To conclude our Indian adventure, we plotted out a week-long stay in the serene, green northeast territory of the country. We had a first class train ticket in hand and a charming hotel awaited our arrival. Although tranquility was what we were after, we soon learned India had something else up her sleeve. She preferred to give us a more authentic adieu.
Setting off from the holy city of Varanasi to the hill station of Darjeeling, our journey began. Loading up our bulky packs, we marched through a maze of tight, crowded alleyways and fought through the hissing and heckling of an aggressive mob of rickshaw drivers. Coughing our way through the muggy air, we made the hour-long journey to the train station to arrive in time for our 9 p.m. train.
Upon our arrival we received news that our 16-hour overnight train was delayed. It wasn’t just any delay. It was a delay of eleven hours. We were doomed.
All simple, logical solutions were faulty. Trains are typically full for weeks in advance (especially if you are looking to ride away from the smut and grime of the economy cabin) so canceling our ticket and buying another was out of the question. Finding a hotel to stay in proved impossible. By this hour, hotels were closed, adhering to the strictly enforced curfew policy in Varanasi. Further, with the city’s nightly power outage the pitch black ride back to the city, at this time, would be treacherous.Desperate to find lodging for the night, we even checked the train station dormitory but with our luck it was completely full. Without a plausible option, spending the night inside the station was becoming a reality.
I will try to describe the grim situation of the Mughal Serai train station to the best of my ability, but I can assure you it will not do justice. The smell is overwhelming. It’s a toxic odor of burning trash stinging your eyes and singeing your nose. It’s the piercing stench of fecal matter squirting out of busted pipes and spewing from the bottoms of trains. It’s the sticky puddles of stale-smelling urine covering the station platforms. The dim low-hanging, lights reveal a thick layer of filth and mounds of litter, providing a feast to the swarms of flies and beetles that surround.
Truly disgusted with the conditions, we were directed to the ‘upper-class’ waiting room where we could wait it out. After settling our bags and wiping away the damp sweat covering our bodies, we noticed the room was crawling with rats. With seemingly nowhere else to go, we escaped to the adjacent train station restaurant in hopes to find a resting place for the night.Here we met some fellow travelers and bonded quickly over the inauspicious situation. Trying to laugh it off and occupy our tired heads, we shared stories of our travels while sipping down hot cups of brew. In the midst of the newly discovered camaraderie, we failed to realize this place, too, was teeming with an army of cat-sized rats.
India was certainly testing me again. This time I was pushed to my breaking point, teetering over the edge. But she’s tricky, that India. Just when you are about to lose it she takes you in and shows you just how bad it could be. She reveals a reality a million times worse.
Out of the train tracks came the children. At 2 a.m. a group of four, five and six year olds roamed barefoot along the tracks. With their ratted hair and dressed in filthy rags, they gathered broken bottles and empty cardboard thrown from windows of the trains and piled them high into giant, burlap bags slung over their shoulders. They laughed and giggled as they walked through mounds of litter while dodging rats scurrying across the tracks and swatting flies off each other’s faces.A second group followed and a third. By 4 a.m., there were several groups of children gathered on the train platform. Their day was finally done and they laid down, just feet from us, on the hard concrete to rest their eyes. This station was their home.
My heart was broken.
For the remainder of the night we too made a bed on the platform floor. Laying on our backpacks, mosquitoes and flies feasted on our bodies and we pretended we didn’t hear the rats squeaking and scurrying beside us. We even tried to ignore the peering strangers huddling around us, plotting out a moment to rummage through our bags.
By the time the sun rose, the children were already off to work the new arrivals to the station. They were joined by tens of scrawny invalids scrambling for change. And when our eleven hour delay turned into fifteen hours, it somehow didn’t seem all that bad.
Our train did finally arrive, and we slept in the air conditioned sleeping car for the duration of the journey. When the forty hour trip o Darjeeling finally came to an end, I realized this might have been just the goodbye we needed to conclude our Indian journey. She wouldn’t have it any other way.