We left the relative calm and cool, crisp air of Rishikesh on Thursday 2/9. We had to catch a plane from Delhi back to Mumbai on Friday 2/10. We made arrangements to take an overnight train from Haridwar, an hour cab ride from Rishikesh, and arrive at the Old Delhi train station in plenty of time to take a metro to the airport for our afternoon flight.

We made our train arrangements in Laxman Jhula at a travel agent/internet cafe a few days ahead of time. There had been discussion of paying for a taxi to Delhi, but we decided on an overnight train to save us the price of accommodations in Delhi. None of us being too eager to spend any more time in Delhi, we agreed the train was the best and most economical option. For at least a few of us, travel by train seemed an iconic means of seeing India and we were glad to be participating so fully in the nostalgia and culture.

We weren’t able to secure tickets for the upper class air conditioned sleeper cars, so we booked four bunks in the second class sleeper car.  The second class car didn’t seem like a big step down from the AC car. Who needs air conditioning in the winter in Northern India anyway? We inquired about the difference, and we were warned that the ride would be freezing. Unlike the passengers in the AC cars, we would not be given blankets or pillows. We shrugged off the freezing warning. After all, we had been told Rishikesh would be freezing this time of year and that hadn’t turned out to be exactly true. Cold? Yes. Freezing? Not really. Additionally, we were already equipped with blankets. We would wear our warmest clothes and multiple layers. It would be fine. We paid for the tickets and left satisfied.

We slept in Thursday, ate a delicious breakfast at the Oasis Restaurant across the river from our hotel, hiked toward a waterfall and killed some time shopping and checking email. Finally, around 8:45pm it was time to cross the bridge to meet our taxi. All went according to plan and we arrived at the Haridwar train station around 10:00pm.

It was a sight like none I had ever seen. An open air station, there were people everywhere. Some standing, some sitting or sleeping on the floor. All were bundled in blankets. Our train didn’t board for its 11:10pm departure until 10:45, so we had some time to kill. Steven sought out the platform from which we would depart and our assigned car. Stacy used the world’s wettest and least hygenic bathroom, and I purchased snacks for the ride.

A curious crowd gathered around us as we waited at the station.

There were two guys selling giant sheets of uncut candy bar foil wrapping for 10 rupees. Observing that the Indians were using them to cover the dirty floor and rest, we purchased one and spread it out on the floor to sit on. As we sat there, we began to realize just how cold it was and how cold our ride was likely to be. We decided to buy several more of the foil wrappers for extra layers on the train. Our selection that evening included Oreo, Butterfinger and Fiber One Bar wrappers. We ended up with three sheets of the Butterfinger wrappers.

Courtney wrapped in her Butterfinger wrapper sheet!

When 10:45 rolled around, we went to find our car S8. As previously mentioned, Steven had, upon our arrival, located the platform and car, but now our car was no where to be found. There were the first class AC cars. There were the disabled-luggage cars (I’m still not clear on what that means. Is there such a thing as disabled luggage? Steven would say yes, as his luggage broke early on in our trip. Is this where they store the luggage of the disabled? Or, is it possible the disabled share this car with the luggage? I have no idea…) There were the cars labeled S1, S2, S3 and S4, but no where to be found was S8 or, for that matter, S5-S7.

We began to panic somewhat, frantically inquiring with anyone who looked informed or like an employee of the station. They would point beyond the S4 car. We would tell them there was no S8 beyond it. Finally they would walk the line of cars with us, discovering for themselves what we’d already told them. There was no S8 car. In response to S8’s absence, they would give us the side to side head nod.

Steven has decided this gesture means, “Let’s not make a big deal out of this.” That deciphering seems to be correct quite frequently, and it certainly applied in this situation.

Finally, we were instructed to follow a fellow passenger to the end of the line, and we slowly started to understand that more cars were on the way and would be attached to the train. Shortly, the missing cars, including S8, arrived and we boarded.

I didn’t have high expectations of the sleeper car. Really, I didn’t. And, to be fair, we had been warned that it would be freezing, so I had ratcheted down my expectations a little further. Truly, though, I wasn’t expecting prison cell style bunks in a meat locker. Each car was divided into several units of eight bunks. Parallel to one wall of the car spanning two windows were two bunks, across from those set perpendicular to the wall were two sets of three bunks.

The four of us were sharing a unit with two gentleman and their mother, sister or aunt. I’m not sure what the exact family configuration was, but they were equipped with sheets and heavy wool blankets, in the midst of making up tidy little beds for themselves. Already cold and tired, I began taking stock of my supplies:

  • 1 thin cotton “sheet”
  • 1 shammy like yoga towel/blanket
  • 1 “borrowed” Lufthansa airplane blanket
  • 1 giant Butterfinger candy bar wrapper

I was wearing my warmest clothes, and I had a second layer packed at the top of my bag. I had a feeling I was going to need that layer.

