OM symbols even make to bus roofs (no pic of the India trains yet!)
OM symbols even make to bus roofs (no pic of the India trains yet!)

OMmygoodness gracious.  That was one of, if not, the craziest travel experiences yet of mine!  And in all these years of travel, I’ve had quite a few crazy travel experiences.  I gave myself PLENTY of time to get to the 10:30pm train which of course was 22:30 on my e-ticket print-out since almost every other country uses military time for things like that. Just one more thing to make your brain have to check itself which is probably not a bad thing.

I left Rishikesh around 3:45pm, got a tuk-tuk to the bus station nearby and began my journey quite easily by luckily asking the first bus that appeared to be fairly full where I could find one going to Haridwar.  I had just found it!  It was leaving in ten minutes and cost about 50 cents for the hour’s drive.  There was even a seat available at the front with plenty of space for my big backpack.  So far, so great! I put on my headphones to begin enjoying some of my own music again as well as the super interesting backroad route we took which was very different than the one I’d seen arriving to Rishikesh by bus three weeks earlier.  Much of it was along an aqueduct and on roads that appeared to be in a construction zone, but there were lots of trees which was a very pleasant change of pace.

Arriving in Haridwar was a whole other story.  I had read that it was a holy city and very frequently visited by pilgrams.  But you’d never ever know it from where the bus drops you off, smack dab in the middle of mayhem.  The main street was super crowded noisy busy dirty and polluted with a mishmash of people, tuk-tuks and constantly honking scooters moving in every direction. The street was lined with teeny restaurants that all had open front walls as opposed to doors that you would walk in, basically allowing all the filth and dirt from the street to carry on into the restaurant.  And there went my thought of having dinner nearby before my train.  Though I didn’t want to give up on that idea *just* yet so I decided to turn down all the tuk-tuk offers I was getting and just kept walking through the mayhem to hopefully find a clean and quiet enough place to eat.

Luckily I did, because a couple blocks or so down after making one turn off the main drag that was unsuccessful, I found a rather large hotel that advertised a restaurant inside.  Inside being the key word!  And off that completely disgusting and deafening street.  I asked where the restaurant was after climbing the steps to the main lobby and the man behind the desk pointed through two closed doors but said it wouldn’t open til 6 or 6:30pm.  It was 5:30pm at the time but my train was still five hours away.  I asked if I could sit and wait in the lobby, pointing to my heavy bag and happily eye’ing the lengthiest row of cushy couches lined up that I may have ever seen.  Maybe six couches end to end facing each other (so twelve couches in all?) with not a person in sight. Thankfully, he said sure.

Once again, scored!  Still so far, so good.  I took the opportunity to write in my journal. I had decided since I’d finally begun writing my travel blog, there was no need for me to keep handwriting in the little leather bound journal I had started at the beginning of my trip.  I would, however, keep that one for my more personal entries and would enjoy writing that one, as I always have, by hand.  There’s something super satisfying to me to write with pen on paper.  Though I am also really enjoying the speed and efficiency of writing on my iPad, as well as the ability to re-read and revise what I’ve written a day later which has become my habit.  I am really digging this writing and editing thing.  The book that I have always had the deep feeling I’d one day be writing may actually have finally begun its form or at the very least, its first true deep inspiration through this blog.

Back to my journey… after completing my writing it was nearing 7pm and the restaurant was now open.  There was no one inside, not even a waiter… with only one person visible in the kitchen.  Eventually, someone came out and handed me a menu.  I was excited to see a green vegetable medley dish on the menu since I was craving veggies.  It turned out to be a very oily mixture of veggies that happened to have a couple green ones in it — more onions then anything, cauliflower and a few carrots, but… I was quite hungry by now and it would definitely do.  At around 8:15pm, I figured I should make my way to the train station which was just across the street.

Oh my goodness!  Except I wouldn’t actually call it goodness.  After meandering my way over to the train station through a back way into the parking lot, I finally walked up the front steps and could not believe my eyes!  There were people not only sitting and waiting all over the front steps, it was literally wall to wall people inside.  And I don’t mean standing up.  It looked like a refugee camp. No matter where you looked, there were families lying down sleeping everywhere.  And it was only 8:30p.  Most of them had laid paper down on the ground and then put their blankets on top.  You could barely walk by to get to the lines where people were waiting to purchase tickets.  I walked through the crowded lobby where the train platform was and it wasn’t any different.  People sitting and lying down everywhere!  And every single sign was in Hindi with not one Western/European face in sight.  Really???  Wow.  The only thing I could understand was the big red digital clock in the middle of the platform assuring me that even though I had no idea where to go to find my train, at least I had some time to figure it out.

