That night when I boarded Nilgiri express with my parents from Coimbatore to Chennai, for my college admission, was the first of my many train journeys. Sitting in the train I thought, ‘next time on I get to travel on my own, I am going to make a lot of train friends, and remember them all’. I was excited more about the train journey than starting college in a new city. In the next four years, I did travel on my own, by train mostly and subsequently discovered my passion for people and places.
A year ago in September, I got a chance to travel by train between Coimbatore and Kochi. That too for 25 weekends in a row!
THE NIGHTMARISH ORDEAL: On my first of the series of 25 trips, I bought an unreserved ticket. Finding a seat in the general compartment was an ordeal. There were four times more people trying to get into the compartment than the number of seats available. The rush, the push, oh god!
When I did manage a seat, a man emerged from nowhere, extracted a small piece of cloth from where I was sitting and claimed that was his seat. Ah, yes, I should have remembered. Blocking seats with handkerchiefs, water bottle and bags are still very much happening. Standing for 2 hours and sitting in weird poses for another 2 hours, I was finally happy to get off the train with no displaced limbs.
BREAKTHROUGH IN THE LADIES COMPARTMENT: Maybe, just maybe, it is better in the ladies compartment? So this time around, having taken the same unreserved ticket, I aimed at the ladies compartment. Had my handkerchief ready, gobbled down a couple of energy bars, got to the exact point where the ladies compartment would halt, flexed my muscles and felt totally ready for the ‘finding-a-seat’ battle!
The train arrived and so did the ladies compartment. Like lightning bolts rushing through my veins, eyes glazing, I charged, yelled, pushed, pulled, and finally…made it inside the train. Phew! But where am I? Still sandwiched next to the steps, just inches away from the toilet! Ladies compartment, better? Which world was I living in? 😦
Slowly, the train got moving. Once the women settled down on the top, bottom, sides, all around, there was a small place where just one more person could be accommodated. And I happened to be the chosen one for that space. Snatching my bag, hurling me into a ball, pushing me up, in the blink of an eye, I was made to sit on the luggage rack! And so…I got a seat for the rest of my journey.
TIFF WITH TEA: Just a day before my exam in December, I boarded the afternoon intercity express to Kochi. I had no breakfast, it was long past lunch time and I was starving. Contemplating for a while, I decided to try the ‘popular’ food served in the train.
Questions about oil, dust, hygiene kept whirling in my head. But, WTH? I shut my eyes, blocked all thoughts and helped myself to two rounds of watery tea and paruppu vada. Ohhh! It was the best…crispiest paruppu vada I have had so far. Was it good or bad for my stomach? I am not going to reveal that, but, I survived!
THAT FRANTIC MOMENT: Not everything is rosy when you travel, much less during a late night train travel of all. My class ended late and I boarded a 6pm train to Coimbatore. I had no one sitting next to me and had an odd feeling that there were only a few in that compartment.
At 9.30pm within minutes of the train stopping at Shoranur, two creepy looking drunken men boarded the train and sat beside me. My bit-trained danger detecting sensors started buzzing. I phoned my uncle, stayed calm tolerating the disgusting smell and then got off the train at Ottapalam station. Now that, however silly or a decision too early, I was only relieved to get off the train.
A TRAVEL PLAN CONCEIVED: It was with Mary aunty and uncle’s inputs that I explored a few non-touristy places at Fort Kochi. A couple in their late sixties, I met them during one of my train trips. Taking our acquaintance to the next level, we have decided to do the Alleppey-Kollam backwater tour by KTDC. If it happens, I will have an inspiring story to tell.
STAR OF MY TRAIN TRAVELS: Gopi, a lad from Hyderabad, was travelling with Sabarimala pilgrims and was on his way to Tirupati. From what I gathered during our small talk, that one pilgrimage trip and a bit of sightseeing has hooked him to Kerala for life. He would just not stop talking about it. I am no psychic, but I could say he will be a backpacker someday, a soul that will not rest till he has seen as much as his mind could imagine. I do hope that someday our paths cross and I can recognize him.
Good or bad, barring none, all my train journeys so far have been nothing but eventful. These snippets of train travel have given me so much more to reflect and ponder upon, than what I had during my time in the cities. It surprised me to know how much I missed these people, their stories and trains and how much I need them to feel alive.
Having achieved a certain level of comfort, it is now easier to find a seat ;-), engage with people in conversations and drift off to a new world.