After some haggling with the guesthouse proprietor in Cochi (who tried to overcharge me but insisted I leave a 100% positive review on Tripadvisor) I got my bags and jumped on a tuk tuk to the train station. Although it was only 20 km to the station, it took us an hour, the driver winding down so many back streets and alleyways that I thought it must be impossible for him to actually be on route. But somehow he got us there.
The train station was beyond chaotic and I had no idea where my train was, but I managed to ask one person and have them point me in the general correct direction, allowing me to walk ten feet and then ask someone else. By this method I inched my way toward my train. On the platform I noticed a couple fellow travelers – a nice young British couple that were asking about the train to Varkala, too. So I took them under my wing and told them which train was ours. Amateurs! Even though we had seat assignments, it was impossible to decipher their system so we boarded a random car toward the front because that’s where the pointing system led us.
It was quickly confirmed that we were on the wrong car, a sleeper car. It was less quickly confirmed that I was on the wrong train, and mine was leaving 20 minutes later. Amateur!
I was surprised that our car had air conditioning. In India, it seems all amenities for tourists are separated into AC and non-AC options. Electricity must be pretty costly, because the AC rooms are almost double the price. Of course I make a go of it with just a ceiling fan in non-AC rooms, which wouldn’t be so bad if you could open all the windows and let the breeze in, but you have to seal the room like a tomb after dark so you won’t be ravaged by the mosquitos. Everything in India is separated into AC or non-AC and also vegetarian or non-veg.
The Britts and I shared a bench and got along swimmingly – they were EMTs from southern England taking a two-week holiday in India. We talked about travel and books and shared the cashews and crackers we’d brought. It looked like it was going to be a pleasant trip.
“No, no, NO! You get off next station and wait for your train.”
“Are you going to slow down at least or should I just jump?” I asked him. He was not amused. He told me the next stop was in about 40 minutes and ordered me to de-board there.
“Are you serious dude? Can’t I just stay on this one? What’s the difference?” Yes, he was serious, and no, he did not like being called “dude”; I could tell by the way his mustache quivered like flags on a battlefield. “Or can’t I just pay you extra to stay on this train?”
This got the little mouse-man’s attention. For those of you playing along at home, this is called “a bribe” and it’s the only way shit gets done in 90% of the world. He looked at my ticket again and scribbled furiously on his clipboard, then presented a number: 900 Rupees. Of course that was a ridiculous sum, as I had only paid 460 Rupees (about $7.50) for my original train ticket. But the insignificant man had the upper hand and he knew it, so I surrendered by waving my white ticket.
I collected my things and waited by the train door, which are all wide open as the train rattles through the jungle just in case anyone wants to accidentally fall out or not-so-accidentally push a loved one out or even jump to their death because they’re having a bad day, all of which would free up a seat.
As I waited, I chatted with some nice men who went in and out of the train’s only bathroom. When the door was ajar I saw it was just a hole in the ground with a bucket of water.
“Go now if you have to,” the men told me. “Because you shouldn’t go when the train is standing still at the station.” Apparently, the bathroom hole led right down to the ground.
The next stop came up in 20 minutes.
“Yes, but it is a local stop, not your stop,” the nice Indian men told me. “You want the next next stop to wait for your train.”
But there was something blocking the track a ways ahead so we ended up having to wait. Everyone got off our car and milled on the platform. There was nothing but jungle and people and a Christian college with yellow walls watching from the top of a hill, like a man in a big hat looking down disapprovingly.
It was hot on the track so we pressed into the train’s shade. The jovial men from my car surrounded me and asked me questions where I’m from and where I’m going. They wanted to take photos with me but the didn’t have cameras so they asked for my phone and snapped photos of us with my camera, though I still don’t understand how that benefits them. They laughed that I sweated. I told them my dilemma with the wrong train and the hostile ticket checker and they just brushed it off and said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to get off.” One official in a pressed white shirt emerged from the crowd and checked my ticket and confirmed I could stay.
There was no announcement when we were ready to go, the train just started moving. The ants sprinted and pushed and jumped to get back into the mango. I was the last one on the track and the doorway was filled with standing men, so I had to jump, too, and hang on for dear life on the outside and hope I didn’t get hit by a tree or a sign until the aisle cleared and I could climb inside.
I settled into the sleeper car with my British friends and we started watching a bad kung fu movie on my laptop. Genghis Kahn soon came around and look horrified that I was still on his train. I told him that it was ok because the other official in the white shirt told me I could stay. He informed me there is no other official, and now I really needed to get off the train at the next stop. He said it would be about an hour.
In twenty minutes the train stopped at a station and the little terrible man came around and yelled at me to get off immediately. I tried to collect my things and pack up my computer quickly, but I was in a panic. Nuts went flying everywhere. They were just cashews, luckily – not my own. The train started moving again and the terrible man yelled at me and I leapt off without saying a proper goodbye to my British friends.
By the time we arrived in Varkala at dusk, the little boy was fast asleep and had to be carried out by his dad. Outside the station, I got in a 1950s Indian Ambassador model taxi that drove me to a homestay with peeling paint called the Green House near the sea cliffs. It was a bumpy, dusty ride but I didn’t mind: with the window rolled down, the air smelled clean and I could hear the ocean crashing below. And at least he came to a full stop for me to get out.