Three months ago we had a run-in with the fantastical confustication that is Indian Rail. We needed to leave lovely Goa, to get to Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) to catch our flight home to Perth for my brother’s wedding. We HAD to catch that flight. It landed only 34 hours before they were to walk down the aisle!
However, despite there being daily trains from Magdaon in Goa, to Trichy, and other daily trains via Kochi, and yet more trains via Bangalore, not single one had room for us, not even in first class (which we wouldn’t usually shell out for)
ENTER the waitlist system. India has the most incredibly complicated system of waitlisting tickets. You can even be sort-of half waitlisted, which means you are allowed on the train but not given an actual seat. No, you get HALF a seat. We hopped onto the bewildering cleartrip site to book tickets. We booked 14 different routes and classes, and all were waitlisted.
We had the numbers of how many people were ahead of us in the queue, ranging from 8 in first class (where there are only 20 beds) to 174 in second class non A/C sleeper.
We thought about alternatives. Bus? No, there was only a night bus, it cost double the train and took 16 hours to get halfway. Night buses are just ridiculously dangerous. Just imagine Indian roads and maniacal driving, plus cows, plus tight schedule. Then add darkness, then add bunkbeds, then add five children and a wheelchair. No way. Plane? Not on our budget!
So we continued our daily battle with the sluggish wifi to see whether or not we had wriggled up the queue. Finally one leg of the trip was confirmed, we had tickets from Kochi to Trichy! We cancelled all the ones through Bangalore, for about 20 cents a ticket. Cancellation is so cheap that Indians book numerous tickets if they have a trip coming up, and just cancel the ones they don’t want at the last minute! Ah ha, the plot thickens!
All we needed to to do then, was wait until the very last minute, and we would surely be moved from waitlist, to watitlist-with-half-a-seat, to actually fully on the train for the other leg of the trip. We spent our last two days in Goa doing Christmas shopping.
Here is how we cured our kids of ever wanting any STUFF .
- Travel for a year never buying a thing.
- Carry light packs.
- Then buy seven wedding outfits, 25 Christmas presents and 3 months supply of good coffee and cheap toiletries
- Ask your kids to carry them.
Result: ‘Mum, let’s never ever go shopping again’
The train situation felt just a little bit dicey, depending fully on trains that we’re only watlisted on, with no back up plan.
We got to the Madgaon station in Goa four hours early, in case we needed wangle-and-plead time. At 2pm, we had one and a half seats confimed on the 7pm train, and two seats confirmed on the 9pm train. No worries, we said, that will all change just before 7pm.
I tried ‘oh I’m so confused and have so many children and please help me.’
Chris tried ‘this system is a crazy complicatied and what are you going to do and I won’t split my family up’
The friendly ticket man smiled his Indian smile and wobbled his head and said ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get on the train fine.’ He spoke with a cheerfulness and confidence the situation did not deserve. We found other people to talk to who were more empathetic and vigorously debated courses of action with each other. But, although we felt righteously validated, it meant nothing, they were just guys standing around waiting for trains themselves.
Chris and I debated going on separate trains. We debated all going on the first one, and sitting up all night. It was non A/C, we were tired and one and a half seats for seven of us, plus bags, plus all that shopping sounded mighty hot and squooshy.
At 10 minutes to 7pm, we still only had one and a half seats. So we let the train choof off without us, placing all our hope in the 9pm train.
We had now been sitting on the station about 5 hours, in the heat and under the scuteny of dozens of people. We did loo runs, and chai runs, and food runs, and tried to be artistic with the camera.
It was our last 48 hrs in Inda, I tried to breathe it all in and savour the heat and clamour. We were in the zone, neither stressed nor relaxed, not expending any energy, observing but not engaging. Not sleeping, but not really bothering to focus our eyes on anything in particular. Just chilled. Waiting.
9pm rolled around, we had no choice to get on the last train and hope we had more than two beds. We didn’t.
Chris and Sparky on the top narrow bunk, myself next to Baby Boy on the bottom, with Snowy topping-and-tailing with us. Meena and Tintin were on the floor, their feet under my bunk, their heads on new inflatable pillows we bought at the station. Fortunately it was the end cabin with only two beds and another 6 inches of aisle space and no other people. Other people would have made it tricky! We hung all our bags from one hook in the corner. It was deliciously cool, the conductor didn’t blink an eye at the set up, and the chai wallah went up and down.
We hit the beds and slept all night. I remember thinking:
A) It’s a good thing we are not fat
B) Thank God for inflatable pillows and the fact that the currency for ‘treats’ in this family is so low that Meena and Tintin think its a very special treat to have been bought an inflatable pillow each and were ‘allowed’ to sleep on the floor!
C) We had just proved that online booking does not necessarily simplify things. Indeed the online system seems to have been invented by a large office full of people rubbing their hands with glee at all the new and clever ways to convolute what is already the most complicated train booking system in the world.
D) We are going to make the wedding! Hooray!
What I really love about trains is waking up and looking out the window as the rising sun lights up a new a different world. The two little boys in my bed woke up, rolled over, and did just that.