My face must have looked as bewildered as I felt because at that moment, a kind looking Indian man wearing a turban asked me if I needed any help.  Yes, please!  I most certainly do. I told him I needed to find the platform where my train would be so I showed him the print-out of my e-ticket.  He told me that was I was on the platform already and it should arrive about 20 minutes before it would leave.  Great!  This isn’t so bad.  I then asked him to verify the seat I was in which was printed on the second page of the print-out. And that’s when his face changed.

“I’m sorry ma’am”, he said, “But you don’t have a seat on this train.  You are waitlisted.”  Oh no!  A feeling of dread deflated my optimism instantly.  “Wait a second, what?!?  I don’t have a seat?  I’m waitlisted?  But I bought this ticket online and got a confirmation it went through.  Are you sure?” I asked.  He showed me that the status showed WL 19.  I thought the WL was for my initials and I was in seat 19!  I would have laughed at my stupidity if I wasn’t so upset that I didn’t have a seat after waiting four days to buy my ticket, finally figuring out how to purchase it online and making my way to Hardiwar to get on the train that was now going to arrive in close to an hour.  Shit.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked him.  The thought immediately occurred to me that I might have to sleep the night in Haridwar and figure out how to take a bus to Lucknow the next day but I REALLY didn’t like that option.  The thought of staying in noisy crowded Haridwar (at least where I was) a minute longer than I needed to really wasn’t an option if there was any I could get on that train, any way at all.  I felt desperate.

He told me he would see what he could do and to follow him.  He led me into an official-ish looking office where two men were sitting behind big desks and showed them my print-out while speaking to them in Hindi.  ‘Please, please, please,’ I thought, ‘A little love for the stupid foreign girl?’ They barely looked up and both just shook their heads no.  No love tonight.  There was not going to be a seat for me on that train.  Double shit.  Learning some things about train travel in India, are we?!?

When we left the office, he told me there was only one thing I could do.  And that would be to buy a general ticket for the same train.  I might not get a seat but I could get on the train in the sleeper car with all the other people that don’t have seats.  Needless to say it would be a long ride but I could get on.  And, I might get lucky because I had already bought the e-ticket and because I was a foreigner.  I figured, great.  Done.  I am ready to learn my lesson and stand on the train if I had to.  But also figured I could use my bag as a seat and just sit on that if need be.  I was up for whatever situation was ahead of me looking at it as a travel learning adventure.  The one thing I knew for sure is that I was 100% committed to making certain I got on that train.

I thanked him profusely for the help which he said was unnecessary and that he was happy to help.  He also told me he’d be at that spot on the platform til 9:30p if I needed anything else.  I climbed my way through and over all the bodies on my way to go back into the lobby and stand in line to now purchase the general ticket.  I went to the shortest line at the far end which happened to have an angry Indian woman at the front bickering with the ticket man.  After a few minutes, I noticed the sign at the window that said for Women Only.  That would have been cool since I happened on that line by accident and if there weren’t a couple men standing with the woman too.  Looked like she was buying tickets for others.  I waited my turn and then pushed my way forward as I quickly saw you had to do and explained my situation, handing the ticket guy my print-out.  He looked at it quickly and then told me I had to go to another window a section away.  For real, I thought?  For the first time, I began wondering about not having enough time which would be incredibly ironic and awful considering how much time I had given myself and how much time I’d wasted journaling and having dinner… to kill all the extra time I thought I’d had.

I made my way to the other window which thankfully only had one other person in front of me.  I was happily prepared to finally purchase my general ticket when the ticket person told me I needed to go BACK to the window where I had just been standing.  Are you kidding me!?!?!!!  That moment when you almost finally lose it?  I was on the verge!  Teetering on the edge.  Deep breath!  “Sir, the person at that window just told me to purchase my ticket HERE.”  He just shook his head.  “No, I’m sorry.  You need to go back to that window.  I can’t help you.”  “Please”, I said.  He must have seen the exasperation in my face because he then told me purchase it at the Ticket Supervisor’s office and how to get there when I asked.

