These experiences are separated temporally by years and geographically by thousands of miles. There is no real reason other than the mode of transport why they should be paired – but for that they can be drawn together, they are comparative experiences. And they form a dichotomy.
India 2015 – Marudhar Express Departs Agra 21:55 arrives Varanasi 08:50 (following day)
A monkey screeches on the platform opposite. I can’t see it. I keep walking, up and down, back and forth. The ‘Western Disturbance’ weather system has caused a fog bank to cover the north of India, and the immediate result – for me, at least – is to make my train late. Four hours late. This is serious fog, so thick it seems to make its way inside the train station buildings. Across the sleeping bodies, scattered. They have stacked great piles of luggage, placed shoes tidily as if at the entrance to a temporary dwelling. Families drawn together for warmth, one member often awake and acting as sentry.
Finally – about 3am – the train steams in triumphant, it’s headlight cutting through the fog. My ticket has no berth or carriage number on it, but the new English friend I have met on one of my many trips up and down the platform tells me not to worry, it will most likely become clear when the train arrives. But now the train has arrived, and it does not become clear. I try to find a train official who can clarify for me. The officials all disappear. I wait.
Almost all the passengers are on board now, and I am still waiting. Whistles start blowing, activity intensifies. We can clarify this on the train as it begins the journey, so I too climb aboard.
I start to move up the carriage in the hope of finding a conductor. It’s two shades of faded and chipped blue. The sleeping berths are designed to flip into seating once all the sleeping is done. From the outside the carriage looks like a rusted hulk, but is well kept and comfortable inside. It’s chaotic, but quietly so – people are climbing over each other, packing luggage away, laying out bedding. The passengers who have been on this train since it came down from the north sit passively watching and look unwilling to move in case their seats are claimed in their absence. While the foreign passengers stretch out on their single-person sleeping berths, the Indians seem to wedge 5 or six people into a berth of the same size. Moving through the carriage and between the bodies, I am both noted and ignored.
I find a harried man who looks to be a conductor or train manager. He doesn’t speak any English, but another passenger does and through him I am told to follow a third man. I don’t like the look of this third man but follow him back through the carriages anyway, because this seems like progress.
We pass into a carriage different to the others – starker, whiter – that makes me think of a ship’s cabin or galley. The Disliked Third Man stops here – where there are no other passengers and no through traffic. Here, where there is no window to the outside. This is where we stop. There are three or four other men milling about– they don’t look like train staff, but talk to the Disliked Third Man familiarly. They talk, chat, and laugh with constant glances toward me. A couple of them greet me mockingly. Am I reading this wrong?
‘You may sleep here, sir,’ the Disliked Third Man says.
‘Oh – where?’ I say. He pulls a bed out from a hidden kind of compartment in the wall.
‘Here, sir. This is where we sleep.’
‘Really? Is this your bed?’
‘No, sir. It is no problem. You may sleep here.’ He holds my gaze. I’m very aware that they all seem to be hanging on my reply, on my reaction.
‘Oh, gosh. That’s very kind of you.’ Is it, though? I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t want to misinterpret this situation.
I acquiesce. I need a bed. He has offered me one. I start to prepare my sleeping bag, surreptitiously putting valuables, camera, passport and wallet all the way into the bottom. They are standing around again, talking, laughing. Pretending not to watch, I think.
I climb into my sleeping bag and as I am trying to get comfortable – or rather, trying to pretend not to be uncomfortable – they are all keep looking at me. Suddenly, one of them uses my bed as a step, and reaches above me to open another compartment, into which he climbs. This is his sleeping berth, or rather cupboard. After he settles in, he leans out to take part in the mocking, laughing conversation. I am now effectively surrounded.
The Disliked Third Man: ‘Sir? Excuse me, sir?’
‘Yes. What’s up?’
‘That will be 1200 rupees, sir.’
‘I’m sorry? 1200 rupees? What will be 1200 rupees?’
‘The bed, sir. 1200 rupees for the bed.’
‘Oh, no. I’m not paying for the bed, I’ve already paid for a ticket that was supposed to have a bed.’
‘Yes, sir. The bed is 1200 rupees.’
‘Hmmm. No, I don’t think so. I’m not paying you for the bed.’ I pause, briefly weighing up my options. ‘I’ll tell you what. I won’t give you any money, and you can have the bed back. How does that sound?’
‘I’ll tell you what. I won’t give you any money…
It’s at least 4am now. I’ve been standing on a cold platform for hours, got on a train that was 5 hours late with no place for me, and been shaken down by a group of ruffians. All I want is sleep. I feel despondent as I walk through the now silent carriages, everyone else settled.
A seat. A solitary seat, empty. Now my seat. It’s by an external door that the rubber seal seems to have gone from, there is a big draft coming in from the freezing night air outside. But it’ll do. I sit. I seethe. I drift…
I am awoken, by two soldiers patrolling through the carriage, they carry what look like old Lee Enfield rifles. They are walking toward the strange carriage where the Disliked Third Man took me. I am comforted by this.
