Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Photo by Dexter Fernandes, Unsplash

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No sooner had we boarded the train than a soon-to-be very familiar sound percolated its way through the carriage. Initially it was but a whisper, hushed by the cacophonous melee of people boarding the train and laying claim to their bunks for the night. 

Cacophony was something we were all too familiar with, having just swum through the swirling sea of kaleidoscopically resplendent saris and suits of the people trying to cram themselves like sardines into the carriages. 

We were travelling on the overnight train from Delhi to Jaipur, a 6-hour journey or thereabouts, in the second-class non-air-conditioned carriage.  Each compartment of the carriage counted 6 bunks – 3 on either side of the narrow bisecting side-aisle. 

By contrast to our swim through the sea of colour on the platform, the interior of the carriage cut an altogether more modest and dated tone of drab earthy hues.

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Stowing my rucksack under the bottom bunk, I climbed up to the top bunk, a space perhaps 18 inches high, with a bright neon light on the wall and an all but redundant mini fan spluttering out a whisper of re-circulated hot air.

The Chaiwala

The sound was now gaining in intensity as it neared, steeped in richness and enthusiasm.  “CHAI, CHAI, CHAI…COFFEE, COFFEE, COFFEE…” came the jovial singsong call of the chaiwala, a boy of perhaps 14, as he manfully navigated the throngs of passengers flitting between their bunks and the aisle. 

Jal Mahal, Jaipur, India. Photo by Aditya Siva, Unsplash
Jal Mahal, Jaipur, India. Photo by Aditya Siva, Unsplash

His jovial demeanour was matched only by his dexterity at pouring boiling hot liquids from hot flasks worn on his back, into a cup that he removed with his free hand from a leaning tower of cups reaching from his waist over his shoulder, without burning himself or his proprietors.

It was as welcome an auditory reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the station as the sweet tea was a welcome thirst-quenching milky hug in a mug.   

Somewhat underwhelmed by my digs, I climbed back down and sat with my travel companions on the bottom bunk to have dinner.  This on-board gastronomic feast comprised of a plastic tray containing a smorgasbord of vegetable curries that appeared tasty, and indeed were, but soon proved to be my nemesis.

New Delhi, Delhi, India. Photo by Junaid Ahmad Ansari, Unsplash
New Delhi, Delhi, India. Photo by Junaid Ahmad Ansari, Unsplash

It was not long after settling in my bunk, as the mini fan continued its anaemic splutter, that alarm bells started ringing in my head.  Uh oh, it’s ‘action stations’, I thought…

Nimbleness and subtlety aren’t the first things on your mind when you are responding to a crisis.  I hastened out of my nocturnal nest, banging my head, first on the mini fan…curse that mini fan…and then the ceiling, before unceremoniously dropping to the floor of the compartment with a thud.  This prompted disapproving tuts from the locals that I endeavoured to wave off with my best “sorry, I’m British” look. 

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But this was no time for diplomacy, an urgent visit to the facilities was required.  Travelling in a second-class non-air-conditioned overnight train was, I figured, part of the “authentic India experience”.  What awaited me on the other side of the cubicle door was perhaps a less glamorous part of the experience and one that I would happily have forsaken…a ‘non-western toilet’ (i.e. hole in the floor to the tracks rushing past below). 

Delhi, India. Photo by Siddhant Singh, Unsplash
Delhi, India. Photo by Siddhant Singh, Unsplash

As it transpired, I could have earned a plethora of loyalty stamps for the number of cubicle visits I made that night.  Each less palatable than the last.  Ironic, and perhaps apt, that I should have contracted the eponymous ‘Delhi Belly’ on my departure from the city, its parting gift before my onward travels. 

In the fleeting moments of calm from the tumultuous terrors unfolding in my insides, I lay experiencing hot and cold flushes in my bunk. Fitfully drifting in and out of consciousness, I at least found some comfort in the now hushed repetitive call of the chaiwala, wafting through the carriage like a gentle lullaby, as he continued his tireless quest to hydrate the carriage.

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Author Bio: Tom is a freelance travel journalist based on Jersey in the Channel Islands. His passion is getting off the beaten track to explore places that are misunderstood or not on the average traveller’s radar. He loves immersing himself in the local culture so that he can provide readers with an informed narrative about the local quirks of everyday life.

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