"no reservation ticket. No problem" I tell myself as we boarded one of Kolkata's iconic yellow Ambassador cabs. I feel confident that our first experience of India's massive railway system will be a walk in the park. That swagger vanishes when our cab started crawling along the slow traffic over Howrah Bridge, where Aileen and I saw a sea of people dwarfing all other commuter crowds I've ever seen, walking along on both sides of the bridge towards one destination: Howrah Junction Railway Station.
As expected upon our arrival at the train station, a scene of pandemonium bearing random hurried steps, jostling and running from all directions - accompanied by yells and curses in Bengali emanating from complaining passengers feeds the overall chaotic vibe inside.
After asking four people for directions, I finally located the ticketing counter for inter-state trains and was pointed by a railway manager to the booth selling tickets for Varanasi. Purchasing the ticket was indeed a breeze, but locating the platform where our train is supposed to be proved to be the challenging part.
There wasn't any fixed platform for most of the trains departing and arriving. You need to listen to the public address system for a literal last minute announcement of your assigned platform. Initially, ours was assigned to platform number 10, so Aileen and I tried our darndest sharpening our Indian accent listening skills, but against a backdrop of a myriad of noises it is impossible to listen clearly.
I swore about hearing "Varanasi" and "Platform 14" or I might have imagined those words, so I made a dash towards platform number 14 only to be almost ran over by hordes of arriving passengers. From the opposite direction, I was pushed by rushing departing passengers racing to get a seat at the newly arrived train. If I wasn't paying attention, we might have boarded the wrong train and ended up somewhere north as if we availed of Sikkim Tour Packages.
It was commuting mayhem from all corners. Honestly though, the raucous scene put a smile at my face. "Yeah, this is the India I've read and heard about". It felt surreal to finally experiencing all of it as if our earlier walk around Kolkata City wasn't crowded and busy enough, the scenes at Howrah made it official. Welcome to India it tells me.
Keeping all concerns about missing our train inside my backpack, we finally found time to relax near platform 8, where an affable old man helped us out in locating our train's platform. The digital sign doesn't work, but he told me to check the piece of paper posted near the doors of the train for our names. After visual confirmation, we started to count the minutes to eight o'clock as both of us were hammered already.
Behind us, a family was also waiting for their train. The young girl and her brothers caught our attention since they were generously smiling at us. Turns out they wanted to have pictures taken with us. In broken English, they asked us where we are heading and after some more small talk I handed the young boy the blue headwear I was wearing. At first he can't believe it, hesitating if he will accept it or not. He eventually did with grinning appreciation.
We bid our Bengali siblings from another mother goodbye when the initial horn sounded off by our Varanasi bound train. Inside we were greeted by an honestly better sight compared to what I imagine. I probably expect the worst train ever, but the truth is, it is really manageable. Our coach has three levels of sleeping berths facing each other with two other levels running horizontally along the narrow corridor.
It was a bit cramped because for 10 or more so hours going to Varanasi you will need to lie down on your small bed going down only on the morning to stretch your feet. Since Aileen took the lower berth, unbeknownst to us the customs of local passengers to fold the second level sleeping berth so others can sit freely on the lower berth, at first light of the morning.
So while I was trying to sleep on the upper bunk and reading a book, Aileen was sitting with 3-4 other passengers on hers. Most of them got on the train at the previous stops. I joined her a little later and running out of patience from the long night, I started my countdown to 9:30 am, our scheduled time of arrival at Varanasi.
Our first few days in India was probably the most hectic, with the 10 hour layover at Kuala Lumpur and the overnight wait at Kolkata Airport, two days of walking all over Kolkata, the mad dash to Howrah Train Station and capping it off with sleeping in a cramped up position, we definitely started our 25-day India trip in a hard manner. I now look back at all of it with fond recollection as those kinds of experiences make traveling addictive and fulfilling.
I hear the final call for passengers getting off at Varanasi, we get our backpacks and off we go to the next part of our India trip.
"Hello Boat!" Varanasi.
Photo credit: Aileen Siroy (Travel. Food. Finds)
Photo credit: Aileen Siroy (Travel. Food. Finds)