Leaving the safe haven: From Chennai to Palakkad

Have you ever tried to book a ticket to anywhere during the Indian school vacation period? For those who are not aware of the herculean nature of this task, try to imagine buying a ticket for a world cup football final match between Germany and Brazil; that too just two days before the match.

The process started about ten days before our scheduled departure on April 11. Buying a train ticket in India sounds easy: You either go to reservation counters in select train stations and book your ticket or you register as an online user of indianrailways.gov.in either directly or through one of the travel portals (such as makemytrip.com) and reserve your ticket online. There are just three problems: 1) The demand is about ten times higher than the supply, and train tickets can be booked up to three months in advance…This means that for any traveller who is traveling on a reasonable notice such as 10 days, that too during the Indian summer vacation, getting confirmed seats/ berths is almost impossible… 2) lines in train reservation counters are about 50 meters long and 3) most Indian systems are slow and bureaucratic. Accordingly, we must have spent about 8 hours net to get our tickets – including registering for the Indian railways online platform  (4 hours), and after several unsuccessful attempts (mainly on account of the heavy load on the server) we resorted to the good old method of waiting in line at the counter with what felt like 500 other people (without AC or fan, as there was a power cut). At last, we had two tickets waitlisted 4 and 5, which meant at least 5 passengers with confirmed tickets needed to cancel their reservations so that we can get confirmed seats…

Now followed a period of intense waiting punctuated by hourly checking on the online Indian railways portal, the status of our waitlisted tickets. It was almost as though there was an irrational logic in our minds, which remotely linked the number of times we checked the status of the tickets to the probability of them being confirmed. Ahhhh! Till two days before the date of journey, the waitlisted status of the tickets remained resolute and unmoving… almost as solid as the rock of Gibraltar…

About 24 hours before the train departure, we once again performed the now ritualistic status check of our waitlisted tickets… and voilà: we had been allocated confirmed seats/ berths. Our joy was akin to that of winning a lotto against heavy odds, our transect through Kerala had started with equal measure of adventure and luck. In the days to come, we can only hope for the adventure and luck to hold out…. may be a bit more luck and a little less adventure….

We arrived at the Chennai Central railway station at about 10:30 pm and were dismayed to find out that the train was delayed by close to 3 hours. Then followed a massive bout of confusion and near-panic caused by the fact that the name of the train in the ticket was not the actual name of our train and that the name mentioned in our ticket referred to a train going in the wrong direction, but arriving at the station at the exact time our train was supposed to arrive. We approached the passenger help desk in all haste and were calmly advised by the be-spectacled railway employee in an all understanding tone ‘follow the train number on your ticket and not the train name’…

We decided to cool down, mentally and physically, in the air-conditioned pay for stay waiting room where, as in most South Indian living rooms, all seats were positioned to face the most important object in the room: a TV showing the ongoing cricket tournament. A most welcome distraction for Rama, not so much for Anna (who was more busy in seeming to not recognize or acknowledge the stares that were directed at her). The match was followed by a series of outdated Kollywood (the Tamil version of Bollywood) videos in which ageless heroes and nubile actresses gyrated to strange tunes. Strangely, this seemed to engage the audience to the same extent as the cricket match. When we tried briefly exercising our legs by walking along an empty platform, we were promptly cautioned by a group of uniformed railway policemen that it is not safe to walk on the platform and that they can’t be responsible if ‘something’ happened! So, back to the waiting room!

After a few hours of this interesting tedium, it was time to continue the waiting at a different place – platform no. 9. Which we happened to find out only after asking our friend from the help desk (ask and thou shallt be told). Standing in the platform and desperately trying to ward off the mosquito swarms, and keeping a wary eye on the dogs, which roamed about the platform with proprietary authority, we spent the remaining time watching other fellow passengers. It was surprising to notice that there were no female passengers at all on the platform. Soon, the train came and as a penance for traveling by air-conditioned coach, we had to rush to the other end of the train to board our coach (trains are about 200 meters long and there was no map indicating the location of the coaches on the platform).

All the frustration and tiredness vanished within a few minutes of settling down in our coach, air-conditioned and relatively clean. The decors of the seats/ sleeping berths in deep red which had faded and absorbed a lot of dust did remind us a bit of a run-down version of ‘Moulin rouge’.

Soon we were off to sleep, in tune to the arrhythmic rocking of the train and the occasion music of horn-blasts.

Waking up at about 08:30, we were pleasantly surprised to note that the train had managed to make up about 2 hours of its 3 hours delay.

Thus, with a relatively light heart, and a groggy head, we climbed down to the platform of Palakkad railway station.

Exploring our favourite Indian state Kerala, my boyfriend and me travelled from Chennai to Palakkad, Kalpetta, Kannur, Ernakulam, Munnar and Alleppey in April and May of 2012 and wrote this travel documentary on the way.

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