As soon as the family had their bunks made up and were tucked in, the four of us followed suit. I spread my yoga towel/blanket along the bunk. I covered myself with the sheet and the airplane blanket and laid back, resting my head against my airplane neck-rest/pillow thing.

“Ok, not so bad,” I thought. I pulled out my kindle and read a few pages.

I was on the bottom bunk, my head next to the window. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was still optimistic. One of the gentleman sharing the unit with us turned out the lights and the train started to roll down the tracks. I might as well have stuck my head out the window, because the steady draft of icy air chilling the top of my head had it feeling like the equivalent to a scoop of ice cream atop a cone. I realized freezing was, in fact, an apt description of this ride, and donning my second layer of clothing was necessary if not life saving.

Modesty be damned, I slid out of my jeans and yanked on my tights, a second pair of socks and shimmied back in to my jeans. When I had dug out my second layers, I remembered I had a hat and a towel within easy reach. I put on the hat and used the towel as the munchkin to my donut-holed neck pillow. It was pretty comfortable, but it wasn’t going to work out. As I laid down, I realized someone had lit a cigarette, replacing the icy oxygen with carcinogenic fumes.

“Unbelievable,” I thought. I wrapped the towel around my head, which insulated me from both the smoke and the cold.

I laid on my left side on my prison bunk, trying desperately to make five feet of blanket cover 5.5 feet of body. Though I was practically suffocating from the towel, my head was warm. My feet, however, were freezing. I unfolded the candy bar wrapper and laid it over me, tucking it under my feet.

I crinkled and crunched my way to my right side this time, facing the sleeping family across from me. I willed my feet to get warm, certain that I could sleep if I could just warm them up a degree or two. That’s when I heard it, a symphony of snores from a thousand slumbering Indians.

The next morning when the four of us would recount our night in the freezing train, Steven would call it a snorus and Courtney a snorchestra. That night, I thought of it as a symphony, because try as I might to ignore it all I could hear were the various snoring sections coming in and out of the composition at the behest of an invisible conductor.

There was the soft, consistent snore of the woman next to me. There was the man above her whose snore was throatier and slower. And, there was the guy in the unit next to us who had apparently forgotten his sleep apnea machine and who, I was sure or perhaps prayed, would succumb to suffocation by his own tongue. These three players were joined intermittently by numerous other congested, log sawing, soundly sleeping people who were about to drive me over the edge of sanity.

Fortunately, I had a pair of ear plugs and a quarter of a xanax buried in my bag. I crinkled and crunched my way upright and dug through my bag to find them.

“OH HELL YES, this is happening,” I thought as I swallowed the wee bit of sedative and poked the plugs in my ears.

While I was at it, I abandoned the notion of using the yoga towel/blanket as a barrier beneath me and the bench that hosted an innumerable number of snoring, sleeping passengers. Why was I wasting an extra layer beneath me protecting myself from phantom germs when the likelihood of hypothermia was far greater?!

I laid back once again, crinkling and crunching all the way. I was now wearing two pairs of socks, shoes, two pairs of pants, a shirt, a jacket, a hat, a towel-turban-face-mask, a sheet, a yoga towel, a Lufthansa blanket and a giant candy bar wrapper…and I was still freezing my ass off. Laying in the dark, rocking, snore filled train, I began to laugh maniacally, mostly to myself since it was the middle of the night. I laid in my candy bar cocoon and I had exactly one thoutht, “It could be worse.”

At some point, I fell into a frigid, restless, sedative produced sleep-like state. It was sufficient, and I was grateful for the lack of consciousness.

Steven filming our train accommodations in the light of a new day!

The next morning, new light was shed on the train ride. My experience could certainly have been worse. As I peered out the train window, I saw dozens upon dozens of little shacks constructed out of whatever materials were available lining the tracks. Occasionally we passed much larger communities of these shacks. I wondered if the inhabitants lived in a permanent state of cold/discomfort. Or, had they become so accustomed to their conditions that they were oblivious to them?

I felt foolish and grateful at the same time. I had endured a cold, uncomfortable eight hours, but they would endure much more for much longer. I had an eye-opening, amusing story to tell. Their stories would likely go untold.

It’s hard to know what to make of the contrast. It’s hard to know how to comprehend my dumb luck/good fortune at being born into such a state of privilege. So, I don’t try too hard to make any sense of it. If anything, I’m just reminded again and again to be grateful and compassionate and maintain a good sense of humor.