There are thousand ways to reach a goal. You can walk, go by car – if you have one, go by bus or bicycle. But some ways are so far that it would be better to travel by plane. Or you just take the train, as I did.
For about 27 hours I called two square meters my home. Two square meters, that was my daybed in the air conditioned train compartment from Hyderabad to New Delhi. Unimaginable little space for many people. But when you consider that in other compartments there is barely room to stand, or even sleep, then you can already talk of extravagance. Most Indians can’t afford such a luxury. For European standard 5000 rupees, converted about 70 Euros, isn’t much for such a long travel, but for Indians it costs a fortune. In some professions, such as a security guard, gardener or kitchen helper, you often earn less than 10,000 rupees a month. With a weekly working time that exceeds far more than 40 hours.
For these population groups, there are extra carriages in the rear of the train. These ones are much more affordable with less than 100 rupees, but also significantly less comfortable. There is neither room for standing nor beds for sleeping nor enough fresh air for breathing. The travellers are jammed like cattle on a mass transport. You can hardly move. Visiting the toilet is a huge struggle in which you can only lose – because you “lose” your standing place. And you also constantly need to keep an eye on your. Especially in those carriages many thieves, just waiting for their chance to steal someone’s pocket, conceal themselves there. When you fall asleep briefly, you probably wouldn’t even notice the theft. But you also need to be careful in the other carriages. Because there is no place to keep your valuables safe. Therefore it is the best to carry money, jewellery, cell phones or the like close to you – carry them next to your body or in a bag that you use as a pillow or put it under your feet.
When I think of Indian trains, there is primarily one image that comes into my head: young men daringly holding tightly on the outside of the carriages. So that they can also travel with that train. For more than one billion people there is seemingly nowhere enough space – even on the train and just not in the cheap carriages. But instead of adding more carriages – depending on the ticket sales – the Indian Railways prefer to look away as long as the turnover is good and not too many people die on the rails. Because that’s not uncommon. Death always travels with the poorer classes: some collapse, others simply fall onto the rails and were overrun. 30,000 per year isn’t that much!
Some travellers told me that the young men who ride outside of the train, they partly cling there for hours. Until another one takes pity and his place. These changes occur fluently and bear witness to a tremendous respect among the travellers. They support each other and have consideration for other social groups: women, children and the elderly. All these people don’t need to go outside and are allowed to stay in the carriage. Unfortunately, there is no respect if it comes to sexuality. The Indian Times reported recently on a rape of a 20-year-old woman at the train station in New Delhi. And also in the trains there are more frequently sexual attacks. Giving credit to the statistics, sexual coercions and rapes have even increased fivefold on the rails in the last decade. Therefore it is always advisable not to travel alone and to prefer to spend more money on your safety – as long as you have a choice.
The class differences on the train also become apparent in the catering. Constantly – except for a short night’s sleep – men and women ran through the upmarket compartments to provide food to passengers and sell it to them. Among the dishes there were numerous snacks such as roasted peanuts with shell or main courses such as chicken biryani or curries. What surprised me: The food on the train wasn’t more expensive, than the one you can buy in a restaurant anywhere on a street corner. In Germany, the price differences indeed would be clearer. In addition to the food drinks were served, for example chai, coffee and water without gas.
In general, India is a country where services are very important. In every supermarket, on every street corner and even in your office, you will always meet a person who will offer a service for the most trivial tasks, such as carrying your bags home. Of course just for a tip. On the train to me the service was a bit too much, because the sellers as barkers walked through the aisles and wanted to catch everyone’s, really everyone’s, attention. Their voices shrill through the small compartments and penetrated muddle of voices from the other travellers.
Thanks to my earplugs I could sleep despite the noise. I slept almost half of the journey, or read, or just looked out the window. As the only white woman among all the Indians I already attracted the whole attention. That is why I didn’t want to be conspicuous in any way. I fled to my daybed and drew the curtain. It was like a little protection for me. It gave me a feeling of safety. Because at night – when the lights were switched off in the carriages and everyone was quiet – I was frightened among all these strangers. My travelling companion was asleep on another daybed, a few feet away from me.
The longest journey of my life was an adventure: going on a real Indian toilet – that means: squatting over a whole in the ground – while the train was moving, changing my clothes under a blanket or brushing my teeth with mineral water. All these things I will never forget, though I was happy to be on terra firma again finally.