Train travel, no matter where you are in the world, often involves an element of survival. Whether you’re on the London underground or whizzing across a continent on the Trans-Siberian, there’s always someone who ends up sleeping on your shoulder and dribbling onto your new coat.
When I was a daily London commuter I suffered through the usual dodging of a smelly armpit, trying not to want to knee the oblivious banker in the crotch who’s briefcase kept whacking me in the back of the legs, or my favourite, the teenagers who for some reason think that all and sundry want to hear their foul taste in music by playing it out loud from their phone.
I would quietly plan each and every one of their slow and painful deaths whilst cranking up my iPod so loud that I then became one of those people that everyone else finds annoying with the thump thump of overly loud headphones.
Now skip to my three months travelling through India and amplify all these things into the stratosphere and what do you have? A melting pot of annoyances that would make my daily commuter tribulations a tiny dot on the radar.
I’m pleased to say though that I didn’t spontaneously combust in fury at all the annoyances of train travel in India. Somehow the magic of travelling made my experiences a joy to remember rather than a continual arse-ache. Considering the length of time people spend on trains in India, I was amazed at the harmony of such close proximity. Today I thought I would share with you, things that you might want to be prepared for. India can often seem like another planet, so making sure you have the correct mental spacesuit is essential.
Things to Prepare For
- The stares: this is something that takes a lot of getting used to. Even after three months there were still times where I just wished I wasn’t a beacon of fascination. Waiting on a platform can be unnerving as you often have hundred of eyes on you all at once. Try and remember that many Indians aren’t raised with the notion that staring is rude. To them, they are just interested, as no matter how many people actually travel India, you’re still often one of a tiny handful of foreigners on a train and this turns you into a mini soap opera that they just can’t switch off.
- Hygiene: don’t be surprised if a mother whips the chuddies (pants) off her toddler and turns its bottom over the edge of the platform for a spot of public pooing. Train tracks, rather oddly, are pretty much seen as public toilets. Shame plays little part with this activity. On particularly hot journeys, I could never understand why the closer we got to a station the windows would be closed, I needed air. The one time I was by a window and opened it, I was blessed with the sight of many naked bottoms and sights and smells that I now wish I hadn’t experienced.
Top Tips and Safety for Girls
- Like most of India, wear appropriate modest clothing. You want to be as comfortable as possible. My uniform for train travel was light harem style trousers, sleeved light baggy top and a shawl. The shawl is the key; it keeps eyes from prying where they shouldn’t be and serves as a handy pillow for leaning against the window.
- You’ll be pleased to hear that most trains have the option of a western toilet now but squatting is something you just have to get used to in India. Remember your own toilet roll!
- Buy a chain and padlock. All the seats/beds have a loop where chains can be attached. Particularly if you are travelling alone, having this extra level of security allows a little more piece of mind. As a rule I chained my backpack to the lowest berth and then slept with my daypack by my head. This bag would contain my passport, money, camera, netbook – all my valuables. That way I could sleep easy as no one could take it without waking me up.
- I generally booked on to the top berth, thinking this was the better option for privacy but in fact I actually found this was the worst option. Being on the top bunk means you don’t get the breeze from the window on hot journeys. It also means that in the middle of the night when you reach a stop, you can’t peer out of the window to see where you are. Many of my trips arrived in the early hours so it meant I had to jump out of the bunk to make sure I wasn’t missing my destination. Of course you could ask your fellow passengers but at that time at night, everyone is snoring and they would likely only garble Hindi expletives back at you for waking them up.
- Bring a warm jumper. Despite how hot India is, the temperature can really drop at night. If the train supplies blankets grab one or live to regret it. A warm jumper and a shawl just about does the trick
- I was regularly humbled by the generous offer of food and snacks from other families. In a situation where it is parents and their children eating, of course, it’s safe to accept and pretty heart warming too. I would, however, avoid accepting any beverage from a solo man for example. You do hear the odd horror story so to avoid rudeness or danger, bring a bag of snacks and drink with you.
The Right Attitude
Travellers can often be daunted by long stints of train travel in India. It doesn’t need to be that way. It’s a wonderful way to see this beautiful country’s magnificent landscape.
Stay cautious, practice common sense and make sure you are as comfortable as possible. That way you’ll have a great time, meet some lovely people and you absolutely won’t forget it.
If you liked this survival guide to India’s trains, then check out this guide to overland travel...