The Neverending Train Story

The alarm beeped at 5.45am but this didn’t seem that early. I had already been awakened by the hotel security guard at 4am; hurrying down the tiled entrance hall to answer the telephone with it’s British ring-ring tone echoing around the old colonial guesthouse corridors. Probably some Westerner ringing at 9pm in London wanting to book a room I thought as I tried to catch another hour’s rest.

We begrudgingly got up, packed and took a taxi through the quiet dark streets of Mumbai. The station, of course, had been awake for hours. Porters buzzing around frantically in their red uniforms carrying seemingly unmovable containers and luggage to trains whose destinations I could not read never mind pronounce. Uniformed officials directed the lost and confused to the correct platform. And chai-wallahs and other hawkers sold their Indian treats to those craving for some early breakfast.

Our train, the 0700 Madgaon ‘Super-fast’ Express, which was going to shuttle us down the west coast to Goa, did not even appear to be at the platform as we negotiated our way past families sprawled across the vast area stretching into the distance. And to be honest, you’d notice if it was there. These trains are huge. 22 carriages long. A small travelling community travelling at ‘super-fast’ speed.

As time passed, our inherent ability to spot a delayed train, coming from a lifetime of travelling on the modern yet unreliable British railways told us that we were not going to be leaving at 7am. When the train finally pulled into the Victoria Terminus at 7.45, I imagined a relatively quick turnaround and us soon on our way out of this dirty metropolis to a quiet seaside paradise. The taste of a cold Kingfisher, while watching a perfect sunset from some chilled out bar was already on my mind…. Mmm..

My illusions were soon SMASHED like an unfortunate pedestrian stepping out onto a Bombay street at rushhour. The helpful train manager informed us we would be leaving “shortly after 10am”… Well there’s nothing better than spending 2 hours on a stationery train I thought as I started one of many books I would digest on this journey.

We finally started our slow departure north out of this vast city, which generates more movies than Hollywood and 40% of India’s wealth, at 10.05. On time! (Well the second time)… The railway children ran alongside the train, vast communities of slums (which I later read where about to be destroyed by the municipal council – the residents give 30 minutes to collect their belongs) seemed to sprawl as far as the eye could see. We were in our little air-conditioned cocoon. Nobody else had turned up in our 6 berth but we had regular visits from the hordes of people selling food and drinks. “Tomato Soup, Tomato Soup”, “Hot Chai, Tea, Chai”, “Dosa, dosa”, “Nes Coffee”.. This is maybe where I took a turn for the worst due to my insatiable desire for train food…

It was only several hours into the journey when I started feeling a little queasy, at first I put it down to the long journey, the interrupted sleep the previous night. After all, John and myself had pretty much eaten everything the same all holiday so it couldn’t be food. Well I’d polished off some chai, Tomato Soup, Noodles and a chilli-cheese toastie on the train.. Suffice to say I spent the next couple of hours darting to the smallest room (sorry)… and watching the railway sleepers juddering slowly by.

Our late departure, couple with stretches of the track only being single tracked meant we had to wait for passing trains at stations. But this was a good time to take in some of the scenery. It almost looked like a European landscape; lush rivers drifted past, so much greenery and pasture. Interjected with the dry okra coloured soil and small communes which seemed to be at every twenty kilometres or so.

As darkness fell, I did what most people do when ill, take as many tablets as you think are required to make you better. So it was down with the nurofen, clariytn, rehydration powder and diocalm. (Not EXACTLY at the same time..) This only appeared to slow down time. The hands on my watch drifted slowly past our scheduled arrival time of 6.30 just as the sun disappeared over a distant mountain. We consulted our guidebook at the next station – we were just over half-way…

The next few hours of sleep passed so slowly and I felt slightly weird. Like some drugged up fool who doesn’t know where he is. Minutes felt like hours but finally we were getting nearer.

We descended from our temperate air-conditioned train and the warm spring Goan air hit me suddenly. Unfortunately for me, this was not the best feeling and I struggled over the passenger bridge out to a waiting taxi. Everything can only be described as feeling “spaced” but luckily John was fantastic and carried both our bags!

Well the moral of this story is watch what you eat, don’t take too many pills, have a good friend around when you need one and take an air-conditioned coach rather than non when you predict you may be ill and require some sleep!

(Well the following few days can be condensed into lying on the beach, drinking hot lime and honey and reading plenty of books!).. But still ill… BOO… More soon!

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