I made my way BACK onto the train platform area which is where the Supervisor’s office was but the office was empty and the door was locked.  God help me.  No really, Spirit… I thought, please help me get this train ticket and get on that train. I walked back into the lobby resolved this time that I would not walk away from the window without a ticket and chose to go to a completely different window on the other end.  With complete confidence, my e-ticket and money in hand, I explained I was waitlisted and needed a general ticket.  The ticket man simply nodded and asked for 150 rupees (about $2) and that was that.  I had both my e-ticket and the small general ticket clutched in my hand with just enough time to go tell my helpful friend all was well and ask him where I should stand to board my train.

He told me to get on any car, sit down and wait for the ticket man on the train who would be dressed in black to tell me where to go.  Hopefully if I was lucky, I would end up with a seat.  When my train finally arrived, it was a mad house.  People starting running to get onto the train with what looked like absolutely no rhyme or reason to where they were getting on.  I tried to get on a couple cars with the beds on them since that was what I had originally paid for, but the doors to get inside were shut.  I asked if I could just wait in the little outside area and was told that wasn’t allowed.

I walked down to where someone was standing dressed in black and asked where I could board the train and he told me there weren’t any seats *at all* on the train.  Whatchu talkin’ about Willis?!!??!  I finally fought my way to get a general ticket.  I’ve bought two tickets now.  I have waited four days.  I got my ass to Lucknow.  I waited five more hours.  I am getting on that train!  I tried to show him both my tickets and explain the situation and beg to be let on the train.  He told me to go to the end of the train and just wait there.  I looked out the door of the car and realized I was already ON the last train!  There was literally nowhere left to go.  I told him so — and he told me to get off the train, go stand at the end of the platform and that more cars would be added.  ‘Really?’ I’m thinking.  Was he serious?  How are they going to add more cars to the already incredibly long train that just came in from the *opposite* direction?  BUT… there were many people gathered along that portion of the platform now, all standing and waiting.  I figured, they must have know something I didn’t… or at least hadn’t until just being told finally, thank goodness.  So… off I went, with my fingers crossed.  I’m just going to have need to rely on my faith… and see what happens.  By this time, any chance of getting on that sleeper car with standing room only was definitely gone since every Indian family in Hardiwar had already scrambled on by that point.

As I was waiting an Indian man asked me something I couldn’t really understand.  I asked if he spoke English after which he nodded, so I took the opportunity to ask if he was waiting for the cars to come to board the same train that was already there.  He answered yes, which was reassuring.  And then he took the opportunity to ask me where I was from, which is of course the first question out of practically every Indian person’s mouth when they first meet me.  I replied to which he then asked if I was traveling alone.  The look in his eyes combined with the question was enough for me to promptly and definitively answer “No”.  Little white lies are simply sometimes necessary when you ARE traveling alone, as a foreigner and a woman on a 10-hour evening train very likely without a seat.

I have our very short little Q&A to thank though.  Due to the slight discomfort it caused, I chose to move where I was standing further down the platform.  And sure enough, after about a 10-minute wait coming from the opposite direction were a handful more cars!  India sure does work in mysterious ways.  Once again, as the cars approached it was a pushing match to board.  And I was ready and willing to join right in.  After letting an older woman board in front of me, I claimed my place and carefully shoved my body and backpack right along with the rest of everybody.  When in Rome…. or India!

Due to the slight change in location with the leery Indian man,  I was able to board one of the sleeper cars I might not have otherwise.  And I was able to be standing exactly where I ended up standing, along with all the other Indian travelers who were also still standing.  It was one of the three-tiered bunk bed cars, as opposed to the slightly more expensive two-tiered ones I had attempted to purchase online.  Some of the beds were taken with people already sleeping.  Some were still empty.  I knew I didn’t have a seat anyway, so it was up to fate and the kindness of the train ticket guy where my travel destiny lay that evening.

It became quite clear very quickly that I was far from the only person in that compartment who did not have a ticket for that car.  If I had to guess, there were probably twice as many of us in the car than there were seats for.  People were standing in the aisles and eventually sitting on the floor.  I, however, ended up standing besides two bunks of beds facing each other that appeared to be full of a family.  Turned out it was a couple sets of travelers with legitimate seats and two men like me who didn’t have assigned seats.  The lucky part was that after just a few minutes, someone offered me a seat on the edge to sit on.  The bunks hadn’t been made yet so four people could sit together pretty comfortably and I made #4.  Yes please!  And dunyabad!  Thank you! I would absolutely love to sit down, knowing I was ten hours from my destination and it was already a couple hours past my normal bedtime.

