23h17 - Like trying to dodge the cracks on a pavement I manoeuvre myself over and around sleeping bodies that litter the platform in Agra. The pungent vapour reeking from the urinals burns my nose so I hasten my step under the weight of my backpack towards the stationary train. I clamber on board into the ‘air-conditioned’ 2nd sleeper class in time for the 23h30 departure to Varanasi.
23h20 - Ignoring the nagging presence of a scratchy throat, I find my sleeping quarters for the 13 hour long-haul in a carriage of 64 royal blue plastic-covered fold out beds, separated into 6 beds per compartment, triple-bunk style. My ticket designates me to the middle bunk which looks half the width of a single bed and made out of concrete.
23h39 - As the train snail-crawls out of the station, I successfully work out how to get onto the bed, Cirque du Soleil style, without kicking anybody in the process. The close proximity - a claustrophobic 50cm - of the bed above me means I cannot sit up straight so I opt for a permanent reclining position.
24h30 - The lights have been turned off now so I can hardly see expect for the dim illumination from my watch’s glow-in-the-dark hands. The sounds of sleeping are quickly replacing the once audible chatter. Lying on my back and with nothing to do, it becomes noticeable that it is getting harder to swallow, as if there is a peach pip stuck in my throat. I have nothing to soothe the discomfort but pray to fall asleep quickly.
01h07 - I am wide awake. A symphony of snores echoing throughout the carriage along with a throat now made out of abrasive sandpaper has prevented all attempts of a peaceful slumber. A wave of anger and frustration passes over as I long for a comfortable bed and a throat lozenge. Without warning the portly lady opposite me starts to snore like a tuba playing underwater, adding encouragement to my insomnia. Immediately a wisp of a hand appears from the bed above me followed by an arm. With graceful movements the hand and arm, accompanied by a body, leans over towards the sleeping figure and nudges her. An angelic French accent whispers:
“Euh... excusez me, Madame. You arr snoring too loud. Pleez turn over. Merci.”
With a guttural groan and exaggerated shifting, the snoring culprit falls silent. I quietly thank my top bunk acquaintance.
01h08 - I swear there is a dying pig wielding a chainsaw opposite me. Only a minute has passed and the lady has started vibrating with vengeance. A loud sigh exhales from above, swiftly followed by the hand, arm and body shooting across to the snoring monster that is now vigorously shaken. The French devil within her exclaims:
“MADAME! Pleeeeez would you SHUT UP!”
This time ‘Madame’ does not react and continues her raucous deep sleep. Suddenly I want to laugh. Somehow this situation seems hilariously funny and forgetting my feelings of morose I start to shake with laughter. All too soon a sharp pain sears in my throat and the more I laugh the worse it gets. I muffle my groan of agony in my pillow as tears roll down my pained face. What a cruel night this is turning out to be.
??h?? - I must have fallen asleep as I am jolted awake by some disturbance. I lift my stiff neck and strain to hear over the unrelenting snores and phlegm-induced throat clearing. No one stirs. I check the time to discover my watch has lost its glow so I have no clue what the time is. The peach pip in my throat has now been replaced by a golf ball on fire which makes me grimace every time I swallow. Feeling groggy, stiff and incredibly homesick, I regrettably have the sudden need for the toilet. Once there I make use of the light and check the time, certain it would be at least 5am.
02h24 - I regret doing that now. With 10 hours to kill I drag my feet like a zombie, moaning (quietly as to not disturb 63 peaceful sleepers) while envisaging the incessant snoring and uncomfortable suffering that I am walking towards. Exasperated, disheartened and just plain miserable, I climb into bed and choke back the tears. It is only fitting that this train should now change tracks and head straight towards the Hindu underworld, Naraka, seeing as I feel like I am already half way there.