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(Sleeper) train of thought

Have you ever tried to sleep through what feels like a magnitude 6.5 earthquake?

What if heated political arguments were also going on right by your ear?

Maybe someone is walking past your bed every 5 minutes shouting about his tomato soup?

Sound familiar? No? Well, all of this can be experienced when travelling by train in India.

“May I have your attention please?” The tannoy squawked with a shrill distortion of decades-old electrical equipment being worked too hard. “The Mangala Lakshwadeep Superfast Express is delayed.”

That will be fine, I thought. It’s called the ‘Superfast Express’, it’ll only be 10 or 15 minutes late.

“…by 6 hours” the announcement continued. “The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.” My spirits sank right through me to the cold, dusty concrete floor below that was now to be my waiting room for the next quarter of a day.

The Mangala Lakshwadeep Superfast Express was the train we had booked through our good friends at the tourist centre in Delhi we met in my last blog post. It was scheduled to leave Madgaon Station, Goa at 19:30 and arrive in Kochi, Kerala the following morning at 10:00. This, of course, was now no longer the case.

The station at Madgaon could have been anywhere in India. Hundreds, if not thousands of passengers clutter its platforms, waiting for trains that almost never arrive on time. Stray dogs roam freely, seemingly only looking for compassion from anybody brave enough to take the risk with the fleas they might be harbouring. Snack stalls can be found dotted along the length of the dusty platform, assaulted by hungry customers vying for water, crisps, biscuits and dried fruits. The heart-breaking scene of old, often disabled beggars making their way from person to person in search of some spare change is all too familiar.

Every usable inch of solid floor space is transformed for a few hours into someone’s chair or bed. Families arrange luggage in almost fort-like structures, just a few feet away from speeding trains passing through the station, and proceed to arrange themselves like a game of Tetris inside to settle down for the night on their newly made makeshift beds.

“Tea! Tea! Tea!” The sound woke me as a drifted in and out of sleep, slumped against a wall below the modern-looking plasma TV that displayed the dismal view of each train’s expected arrival times. As I gazed up, I saw a stocky Indian man sporting a bright yellow shirt and broad smile, carrying a tower of paper cups and a giant flask of Chai tea.

“Tea! Tea! Tea!” he pitched again. His accent didn’t fit the image of the man being received by my eyes. It seems he may have learned to sell hot beverages from Steve Coogan’s character ‘Alan Partridge’. It was lucky Alan walked past when he did; the Superfast Express we'd been waiting for was rolling into the station. As tempting as it was to stay seated considering neither of my legs wanted to work due to their unrelenting numbness, Kochi was calling.

Once aboard, the trains themselves are quite pleasant, with various different classes ranging from over-filled, stuffy wooden seating in the unreserved second class coaches to spacious, air-conditioned double bunkbeds in the 2AC coaches. We opted for 3AC; essentially the same as 2AC but with triple bunks. It gave me a fantastic opportunity to talk to real Indian people, to find out what life is like for them and of course to talk about Indian music, both traditional and modern.

If you ever find yourself on an overnight train in India, I strongly recommend earplugs and something to cover your eyes from the incandescent lights that are inevitably turned on at various times throughout the night. With mine in place, I settled down in the early hours, 8 feet up on the highest bunk and hoped to get some rest.

The downside to the typical Indian sleeper train is that the sleeping element to it can be a struggle. The repetitive swaying motion of the carriage can be (almost) quite relaxing until a sudden jolt almost sends you toppling down from your bunk. The salesmen offering various types of food and hot drinks along the station, roam the aisles from around 6am until midnight, repetitively calling aloud whatever goodies they have in their container. Families and friends rise early and will often start their conversations, debates and arguments with little concern for anybody still trying to sleep around them.

This all adds to the charm though; experiencing the reality of such a vast nation which is so much more than just sunrise photos of the Taj Mahal, Bollywood films or palm-lined beaches.

Being woken by heated political debate by a group of students, I leaned over my bunk to try to understand the infrequent English words that were uttered between an onslaught of Konkaki (the language widely spoken in Goa). It was great to see the passion in their argument and in that moment, I understood more about Indian culture than I had done for the entirety of the trip. That was despite being rudely woken and not understanding the words that were being thrown across the carriage like arrows on a battlefield. Combined with the clunking of the steel tracks and background buzz of other passengers, I all but gave up my hope for any more sleep on the Mangala Lakshwadeep Superfast Express.

By far the most engaging train ride we have taken here to date, did not require a sleeper train. It lasted only 3 hours and went from Kollam to Ernakulam. This journey we took in second class; the cheapest option on an Indian train, costing us only around 80p ($1) for a 100 mile (160km) journey each.

We found ourselves in an overfull carriage, with bars on the windows and countless fans suspended from its pastel blue ceiling. Every bench was taken, with people tightly packed between and on top of others, and in every other available space they could find.

We managed to find space to stand by an open door and the cool breeze I found flowing through it provided some much needed respite from the evening heat. The Kerala countryside seemingly flew past the door at break-neck speed, kissed by the setting sun; orange, pink, red, purple and blue. The winding canals and open lakes passed underneath as the train made its way over endless bridges; it almost looked as if the carriage was gliding over the water, with sheer drops just a short step away from where I stood.

During the ride, a young man noticed I was checking the cricket score on my phone (the 2nd T20 match between India and England was going on at the time) and asked me how many more runs England needed to win. Naturally, I was more than happy to share my phone screen with him so we could both keep up-to-date with the live action. This then resulted in many a conversation with the people sat around me about my favourite cricketers, thoughts on India, opinion on this game, even helping to give advice on how I could get tickets for the 3rd game in Bangalore (something I’d been desperately trying to do for the past few weeks but unfortunately to no avail!)

The 3 hours en-route to Ernakulam flew by in an instant and it felt as if I’d made friends for life. The Indian people have a tendency to have that effect on you. Throughout the whole of the south of the country, countless people greet you in the street, young children practice their English with you and elderly folk meet you with a sincere stare which quickly turns into a wide smile.

Despite my grumblings about Indian trains, we'd arrived safely each time, made acquaintances with some fascinating people and saw a side to this country that we otherwise would never have. It's one of the lasting memories that will stay with me as I prepare to leave India in a few days' time and head to the Maldives for the next calling point of the journey.

One thing I have learned though, is that I’ll never complain about the Doncaster to London King’s Cross train ever being delayed by 8 minutes again!

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