And then, the train started to move!  Slowly but surely, we began rolling out of the station!  Hallelujah!  I had made it!  The train was moving, I was on it… and at least for now, I had a seat!  Is this possibly how the train system works in India?  You just push and shove your way onto a car and somehow hope for the best??  I had done my fair share of hoping.  For now, I was also very grateful.  And at this point, up for anything and curious how the rest of this ride would transpire.

After about twenty minutes or so, I felt a bit more settled and decided I would finally put on my headphones.  It was going to be a long night.  But just minutes after, there seemed to be a bit of commotion coming from the front end of the car.  Even though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I sensed that someone was upset that someone else was in their bunk and an argument was ensuing.  I believe I was right, too.  Shortly there after, a train ticket officer showed and starting looking at tickets.  I took my headphones off.  Alrighty then, don’t get too comfy in this gifted seat.  I realized I might not be staying very long.  And although I don’t like to pray for specific outcomes in my life, I did put a little shout out to Spirit, that even though I didn’t need a seat, PLEASE at least let me stay on the train!  Especially now that we’ve been moving half an hour, it was likely close to midnight and I had absolutely no idea where we were.

After a little while, the train man showed up so I showed him both my e-ticket and general ticket, explaining I hadn’t known I’d been waitlisted.  He looked at both and simply said to me, “Lucknow?” which was my destination of course.  I nodded and he just handed the tickets back to me and kept on walking.  And that was that.  I had passed the first challenging India travel test… and found my “seat” on the train.  I sat back and breathed a deep sighing relief.  Thanks to the leery India man, I’d ended up next to kind Indian people willing to share their seat with me.   When I looked into the aisle, there were now many people sitting on the floor.  By choice, I eventually joined them.  Because after a very brief amount of time, the kind family decided it was time to go to sleep.  I watched them change the seats into three beds by using hooks that were built into the seats, pretty simple to use and made good sense.  The two people I had been sitting next to made their way onto the top and middle bunks.  And the woman who was sleeping in the bottom bunk kindly allowed me to remain seated at the foot of her bed.  I was grateful.  However, with the new bunk above my head there was no longer any room to sit up straight.  I had to lean forward with my elbows on my legs holding up my head.  After about ten minutes, I realized there was no way I would be comfortable sustaining that position, so I decided to join my Indian brothers and sisters sitting on the floor.  I took out my handy dandy super loved travel pillow which I placed on the floor (face side to my booty and not the floor), put the top of my backpack which is like a fanny pack on the bunk to lean against and got semi-comfy.  There was still a looooooong ways to go!

Between the sounds of the Hindi conversations replaced by the eventual sound of the loud snoring, I was super glad to have my music with me.  I tried a couple times to put in my ear plugs and maybe get a little sleep, but it was obvious it was definitely going to evade me.  I could blame it on the energy of the full moon that night.  But my sore neck from the awkward position I was in and the discomfort of sitting on the floor were likely the more accurate culprits.  Even amidst my over-tired irritation, I kept going back to the gratitude I had made it on the train and was on my way to Lucknow.  I’ve had PLENTY a sleepless night at festivals and during ceremonies.  I could get through a sleepless uncomfortable night on a train in India… NO problem.

I’d guess about six hours went by from when the train had started moving that I was given a very lovely surprise.  A man who had been sleeping on one of the bunks in my section got off the plane.  Other Indian men had since boarded and were sitting and standing in the area, but they told me to get on the bunk.  It was in Hindi of course which I couldn’t understand, but that’s what sign language is for — a traveler’s handy best friend.  I didn’t hesitate to take them up on the offer.  And hopped up to the second bunk.  I had brought my water bottle, pillow, fanny pack bag and fuzzy little blanket which I had gotten out of my pack by this time.  Throughout the night, the temperature had dropped considerably.  My bigger backpack was locked and underneath the bottom bunk which felt safe.  And for the first and only time in the night, I fell into the only sleep I’d get that night — no more than an hour’s worth — but enough to know it was sleep — because I eventually had the feeling of waking up.

