Tuesday, April 20, 2010

India by Rail: Going It Alone

We were running late. I had been in India for all of 16 hours when my friend Saurabh put me on an unreserved second-class train from Delhi to Agra.

“I’m so sorry I can’t take you myself,” he panted as we ran from our rickshaw to the ticket office. He had a flight to catch and I was going solo for a week before we met up again in Mumbai. I was simultaneously thrilled and petrified by the prospect of traveling around India on my own.

“You’ll be fine,” he said as he stuffed the ticket in my hand. I was not sure who he was trying to convince – himself or me. He helped me hoist my bag up the steps and waved sheepishly, then darted off into the distance.

There I was – alone in India. I wasn’t really alone, of course. I was surrounded by what seemed like thousands of other passengers, every one of them now staring directly at me, the only foreigner on the train. Social etiquette in India does not make staring taboo – a lesson I quickly learned first-hand as I tried in vain to blend into the crowd. The intensity of their unwavering stares made me feel utterly alone despite the suffocating crowd.

Arms and legs dangled from the overhead luggage racks. Teenage boys clung to the open doorway. A family of five took up residence in the lavatory for lack of anywhere else to sit. Due to delays, stragglers continued to push their way in. We heaved a collective sigh of relief as the whistle blew and the train miraculously lurched forward.

Somewhere about mid-journey, everyone lost interest in me. Their stares turned to the scenery and I became just another passenger on my way to Agra.

“Madame,” the man next to me whispered. “I would very much not leave my bag sitting alone in the corner if I were to be you.” I heeded his advice and dragged the duffle to my feet.

“Fancy a chai?” The man next to me offered me a small cup of tea. Even though I had been thoroughly warned about “Delhi-belly”, the risk of a debilitating bout of diarrhea was well worth the camaraderie and I thanked him more for the gesture than the tea.

"Where are you heading, Madame?" The group of young men in the doorway befriended me. They were all studying business and working in call centers where they were trained in small talk and instructed never to let on they were outside of the US. “I even got to pick out an English name,” Pradeep told me. “I chose Philip.”
The others nodded in approval. “This company, AT&T must be really bad. The people who call do nothing but complain.” I stifled my laughter and shrugged.

As the train finally rolled into the station, I gathered my bags, nodded to my neighbor and said good-bye to these strangers who, over the past five hours had become less strange, just as I had become less alone.

This post was entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway UK travel writing competition for April. We would love to hear your thoughts on the post in the comment section!


  1. WONDERFUL. i love it! the funny part, abt americans calling to complain.

    travel truly does illuminate, doesn't it?

    good luck!

  2. Hi Jiffer

    What a beautiful post - you very vividly bring the journey to life!

    Thanks for entering! Good luck!


  3. Wonderful post! I so want to make it to India. Maybe next year.

  4. Oh, the staring. It's similar here in Italy, and I still haven't got used to it, even after 6 months.

    Best of luck in the competition!

    Katja (Driving Like a Maniac)

  5. Hi there,

    Glad you liked the post and the pic, it was a quick grab and dash while jumping across the train tracks!

    I love reading about other people's indian rail adventures especially this one as I have done a month or so on my own on the railways and it is both stomach turningly exciting but also quite nerve wracking to start with!

  6. Staring, looking people up-and-down even has a word in France and from first hand experience I can say this is rife on the Paris metro, particularly if you (as I was) are a young English girl breaking all kinds of unknown 'codes' such as not wearing tights, or taking your coat off, or wearing an, even very slightly, low-cut top - The word is 'devisager' (visage = face). As there is no English translation my friends and I just took to saying 'I got 'devisaged' again on the metro today' !!

  7. Another great post! My favourite line “This company, AT&T must be really bad. The people who call do nothing but complain.” I stifled my laughter and shrugged."

  8. great post and well done on the prize! The AT&T comment also made me laugh. My husband is Indian and the first time we went, he had to get used to a whole new way of traveling in India, ie the stares.