“I’ve got an idea’” I announce. My mother (70) and daughter (13) exchange nervous glances. They both have experience of this. It is part of what creates the pleasure and the panic of travelling with me, their mother / daughter.
I explain how much nicer it will be if instead of getting up at 4am for an early flight back to Mumbai we go by train. They look more worried. “Think crisp white linen and carefully served tea,” I enthuse. They are clearly sceptical, but bow to my far greater travelling experience. “If you’re sure…” I splash out on the most expensive tickets available. Still cheaper than a 25 minute commuter train-ride at home. It all looks like it will work out perfectly. We leave that evening and will arrive at the airport in the morning with a comfortable 4 hour window for checking in for our flight home.
At 9pm the station is dimly lit and full of people. More people than we have seen all week. Some are stretched out sleeping on the platform, others huddled around boxes and bundles. A few children skitter around and there are clusters of men around each shabby kiosk. There seem to be a lot of notices and announcements, most of which mean nothing to us, but we do manage to find the right platform, 15 minutes before the train is due, and set about waiting in an orderly fashion. In some ways we feel more British in India than we ever do at home.
Some trains come and go, including the longest imaginable train with two trucks on each flat bed carriage. By the time I started counting dozens had already gone by – maybe 60? 80? 100 trucks? It goes so slowly under it’s weight of steel; drivers for each truck sitting patiently in their cabs or clambering precariously across their load, checking ropes and tarpaulins.
Eventually, an hour or so after schedule, our train pulls up and we find our carriage. It is very dark, the floor is soaking wet – we don’t know why – and there seem to be only men traveling. As usual in India our odd trio of inter-generational women traveling without a male protector attracts curiosity.
The carriage is packed – there seem to be far more people than places for them, but we find our compartment and some people vacate it to go back to their own places, making space for us to sit down. My wards look sick with fear and uncertainty. They don’t speak for fear of giving themselves and their emotions away. Politeness keeps a pleasant expression on their faces but I know them well enough to understand their true feelings. They cannot imagine how they can spend the night here. Yet nor can they come up with an alternative. They look helplessly to me to save them from this fate and I cannot. I get out a book, hoping the normality of this activity will encourage them. A metal fan creaks overhead in its wire cage – that must be the advertised air conditioning.
Once the train heaves itself, creaking, out of the station, resignation acts as a balm. There is nothing for it but to wait for the hours to pass and morning to arrive. The floor starts to dry and one of the men explains he had dropped his water bottle earlier – that comes as a relief as does the complete absence of alcohol. We are spared the loud and beery football fan of European trains at least.. At some point the Most Important Man in the carriage stands up and announces it is now bedtime. Nobody questions his authority and immediately they all set about converting the carriage into the sleeping car – with triple stacked bunks like I have seen in France – and handing out sheets. Which are in fact, reassuringly clean and ironed. All six occupants start to reorganise ourselves into this night time configuration, and I negotiate some swapping so my mother and daughter are on the top two bunks. I help them clamber up the sides, mildly astonished to find myself heaving my mother by the bottom over the edge of the bunk. I can’t remember the last time we had such close physical contact. We all lie down obediently and even get some sleep between the noise and disruption of station stops and passenger movements.
In the morning, with the carriage converted back to its daytime mode and with only half as many passengers we dare to discuss the end of the journey. One of the remaining passengers advises us that if we are going to the airport we should have got off at the previous stop – we are now headed straight for Mumbai Central Station in the heart of the city. Mother and daughter eye me blankly. What does it mean? What do we do? Tell us what to do? I am fooled by this into thinking I should know, even do know what to do (is this how leadership works? I wonder in passing… a self-fulfilling prophecy once somebody is selected by the group?)
I discuss it with the other passenger. We weigh up alternatives. A taxi in Mumbai is hopeless. We will have to get a train back out – from a different part of the station – and then a taxi. Our 4 hour window was already reduced by the late arrival of our train the night before and we are now another hour behind schedule because of my inadequate research. It still might be possible. It might not.
At Mumbai Central Station we hurry off the train, bags clacking along behind us on their foolish wheels as we swoop and dive through the throng. I surprise myself by managing to buy what seem to be the correct tickets – someone in the queue advises me about about the ladies carriage on the train, and 40 minutes later we are running out of the right station to the taxi rank. We squeeze into a motorbike taxi.
We have to sit on our luggage and we certainly cannot stick to the Disneyworld rule of keeping all arms and legs inside the vehicle. Our driver understands the challenge and lurches into the crowds, leaning out and shouting at the stall-holders as he careers through the market. It is like a scene from a film and I watch my mother as expressions of excitement and terror vie for supremacy on her face. Our driver decided to take the highway once we are through the town and zooms along the hard shoulder. We screech into the airport on three wheels and tumble out. All the way I have been calculating and recalculating the remaining steps of the journey and the remaining minutes before take off. I have alternated between belief and doubt. It’s a long flight to have to buy new tickets for. My mother and daughter conspire in dependency and blame. “Do you still think this was a good idea?” one of them asks.
We are pulled up short as we rush through the airport doors. “Tickets” demands a uniformed official. Plane tickets? Do they still exist? I show him the e-boarding cards on my phone but that cuts no ice. Paper or nothing it seems. Precious minutes are ticking by then my mother finds her printed itinerary. It has no mention of my daughter and I and is certainly not a ticket but it seems to be enough to give us an honourable discharge and he steps aside. The nervous airline employee who has been haggling for us from the other side of the door rushes us to the check in desk. They issue the boarding cards with great pessimism. We will never make it to the gate in time apparently. But we can try. We are allowed to try. We set off at a gallop. I am the fastest and think it might be better if I go ahead and at least get one foot on the plane. Refusing to budge until they catch up. But my daughter is too nervous about the various obstacles of airport security and immigration to be abandoned and too nauseous from the journey to run. My mother is surprisingly slow for a jogger (she took up running late in life). I glance at my watch. 8 minutes to take off and who knows how many more miles of shiny airport floor to cover. I spot the gate and persuade my daughter I can run faster as she will still be able to see me. I half crash into the airline desk and blurt out our names. The airline official blinks at me. “You can sit down,” she says calmly. “We are delayed, we are not boarding yet”. After the last 14 hours of travel challenge it is both a relief and quite absurd. My daughter finds me collapsed in a chair laughing. My mother arrives five minutes later to find us both in a state of mild hysteria. Seems I got away with it again. More evidence for the ‘trust to luck’ travel philosophy. I wondered if my fellow travellers ever realised how worried I was while I was insisting it was all going to work out just fine. I guess they also had an interest in maintaining that illusion. At least they got a good story out of it.