I had somewhat expected the sensory overload that accompanied traveling in India. The loud repetitive sounds of horns, street vendors, and old engines powering all sorts of equipment, was barely avoidable no matter where you went in the country. Fumes of burning garbage and plastics that lined the streets frequently agitated my nose. Various visual distractions continuously competed for my attention that was otherwise needed to avoid stepping into sewage or one of several other undesirable substances on the ground. There was no avoiding the tears when I forgot to order a non-spicy meal, and yet what bothered me the most was what I felt.
It wasn't the feeling of being drenched with sweat mixed with dirt that coated my skin, or the natural touchy grabby nature of Indians that bothered me the most. What bothered me was their ability to withstand crowds of people all while leaving me practically gasping for air.
I had already experienced packed city trains in India, where recent rules now prevent people from riding on the roof (although hanging on the side door is still common). On my first day in Mumbai I had to muster up the confidence to plow my way onto a packed train along with my large backpack. While I had come to except these sorts of crowds in the city, I wasn't as prepared for this outside the larger urban centers.
A week into the country, ready to move on with the other two travel partners I was with, we were informed the day before that the only remaining train ticket class that was available was a 'General Compartment'. This became the code words for the cheap and cramped rush seating tickets available as a last resort. Wanting to continue on after we already stayed longer to allow me to recover from a strong case of food poisoning, we were up well before sunrise to catch an early morning train.
Still weak after barely eating anything a day earlier due to vomiting, I was hoping I could sit down to recover some more and get off my weak trembling legs. As we boarded the train for our eight hour trip 20 minutes before it left, we were still far too late to be lucky enough to have a seat, forcing us to stand with our bags next to the two toilets on the train car. My first thought was hopefully seats will free up as we continue, my second thought was it could always get worse. The second thought was the biggest understatement.
A man dressed in a sports jacket with a gun slung around his shoulder noticed us as he walked outside the train and promptly approached us. He had a badge on his sweater, but other than that there was nothing to distinguish him as an official. His words were sobering and chilling. 'Be extremely careful, watch your valuables, watch your bags', he cautioned. 'You have no idea what these people are capable of, they can and will do whatever it takes to steal from you'. His words of caution were alluding to seeing western backpackers riding in the cheapest rail class possible, this notorious General Compartment. It was fair to say that among us were some of the poorest Indians traveling. While not everyone on board even bothers getting a ticket, those who do know that they never sell out; there is no capacity. The consensus is pack as many people on as possible.
Midway into the journey, personal space was all but left to be desired. Bags were tied to the walls and for some crafty travelers, so were they. Makeshift hammocks allowed some to seemingly float above the mass of people below. Regardless, a healthy amount of people still decided to fight the crowds to brush their teeth in the sink across from me. Dental hygiene was far from my greatest concern at the moment.
Time and time again, each stop brought more and more people on. I was thinking how unique this experience was, how it'll be a story to share, how I'll brag about enduring the lack of personal space on a long Indian train trip. That was before the situation got so much worse it felt juvenile to brag about the conditions I had experienced earlier.
Already barely enough room to move, a new stop brought people literally pushing their way on board. I was uncomfortably close to everyone, and was still optimistic enough to believe it could be worse. Oh, and how did it ever.
Another stop, another crowd of people. A swarm of new passengers pushed with vengeance to get on board. Personal space was not only gone, but so was space in general. Bodies were literally pressing up against mine. When a man in front of me went to scratch his ass, I was simultaneously getting a scratch in the crotch. There was no where to move from this rather uncomfortable situation. My optimism was gone, there was no way this could get any worse, there's no way anymore people could fit on. Wrong, and wrong.
As the upcoming stop approached, people were already attempting to jump on before we came to a stop. They pushed, crammed, and pushed some more, leaving me to now begin to get terribly uncomfortable (and this is coming from me, who finds an airport floor for 3 nights suitable accommodation). I felt I had no choice, I was going to push back. It became the opposite of a tug-of-war, and the stale mate was slowly growing in their favour. The train began to pick up speed as it left the station, leaving the opposing 'team' of newcomers holding onto the outdoor railing while still jostling to get inside. The frustrating part was I could no longer push back, I wasn't going to push people off a moving train, but the resentment towards them for getting on grew. I tried to reason with their culture, but in more ways than one, there was literally zero room left to do so.
In addition to all of this, people were still coming and going to the toilets next to me. I called them flyers, for their ability to fly over / crowd surf everybody below. It was an impressive, yet annoying feat. Tensions also grew towards the end, with one younger man next to me swiftly yet sporadically slapping a few people for who knows why.
When our stop came, it was a race to find the strength to pull our bags up from the people standing on them. then force our way against the crowd trying to get on. It was like an epic kick at the end of a marathon. My body finally emerging onto the platform like a baby coming from the womb. I was out, free, able to breathe and have my arms stretch as far away from each other as possible. I have escaped, although the mayhem continued in front of me. Now that I was out, I had two words; never again.