Having volunteered in a remote part of India for the last month, I was looking forward to getting back to civilisation. The train from Manvi, a town in the southern state of Karnataka, to Bangalore, the bustling state capital was due to take 10 hours. The all-night sleeper train we were taking meant I was hoping for a peaceful nights rest before arriving back in the city.
Taking a train in India is an experience in itself. As we entered the station in Manvi, there was a hive of activity. Everywhere you looked, someone was doing something. In one area people were having their shoes shined; others were sipping on tea as they read newspapers, more still were snacking on Indian sweets. The less fortunate were walking around, begging for money.
I had spent the last month helping to build a school with 20 others. A combination of lots of manual labour and eating very little had left us all looking a little decrepit. While the buzz of activity in the station was a sight to behold, I was just keen to get on the train.
On the platform, a sea of people was waiting expectantly for the train. With each minute that ticked by the crowd’s impatience grew. Tetchy feet tapped, eyes kept darting to the left, and those at the back tried squeezing to the front. All in the hope of getting on the train first, and landing the best seats.
And then the faint sound of an oncoming train reverberated through the tracks.
As the train blew past us, the moment of opportunity drew closer. Like a tiger ready to pounce on its prey, people started jostling for the best spots. And once it squeaked to a halt, the crowd sprung into life. Men and women pushed, pulled, and very nearly came to blows, shoving their fists and elbows into each other’s sides and faces.
Fortunately, our group didn’t have to partake in the melee as we had pre-ordered sleeper booths on the train. That’s not to say there weren’t still a few bumps as we clambered on. I couldn’t understand it, everyone on our carriage had a ticket, and yet an infectious desire to get on the train as quickly as possible had overwhelmed the crowd.
In the chaos, it was easy to get lost in the moment, and I found myself pushing and pulling whichever way in an attempt to get to the carriage as quickly as possible.
Having located our booths, I was pleasantly surprised. The train itself was wide enough to allow for booths on either side. The booths were adorned with six beds, each side of the booth had three beds neatly layered one on top of the other. In between the beds was a small space to place luggage.
Once we arrived at our booth, the six of us who would be sleeping there threw our bags down in the centre, eager to shed the load.
The space became cramped because most of the available room was taken up by our bags.
I had volunteered to go on the top bunk, which seemed like a great choice as I climbed past the cramped and claustrophobic looking middle bunk.
After trying and failing to coordinate a card game for an hour between each level of beds, we agreed to go to sleep.
A terrible nights sleep
Our experience volunteering had been marked by volunteers getting food poisoning. The area we volunteered in had dirty water (some of the villagers had died from cholera). While we never drank the tap water, lots of people became sick through eating the food. It became a running joke who would succumb to sickness next.
One friend had such bad food poisoning that while he was exploding from one end, he was puking from the other. He had to be taken to hospital and placed on a drip, suffering from severe dehydration.
Compared to some others, I was holding up pretty well and it was a source of internal pride I hadn’t been sick. As we were on the train back to Bangalore, it felt like I wouldn’t, either.
A silence that had gripped the carriage as each booth settled down for the night was broken as snores started reverberating around the booth, I was feeling restless and couldn’t settle.
Out of nowhere, I started to get stomach contractions. As the first one burst forth, my eyes opened in alarm, and I grimaced in pain. Oh wow, that hurt, I thought to myself. But it ended as quickly as it came.
For the next few hours, my stomach continued to spasm. As the spasm came forth, it felt like someone was wringing my stomach, and wouldn’t let go. I curled up in a ball each time I could feel the impending contraction begin.
They came in waves; each a few minutes after the last. I felt relieving myself would help, but I had no desire to go. So for the next few hours, I lay there, battling through the contractions and accepting my fate.
And the snores of those around me gave little respite. It was torture knowing everyone else was sleeping soundly while I was having my stomach tightened every few minutes. There wasn’t much I could do other than lock my knees into my chest and prepare for each spasm.