I am awoken, by the sunlight and the jangling of ankle and bracelet bells. A little girl starts doing handstands and slow cartwheels up the train. She is accompanied by her mother, who squats at the front of the carriage and starts playing a loud drum. ‘Shhhhhhh!!!!!’ I say, and am immediately sorry for it.
I am awoken by activity in the carriage as people start to wake and move about. I realise my new English friend and his girlfriend are in a compartment just a little way behind me, and I go to join them. They – mercifully – have a spare sleeping berth, and I catch a couple of hours before we finally roll into Varanasi.
We get off the train, people dissolve into the crowd. I stand at the exit to the station, take a deep breath and step back in to India.
France 2017 – SNCF Departs Paris 21:19 arrives Nice 08:32 (following day)
I choose the bottom bunk. I could have chosen any one of six, there is no one else here. This is the most comfortable bed I’ve slept on for a couple weeks. My camp bed has developed a slow leak that leaves me on the cold hard ground each morning. I kick off my boots and lie on the bed fully clothed, a blanket draped loosely over me. The closeness of my berth makes me feel like I’m in a cocoon. The train starts to move. I watch the lights gain speed as they pass by the window. Rhythm and light. I want to stay up all night and watch as we pass through France, but I won’t make it. Anyway, the exoticism of a place disappears rapidly when you pass through it in the dark. It becomes only a contrast of light and dark. The brightest places are the stations, and they all look the same from the train window.
I write, but the screen’s brightness encases me in light, preventing me from seeing outside myself. I want to know the world is out there, even as it passes by in the dark. Someone comes into the compartment, say’s nothing and disappears up to one of the top bunks. It’s ok, I don’t really want to talk to anyone just now; bedtime is a private time with yourself; or yourself and a lover. I close my screen and pick up my book, and after a few minutes start to drift off. I’m roused again when I feel my compartment-mate coming down from the top bunk. I pretend to ignore his activity. He bends down to me, and due to the intimacy of the compartment it feels as if he is right upon me as he says, ‘Excuse me, but do you mind if I put the light out?’ I’m happy for him to do so, I’d barely noticed it – it’s weak luminescence seems not to have the strength to penetrate my murky underworld. I drift again.
I am awoken by lights strobing past the window. Rhythm and light. It’s like being the last at a party, where a disco light is still going, the room is empty, and the needle on the record is repeating its way around the final groove. Rhythm and light. Light and rhythm.
I am awoken, this time by a jolt as part of the train decouples to go off in another direction. How strange that half of our sleeping mates are leaving us, many of them not aware of it. I wonder if there is a parallel me in that new parallel universe.
I am awoken, the train rocking gently. I worry – vaguely – about the train careening off a bridge into the dark murky water, drowning in the cold depths. But sleep comes quickly again.
I am awoken, the final time. Early morning light pours into the room, the blind is up. I can see moments, scenery passing by outside. I am happy to lay here, watching as this part of the world flickers past, unrecognisable. It’s a beautiful day outside. My phone shows me we are very close to the south coast, we’ll meet it close to Toulon.
I get out of bed, open the compartment door into the corridor. There are already people standing about, stretching and yawning. I nod in greeting to a couple of them, they’re speaking in hushed sleepy tones. Hair asunder, faces slack with receding fatigue. Our faces are all raised toward the sun streaming in the window that runs the length of the corridor, the landscape is bathed in orange early morning light. There is a melancholy that is burned off by the morning sun, a sadness that many of these places I’ll only see this one time.
There is a melancholy that is burned off by the morning sun…
My compartment-compadre comes out and joins me at the window. We talk, he is returning home after being away for work. He is not a native to the south, but has taken to this environment enthusiastically. He is counselled by the sun. We start to see the ocean, its improbable blue. I like the coastline, the edge – the place where things change, things drop off and drop away. He leaves me, going back to his own life and out of mine. If we’re lucky, we fall a little in love with the people we meet along the way, for a short time.
This coast is populated by impossible wealth and excess, but the train seems to bypass it. The track is hidden from view, the days where rail is considered a marker of wealth and romance long gone. Those people travel by private yacht and aircraft now, so this mode of transport is no longer on display. We catch glimpses of it all through the gaps between the buildings that are lined along the waterfront, pausing only at the train stations that beacon our route.
People prepare to get off – a rough comb through hair, a cursory brush of the teeth, straightening of clothes, in my case clothes that have been slept in. I’m in need of a shower, I need to slough off this morning and the previous day. The world we are about to join comes into view. The activity of the station is mainly to ignore our train pulling in – surely we should be acknowledged, we’ve travelled through the night to get here. The light from the burgeoning day streams into this place.
We all – who were once connected and contained – now dilute our communality among this crowd, these unknowns. I make my way out of the station and stretch in the sunlight, feeling the heat of the day for the first time.
I go to find myself a fine breakfast.