I’ve been on chicken buses in Ecuador, ridden horseback through the Andes, cycled Death Road in Bolivia and done sardine-packed Sydney trains in peak hour. I’ve been bogged in the Indian dessert and hitch-hiked through Ireland. Heck, I’ve even had the foot falcon in 4WD walking 800km across Spain and Portugal.
But no mode of transport can quite prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster of an overnight sleeper train in India. If you ever want to experience every possible human emotion in one overnight hit, here’s your ticket.
First there’s the excitement of lapping up life as a local. You arrive at the station as another saffron-cinnamon sun sets. You’re itching to board, wondering who you’ll meet and sleep next to on the three-tiered bunk beds that line each tiny compartment. You imagine waking up refreshed in an exciting new place after a decent night’s sleep.
But you’re dealt an eye-watering dose of reality as you squat in pools of dank water, hardened faeces peppered across the walls of a makeshift toilet cubicle, on your last nervous wee at the station, when you realise quick smart that it’s probably best to drop expectations.
Nevertheless, adrenaline kicks in as you rush back to your boarding post, weaving your way through a rainbow chaos of saris, scrambling to board the train that’s turned up early.
You find your allocated bed in a frenzy and meet the neighbours. You thank your lucky stars that you’re bunking with a lovely Pushka family, their one-year-old baby, and another Aussie you’ve picked up along the way. The buzz of adventure sinks in.
You share snacks with the families surrounding you – homemade Agra petha and roti – and you laugh at the language barriers as you try to make conversation (aka charades). You bump your head a million times over and lose a shoe clambering to make your top-bunk bed. For perspective, your nose is just an inch from the filthy ceiling once horizontal.
It’s like the ultimate sleepover. On steroids.
You eventually run out of steam, and have grown weary enough to sleep.
You’re surprisingly pretty comfortable on the plastic mattress-plastic sheets combination. And secretly pretty smug that you’re not the leggy 6’3″ German you spotted a few compartments away. You couldn’t be happier, and you drift into sleep dreaming about your next destination.
That’s until the baby starts to scream and the snoring symphony fires up.
You’re wide awake, slowly growing agitated, patience running as thin as the plastic mattress. You toss and turn, and bump your head on that damn ceiling countless more times in the process.
You know it’s wrong to be p—-d off at a screaming baby, the snorers and the 3am phone call someone takes on loudspeaker. But eventually, you calm down and scold yourself for being so intolerant. Character building, you say as you will yourself back to sleep.
That’s until the last masala chai tea catches up to you, and after willing yourself to hold on for what seems like hours, make the dreaded journey to the toilet, cursing yourself every step of the way for prematurely breaking the seal.
But the sweet relief is all worth it. And you’re happy again… until you’re back at your bunk and discover someone’s stolen your blanket in the preceding five minutes.
Finally, after some more screaming and snoring (sadly before I’d discovered the magic of ear plugs), you find sleep at last, as the rickety train rocks you worlds away to Mumbai.
But it’s a short-lived moment of calm. There’s now a five-hour delay because a train has caught fire nearby. Cabin fever is in overdrive.
But in your sleep-deprived delirium, you don’t mind too much because you chat some more with the locals, try more of their treats, and realise how lucky you are to meet these people you never otherwise would.
You get pimped out with “Bollywood Tom Cruise”, have your numbers read via another masala chai tea, eat some more, and realise how ripped off you’ve been on the shopping front from the manufacturer sleeping below, who insists he sells clothes for an eighth of the price that you fished out at markets days earlier.
It’s smooth sailing, as they say.
The train juts to an unexpected stop an hour from your destination, and you’re told to take taxis on the final leg. No idea why.
It’s hot, you stink after 24 hours of cabin fever, and you’re too tired to know otherwise.
But it’s exciting to explore the new city you’ll call home for the next few days from the car window, wedged between what seems like millions of moving vehicles. Just when you think the trip is over, you crash into a motorcyclist and wind up with a little raging helmeted man hanging off your moving taxi in a display so dramatic it rivals the best road rage scene Bollywood has ever seen.
An overnight sleeper train is likely never just an overnight experience in India. It’s feeling, tasting, smelling and hearing all of the magic of this kaleidoscope-coloured country. Delays, detours, delirium and all.
And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
By: Ella Smith