After what felt like a few hours, a bubbling sensation replaced the contractions. That could only mean one thing, I thought to myself. I hadn’t given any thought to what I would do when the inevitable wanted to explode out of me. And the desire to go came as suddenly as the contractions had arrived a few hours earlier.
I got down slowly from the top bunk, conscious of not wanting to wake anyone up. Generally, I have a dislike for wearing anything on my feet, particularly when sleeping. So as soon as we had dumped our bags when we first found the booth, I had taken my shoes off and was barefoot on the train. A disaster if you need to go to the toilet and you have no time to spare.
I desperately scanned the floor, trying to find my shoes beneath the bags, but they were nowhere to be seen.
As another spasm sparked into life, I couldn’t hold it any longer, so I started to make my way to the toilet. Such was the pain and need to now go; I crouched over as I walked, resembling a hunchback. Bent over, and groaning in pain, I made it to the toilet and instinctively turned to my right, horrified at what lay in front of me.
The toilet wouldn’t have been out of place in a battle zone. The toilet itself was a squatter, essentially a hole in the ground, surrounded by puddles of urine, and the stench emanating from the shit adorning every part of the toilet was overwhelming.
I looked down at my feet, and again at the toilet — there is no way I’m going in there like this. If I went in barefoot, I would run the risk of catching dysentery. I have to find some shoes, I thought to myself.
A tough decision
Limping back to the booth, once again I was on the floor scrambling around to find a pair of shoes. The bags lay in such a higgledy-piggledy way that as easy as it sounds I couldn’t find any.
As another contraction came forth, I had a horrible decision to make. It was either stay here and shit myself or go to the toilet barefoot. Neither was particularly appealing, but I didn’t fancy sleeping in my own shit, so I chose the latter.
By this point, I was in such a state of panic; I was willing to do just about anything to relieve myself. Once I returned to the toilet, I hesitated but knew I had no choice.
Given the pain I was suffering, I didn’t think about the puddles of urine I was tiptoeing through, or the toxic fumes emanating from the unflushed faeces. The only thing that came to my mind was the desire to relieve myself.
Under any other set of circumstances, it would have been a miserable experience. But, for a split second, I forgot about where I was going and breathed a sigh of relief as the hours of suffering exploded out of me.
My feet may well have been covered in urine, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. Nothing did.
As soon as the relief ebbed away, it dawned on me just how unpleasant my present state of affairs was. I gingerly got up from the squatter and waddled back to the booth. I had to find something to clean my feet. Thankfully, I had some wet wipes in my rucksack, which was infuriatingly easy to find. Having washed my feet as best I could, I quietly climbed back onto the top bunk.
Free from the contractions, I closed my eyes and went to sleep as the train gently rattled forward.
The next morning
In the morning, the sound of the squealing brakes was a sign we were getting close to Bangalore train station. And once the train ground to a halt, an air of excitement wafted through the carriage. I felt it best not to tell anyone what had happened, it was a little traumatising, and I’m not sure I would’ve lived the experience down.
Having slept for a few hours, I felt groggy, but hopped off the top bunk, keen to get back into civilisation. I finally found my shoes, buried deep beneath all of the bags. There was no way I was going to find them. Which left a part of me relieved as it kind of justified having to go barefoot.
We started filing off the train in the direction of the dreaded squatter. Walking past the squatter left me with mixed feelings. It was my saviour, but it was also filthy.
As we shuffled forward I turned in the opposite direction facing away from the squatter.
As I did, a Western-style toilet, glistening and in pristine condition dazzled my eyes. Compared to the squatter, this was like heaven. I couldn’t believe it. If I had only chosen to go left, rather than right, my world of pain would have been a darn sight easier to deal with.
Lesson learned, when faced with an emergency, it’s easy to become blinded with tunnel vision. Doing so makes it harder to make effective decisions. That’s why it’s so important to always look around you, not at the obvious solution. Because sometimes a far better solution can be staring you right in the face, but if you can’t see it, then you won’t use it.