Traveling cheap, on a shoestring, is truly a balancing act, requiring trapeze-like skills. Every cent saved comes at a price, a trade-off with one of the finer elements in life. But every adventurer taking the economical route finds they hit a wall at some point, where the savings are no longer worth the pain. In western India, my brother Jake and I hit this wall hard.
July’s early monsoon season in Ahmadabad, India coated the severe overcrowding and grinding poverty of the city with brutal heat. We wanted out. Rumors circulated about an oasis up north in the province of Rajasthan. Rising out of the dust and heat of the desert, an old British hill station supposedly occupied the top of Mt. Abu. We set our sights on this destination with its reputation for cooler temperatures and adventurous treks.
At the railway’s ticket kiosk, the classes of tickets were difficult to differentiate from each other. As newcomer adventurers to India, we were not yet travel-wise to India’s railway system. Penny-pinching worse than Silas Marner, we snatched up two General, or Second, class tickets. Visions of mystical Mt. Abu, appearing as a frigid Himalayan peak in our minds, dominated our judgment. Only the destination mattered, not the means of getting there.
We found the General Class railway cars just before the train’s departure. Entering nonchalantly, we quickly realized that seats were at a premium, and we were up against a carload of old hands who intimately knew the Indian Railway System. All the ‘seats,’ bunk beds used as two-tiered benches in this Sleeper Car turned General Class, had long since been occupied. Jake climbed to a second-tier seat and sandwiched himself between two Indian men, muttering an abundance of uncomfortable ‘ers’ and ‘excuse me’s’ in the process. I shimmied by a family of five eating samosas on the aisle floor, scurried up a ladder, and guilted a father into sharing the top tier bench with he and his son. The train started to roll.
Headroom was nonexistent. I sat cross-legged with my head bowed, the back of my neck pressing against the curve of the ceiling. Due to the people sitting below me, dangling my legs over the edge was not a very polite option. At the next stop a slew of additional passengers entered the train car, squeezing onto my crowded bench, filling every open space with more sweaty, resigned humanity. My bench’s newcomer, with an incredulous look and an exasperated tone, asked me, ‘Why did you not go Sleeper Class? It’s only like one-hundred forty Rupees.’ One-hundred forty Rupees is roughly comparable to buying a beer. Come to think of it, why had we not travelled Sleeper Class?
I heard a commotion ahead of me. Looking up, I saw much talking and laughing around my brother. He is both taller and stockier than me. With Indians typically being somewhat shorter, slimmer, and darker in complexion, his build, blonde hair, and excessively touristy clothes seemed to draw attention wherever we travelled in India. On this train, being crammed into his upper-tier seat, this sight was just too much for the locals. He later stated that they also repeatedly asked him why he did not pay for the next class up, a substantial cost for them while only a minute increase for most Western foreigners. Being good-natured, he maintained his hunched position and conceded that Sleeper Class would have been a better option.
Sweat seeped through our shirts. Both the heat and our cramps built up in intensity. Time cruelly slowed to a crawl. Maintaining our sanity required creativity. I read The Sea Wolf as an escape. Every now and then I would look at the boy on the other side of his father, playing or napping most of the trip. If a six-year old could enjoy the ride, the least I could do was quit feeling sorry for myself. To this day, I am still not sure how Jake passed the time, outside of getting poked fun at by locals.
Four and a half hours later, the General Class door was thrown open, revealing the hill station. While I forced my cramped, aching limbs down the ladder, the father and his son smiled and waved, most likely journeying all the way up to Jodhpur, disregarding both heat and discomfort. As I joined Jake outside, he blandly observed, ‘Maybe we should take Sleeper Class next time.’