….by the very skin of our teeth. Having misread the departure time on the ticket we arrived by tuk tuk at the station to read on the Departures board that our train, the Guruvayar Express, was due to depart in two minutes … from Platform 5! We were on Platform 1, separated from our train by three tracks and two standing trains and the crossing bridge 500 yards away in the opposite direction. It would be unthinkable in England but we took what we saw as the only option, climbing down onto the track, along it and around the engine of the first train, up on to the platform, across it and down again, across another track and, fuelled by a mixture of panic and adrenaline and with Herculean and, in retrospect, unaccountable strength, hoisting our bags and our exhausted and sweating selves up five feet onto and into the carriage of the second of the standing trains, through it and out on to Platform 4 and across it to Platform 5 – where the Guruvayar Express stood, straining at the bit as seen through our eyes. Our carriage, A1, seemed a mile off and we raced, burdened as we were with the packs and flipflops in hand, along the length of the train through the chai sellers, passengers and porters, ready at each second to dive into the open door of the nearest carriage should the train begin to move. And finally, collapsing into our seats, Side Lower and Side Upper, we sat there panting and shaking with relief and disbelief at what we had just done, waiting for the train to depart. Which it did. Twenty minutes later. Indian readers will, of course, be wondering what all the fuss was about.
It was a 10 hour journey to Thiruvannanthapuram, a Saturday afternoon turning to evening and then night as we traced our route back south east towards the tip of the subcontinent and up the west coast, passing through paddy fields, fields of sunflowers, corn, cane and cotton, dry scrub, herds of grazing goats and wallowing pigs, wild peacocks, quiet rural villages, boys playing cricket, past lorries packed with standing passengers waiting at crossings and through deserted stations. At Madurai, whose temple we had visited some years ago, we bought sweet milky coffee and fried savouries wrapped in brown paper from the sellers on the platform, then on through Satur and, as the daylight began to slip away, Kovilpatti and into the night towards Nagercoil and Thiruvannanthapuram.
It was after 11 when we arrived. We negotiated a 500 rupee ride in our old friend the Hindustani taxi with its comfortable bench seats front and back and its springy suspension and bounced our way down to Lighthouse Road Kovalam to Shida’s place, arriving at just after midnight, woke the sleeping houseboy who let us into the room, took a shower to wash off the grime of a day’s travelling in India and collapsed onto the bed under the fan and slept soundly until seven the following morning.
The next day was what we told ourselves was a well-earned day of rest, falling easily into old routines: a long lazy breakfast at the Swiss Cafe, grilled tomatoes, banana and cashew nut porridge and good press coffee, a welcome change after days of idlis, sambar and fiery chutnis; a slow stroll along the beach, a swim in the sea, a cold beer for lunch and a few hours reading in the shade; a gin and tonic at sundown on the roof of a beachside cafe and fish tikka and calamari for dinner. Heavenly.
Tomorrow – on to Varkala.