I sometimes feel like everything I see as a traveller is in many ways a reflection of myself. That sounds egocentric as hell so I shall elaborate. What I mean, is that when I hiked the Dead Sea desert, I didn’t see a desolate, austere wasteland but rather I saw space and possibility. When I was in the Colombian jungle I saw the sheer power of nature all around me as being both brutal and beautiful depending very much what kind of mood I had woken up in that day.
It was my second time in India but my first in Varanasi and the intention was to head onwards to Agra. I decided the best plan of action would be to get the overnight train, hit the Taj Mahal for the obligatory photo’s and then get out on the evening train to Udaipur. Now, the well trodden Varanasi backstreets are awash with travel agents who can book train tickets for you but with a 20% commission fee added on; I therefore decided to tackle it myself and signed up for the IRTC or Indian Rail website. I would soon learn that that 20% I balked at would have actually been $1 well spent.
Even though pretty much every major western telecommunications company has support functions based in India, Indian internet standards have not progressed much beyond the days of dial up. Consequently wrestling with the temperamental, bug riddled website proved a characteristically frustrating affair but after an hour or so of countless log in’s and having to restart my search, I made it;
“Congratulations! Booking successful W/29”
I was successfully booked into W/29, a 3rd class sleeper seat in the 18:40 overnight from Varanasi to Agra. I felt proud of myself and excited for the next leg of journey. The next day I printed the confirmation email, checked out of my guesthouse and headed to the train station.
By 18:19 I was at the station and racing along the platform trying to find coach “W” so that I could jump in it and find my way to seat 29. Except that I couldn’t. I passed back and forth along the 3rd class section as the departure time drew ever nearer but to no avail, it seemed that coach W just was not there. Eventually I found a train guard and enlisted his help. I showed him my printed confirmation email which he studied carefully for a moment before shaking his head;
“Sir, you do not appear to have seat on this train”.
Visibly perplexed by this I assured him he must surely be mis-appreciating something here and asked him to elaborate on what he possibly could mean by this.
“You have place on Waiting list. W29 means you are number 29 on Waiting List. You will have been receiving another email if a seat was becoming available for you”.
But I hadn’t received another email.
“Well then Sir, you cannot be riding this train”
But my credit card had been charged, charged for a place on a waiting list which had 29 people in front of me?!
“Don’t be worrying Sir, you will be receiving full refund!”
With that he boarded the train, blew the whistle and off it went. Feeling deflated, confused and maddened I got a Tuk-Tuk back to my guesthouse. The staff were surprised to see me back so soon but assured me my room was still available. I told them what had happened but rather than sharing my disbelief and exasperation they shook their heads in sympathy at my foolishness; it seemed it was quite common knowledge that a “W” booking means waiting list.
I had questions. Why would the confirmation document say “Congratulations!”? Why would my travel hacking credit card be charged? Why wouldn’t the confirmation email say something like “we will notify you if a seat becomes available”? I felt that these were all perfectly valid questions but my host, helping with my heavy bag just shook his head, “It’s just the way it is Sir”.
Train, train never again
Two days later I was in Agra. I had seen the Taj, dodged the touts and it was time to move on. I had become dubious of trusting the IRTC website so decided to get a Tuk-Tuk back to Agra Fort station and visit the “Tourist Desk” which opens at 11:00 sharp each day to sell a limited allocation of tickets to tourists who are not registered for, or are just plain confused by, the IRTC website.
I was first in the queue but that didn’t seem to matter to the locals who simply barged in front and began communicating with the desk attendant like I wasn’t even there.
When I did get to the desk I spelled out very clearly what I wanted. A ticket to Udaipur for that evening in sleeper. “No problem” the attendant assured me. I communicated my previous experience and asked him if he was quite sure that I had a seat and not just a reservation on the waiting list. He was quite certain and read back to me the destination, the time, the date and the seat number. Phew, I headed back to my guesthouse and spent the 7 hours I had left relaxing.
Come departure time I am back at the station, ticket in my hand. This time though I can’t find the train at all, the departure board suggests that all the trains are actually going in the complete opposite direction of Udaipur. I can’t find a train guard so run back to the sales desk window where I had bought the ticket earlier that day and in native fashion barged my way to the front.
“I can’t see my train. What platform is it going from?”
The attendant (evidently not sharing my sense of urgency) slowly lifts his glasses to take a closer look at my ticket.
“Sir, your train is leaving from Agra Cantonment station. This is Fort Agra Station”.
I hadn’t even realised there were 2 stations in Agra. I hailed a Tuk-Tuk and went back to my guesthouse. You know the drill, they were surprised to see me, helped me back into my room and remarked “But Sir, everybody know’s there are 2 stations in Agra”.
Do they now? Do they?
Riding the Indian railway is cheap, pretty fast and a definitive Indian experience. But it can’t half be challenging my dear friends.