The train that was supposed to depart at 5 PM was late. It was 5.45 PM and judging from the reactions of the passengers waiting with me at Platform no 3, after a series of frantic Arabic announcements, it was not coming anytime soon.
“Trains on Platform No 3 are always late.”
The middle aged man, sitting next to me, holding a book and a leather bag that seem to date from the 80s, said as he lit up another cigarette.
It was a cursed platform.
The Egyptian stations are not that different from the ones we have here in India. Both grossly mismanaged, not very clean, uncomfortable, crowded, loud, and, this is the best part, full of character.
From shops, that sell everything from the Kuran to the latest issue of Maxim, and from bags to baby clothes, to food stalls that serve delicious bowls of Kushari and piping hot kebabs, from the friendliest guards who voluntarily come up to make sure you are at the right platform to the coolest people who offer you a smoke before lighting one up for themselves. And just in case, in the midst of all this action you forget that you are in a foreign country, there are large posters, written in Arabic, splashed all over the platform walls.
The train did arrive eventually, I mean it had to at some point, and the friendly guard ran up to show me the correct coach. I would have said “Shukran” if everyone didn’t try to get up on the train all at once, and a fellow passenger didn’t hit me on the head with his bag as he pushed and shoved past us.
I was travelling from Cairo to Luxor, a trip that was supposed to take 10 hours. A lot is written about how gruelling these Egyptian night train journeys can be.
Here’s how you I survived the Egyptian night train and how you can too..
Try to be helpful
About half an hour into the ride, as I started to spread out on my nice window seat, with my iPod and book, we stopped at a station on the outskirts of Cairo. The guy sitting next to me got up from his seat to receive an old lady who boarded the train from that station. They waved a tearful goodbye to the old man who had come to see her off. I watched as they made their way through the aisle, the guy carrying her heavy bag while she followed him slowly, with deliberate steps, holding the top of each of the seats she passed, for support.
Once she sat on her seat, he took off her shoes and helped her put on some socks while she looked out the window at the old man, who stood on the platform with his eyes darting from left to right, trying to locate her.
The guy came back to his seat next to me, eyes red, holding back his tears. The train started, and even though I hadn’t spoken to him all this while, I felt my conscience telling me to offer my seat so that they can sit together.
The guy thanked me and almost cracked the bones of my hand with his over enthusiastic handshake. I took the lady’s seat, and went back to my book while she sat next to the guy. Her son.
I know I didn’t do anything ground breaking, in fact I think it was a thing that every decent person should do, but it felt good to see them smile, share food, resting their heads on each other’s shoulders during the journey.
As for me, I loved my new seat. It was a separate window seat, right across from a Polish group of five heading to Luxor who were talkative and super excited, like me, to be in Egypt.
Sometimes you just have to be a jerk
You lose the track of time while reading a good book, more so if you fall asleep while reading one. It was quite late by the time I woke up to find the book I was reading lying near my feet. I had dozed off reading about the travels of Bill Bryson. The Poles had also fallen asleep, so much so that they were drooling and falling over each other. The Sun had set and there was total darkness outside the window, dotted at times with yellow lights coming from the street lamps or houses by the tracks. The palm trees that had seemed so beautiful a little while ago, in the dark looked like silhouettes of Sideshow Bob’s hair.
The coach had three new guests. All of them standing. Once or twice, over the course of the next hour, the ticket checker came in and chased them out. These people didn’t have confirmed seats and were not supposed to be inside the coach. They stood outside the door of the coach, near the toilets and as soon as the checker left, they came back in again.
One of them, a young man of considerable weight, introduced himself to me, probably because I was the only one who was awake at the time. We talked for a bit and then he asked me if he can sit on the handle of my seat (his feet were hurting) to which I said yes. Soon, we ran out of things to talk about, and dozed off again.
I say dozed off, because every few minutes or so, I “dozed out” of it. And every time I did so, I realised his mass had shift inwards, leaving me with lesser space. One time, I woke up to find my elbow touching his lower spine and I thought enough was enough. Before I could plot a strategy to get him off the handle, the checker came in, Pharaohs bless that man, and chased them out again.
Of course, once the checker left, they back came in, but this time I put my left arm on the handle and pretended to be asleep.
He didn’t bother me again.
If you can’t fall asleep, eat!
Both of us knew that I wasn’t really sleeping and after a point I stopped pretending. It was about 3 AM and no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t drift off to sleep. The darkness outside the window kept reminding me that if I was back home, I would have been sleeping like a baby in my comfortable bed, and not roughing it out on these hard seats in a cold compartment, travelling on a train that seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. I spent some time looking at the weird postures people sleep in, wondering if I did the same when I slept. I felt jealous of the Poles who were as still as carcasses.
(I would run into them few days later in Abu Simbel and ask them how they slept so well. They wrote the name of some drug they had taken before they boarded the train. I thought it was quite a handy drug for long journeys.
I can’t find that piece of paper anymore.)
A man wearing a uniform, from the train’s catering staff, stopped near my seat and asked if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I was bored and sleepless, not to mention super cold thanks to the merciless air conditioner blowing over my seat.
Why not try a cup of coffee?
I opened the folding table, a plastic plank really, not unlike the ones we get in Indian trains, as he served me black coffee in a plastic cup.
And surprisingly, the coffee was nice. It was as flavourful as the ones I have had in the coffee houses of Cairo. So, I ordered another one. Then another. And before I knew it, he had served me sandwiches, some nice crispy local stuff and also some gooey sweet stuff that went great with the coffee.
I was basically having a feast in the middle of the night, while everyone was fast asleep, fighting off zombies in their dreams. I believe at one point I asked him if he had lamb kebabs.
He didn’t. It was not a restaurant.
Breathe in the morning air
So apparently, you can only eat and drink so much. And if you drink a lot of fluids, water or coffee, sooner or later you have got to go to the toilet. I don’t know what time it was, but I could see the palm trees and houses outside the window again.
As I was coming back to my seat, I found the door of the coach open. The fresh morning breeze was coming in and I decided to stand by the door for a bit. We were passing a small village, with a pretty little river which had palm trees around it. Goats and chickens were strutting about the front lawns of the houses as the people who lived in them put their clothes out to dry or fixed their bicycles. Old men sat on the verandahs smoking hookahs. There were birds flying off from the trees and cows grazing by the railway tracks. The Sun rose up from beyond the beautiful palm trees, and the first rays of the new day entered our compartment.
But before I could realise how lucky I was to be standing to the edge of the door, experiencing it all, the checker returned and started yelling. He was not happy that I was standing by the door.
“Habibi, something something…Habibi..something.. Habibi.”
(He was speaking Arabic and every Arabic word sounds like Habibi to me.)
I closed the door, and returned to my compartment where the fresh morning breeze was replaced by cold artificial air coming out of dirty vents.
About an hour later, the train finally reached Luxor. What was supposed to be a 10 hour ride had turned out to be a 13 hour one. The old lady and her son wished me luck as we got off the train. I had hardly slept and my back hurt like a bitch as I lugged off my heavy backpack outside the station to find myself swarmed with the enthusiastic taxi drivers of Luxor. I had survived the Egyptian Railways but it seemed a whole new battle awaited me.
But that’s a story for another day.