Midnight Express: How to Not Take Trains in Southern India.

People looking out of Indian train windows

As seems to be a consistent theme during my India trip, locating trains is like playing Escape Rooms, but I don’t know if that’s India’s fault or my easily confused mush-brain. When I do find the correct Kochi-bound train, I choose to impractically squeeze through the inside of the narrow, busy carriages with my giant backpack instead of locating the correct carriage from the outside. This is because, although the train isn’t meant to leave for another 15, it keeps slowly moving and stopping for no reason I can understand. Is the train driver having a little joke with me? I terrorize myself with visions of having to throw my bag on and jump on after it as the train speeds away, like something out of Indiana Jones, except I’d misjudge the throw, fall beneath the train and die. So. Best to locate my berth from the inside.

I am in the top bunk (recommended for Westerners because you avoid stares and rats) and beneath me there is an Indian family. I am nervous, but that’s less to do with safety and more to do with etiquette uncertainty. Essentially, I’m paranoid about looking like an ignorant tourist twat.

View from the top bunk on a sleeper train in India
View from the top

About an hour into the journey everyone begins to prepare their beds simultaneously and I notice they have all miraculously acquired bedding. I immediately assume that I’ve missed some kind of bedding trolley which provides the pillows and blankets to be shared among the whole compartment. I’m not sure if I’m recalling a past sleeper train experience from another trip/life, or whether it’s just something I believe should happen. Either way, I deem it appropriate to lean over my bunk and brazenly ask the family below to pass me some bedding; a request that is met with startled looks. Someone quietly explains I am to go and retrieve (AND PAY FOR) my own bedding from a particular section of the train. A hot wave of burning shame swells within me as I gradually realise the horrible significance of my white, imperial, expectant, outstretched arm, and I want to throw myself out the window.

I go to collect my own bedding and climb back up into my tiny bunk (made even tinier due to the fact I am sharing the space with my massive backpack because I am too paranoid to let it out of my sight) and try to go to sleep. Needless to say, I don’t sleep. However, no one snores, farts or tries to climb in with me, and the toilets are nothing I haven’t already encountered at Glastonbury, so all in all, it’s not a bad experience. In the morning, everyone seems to rise at the same time of ludicrously early o’clock – swiftly packing away their bedding and eating breakfast. I’ve only just drifted off in what feels like the last 30 seconds so this is devastating, but there’s no way I’m going to risk playing the lazy, snoozing white person into the bargain, so I rise too, tripping out on lack of sleep but spurred on by the adrenaline.

Pretty plant-lined street in Kochi, Kerala
My destination

It’s vaguely impossible to tell which station we are at and taking the arrival time on your ticket as gospel is a schoolboy error. I must rely on the honestly and good faith of other passengers to tell me, which they do and are very kind (as well as bemused).

The scenery outside the train has dramatically changed and is now subtropical with huge palms rushing past the windows. Eventually it’s my stop and stepping off the train the humidity is immediately stifling and turns me into a melting mess. I’m wearing a shirt and long trousers as I’ve mostly been doing throughout India – advised for Western women in order to avoid unwanted attention – but my shirt is now almost transparent from sweat and moisture so I might as well just be wearing a Victoria’s Secret lingerie set shouting ‘hey boys’ and winking. No biggie, I think, I’ll just hop in a tuktuk to my guest house. Oh, there are no tuktuks? Why’s that? A taxi strike? Oh right. Maybe I can walk it? Oh it’s 4 miles. Public bus eh? Where do I catch that then? Half a km away? Brill. How will I know which bus to get on? I won’t unless I can read Malayalam? Cool. Oh and no internet? Sure.

Motorbike driving past a restaurant in Kochi, Kerala

So off I go on 30 minutes’ sleep, my 17 kilo backpack crushing my spine and moist clothing plastered to my flesh in search of a bus stop I’m not sure exists, to guess which bus to jump on. But…. through the power of others’ helpfulness and iPhone GPS it all works out and I get to where I need to be. I even get to sit down on one of the women only seats at the front of the bus, which is a treat (most buses are normally so rammed that the seats aren’t even visible). I’m too early to check into my guest house so I find a building which is either a hostel, a café or someone’s house – or all three – and I eat French toast and banana with an Indian guy who wants to practice his English whilst I’m drunk with fatigue.

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