It was time to leave Hyderabad and there was no reason, on that cold and rainy night, for me to think that this train ride would be any different to any others. I had caught the train from Chennai to Hyderabad with nothing more exciting happening than a rather one sided discussion of the New Zealand cricket team (about which I could do no more than nod occasionally in a wise manner). 13 hours overnight in second class sleeper is no hardship at all.
Having enjoyed the metropolitan delights of Hyderabad – this consisted of eating far too many Asian noodles than was perhaps wise, I arrived in plenty of time at the train station. Hundreds flocked around looking grumpy and demanded answers. My heart sank, something was wrong. Four hours later, I hopped on the train. I had no idea of the chaos I was leaving behind.
When the rains finally arrive in South India they sweep through the region with aplomb. On this night they had torn a train bridge apart, derailing a train and causing a huge amount of casualties. I was not on that train, thank goodness, but this did mean that I was following a new path. The train limped around the disaster. I fell asleep on my top bunk, expecting to arrive in Chennai in the morning.
Eight hours later, the train was still taking its leisurely time and I had no idea where I was. You can fold the bunks down during the day and use the bottom one as a normal seat. I sat self consciously as the children in a family of six stared at me. Their eyes were huge as I bought a chai from the vendor. They looked shocked as I ate samosas. They leaned over my shoulder as I tried to read my book. They stared, and stared, and stared, wide eyed at this foreigner in their midst. Their parents were obviously mortified, but the children were as bored as me, and in the absence of television I guess I was the next best thing.
Finally, unable to cope with being the centre of attention any longer, I climbed up to my top bunk and hid. The hours slipped away. I finished my book, I wrote for a while, and I yawned (a lot).
32 hours after my departure the train hobbled into Chennai. Humid tropical heat surrounded me and warmed my tired bones. I walked off the platform and into the mass of people shuffling around in the predawn darkness. It was 4am. And my friend, Subash was there to meet me.
I think there is one thing you should do in India, something they never mention in the guidebooks. You should ride on the back of a motorcycle through the predawn streets. They are clear, and fresh, and startlingly quiet.
On the couch I sipped tea, dashed off a quick email home and promptly fell asleep. Another 10 hours on the train awaited me in the morning. This time it passed as normal, wide eyes staring at me, tea at the stations, and a train which moved faster than a saunter.