It felt good.  Like I’d finally been able to relax.  And was good timing too.  As just minutes later, a new ticket man dressed in black asked to see my tickets.  I didn’t explain anything to him this time.  I knew I wasn’t in my assigned bunk.  I also knew many of the others weren’t where they belonged.  And the first man had let me stay, so this guy sure wasn’t going to kick me off.  However, he did tell me between Hindi and broken English that since I wasn’t in the correct bunk, I owed him money.  150 rupees.  That’s when I told him I already paid for the e-ticket AND the general ticket.  He kept pointing at the form he was holding in his hand, repeated “refund” and pointed to the e-ticket and then lowered his request to 100 rupees.  I didn’t know how I’d be able to get a refund on the original ticket I never actually used, but I figured if all I needed to do was give him an additional 100 rupees (less than $1.50) to stay in my new bunk, I was more than happy to oblige.  He filled out the form that I then signed, handed him my rupees and I cuddled up into a blanketed fetal position and stared out the window that was now open in the aisle across from me.  Just a few more hours and we’d been there!  All in all, not so bad all things considered.  I was almost already to look back on the whole night and experience in grateful hindsight.

By now the train was becoming abuzz with activity.  People were waking up and chai was being sold in little dixie cup sized containers.  I don’t know what Indian people would possibly do without their morning chai.  I was already beginning to fall into that category myself except that I already needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t want to make matters worse.  I also didn’t want to get up and risk giving up the bunk bed I had now officially paid for.  So I figured I could just wait until we got to Lucknow.  I didn’t need to go that bad.  After a little while, the mother and son I was lying down across from got up to make themselves some food.  They had pre-packed a typical Indian meal with rotis and a potato dish.  I had eaten an energy bar that I’d brought along with me from the States earlier so I wasn’t too hungry.  They kindly offered me food which I declined at first but eventually said yes to also to be gracious in return.  I felt like I was taking a small risk to my belly in saying yes — but I only ate a very little bit and figured that’s what I was taking daily probiotics for, right?

The son ended up being super helpful to me asking others where the stop for Lucknow was, since after all the trouble it took for me to get there — I sure as heck didn’t want to miss the stop and pass it!  Can you imagine?!  He barely spoke English but every time we’d stop at one of the smaller stations in that last hour leading up to Lucknow, he’s kindly shake his head no and smile… until the station finally approached and he told me, yes — this one.  I would have guessed by the numbers of people getting off as well.  I ended up not being able to wait to go pee in that hour which was another experience in and of itself.  I quickly figured out what the awful smell was that I would sometimes get a whiff of along the way.  The bathroom is a tiny little room with nothing in it but a metal hole in the ground.  It immediately reminded me of somewhere just like it where I have been before.  I can’t recall another train I must have taken in some other country like it, but I suppose it is possible.  Or… perhaps another lifetime?  But it certainly wouldn’t have been the States since as far as I know, none of our trains have holes where your waste go right out onto the train tracks!  Geez.

I had the address of the guest house that I found in Lonely Planet as well as a back-up hotel if the guest house didn’t work out.  I had emailed them a couple days before but never heard back.  It sounded like it was in a quieter neighborhood than the center of town where the hotel was located which was just what I was looking for after the incessant honking of Rishikesh.  And that it was.  I got a pre-paid taxi from the train station easy enough and found the guest house.  Lucky for me, the people staying in the room I was given just moved out so even though it was pretty early (around 10:30am), I only had to wait a little while until they got it ready and I was home sweet home.  Again.  It was perfect.  I had a huge room with a desk in it and attached bathroom.  There was WIFI and it was quiet!  No honking sounds anywhere.  Even if I didn’t go anywhere that day, I’d be happy.  I was absolutely exhausted and so needed to sleep.  The room was more expensive than my version of Lonely Planet said but the same price as the first ashram I’d been at in Rishikesh — with home made meals for just 75 rupees (little over $1).  I enjoyed my first one, a late lunch, after a 3-hour nap on a MUCH more comfy bed than I’d just slept on at my last ashram.  Before my nap, I checked my email to see if any of my Lucknow connections had reached out and happily saw that two of the three had.  Yay!  I was looking forward to connecting but first I needed to rest.  And for 2-3 hours, I happily and dreamlessly did.

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