Train platforms in India have many purposes. They are places to eat, to sleep (often in large family groups), to pray, to shoo away dogs. And to wait. Once we get over the irritation of finding our 8:40pm train's new departure time has been moved to 1am (despite checking online multiple times), we settle into life in the crowded (air-conditioned) waiting room. Furnished with plastic seats and with access to a small food stand, it beats the 104°F (40°C) heat of the train platform. I chat to a lad from southern India, on his way to the Himalayas to trek and then to Italy to teach English. A 20/20 cricket match blares from the TV, and as the crowds come and go with each new departure, there are new faces and conversations to be had.
We punctuate our long wait with trips out to the platform to warm up – that AC has a real kick – and survey its own changing landscape. Dogs fight before limping away, people sleep, and eat. And wait.
Finally, at 12:30 we head to platform 13, where we are assured by a very helpful young man (who may or may not work for Indian railways) that our newly arrived and cleaned train will be waiting. Instead, we find a platform packed with people, luggage, boxes, parcels, and stray dogs. But no train. Also, no station staff, no working information screens and no way of knowing when the train will come. Will it come? So we, too, wait.
I am traveling with my husband, and our two daughters, 12 and 15. On this trip they have been confronted by many things – young children begging and sleeping rough, a man with no arms waving his stumps in their faces, people with shocking disabilities and birth defects waiting outside entrances to monuments, hoping for donations. The girls seemed to take it all in their stride – if it upset or worried them, they didn’t say so. And now, as they sit, tired, pathetic, and hot, on the seething platform, nothing seems to bother them. In part, because they are too exhausted to care, and also because, as parents, you have to put on the face you want your children to believe in. So, while I’m anxious about what will happen next, I play the part of the carefree traveler, awaiting the next stage of the adventure. In reality, I wonder how the night will end.
At 2am, our train to Varanasi arrives without fanfare, announcement, or introduction, slowly sliding along the tracks as the whole platform comes to hurried life to get on board. But this is no empty, cleaned train ready to receive us; this train is already packed with people – tired, hot, stinking. People who had endured god knows what during their long stop-and-go to Delhi. As we rush along the platform, frantically looking for our carriage number, we pass the lowest-class carriages where people seem stuffed in, limbs escaping windows, along with an unbelievable stench that could only be created by a sweaty mass of humanity confined for hours. Organised chaos prevails as us platform-dwellers swarm the train, looking for our assigned spaces.
We had secured one of the three, hard-to-book, air-conditioned cabins with four bunks, but first board the wrong carriage, squeezing our way down the corridor, passing men carrying sacks, bags, and small children, to find four bunks already occupied by another family. For my 12-year-old, who had tripped getting on the train, breaking her sandal, this is the final straw; she breaks down, surrounded by strangers, not caring as she sobs, in exhaustion and disappointment. India has finally broken her. Nothing can console her – not me, not her father or the kind strangers on the train.
We fight our way back along the corridor and onto the platform, eventually finding the right carriage and our empty cabin, which provides relative calm and sanctuary. While our daughter continues to cry, we make up our beds with the fresh sheets and blankets provided, and tuck her in. And then we wait another hour before the train finally departs – now seven hours late – gently rocking us to sleep.
Our return journey, 48 hours later, is more successful. This time, the train is only 10 minutes late, and when it pulls into the platform, we know what to expect. On our first calamitous journey, we had been four panicked, sweaty novices, running along the platform unsure of where to go or how long the train would stop for (would it stop?) to let us find our seats. This time, even our youngest daughter has the confident gait of a seasoned Indian train traveler, strolling straight to the final carriage where our clean, crisp sheets are the only things waiting.
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Kate Duthie is World Nomads' Managing Editor and an experienced travel and food writer.
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It is outstanding experience of you
I had a similar experience on the opposite direction, Varanasi-Delhi, 12 hours delay and than a 24h trip that made me feel exactly as your daughter! Loved your story, India is a hard country, but it's also a place where we can learn a lot about the world and about ourselves.
Totally been there. India’s trains are an amazing journey. My wife and I with our then 5 year old son braved several and had similar experiences. He fortunately just needed to be carried to avoid the breakdown his daddy wanted to have after several sleepless nights. Still, it was an experience and we all took away something extraordinary we could’t get any other way.
I always say “Everyone should go to India once, as well as “Thank God I’m out of India. “
It’s a one of a kind places that humbles you and makes you cry when you get back home safe and sound and you have so many pairs of shoes or choices of fragrances in your shower for soaps and shampoos and body care. You have to love it though as it truly OPENS YOUR EYES !
Thank you for sharing, Kate! We are about to embark on our second Trans-Siberian Railway voyage in two days. Your grit gives me strength! Those crisp sheets truly are a blessing, no?
We did this in 1984 with 2 children 6 and 4. We were amazed the food we ordered actually arrived! Loved the coffee that came in a bucket and the chai. En route to Agra my husband got out briefly at a stop and a local chap got in our sleeper, nipped up to a top bunk and said "wake me up when we get to Agra" We just left him there!!
Your bedding looks a lot better than the 30 years ago version! Wouldn't have missed any of it!
Oh what an interesting experience of how tedious journeys can be in some parts of the world.
It reminds me of the KM 2000 railway between Zambia and Tanzania operated by a company called the Tanzania Zambia Railway.
The train can be packed to capacity and its used by a lot of travellers of the two countries.
I’m here now in Delhi having traveled from Varanasi. I took an airplane and rather thankful I did. Varanasi about did me in- I have 10 more days traveling, looking for all India has to offer.
Thanks for sharing.
Read your story at the crack of dawn over a cup of India’s finest tea from Darjeeling having just sent a note to a friend planning a business trip to Delhi looking for fun things to do. I’m not sure we should forward. Ha ha ha. (We will!) We love India so much it hurts. Thanks for sharing. And touché for giving your children wonderful worldly experiences at such formative ages.
I took my daughter to India a couple of Christmas past, she was 15 at the time, her best friend and her mum came with us, four women travelling India for 6 weeks. Train travel experiences are a true way to be initiated into India's organised chaos. We shared numerous adventures, lost in a city at night on a tuk tuk with no card for our hotel!!!!, late trains/slow trains/not moving trains, woken in the middle of the night by strange men, yelling at us that we were in their beds ( we travelled 3 berth AC) experiencing the night sky of the desert, with desert dogs sleeping at our feet. We came home very grateful of where/what we have......... India = and I am a very seasoned traveller, living in 3rd world countries on several occasions, my daughter has travelled since 6wks old ..... India broke us both .... i used every scrap of knowledge from my travels .... it broke us, it made us stronger, it made us extremely grateful and it has made us want to go back for more ... so my daughter and I congratulate all your family members for your adventurous spirit, we have enjoyed reading about your trip on the India Platform ..... very similar experience x
You did well, especially with kids in tow. On the whole I found delays quite short, (ok, a few of several hours admittedly) but surprisingly on time for the most part. Nothing can quite prepare you for that first journey though and a few after that also... I traveled approx. 8 months around India, solely in the 3rd class “General” compartments (super cheap and no need to make reservations which I hear can be problematic) only taking one sleeper bed the entire time. It was frequently a veritable scrummage to get on and off. Thank heavens for the samosa sellers, hawking their inexpensive wares from carriage to carriage, they saved me more than once. It was an incredible experience and one I would recommend. A fantastic patience teacher.