Writing from: Pushkar, where I have run out of camel jokes.
Ahhhhhhh non-air con sleeper class. The windows open to the Indian countryside, the fans sleepily whirring the warm air, the sing-song cries of the chai sellers as they cheerfully saunter through the luggage-clear aisles, the wide one person seats, the spacious bunks.
Think of a London commuter train shuffling out of Waterloo bang in the middle of rush hour, mix in a little India, remove tickets or seat bookings, and leave to stand/sit/perch/squeeze into any available space.
Happily seated in our pre-booked seats, our luggage stashed on the bunk above (also pre-booked) and the bottom bunk folded up to make two comfy seat, M and I (having said goodbye to Mr Tea and Duke for a while in Delhi) made ourselves comfortable and prepared for five hours smooth railing to Jaipur.
As the train pulled out of Delhi half of the city must have decided to leave it, as the carriage began to fill up with people, bags, kids, more bags, and a few more people and bags. Eventually there were eight men squished happily onto one of the three-person bunk seats opposite us. Something told me my seat single seat wasn’t going to last long.
About ten minutes later three Indian ladies arrived. A young girl in her early teens in pigtails, puppy fat, and jeans, her mother in an eye-gougingly orange sari, and their aging granny with her sari scarf pulled down to hide her face.
Granny hovered over M. “She is very old and gets sick when she travels.” The girl explained, “She must sit by the window”. Granny moaned in pure Bollywood style. We looked at the Indian men stretched out on the bunks above, one to a bunk, opening a sneaky eye to watch the proceedings and then hastily shutting it when they saw us watching.
Had it been a half hour London journey, packed in like sardines or not, we’d have given up our seats, but this is five hours on an India-hot train. Five long hours. So…
We waved tickets, we told them we’d paid for our seats (this did not impress them in the slightest), we explained to them we had already given our upper bunk to someone (a man now peacefully ‘sleeping’ above the heaving mass below) and wanted at least some space for ourselves. They talked amongst themselves, they decided something, all seemed sorted, hurrah…and then granny sat down beside M on his one-person seat and politely shoved herself some more room with her saried behind, still with scarf over face, occasionally holding her forehead in woe over her rampant ‘travel sickness’.
Taking her cue from her Oscar-winning mother, the older lady followed suit, shoving her orange self onto my seat and squeezing me windowwards. Their daughter swayed between us, eyeing my lap, and patting at her face with a hankie as if she may faint in the heat at any moment each time I looked her way.
For an hour we engaged in a quiet seat war. Every inch accidentally given was an inch hastily taken and vehemently defended with elbows and immovable rear ends.
Interspersed with this was conversation between me and the girl in which she attempted to tell me that not knowing Hindi would make our trip very hard (I know better headshake included), and I attempted to tell her that everyone had been so lovely so far and had such good English (since they learned in school, when, sadly for us I said, Hindi wasn’t taught at all) that I found travelling in India perfectly fine, and had spent four weeks doing it.
The train cleared out about 40 minutes later. Grandma, who had quite forgotten to groan for at least 20 of those minutes, eventually got up quite spryly for someone so ill and made off down the carriage for a recently-vacated bunk. The girl sloped off reluctantly without a word. M and I swapped a smile of seat victory and had a nice cup of chai, though I am not entirely sure we won. Then I went back to scribbling in my journal, while the Indian men sitting on the bunk opposite continued to watch us like we were tv.
Remind me not to complain about rush hour ever again…