Indian Tales 6 – Train to Kochi

Next morning at breakfast we walked into a scene of carnage. Every table was covered in used crockery, cutlery and glasses. No staff were about. The buffet was devastated; nothing had been topped up, nothing much was left. A kitchen porter wandered about, not sure why he was out of his usual realm. I asked him for two clean cups which he tracked down. Fortunately, the breakfast chef was there; dosas and omelettes it was then. I risked the toaster and burnt the toast. Where were all the staff?

It was the first day of Pongal, the harvest festival. Had all the staff left early to party? We assumed so, ate what we could and then prepared to leave. We had to check out by 10am, but had a while to wait for our afternoon train.

As expected, booking seats had been a trial. The online booking system was complicated. There were at least five categories of seat available, but all AC seats were full. The best, worse case choice were two seats in a second class air conditioned carriage. It was full, but we were 8th and 9th on the waiting list with an 82% chance of getting a seat. Optimistic odds.

After a morning on the sofa in Reception, playing scrabble, we made our way, squashed into a tuk-tuk to the hectic railway station. After queueing at the ticket booth, we were directed to another desk to check on the status of our booking. It was bad news. We had failed to secure seats and we were directed back to the ticket booth to buy 3rd class tickets. These were available for the bargain total price of £2.50 for a forecasted five hour journey to Ernakulum, the eastern section of Kochi city, in Kerala state.

I wandered down the platform, looking for a restaurant. One mile further on (long platforms in India) I came to an AC luxury lounge. I poked my head in and had a look at the buffet. Looked pretty good. It was going to cost a whole 60 rupees each, to sit in the cool for an hour. About 6p each. I went and got Dinah and we whiled away an hour and half, eating and relaxing. Reckless.

The train wasn’t due for a while, and we wondered what the seats would be like. Other trains came and went; 3rd class was the coaches without glass windows, just a gap with bars. They would be sweltering. Eventually they announced our train would be departing from platform four and we made our way over the bridge.

We talked tactics and when the train came in with all the 3rd class carriages crammed – elbows, hands and heads visible through, or out, the bars – we decided to action our plan. We were going to sit on spare seats in an AC carriage and if asked about why we were there we would plead ignorance, showing Dinah’s phone with the unconfirmed tickets.

We sat in carriage C, next to a large family, but they assured us we were not in their seats. The train pulled out, only thirty minutes late. Men selling chai, coffee, water and snacks passed up and down the corridor. We declined, having bought crisps, biscuits and water on the platform. An hour later the ticket inspector arrived. Dinah showed the phone tickets and we played dumb when he stated they were not valid.

“You can stay here till the next station, but then you must leave.”

“We have to get to Ernakulum tonight, can you please fit us in anywhere,” I pleaded.

 He didn’t answer, shook his head in that way that doesn’t mean no, but might have meant I’ll think about it.

“I come back after Poochipatti,” and he moved on down the carriage.

An hour later he was back, “You must move, come with me.”

We moved into carriage D.

You stay here till after next stop, then I come back.”

Some time later he reappeared. “Come with me.”

We moved back into carriage C. He pointed to two top bunks, “You stay here, but must pay.”

I was profuse in my thanks. We were back where we had randomly started. We paid for the tickets and a fine – for not having valid tickets. We never mentioned the 3rd class ones, for fear of being moved there. It totalled £35, a bargain. Phew.

By the time we pulled into Ernakulum, we were three hours late. It was dark. The queue for the taxis snaked into the shadows. I looked again. Some of them were waiting for lifts, not taxis. A young man in a slightly battered Ford Ka pulled up. We agreed a fee for the trip to Fort Kochi, crammed our bags in the boot and back seat, and set off for our homestay near the coast.

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