Dan and I cut things a little tight leaving Delhi. The traffic is insanely thick getting to the train station. (This seems to be the case with every train station we’ve seen in India.) We get there with 5 minutes until our train’s departure, hurrying through the station. The platform is carpeted with people, sleeping, sitting, standing, we can barely move around. The board indicates that our train is platform 12. We find the platform, but there is no train. Since everyone seems to be waiting at track 12, we figure the train is a little late. In India, your seat assignments are printed on a piece of paper that is sometimes stuck to the side of the car, and sometimes posted on a bulletin board.
The train isn’t there, but the bulletin board is, and it tells us that we should be in car A-1, seats 34 & 35.
Another 10 minutes and the train pulls in, a long, long train of 20 cars, looking decidedly more shabby than the Shatabdi express that we rode north from Delhi. We’re at one end of the train, and unfortunately car A-1 is on the opposite end. We make our way down the crowded platform to our car and jump aboard. It’s a sleeper car, filled with people who look like they’ve been camped on the train for a week. The aisle is littered with water bottles, empty chai cups, and stray sandals. Curtains are half-pulled, and inside people are curled up on their bunks in the fetal position.
When we find our seats, the curtain is closed. I pull it open enough to look inside. On our bunk is a little guy laying under his sheets. He is staring back at me, his eyes widening. I pull my head back out, embarrassed at having intruded.
Dan and I stand in the aisle, confused. A family of four in the next compartment over indicates that we can sit in the side chairs. (Most sleeper cars have a compartment for 4 on one side of the train, and two on the other. The seats and beds on the narrow side are much less comfortable.) We sit down, stow our luggage, and wonder what’s going on. I can barely see out of the window through the filth that covers it.
I ask Dan to watch our stuff, and poke my head out to talk to the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner, sort of like a conductor). I find two TTE’s standing together, and ask them if this is the correct train to Jaipur. Then I ask them what my seat should be, but they can’t seem to find my name on the list. Their English isn’t very good, so they just gesture towards the car I came out of. I go back to Dan.
Eventually the train pulls out of the station. We’ve been moving for about an hour when Dan goes to talk to the TTE again. He comes back looking very amused. Apparently we’re on the wrong train. Due to some rail work, the train we’re on was 7 hours late. The train we were supposed to be on would have arrived two hours later (it was late too.) The TTE looks at Dan sternly and says “You are on this train illegally!”. Dan tells me he just laughed and showed the TTE his IndiaRail pass, which seemed to leave the TTE confused.
So we’re on a train that is going where we want, but which we’re on illegally, and without assigned seats. Things look dicey when a large family stops at our seats and insists it is theirs, but then they realize that they’re on the wrong car, so our seats are safe.
The mom and dad from the compartment across the aisle disappear, leaving their two boys staring at us curiously. Eventually they start to chat with us. The older boy speaks quite good English, and he tells us his name is Dhairya. His brother is Harshul and they’re 10 and 8 years old.
Eventually they ask us to come sit with them. I bring my iPad, and we play a few games. When I start up Angry Birds, their eyes light up. “I know this game! My uncle has it on his iPhone!” And then Dan and the boys play Angry Birds until we arrive at their station of Ajmer.
Just before we arrive at Jaipur, a TTE comes looking for us. He stands in our compartment, mumbling something in Hindi. “Tickets?” we ask, helpfully. We produce our IndiaRail passes. He looks at them. He hands them back. He mumbles something that sounds like “1500.” We say “Oh, no, this ticket is already paid, good for 21 days.” He stares at us, we stare back. He stares some more. “India is a very beautiful country! We are so happy to be your guests!” I add helpfully. He states at me, mumbles, and goes away. We don’t see him again.
A half hour later we arrive at Jaipur, where another mass of humanity is migrating across the platform. Outside the station, we are besieged by offers for taxis and guides, but Mr. Mehra is nowhere in sight. (In Jaipur, we are guests of the parents of my co-worker, Manan Mehra.) I try to fend off one taxi driver by saying that I am meeting family. “Oh, I know your family sir, they are over here!” I am dubious, but he seems confident, so we follow him for a few hundred feet. “Here, Sir, I have found your family!” he yells, pointing to a group of 8 very confused-looking Swedes.
Eventually Mr. Mehra finds us in the crowds. He takes us home to a delicious home-cooked Indian meal. It’s nice to be here.