After all night enclosed in an AC train, the early morning air blowing through the iron bars of the open carriage window feels exhilarating. We’re now on an unreserved general seating train that we boarded in Londa Junction for Goa. It’s crowded and not clean by any stretch – but we find seats beside the window where the view is spectacular.
The train travels through a mountainous jungle with craggy red outcroppings. Water percolating out of the top of the mountain, cascades down a long rock face, passing underneath the train – so close water almost splashes on the side of our carriage- and continues further down the mountain out of sight. The Dudhsagar waterfall is impressive even during the dry season.
The passengers, predominantly young male Indians, are out to enjoy the ride. Like sports fans on their way to a game they whistle and catcall every time the train goes through a tunnel – and there are many! The boys take pictures of each other on their mobile phones. Fearless, they hang backwards out of the open doorway of the train, striking a pose with a deep ravine below them.
Everyone seems happy except for a heavyset Indian woman sitting in the far corner of the compartment and who appears to be traveling alone. She fixes a steady gaze on me, her brow furrowed in a dark frown. I shift uneasily in my seat, tugging at my skirt. Am I showing too much calf? In a society where a bare midriff, no matter how plump, is the norm, it is incongruous that any naked flesh above the ankle is traditionally unacceptable. But I believe her disapproval is directed less at me, and more at the raucous boys she’s forced to share the compartment with.
At Castle Rock Station, named after a large outcropping, everyone gets off the train. It feels like a southwest town in the 30s – except ten gallon hats have been substituted by turbans. We expect John Wayne to come swaggering out from the saloon into the dry dusty heat and draw his gun. But instead, the boys from Bangalorestep down from the train and planting their feet in the red dust draw mobile phones from their holsters to shoot yet more photos. Meanwhile Gerard and I find a chai stall. Business is slow, and the Sikh behind the counter appears to be dozing. Hanging above the stall is a huge picture of Gurinder Singh of Beas. As we acknowledge his Guru, the stall owner leaps to attention and folding his hands greets us with “Radhasoami”. After a few minutes, the clanging sound of someone hitting a piece of metal rail signals the train is leaving. And we continue at a snail’s pace crawl through the mountains, made slower by impatience to reach Goaand the beach…