“So, no windscreen wipers, then?”
He beamed as I almost burst into tears. “Yes lady! No windwipers, no!” our taxi driver exclaimed, the inexplicable look of joy on his face grating on my already-worn nerves. He’d obviously mistaken my tone for that of relief, rather than exasperation.
My boyfriend and I, both soaked head to toe from the sudden, aggressive storm, looked at each other helplessly. It was the first rain we’d seen since arriving in India eight weeks before. As this was to be our last Indian journey before crossing over into Nepal, we’d decided to ‘treat’ ourselves, by taking a taxi to Merta Road Junction, rather than waking up at the crack of dawn for a bus which would have arrived at the tiny, remote train station seven hours too early. But, thanks to the unexpected and torrential downpour, the only taxi to be found looked like a rusty toy car, and its driver looked barely thirteen.
Eight weeks in India teach you not to expect many safety features on any form of transport, but when the driver started tugging at the bent windscreen wipers (which were in no mood to move) we began to wish we hadn't treated ourselves at all. With our train up to the Nepalese border due to leave in two hours, and with the station being almost two hours away, we had no other choice but to clamber into a leaking tin can and set off on a muddy, bumpy, pot-holed road, with each violent drop of rain feeling like it would crack the windscreen at any point.
Half an hour into the bone-shattering journey, we came to an abrupt halt in a miserable looking village. The taxi driver, still beaming, indicated that he wanted us to get out of the taxi. We peered out of the mud-splattered windows; there was definitely no train station here.
“Chai! Chai! My lady wife!” he shrieked, jerking his head towards the nearest, dilapidated building. The driver ran inside when we refused to move, and came out 30 seconds later with his entire family, urging us to come inside. Normally we’d have welcomed such a detour, especially if it meant steaming hot, sweet chai to warm up our soaking and freezing-cold selves. But we were already late for our train, and were in no mood to be stranded in a cold, remote Indian town for any longer than we had to. For the first time that morning, our taxi driver’s enthusiastic smile faltered, and he reluctantly got back into the tin can, waving sadly at his family as we rattled off down the road.
When we finally arrived at Merta Road Junction, it felt like we’d turned up to Armageddon. Groups of heavily bearded men wrapped in layers of dripping blankets all crowded round small fires of burning rubbish. Rats scuttled between their feet as the men tried, in vain, to keep warm from chemical fumes billowing from the piles of blazing plastic. Everything seemed to be the same shade of muddy brown, including the dog we ran over as we pulled up to the station entrance. With five minutes to go until our train was due to leave, we sprawled out of the taxi, falling over huge piles of polystyrene debris and dead animals as we rushed to the platform. We needn’t have worried; it was delayed by six hours.
Nine hours of incessant stares from groups of moustached men and rabid dogs later, we climbed up onto the train, where the ‘seats’ we’d booked were taken up by two families; one of Indians, and one of cockroaches. Dreaming of the glorious, sun-soaked beaches of Maharashtra that we’d been lying on a month before, we pulled into the town of Gorakhpur in the dead of night, where all the guest houses were locked shut and no amount of shouting would wake up any of the men employed to guard the hotels. We walked dejectedly down the town’s dark main road, lit up only when the headlights of huge lorries heading to Nepal blinded us before their tyres splattered us with mud made wet by rain and urine. After knocking on every door, we found a place which had a crusty, mouldy mattress on the floor of what looked, and smelt, like a heavily abused public toilet. We took the room, but at least we had learnt our lesson; next time, we’ll take the bus.