This is the story of that time I was totally alone in a foreign country, got kicked out of my train because of an invalid ticket, ended up in a completely unfamiliar place with no friends and no contacts, had nowhere to go in the middle of the night, and I was running dangerously low on money.
Navigating travel in India (or any other unfamiliar place for that matter) is not easy. There are a variety of apps, locations and websites that provide booking and reservations, but alas, it simply isn’t that simple.
Travelling by train in India is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life (my Bollywood dreams of open train doors and my hair fluttering in the wind finally came true – just minus the whole chasing Sharukhan scene). But the process of being able to book a seat was frustrating; and even more so when traveling to a different state, rather than a district.
I had experienced solo travel on Indian trains before, but I’d only traveled to different districts. I had never crossed states by train alone before. Things got real confusing, real fast when I decided to travel from Kerala (one of India’s most southern states) to Delhi (a state way up north) by train.
It was a 2-3 day train journey, and I was very excited.
Mostly because I was gonna be train travelling for 3 days (my favorite thing ever), but also because I low-key felt pretty bad-ass, travelling all by myself, through different states.
Ah what a fool I was.
Let me explain the Indian railway system to you real quick:
When traveling from district to district, things are pretty simple. You can either book a ticket at the train station a few hours (or minutes, if you’re lucky) before your trip. You can also book it online, through various apps.
Most of the trains in India consist of two different classes or compartments: the A/C and the regular. The first is usually booked by higher class people and has more comfortable amenities and air conditioned compartments. The latter is cheaper, and used by the majority of us broke peoples who dream of A/C days.
The trains are also divided into sleeper and non sleeper compartments. The sleepers literally have bunks with spongy seats where people can sleep (again, if you’re bougie and in the A/C compartment, things are nicer, blankets are given, safety is more ensured). The non sleeper is what you would usually find on a train; just rows of chairs.
Now when I planned my trip to Delhi, I hadn’t taken a lot of factors into consideration. I waited until last minute to book my ticket online (huge mistake), and decided to book an A/C sleeper because I was going to be alone and travelling for a while and I didn’t want to worry about creepy men and sly thieves and constant paranoia.
But life had different plans for me.
See the thing is, when booking online tickets to different states, the ticket takes a few days to become confirmed. Without a confirmation, the ticket is invalid and train personnel are authorized to kick you out of the train. Sometimes quiet bribing works to get last minute seats for a high price, but if seats are fully booked, you’re doomed.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
As I naively boarded the train, excited about my new world of comfort and bougieness, the train departed and I made myself comfortable. A few hours later, the train’s ticket master made his way down the compartment I was in, and began to check tickets.
I confidently pulled out my reservation and showed it to the man, only to be told it wasn’t a confirmed ticket and I was first on the wait list but he still had to kick me out because the train was fully booked.
I needed confirmation for my ticket? I had to leave? Where would I sleep? How would I get to Delhi? How would I even go back to where I started? All the trains in the following week were completely booked and my only option was to take a flight.
One problem: I had very little money on me (certainly not enough to buy a flight ticket) and my refund for my train ticket would take days.
I wandered the train in panic, looking and thinking for a solution. For the first time in a very long time, I was pretty terrified.
There was an elderly couple sitting near the seat I had booked, accompanied by two young women sitting across from them.
When they noticed my panicked state, they sat me down to ask me what had happened. I explained the situation to them and asked if they knew any way I could remain on the train.
The old man smiled at me kindly and turned to his wife, quietly discussing something with her, which I couldn’t hear. They finally both turned to me and told me they would help with the flight ticket and pay for the remaining amount I needed. As I began to refuse profusely, the woman stopped me with tears in her eyes and said:
“I have a daughter your age and I can’t imagine her being in your position with no one offering to help her. From now on, you are our daughter.”
The two young women across from us were teachers in the state we were about to stop in. They had been vacationing for the weekend and were on their way back home. They had been listening to the conversation and began to help me search for flight tickets. After helping me book a flight for the next day, they took me to their apartment for the night, taught me how to make masala chai and gave me a tour of their city, before treating me to dinner and taking me to the bus station the next day and sending me off.
A few hours ago, I didn’t even know these girls.
The next day, I set off to the airport and actually made it alive and in one piece to Delhi.
I didn’t get the train travel experience I was hoping to, but I experienced the most beautiful interactions with the most beautiful people and my faith in humanity was fully restored.
It’s nice to see new places and cultures when travelling, but what draws me to explore is the opportunity to be able to meet such wonderful people like the ones I met that day on the train in India.
Strangers who become friends who become family.
I keep in touch with all four of them to this day, and I have the elder auntie saved in my contacts as ‘train angel.’
Have you ever had encounters on your travels that stayed with you your whole life? Comment below or send me a message and let me know about your experiences!