It is going on my twenty-second hour on an Indian train1 and I was inspired during my last visit to the loo to attempt to describe the train. Sleeper class is one step above the bottom rung. There is no AC or heat like the nicer classes, but you have assigned seating and you have enough room to stretch out. One side of the train has two bunks parallel to the train length one up high and one at window level. During the day, the two people who have those seats sit at the window and at night one goes up to the top bunk, which is barely long enough for someone my height (five foot six inches) to stretch out. On the other side of the train (separated by a pathway wide enough for one person to walk) are six bunks horizontal to the train. During the day, the middle bunk is down and used as a back rest so six people can sit relatively comfortably. At night, the back part of the seat goes up, creating a third bunk on each side so that six people can sleep – with only the top bunk allowing enough space for someone to sit up, though when you do so you risk banging our head against one of the metal fans at the ceiling.
The bunks are not designed for comfort – there is some padding, and then they are covered with blue vinyl and a layer of dust and grime that has sunk into the blue after either years or days without washing – it’s hard to tell here, as things tend to have a difficulty maintaining any level of clean. What I do know is that if you take a wet cloth to them, they come up black. Ignorance is, at times, bliss.
The bunks are filled with average Indians who can afford the luxury of assigned seats but perhaps not the AC cars (round trip, the fare was 600R – or $13). A lot of families and single men. As foreigners, and female ones, we spent the first hour or two of the train ride under the unrelenting stares of every person in our eight person block, and most of the people from the two surrounding blocks. Sometimes a man will sit down in a seat not theirs just to take a turn staring at us.
I sleep in my sleep sack – it adds little warmth, but it makes my form more difficult to see when I’m passed out and I can worry less about the position of my legs. My pillow is my day pack and my purse, both chained and locked to the support holding the bunk up. There is a mouse that I have seen several times, and in the mess of cobwebs between the fan and the ceiling, right above me, there is the body of a spider large enough for me to be thankful it is dead. I was woken at 5:45 to the low chant of “chai garum chai” (chai hot chai – they sell a small cup for 5 rupees) and by seven thirty, two or three men were blaring Indian pop music sans headphones.
The bathroom is a small room with a squat that opens down to the tracks below. The squat risers are a little too narrow, and between that and the movement of the train, you inevitably pee on your feet at least once. You can’t touch the walls for balance, as they are smeared various shades of brown. Some are faded, others suspiciously wet. In order to avoid the inch of brown water on the floor, you need to roll up your pant legs before you enter, though this does not seem to concern Indian men much, as I get bemused looks if anyone sees me doing so.
If you have toilet paper, that goes down onto the tracks, as does any pads or tampons you might be disposing of. I have an interesting mental image of what it would be like to walk these tracks and discovering all sorts of bodily left overs.
It is now 1:30 pm. 24 hours ago, we left our hotel for the train station. Because my train was supposed to get in at five am, I am out of food (ate my emergency luna bar I had forgotten was in my day back for lunch) and out of cash (I gave my last 200 R to the girl who is paying for our cab ride home. I am out of water, which might become a problem if this trip is delayed much further. I am also long out of toilet paper (though not, thankfully, hand sanitizer) – rolls don’t survive long when they serve double duty as clean up and clearing my poor sinuses up (I’ve had a cold for about a week now. I can’t tell if it’s a cold or my sinuses taking a futile stand against the pollution of India). I’ve resorted to blowing my nose with a sock.
All that being said: I would rather spend twenty plus hours on this train than twenty hours flying coach. I’ve claimed the top bunk and am leaning back with my feet stretched out, sipping chai and periodically making conversation. I’ve read two books and am working on my third, and earlier I worked on my Hindi (I had several men fascinated by me painstakingly writing out simple Hindi exercises).
And last night I watched the sun set behind low clouds that blanketed endless green fields and women in colorful saris weave through the green on their way home from a day’s work. With this image, I was struck with an odd sense of absolute certainty – this is exactly where I need to be. Here, on this train.
1 It was supposed to take 14 hours. You might have heard about the roof-riders who died in India – their deaths happened between us and our destination, and that is why our train was diverted and it took six hours longer to get back to Delhi.