I still remember the feeling as we stepped onto the train that night. We’d arrived to a train station just outside of Varanasi, in the North of India earlier that evening. It was dark already, the air sticky with humidity, the station lit with faint orange lights.
We shuffled through the throngs of people to the platform we thought might be ours. Stretched out in front of us was a patchwork quilt of families strewn across the platform. Each group huddled together on their own blanket with flasks of hot water for tea, various deep fried delicacies and carefully crafted boxes of rice and curry.
They were here for the long haul.
To one side, we spotted a solitary bench with one available seat, perched between two families. Laura sat down, squeezing between the two families and their haul of bags and boxes. I stood in front of her, and smiled at each of the families either side. They stared back relentlessly, a classic Indian mix of inquisition and intrigue. We’d grown accustomed to the staring by now, and I revelled in competing to see who could hold eye contact the longest between myself and a random family member.
I lost every time
I glanced up to the board to my left, the information board showing a train due to leave at 2pm. It was 10pm now and there was still no sign of it.
8 hours late I thought, this could be a very long night.
After a while of staring, I took a wander around the station. By now whatever food stands had been there were long closed, the remnants of food being hungrily eating by the biggest rats I’ve ever seen.
Suddenly there was a commotion, as a heave of people swarmed towards another platform. I watched as whole families hurriedly gathered up their belongings and headed to the platform. There had been no announcement as far as I could tell, and the information board was blank. Yet in the darkness, along the tracks, were two bright lights getting closer.
Someone’s train was arriving, but where was it going?
I moved closer to glean any info I could on what was happening. Suddenly through the noise and smells of the station, I heard two words above it all:
This was our destination! I bolted back around the corner where Laura was sitting patiently. I didn’t say anything, one look at my face and she was up and grabbing the bags. We bolted back around to the other platform.
Was this our train? There were no announcements, no signs, no one on the station platform.
We peered inside the carriages in front of us, a brightly lit space with wooden seats and a hundred Indian faces stared back.
This might be our train, but this was not our carriage. We moved down the platform at some pace, looking for the sleeper carriages. A conductor in a hat appeared from one of the carriages, took one look at us and motioned us forward a few more carriages and onto the train.
“New Jalpaiguri?”, I blurted. “Yes my friend!” He replied.
Incredibly, our train was on time.
We scrambled through the dark sleeper carriages until we found our bunks, a middle and upper bunk in a grouping of 6. I took the top and Laura the middle, as others slept soundly on the opposite bunks.
The relief was incredible. Our train was on time, we had our bunks, and we were on our way!
I slept soundly that night, waking around 7am with a jolt. I peered out of my top bunk to the bunk below, where Laura was still cocooned in her sheet and blanket, arms linked through her small backpack with valuables.
It was at this moment that I became aware of 6 pairs of eyes gazing intently from across the compartment.
A family of 6 were already awake, had folded away the middle bunk, and were now all sitting in a row on the bottom bunk, all eyes fixed intently on me in the top bunk.Good train etiquette means folding up the middle bunk so that people on the top and bottom bunk can sit up on the bottom bunk. Wary of this, I clambered down and woke Laura. She was not for getting up, so she clambered up to the top bunk for more sleep while I folded up the middle bunk and sat down on the bottom bunk, its inhabitant had seemingly already left.
I took a breath and looked up. I was now sitting at the same level as the family, on the seat facing opposite, about a metre across from me. All 6 of them squeezed on the bottom bunk, all in a row, gazing intently at me, analysing my features, my hair, my clothes.
Five members of the family, the husband, kids and one grandparent gazed and grinned from ear to ear at me. But there was one woman, I assumed the mother, who gazed intently at me, her face completely expressionless.
After much travelling across the world, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that even the smallest attempt at interacting in the local language, or adopting a local expression can go a long way.
After a few weeks in India, we’d learnt how to say hello, please, thank you, goodbye. But one expression that unlocked doors and resolved so many situations was the head wobble.
If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, just google it and more knowledgeable people can tell you all about it. What we learnt, from our experience, was that it can mean yes, no, maybe. It can mean almost anything, and that’s kind of the point.
So as I sat, gazing back at the family of six, I focused my attention on the woman with the inquisitive eyes, and ever so slightly, wobbled my head left and right, whilst staring at her.
Her reaction was one of the most incredible bursts of expression I’ve witnessed.
Her face suddenly burst into life. Her eyes widened so that the whites of her eyes were clear, a beaming smile burst onto her face, her hands came out towards me, palms to the ceiling, and then she began talking, the words and questions tumbling from her mouth as fast as she possibly could:
What is your name?
Where are you from?
Why are you in India?
What do you think of India?
Are you married?
Where is your wife?
Is that your wife?
Where are your children?
Why do you not have children?
All of these questions came from her mouth in the space of 30 seconds, after which she stopped and waited for my responses. For the next 2 hours, we talked, shared food between ourselves, showed the family pictures of our life in Scotland, some of our wedding photos. I even think I let them take a photo of our wedding photo on my phone so that they could show their friends.
Although only a tiny moment in our travels, I still remember it with fond memories. It’s these micro moments that can stay with you longer than even the grandest of adventures.
The ‘Travel Moments’ Series
‘Travel Moments’ is a brand new feature here at WorldlyNomads.Com! As much as we LOVE sharing our favourite photos and most exciting travel adventures, sometimes it’s the little unique moments that affect us the most.
Whether it was a fleeting but special interaction with a local, getting lost and discovering something we didn’t plan to, or a random experience we never imagined, these are the moments that will linger in our memories long after returning home and unpacking the bag packs.