Travelers’ Tales: Stranded in India and the trust in human kindness

Today’s Travelers’ Tales story is by Steph, the author of If you want to find out more about the Canadian’s adventures, make sure to follow her on snapchat @thepinkbackpack.

There are times as a traveller when you just have to let go and trust in the universe; trust in the compassion and goodness of other human beings; and trust that everything will work out. Sometimes, you just have no other choice.

During a three month backpacking trip from the south of India to the North, I found myself stranded in a town called Kochi (formerly Cochin). In the state of Kerala, bus and taxi strikes were such a frequent occurrence that word of it would spread on the day prior. The news slowly trickled through the town to my hostel, where I sat in dismay, wondering how I would get to the train station the next morning. After 4 nights at my hostel, I was feeling a bit ‘cabin feverish’ and eager to leave behind Kochi’s slow-paced lifestyle for a more urban experience in Mysore. My North American stubbornness and lack of patience was still ingrained in me at this point, and the thought of staying another night was frustrating. I decided to keep my travel plans, instead of waiting out the transit strike – I would find a way to get there.

I was much too far to walk to the train station, so the morning of my departure I visited a few local travel agencies in search of anyone who would drive me. Apparently, taxi drivers on the road during a transit strike could be punished or reprimanded by their peers, so it was quite a task to a volunteer. Along these lines, no private bus companies were running from Kochi to Mysore either.

I would have to take a train out of the state of Kerala, get off at a town in the next state of Karnataka (where there was no transit strike) and transfer onto a night bus that would take me to Mysore. Eager to press on and with no other choice, I uneasily accepted a ride to the train station from a local man. On the back of his motorbike, we sped off through the cobble stone streets of ‘Old Kochi’ towards the train station, making an unexpected and slightly worrisome stop at his home. To my delight, his entire extended family awaited to greet me with a cold beverage. As we sat around talking and taking selfies, I realized how fortunate I was to meet these kind-hearted people.

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local family in India

At the train station I purchased a ticket for the ‘sleeper’ carriage of the train – essentially a first-come, first-serve seating area in the 3rd class section. I settled in by the open door, sitting on my backpack with my feet hanging out; the speed of the train generated a much-needed breeze and my departure from Kochi felt liberating.

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a seat at the door – so far so good!

I quickly realized however, the reality of the transit strike meant that every local person who typically used public transportation was now using the train instead of a taxi or bus. Soon, I was forced to abandon my make-shift seat on the floor to accommodate the influx of new passengers. Now with standing room only and people continuing to pour onto the carriage at each stop, I was pushed from the doorway towards the train toilets.

In this small corner, about 10 of us were pressed together like a canned sardines, sweating profusely in solidarity. With no airflow from the doors, the heat of our bodies and the smell from the squatters felt unbearable. Unable to catch a breath of fresh oxygen, claustrophobia began to set in as I realized I still had two hours to go. My sweaty skin ‘stuck’ to the person on my left, while I could feel the person to my right breathing against my face. With wide eyes, I began to internally panic as sweat dripped down my face; it was difficult to breath.

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Man dabbing the sweat of his face

I must have looked like a terrified caged animal requiring rescue, because a few locals standing in the aisle recognized my distress. They took pity on me and pulled me towards them, while yelling down the aisle in Hindi that I needed a seat. Before I knew it, I was shoved through a sea of bodies into the section with booths. My new ally was speaking on my behalf, reaming out a young local man for not offering up his seat to me. Normally I would have been embarrassed and ashamed by this attention, but in the thick of my anxiety, I greedily took the seat and found refuge in claiming back some personal space.

Upon arrival at my transfer stop, I victoriously got off the train only to realize with terror that there were no taxis in sight. I needed to get across town to the bus terminal but I was once again stranded. With no means to call for help and the sun beginning to set, I resorted to asking two young men for advice while praying they spoke English. I relayed that I did not have a local SIM card or data to call for a taxi or find my way to the bus station. One of the pair explained that they too had a transit strike, and offered to drive me to the bus station on his motorcycle; with not many other options, I accepted and we sped off towards the city centre as I clung with every fibre of my being, to the back of the seat. I collapsed in relief and fatigue when I finally arrived at the bus station, swearing to myself that I would never get into a situation like that again. Just before my bus left, my new friend returned with a gift: a local SIM so I would never be stranded again.

The moral of the story:
1) when faced with a transit strike in India, take it as a sign to take the day off! Your destination will still be there in a day or two…
2) trust in the universe and the people you meet. I am forever grateful to those individuals who looked out for me when I was lost, scared and had no one else to turn to in India. It was a truly humbling experience and reinforced that human compassion still does exist in this world.

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