Taking a long distance train in India involves a fair amount of planning in advance to be sure of getting a ticket. Indians seem to continually have somewhere to go – both long and short haul – and there’s never any guarantee of being able to join them.
I’d arrived in Delhi just after the New Year celebrations and immediately set myself the task of planning my first month’s travel, as January is a particularly popular time for exodus in the sub-continent. I got as far as managing to book a couple of journeys in and around Rajasthan before coming unstuck.
I found myself in Jodphur and unable to book an onward train for at least a month. There are worse places to be confined but it would nonetheless ruin the plans I had if I couldn’t leave sooner. No amount of ingratiating myself with the counter staff at the station seemed to yield any more availability.
On one such occasion, as I beat another miserable retreat from the counter empty-handed, a man sidled up to me and offered sympathetic sighs and eye rolling, which I ignored. I carried on studying my Lonely Planet to work out where else I could try to head for in the hope it would be a road less travelled with fewer competitors for a ticket. He eventually took the plunge and began talking to me, asking where I was headed and commiserating about how awful it was that there were no tickets.
This was only ever going to lead to one thing and I waited patiently for him to get to the point. Before long, he struck.
‘I can help you acquire tickets. If you wish you can come with me and I can introduce you to an agent who will get genuine tickets for you.’
With nothing to lose, off I went.
We met his brother (although they never admitted to this, rather bizarrely) who sat me down for a good few hours with a constant supply of chai and proceeded to explain what he could do to help me.
At this time, train tickets in India were released only 60 days ahead of the departure date and could be bought online or at the station itself. Independent agents were prohibited from acting as middle men to purchase tickets for passengers, so I was dubious about how this man could actually do what he was claiming.
I was, of course, forgetting the old backshish culture that can get you anything in India. By now convinced I could trust this guy, I told him the itinerary I wanted for the following month and parted with a fair amount of money to secure 2AC class tickets.
Returning to my hotel, I sat down to await his triumphant arrival. It was the hotel owner who allowed suspicion to creep in by telling me I shouldn’t trust the ‘agent’, his brother (who preyed on foreigners in the station) or a third brother who was apparently always on hand to provide a tuk tuk service.
Resigning myself to having probably just been scammed, I was pleasantly surprised when he showed up, tickets in hand. He requested a little extra money as he had had to ‘thank’ his contact at the station with a bottle of whisky and a box of sweets.
Leaving Jodphur the following day with a month’s worth of potential train tickets in my hand, I still didn’t fully believing they were genuine. He’d told me of an odd set of things that needed to be done ahead of making each journey. I was to phone him two hours in advance of the departure time and he would confirm the number of my carriage and bunk. Ever the distrustful pessimist, I warned him that if I EVER found out that he had scammed me, I would come back for him. I knew where he worked, I had his number, I knew two of his brothers and if he still managed to hide from me the hotel manager would help me track him down.
On that first overnight trip I ended up with three Indians who appeared to be as tetchy I was – I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they were in the same ‘is my ticket real?’ boat. We were all extremely grumpy with each other; huffing and puffing at the slightest thing that invaded our space or sleep. The snoring man was especially annoying.
By the next day we all realised we were half way to our destinations without anyone challenging the validity of our tickets and so we chilled out; even becoming something akin to friends and chatting about all manner of things, eventually getting on to lookie-likies.
‘Madam, you have seen movie Titanic?’
‘Yes I have.’
‘You look very like lady actress.’
‘Who, Kate Winslett? Thanks very much!’
‘Same big, round head. Like football.’
Although I haven’t kept in touch with this particular fellow passenger, I’m happy to say I’ve long since had a great friend in my personal, Rajasthan-based travel agent and have never had to go back to reprimand him.