Indian rail travel – Worst case scenario

I am travelling around South India alone with my 2 kids. It is quite fun and intensive. I would like to tell you about my worst case scenario regarding booking tickets. From home, I tried to book rail tickets for the train from Chennai (MAS)-Mettupaliyam (MTP) on the Nilgiri Express – an overnight train, and then from Mettupaliyam (MTP) to Ooty (UAM) – which is 5 h beautifull ride up the mountains with a century old “toy train”. I attacked the reservation page several times, without great success. I gave up when I after making a credit card payment got an e-mail that “your transaction was unsuccessfull” The problem is probably due to the new verification of credit cards by my bank – but nobody wanted to aknowledge the problem. Anyway, departure date was approaching and I decided that I will book the train tickets once in India. The first hotel we stayed at was in Mamallapuram, 50 km outside Chennai. The travel desk told me, that “no problem”, they will book the ticket for me. I was happy. Next day, the told me “no problem” they will book the ticket. Next day, they told me, that there were only waiting list tickets left. I think the 3AC class had a figure saying W20/W18. I decided to purchase a waiting list ticket – the bought it in the Tatkal quota. They didnt buy the toytrain ticket to Ooty – it was not necessary they said, I could just get it in Mettupaliyam. And told me there is “no problem”, I can just change the wl ticet it into a real reservation once at the station. So far so good, we arrived at Chennai, checked the luggage into the cloak room, and started looking for where to get a real reservation. The very helpfull station master told us to go to another building. We went to the office, waited in line. Come back in 30 minutes. We went back in 30 minutes. Come back in 15 minutes. We went back in 15 minutes. Then we were told to go to another office. We went there. They told us to go back to the first office. I tried to play the helpless foreign woman with 2 kids, by invading the office of the Station Master once more. Got a lot compassion, but nothing could be done – we should wait for the Train Master to give us seatings. The train arrived on the platform one hour before departure. It was so looooong, going from one end to the other (in search of the Train Master) took about 20 minutes. No, the train master could not do anything – the train was fully booked, we were on the waiting list as #3, #4, #5 respecitevely. He said, if we want to go, we have to go in the unreserved compartment. At that point, we were VERY determined to get aboard that train! So, we went to the other end of the loooooong train where the unreserved coaches were. Tried to enter one – but people were hanging outside the door. Tried the womens compartment – full. 5 minutes to train departure we decided to just PUSH into the train, hoping to sort things out. So we mashed, and squeezed, and were inside a very crowded carriage. The seats are organized in compartments in the open carriage, with wooden seatings for 2*5 people in each compartment, and 2*1 next to the window. Above all the seats,there is a luggage shelf. Every single space was full, people sitting on the luggage rails, and about 10 on each of the 5 man seats. I was standing on one leg, the kids before me, nobody could move. The train rolled away from the station. People shuffled a bit, a man offered half a seat to my 9y old daughter. she was able to reach it, and put her pack on the knees. Somebody whistled from the next compartments, and people waved at my 12y old son to come. He climbed up the luggage shelf where they made room for him, and had a great time. I was able to put the packs on the floor, and sit on top of them. What an entertaining night! People were singning,humming, playing, talking… I had a great conversation about capitalism vs communism with a furniture fabricant. The guy next to me turned out to be working as software engineer in Chennai, going home to see his newborn daughter. Not everybody spoke english, but they sought translation of those who did. As the train stopped at different stations, people shuffled and moved, and I even made it to a wooden seat Once in MET, the same problem. No seats left for us. We turned up in the “unreserved part”, people moved and made room for us. We rode with a bag of rice and garlig, an elder tamil grandma, and a tea fabricant, and a bunch of engineering students going home for the weekend from Chennai.

The train started to move, trough the lush country side. We went up, up, up, the mountains around grew taller. We had plenty of stops on the way for chai and water for the engine. The kids thought the steam engine was so cool! Like a caleidoscope, the landscape changed with emerald green tea plantations, high banana trees, steep cliffs. Our new tamil nadu friends didnt miss a single tunnel – each was greeted with loud whistles and cries.

The boys entertained my kids the whole way. Before leaving, this following conversation occured – I have been thinking about it since: – What do you think of the Tamil people? – They are so nice and friendly! – Well, if that is the case, what do you have to offer in exchange for their warmth and friendliness? So the worst case scenario for us was: not so much sleep, but a great experience, and so many new friends! And I promised the kids, that we will opt for a berth on the next trip.

The mighty steam engineNew friends on top row

Have landed

Well we have landed – everything went surprisingly smoothly at the airport in Chennai – where is the befamed Indian beaurecracy?
We were met at the airport at 2 am by Chandram, a taxi driver recommended by the owner of a coffe plantation in Coorg where we head next week –  even the megasized bag with used clothes for an orphanage got into his car …
I must defend myself: we have packed tried to pack “lightly” … hm … well it didnt quite work out, had to bring both mountainboots, sleepingbags, winterjackets for our nepal trek … anyway, we got into the car.

Checked into the hotel at 3am, got a very clean room, with a big double bed – I got to sleep in the middle. Woke up, eat a great breakfast buffet. Time confusion was the main topic of the day … London is GMT, Denmark is CET, Chennai is IMT, which means you have to either substract 1 hour, add 1 hour or 5,5 hours … When Magdalena wants to know the time, she asks for it in all 3 zones …

Pawel had the sole attention of the manager and about 3 waiters – everybody tried to make sure that he will not go hungry despite his gluten/lactose free diet … the little card with hindi translations just worked wonders!

We spend the day extremely relaxing – in the pool, jumping big waves at the beach … which is by the way bounty landish, soft sand, palms, and the indian addition: a couple of cows, some fighting dogs, a steady stream of villagers that use the beach as a major pathway from one village to the next, carrying loads on their heads and all smiles.

A local fisherman invited us into his house – a so called “restaurant” … clean, colourfull – but definitely not an restaurant. We promised to come back tomorrow – he will cook a meal for us.

In the evening, when the worst heat faded out we went with a tuk-tuk to nearby Mamallapuram – a little village, where all of  its inhabitants were walking the streets simultanously … bought local light clothing for the 3 of us, and retreated to spend the rest of the day relaxing.
I am struck by the extreme friendliness of people – they can be annoying yes, the traffic is chaotic, yes we use desinfectant wet wipes before each meal – but I really like where we are.

Lets see if I can successfully persuade my daughter to get out of the pool tomorrow?