure were quickly thwarted by the thousands of families heading north as the season ends. On both occasions the held batches of tickets (350 tickets) vanished in under 2 minutes. A few last minute cancellations did mean that we were bumped up to to wait list position 4 & 5, which was close but no cigar and so our tickets were automatically cancelled within 4 hours of the train leaving.
Heading to Thivim train station that morning, we already felt a little deflated. On previous journeys we had always gone for lower class tickets, saving money when we could and upgrading later if we had to. This was supposed to be our first experience of comfy, air conditioned travel and the idea of a 27 hour journey, without knowing when or if we’d be able to get seats, didn’t sit well.
We arrived in Thivim a few hours early to guarantee that we could at least get general class tickets. This wasn’t a problem and despite the small station being packed with people trying to get last minute tickets, we got sorted and began the 2 hour wait. (we’ll be fine!, how bad can it get”)
Strategically positioned on the platform to be the first onto the sleeper carriages, we watched as the train rolled into the station. I’ll admit a few bad words were used as the second class carriages rolled past, so full that arms, legs and heads were busting out of the windows and doors. As soon as the train had stopped, we jumped onto sleeper carriage 1 and began walking through the train, looking for seats.
Normally in each sleeper carriage berth, the upper seats are free during the day as people use the lower seats until late at night. With this in mind we thought we could persuade someone to let us camp there until they wanted the seats for sleeping. That way at least, we’d have a few hours rest before being back to square one. However, the idea didn’t seem to sit well with anyone and after 30 mins of asking up and down the train with heavy bags, we rested in the doorway of one of the carriages.
This was a low point. The realisation that with no seats and nowhere to put our bags, it was looking more and more likely that the next 27 hours would be spent standing in a doorway. These thoughts, topped off by the fact that other passengers seemed to be enjoying the fact that we were in this situation, did not a happy camper make.
After a quick rest, bags were back on and we were off in search of the TC (train conductor) who was, according to everyone we asked, in the AC carriages at the other end of the train. No problem, we’ll get there, explain the situation and he’ll help us find a solution. Ignoring the jeers and requests along the way (this was no time for selfies), we trudged the 15 carriages to AC3 and found the train conductor.
Chris- hi, we’ve been told by the station staff to upgrade our tickets on the train.
TC- not possible, go away, this is AC, you need other TC
Ella- sorry, we’ve been told to come to you. Is there a..
TC- go away, go!
Not quite as helpful as we’d hoped. Another trudge and we’re back in our cosy doorway. Quite tired at this point, (there may have been some sobbing) I set off in search of the the other TC, only to be told that there was no possibility of upgrading, that the train was already well over capacity and that we’d just have to sit where we could. After delivering the news back at camp doorway, we spent the next few hours reassuring each other that the situation wasn’t so bad, grabbing train snacks as they passed and repeatedly stretching while trying not to fall out.
As time passed, we grew to like our little doorway spot. It wasn’t much but it felt like our own space and that was so much better than nothing at that stage. We were quickly becoming celebrities on the train as more and more people wanted to chat with the seatless, white tourists. These people were genuinely really friendly and further helped pass the time as we swapped stories about travel and life at home. Out of nowhere, one of the catering workers came to us saying that he had some beds for us after 9/10pm. We couldn’t really believe what we were hearing, which was probably a good thing as he didn’t quite understand that the seats belonging to his friends getting off in Mumbai, would instantly be filled by new people who had reserved from that station. Regardless, it was nice, feeling that people wanted to help instead of just enjoying our suffering.
This nice feeling was soon to be short lived as around 6/7 hours into our journey, with legs feeling pretty stiff/numb from taking turns standing and sitting in the doorway, a new TC came walking through the carriage. We explained our situation and asked again if any seats would be free later in the journey. The same answer of not possible was quickly followed by a request for our tickets. Trying to explain that we were waiting for seats to free up later in the journey seemed to fall on deaf ears as he just kept repeating ,”no seats” and “you must move to general class” 😒.
Camp doorway was no more and despite being previously told to sit where we could, we were forced along the train, to wait until the next stop at which point we’d have to get off and walk to the general class carriages. Increasingly demoralised by flashbacks of seeing the crowded carriages earlier, we continued to argue our case at the end of the train and offered to pay whatever it took to secure a place in any of the other compartments. At this point lots of other passengers had joined us to help argue our case, a few offering to share their seats, others pleading with the TC to be more reasonable. It was obvious they knew the fate that awaited us in second class. Now, increasingly pressured by the gathering mass of Indian support, the TC explained to that we’d have to pay a fine to stay in sleeper class. This seemed to excite our band of loyal support and they pressed further, making the TC do some on the spot arithmetic to work out how much we’d be fined. After a moment, the figure of rs.1,250 was produced to the dismay of the crowd. While we thought, that’s a lot for the privilege of standing in a doorway for 27 hours, our little community insisted that this was a bad deal for us and before any further negotiating could occur, we arrived at the next station and were shoved out the door.
Feeling royally pissed off at this point, we turned towards second class to see countless visible bodies hanging from the nearest door. It was do or die at this stage and refusing to be left on a random platform to wait another week, we threw our bags at the mass of doorway bodies as the train began to move off. Fighting our way through the stacked chaos of limbs, we were met with shouts of, “why are you here!!! you can afford AC!” and resisting the urge to tell people where to go, we could only shout replies of NO SEATS!
It was as bad as you can imagine, finding yourself tangled up in a stereotype people only joke about. With over 280 people crammed into a carriage that has a max capacity of 90, it was sensory overload. We couldn’t move. You couldn’t shift your feet due to the bodies on the floor or move your arms as people desperately clung to any part of the train they could find. We were speechless. A young guy behind us was trying to coordinate shifts for the women and children so that they would each get turns sitting on the floor or up in the baggage racks. He explained that they were men and so would stand for the duration. At one point a guy tried to climb across the bodies towards the toilets, only to be refused by the crowd. We didn’t ask what the alternative was.
I have so much respect for these people. He said standing, but this made standing look like a lesirely relax by the pool. It was constantly balancing on a knife edge with every muscle screaming in agony as the mass of bodies moved in unison to avoid cramp. This was endurance like nothing we’d ever seen before. I can’t honestly understand how their bodies permit them to last 27 hours in that condition. We lasted 3!
At the next station we dragged ourselves through the bodies and off the train. Seat or no seat, 1000 rupees was nothing for the ability to stand without being in constant pain. We jumped back into sleeper and felt so relieved that we could move. Not our favourite doorway, this one had a few other passengers without seats (who kindly shared their newspaper to sit on) and a much stronger smell of human waste – much like the stench of portaloos at Glastonbury. 🤗
We didn’t care! We bought every snack that passed and sat on the floor with the others, united in misery but secretly filled with relief. Then it happened. Literally, out of nowhere an Indian guy in his twenties taps me on the shoulder and tells me to follow him. He explains that while he and his wife are travelling together, they can share one seat and give the other to us. We couldn’t believe our ears! The next 20 minutes before falling asleep was a blur of thank you’s and thoughts of how lucky we were. Having finally sat down, the last 12 hours slipped by in comfort. We bought them breakfast and lunch the next day but couldn’t help but feel like he may have regretted his decision as a night with two people crammed into one sleeper bed is not the comfiest. To us, it was luxury. We paid our fine in the morning and arrived in Jaipur with faith in humanity restored, lessons learned and promised never to take personal space for granted! We’ve also booked all of our journeys for the rest of India. A seat each! Can’t wait!!!