Boarding a train in Varanasi bound for Agra, we feared for the very worst. Travelling with expensive sporting equipment (paragliders) meant that our exposure was high. It was our first public transport experience in India, and the stress of transition always brings out anxiety. But it turned out to be much better than we had prepared for. Our train experiences in China were miserable due to lack of airflow and the propensity for smokers in the confined cabins, so that an 8 hour train ride was choked in a haze of second hand smoke. The simple sleeper cars in India, on the other hand, had ample airflow from the open windows, and no passenger dared smoke a cigarette in the cabin.
Breathing comfortably, I was still nervous about theft. But I came up with a system that gave me confidence and allowed me to get some sleep on the overnight trip: I tied a piece of webbing to our bags, then pushed them under the bed so that the webbing was in the back and not visible. I then routed the webbing around the backside of the bed, and tied it to my arm so that it was taught. This would do nothing to protect from a stealthy puncture-and-plunder, but the small valuables targeted by such theft were in a small personal bag inside my silk sleeping sack. However in the case of someone trying to make off with an entire bag – a common enough horror story on these trains – they would unknowingly be giving a sharp tug to my arm to wake me up. Proud of my new little system, I got some good Z’s as the madness of the Indian landscape rolled past in the dark.
In the morning, all gear and baggage accounted for, we sipped delicious cups of sweet chai as the train lumbered in to the city. Watching the city landscape develop, we had our first encounter with the Morning Poo. The small tracts of land that surround the rail lines constitute some of the only un-inhabited space in the densely populated urban centers. In a country often lacking the infrastructure of general sewage, such a space provides a very valuable purpose: poo ground! Literally for kilometers as we slowly rolled in to the cities, an endless series of waking locals were out for the Morning Poo. Tiptoeing carefully through the minefields to select an appropriate spot, they would relax in the Hindu-squat slowly working out the previous day’s curry. The predominant orientation of the squatter was pointed towards the train, so that they squatted watching us as we watched them working on the poo. India is no place for the faint.
When we finally arrived in Agra, we battled through a swarm of solicitors, beggars, rickshaw drivers, and rif-raf to find a taxi to our hotel. Collapsing in our new room, we rejoiced at yet another successful transfer, taking brief refuge from the turmoil outside.