Ten years ago I was hungover. Not much has changed. On this particular occasion I woke up on a sofa in the basement of my friend’s student digs in Cambridge. Stale smoke sat up in the air along with any plans I had for the day. Ben, the aforementioned friend, wandered into the room and chucked a DVD at me.
“You should watch this” he said, “it’s definitely a bit of you.”
The DVD was The Darjeeling Limited, the fifth film by dolly shot-loving, The Kinks sound tracking auteur Wes Anderson. It’s a film about family and loss and the most beautiful set of luggage you have ever seen in your life. I sat in rapture for two hours. As soon as the film let up, I started it again, watching with the opening short Hotel Chevalier the second time around. This was the start of my love affair with Anderson but also the seed of an idea about one day taking a train ride across India just like the Whitman brothers did in the film.
A couple of months ago I started planning a trip to India. It was to be the first time I had travelled alone. As such, I wanted to make sure I included everything I had ever wanted to do while in country. Amongst those was visiting the Taj Mahal, the Beatles Ashram and staying in a hut on the beach. I also realised I could live my dream of taking a train journey across the country. After a bit of research I found the twenty-seven hour journey from Nizamuddin, East Delhi to Goa.
I was told by some of my well-travelled friends (thank you, thank you, thank you) that it would be worth me sparing the expense and going First Class. This meant access to sweet, sweet air-conditioning as well as getting fed. I had some difficulty booking the ticket and had to utilise someone in my office with family based in India (thank you Peter).
I left my AirBnb with plenty of time and found my way through the back streets to the train station. The road outside was so full of taxis and tuktuks that it looked like they had been abandoned in the wake of a natural disaster. I wandered into the station and felt a lot of sets of eyes fall upon me. A number of friends asked why I would get the train for twenty-seven hours when I could fly it in under an hour. Why do I ever make my life more difficult? It’s always for the story.
I took a footbridge over the first three lines and came down onto Platform 4. There were a lot of people waiting, hiding in the shade offered by the overhead cover running along much of the platform. Again, people seemed to wonder what this white boy was doing there.
I found a board where the reservations were printed out on long streams of old-style printer paper, the kind with perforated edges that prints one page in seventeen minutes. I checked every list and couldn’t see my name. I would have to chance getting on the right carriage and working it out from there.
I walked the enormous length of the train (I’m going to be a man and over estimate it as being about six-hundred metres). I got to the front, expecting the class to go up as I went and was faced with the cattle class. I had walked the wrong way. I checked the time and started back in the opposite direction. All along the platform was a buzz of movement. People were loading . Luggage was moving. There were supplies too, being dumped by open doors to be hoisted up into the bulk of this behemoth that would take me some twelve-hundred kilometres down the coast of India.
I made it to First Class and found my way to Cabin A. I slid the door open and three Indian men reclining on their bunks looked up at me. I saw everything in symmetry, as Anderson would have shot it. I looked down at my ticket; an overhead shot, the text in Futura Bold, The strains of Joe Dassin’s Les Champs Elysee playing only for me through the headphones burrowed deep into my ears. I smiled and jumped up into my bunk.
The ceiling was so low that I couldn’t sit up fully. I took my flip-flops off and placed them off to one side. The train started on its way out of the station. I watched the remaining people waving us off and moving along. Nizamuddin continued on without me.
A member of staff served us cartons of Chach, a spiced buttermilk drink. I expected it to taste like the basic bitch coffee order of choice, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. It did not. It tasted like a creamy curry sauce mixed with milk. It was not good. I am so polite that I finished the whole thing, gagging at intervals like it was being forced upon me as a form of torture.
We were served masala tea and soon after we were brought trays of spicy tomato soup in a tiny red thermos with cutlery and breadsticks and seasoning on the side. Everything sat at parallels and I reminded myself to thank the props guy in charge of making this adventure as close to my imagination as anything I had ever lived. Shortly after, we were brought more food; a tray of four dishes covered over with foil and a wedge of something folded up in the middle. I opened them up like it was Christmas Day. Different curries – some lentil, others vegetable and rice. The foil in the middle unwound to present me with a stack of roti. I chucked everything on a plate and mopped it up with the bread.
I sat back on my bunk and looked at the little bag I had carted through Delhi just for this journey, a replica of the Whitman’s luggage – a satchel with the number 8 on the side, made by Very Troubled Child. It looked perfectly at home.
I praised the gods of good Wi-Fi for the connection at the AirBnb that had allowed me to download podcasts and films before I set off. Despite my excitement of the journey itself, I would need a lot to keep my mind engaged for so long. I spent the rest of the day watching Netflix’s Maniac, listening to Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcasts and writing up the notes from the previous days in the tiny leather bound notebook I was carrying with me.
Dinner was very similar to lunch. It was getting dark outside which was for the best otherwise I could have worried I was stuck in a loop. I had soup and then four little dishes of curry with rice and roti. My new friends (who I had not spoken a word to and who all had fabulous moustaches) left me. There were other stops along the way. It turned out it wasn’t a non-stop 27 hour thrill ride through to Goa.
I was moved into another room. Apparently there had been a mix up. A very angry Indian man had refused to share a room with me, probably because he found me so alluring that he didn’t think he would be able to keep his hands to himself through the night. I was moved into a two-berth cabin with a younger guy who was chilling on his bunk and watching films. I liked his vibe.
I climbed into my bunk, put Temple Of Doom on and promptly fell asleep – “no time for love, Dr Jones”.
When I woke up it was because a man was knocking on the door to bring me tea – the best way to wake up. I sat up, stretched out and realised I had slept for eight hours plus. The gentle rocking of the train had done all kinds of favours. I felt rested and happy.
We were brought breakfast, a vegetable cutlet with some spiced vegetables as well as cornflakes and two slices of bread – a meal fit for a king. I scoffed it all down and stared out the window before putting Temple Of Doom on again to try and work out how much of it I had missed. It turned out that it was the vast majority of it.
I was brought another tray of curry for lunch. I appreciated it but I was kind of done with curry, the same curry. I was starting to get stir crazy. My friend got off at Trivum and I started thumping my hand on the seat as a drumbeat and singing to myself to save myself from going insane. After a hearty rendition of Hardest Button To Button I went for a wander. I discovered it was possible to lean out of open doorways and look down the entirety of the train. It was only when I did this and nearly lost my face as we disappeared inside a tunnel that I realised there were some occasions when travelling on your own wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Aside from the fear of going missing and nobody noticing, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
I took a moment back in my cabin to reflect on what had happened. How amazing it was that I got to take this trip, to do it all on my own terms and to really understand what it was to be trapped with just myself for company. How fortunate I was to be able to afford to ride the rails and sit in the too-cool air conditioning and be brought delicious food on a near constant basis and live it up like Lady Muck. I was lucky. I was happy. I was so happy.
When we pulled in, I got off and realised what a number the air-con had been doing on me. It was 34 degrees and muggy outside. I stumbled out of the station and got a cab, onwards, to Palolem beach, Goa.
Note: It was only later that I was told by Akshay, who I stayed with in Goa, that not even Indians eat the food on the train and that I must have an iron stomach. Those of you who have followed my previous writing adventures in the Philippines and Peru will know that is certainly not the case.