We were like thieves in the night. We'd been plotting our movements for weeks, working out timings, checking then re-checking our itinerary. A getaway driver had been enlisted and pulled up in the silvery moonlight in a thicket of palm trees almost exactly on time. "Canacona?" he called out to us. We piled into the back of the auto-rickshaw and sped off through the Goan countryside.
Our mission was to join the Konkan railway, which runs down India's west coast from Mumbai down to Mangalore in Karnataka. From here, our train – the Netravati Express – would trace the Arabian Sea down to Kerala, where we'd rub the sleep from our eyes and alight at Ernakulam to explore the state's balmy backwaters.
Our train had departed Mumbai 12 hours earlier and we'd been told to wait patiently for its arrival. There were no departure boards, just a single platform – bathed in the icy glow of fluorescent strip lights – that tapered off into inky oblivion.
The departure time of 11:40 came and went. My watch ticked past midnight, still no train.
Finally, a rumble in the distance and headlights trickling down the tracks. The great, metal hulk forged into the station like the Polar Express, its brakes hissing as it came to a halt.
Once inside our allocated carriage, a torch pointed to the top of a pair of ladders above two layers of sleeping passengers. "Top tier," the steward whispered.
We clambered up respective ladders to our bunks, where we lay opposite each other, noses almost pressed against the air conditioning unit above. Outside was a tropical 25C, but here, with blankets pulled tight, it was positively Arctic.
"Good night," I whispered to my companion, then settled in for the journey.
An agonised cry shook me from my slumber. "Aaaagghhhhhh!" "Eeeeeuuuuggghhh," it cried. My companion was still awake and we giggled to one another, but it continued, becoming more and more frenzied. Then came the stench. An octogenarian on the bottom bunk had a case of Delhi belly.
And so it continued, through the darkness, into the dawn, on to the floor. My sense of humour alighted somewhere in Karnataka, but the sickly man did not. It wasn't until the chai wallahs signalled a timetable change and bunks were folded down into benches that the mops came out and the man scuttled away to the end of the carriage to continue his purge through an open window.
"Chai, chai, chai" the wallahs chanted as they pushed their tea trolleys through the carriage and paddy fields flicked past outside in the early morning haze. We still had a long way to go – it would be the afternoon before we reached Ernakulam, but the legendary seduction of the Indian railways had at last cast its spell.
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