The Train to Farakka & Varuna
Today, our journey along India’s Ganges River with G Adventures kicks off in a big way. Today is the day we head for Kolkata’s Howrah Station for our rail journey to Farakka to board our riverboat, the 24-passenger Varuna.
If you’ve seen the film or read the book Lion, Howrah Station is where five-year old Saroo Brierley becomes stranded in Kolkata after taking the wrong train. A massive red brick building of Victorian stock, Howrah Station sits adjacent to the Howrah Bridge and the banks of the Hooghly River. It is one of the busiest train stations in the country, with 23 platforms and a hell of a lot of people.
With our train set to depart at 2:00pm, we arrived at the station just after 1:00pm. Before getting off the bus from our hotel, the HHI Kolkata, our guide Karan told us that we’d be departing from Platform 11, Car 6. He guided us directly to the platform, passing the throngs of people lined up at the ticket counters, sitting on the floor, or sleeping in the main building.
Our luggage was transported separately, on a rickety wooden cart pulled by a scrawny Indian man. I suddenly felt like some awful Colonial coming here from England back in the 1800’s, bellowing for “the boy” to pull my baggage around.
At quarter to two, our train pulled into the platform, and we queued up for departure. There was much jostling at the doors, but less so in our first-class, air-conditioned car. The second class cars – and the unrestricted class cars near the end of the train -looked like absolute bedlam.
Our car sat about 50 people in a 2-3 configuration. Seats are labelled in English in signs posted to the luggage racks above them. Still, boarding was complete chaos, with much pushing and shoving, and people sitting in the wrong seats. Don’t be shocked if you find someone – even an entire family – has taken your seat. Just politely ask them to move. Locals will sometimes “seat surf” before departure, hoping to luck out on a no-show.
Incredibly, the train also has power outlets located along the walls that accept North American-style two-pronged devices (like your iPhone charger), and is outfitted with two Western bathrooms and one Indian bathroom. Western bathrooms have toilets; Indian bathrooms have a hole in the floor with a metal base that you squat on to relieve yourself. And both smell just awful, though by this point in your journey, you should be used to this. By the way, I’m not trying to go on about the smell, but I don’t want to downplay it, either: it’s intense.
I’ve never really understood people who break out the sanitary wipes on flights in North America, and I wouldn’t consider myself to be a germaphobe. And yet I started wiping down my seatback tray like there was something radioactive on it. It wasn’t dirty. It just definitely wasn’t clean either.
If you’re headed here, pack sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer. Lots of it. Use it before you put your hands to your mouth for any kind of food. By Indian standards, our carriage was first class all the way. By North American standards, the whole thing had a sort of vague grubbiness to it. Specks of food, mystery smudges, dirt – all of it collects in places like armrests, floors, door handles, and so on.
None of this was being made better by whatever substance I’d tracked into the carriage; about 30 minutes in, I noticed some berries (I hope they were berries) I’d stepped on somewhere were beginning to leak from the soles of my shoes onto the floor, leaving a reddish liquid to roll around the car. Nausea rolled over me.
And then, just like that, it passes. So what if there’s liquid under my shoes, or the tray table isn’t as clean as I’d like it? At a certain point, I learned to just deal with it, accept that this is how things are, and just sanitized the hell out of my hands.
Almost immediately after departure, the two train attendants (wearing brown Meals on Wheels shirts) sprung into action. A traditional Indian lunch was dolled out, and we were informed this would be safe for us to eat. I wasn’t so sure: it was served in tinfoil boxes that seemed to be leaking everywhere. But I ate the rice and lentils and the fresh yogurt; both were delicious. After a while, our attendants came around with Chai tea that was absolutely boiling. No worries about untreated water there. And then, a third meal came around: two lights snacks, chips, chocolate, and an ice cream cup. If you want to know what the ingredients are, everything is labelled in clear English. The whole thing was rather remarkable.
The only thing to watch out for is the complimentary water that the train passes along to guests: my bottle had a lid that was already open, with the safety seal broken. Don’t drink it if this happens to you. I’d read before coming here that people sometimes attempt to make a quick rupee by refilling old water bottles with local water. Some of our guests seemed to have that issue, while others had bottles that produced a lovely snaaap! when opened.
The train ride was very comfortable and totally fascinating. We made only a few stops along the journey to Farakka, which we – incredibly – arrived at ahead of schedule, pulling in at 6:30pm after only four hours of travel and not the originally estimated six. We later learned a large diplomatic party was travelling on one of the other cars; I’m guessing that had something to do with it.
Gone in 60 Seconds
As we neared Farakka, our guide Karan came around to warn us we were approaching the station. Apparently, the train only stops for 60 seconds here, so we had to be ready.
The second the train came to a stop alongside the darkened, dimly-lit platform, our group of 17 rushed off the train. At the front end of Car Six, two baggage handlers scrambled to pull our many pieces of luggage off, putting them into a large pile on the platform. iPhone flashlights illuminated the luggage, and a mad scramble ensued as guests were asked to identify theirs quickly before the train pulled out.