The Indian province of Goa has over 70 kilometers of beautiful beaches and excellent cheap food. That combination kept me in my beach hut two weeks longer than planned. India’s transportation network kept me there another two weeks. Flying in and out of Goa seems relatively simple, but leaving by land proved exceedingly difficult.
When I finally decided to leave and head north to Varanasi after a month on various beaches, I started talking to some of the travel agents around the Palolem beach area to see if I could get some train tickets. Indian Railways has a horribly inefficient ticketing system that was apparently designed to ensure that no can ever buy the exact ticket they want. Goa is the most popular destination in India, so I expected even more trouble than usual.
Naturally I tried finding tickets online first, because travel agents in India are generally a pretty sketchy group, but everything was sold out for weeks. Travel agents were my plan B. I figured they might help me come up with some kind of creative work-around involving a combination of different train routes.
They had other ideas. Before I could even finish my question, I was told to forget about trains. Apparently, the only way out of Goa is a bus company called Paolo Travels. I got the same response at every single travel agent.
Now if there’s one thing I learned in India, it’s this: when someone is trying to get you to do something—especially if they have removed all other possible options—you can be sure that you don’t want to it. In this case, they were obviously trying to get me to book with Paolo Travels. I decided I needed to get back online and do a bit of research.
Sure enough, I found several articles that laid out the Paolo Travels scam. Most (maybe all) travel agents in Palolem are paid by Paolo Travels to direct tourists onto their buses and/or tours. They also quote prices much higher than usual. Reports by other travelers who left Goa on a Paolo bus made one thing clear: I wanted nothing to do with them.
Of course, when I asked the travel agents about other bus companies, they flat-out denied their existence. When I pointed out several non-Paolo buses driving by on the road just outside their office, I was informed that those buses don’t stop. Apparently, they drive through the entire province of Goa without making a single stop.
It was clear the travel agents would rather forgo a commission than book someone with a company other than Paolo. That makes me think the relationship with Paolo Travels was more than financial. Perhaps there was even some kind of threat involved.
I could see I wasn’t going to get any help from the travel agents, so I got back online and booked a train leaving Goa two weeks later. More accurately, I booked myself a place on a waiting list. I was pretty far down the list, but I had been on a waiting list for all my previous trains in India and had always ended up with a ticket (like I said, you can never just buy get an actual ticket, outside of the most popular routes). I held out hope that I would get out of Goa.
The day before my train was set to depart, I got an email confirming my ticket—for the first train. I had booked a combination of two trains, with a change in Pune. My name had moved up the list for the second train, but I did not have an actual ticket.
Several people assured me there would certainly be a few cancellations overnight while I was on the first train and I would arrive in Pune the next morning to find my name on the list of ticket holders for the second. That didn’t happen.
I arrived in Pune to find my name in the exact same spot on the waiting list. I went to talk to someone at the station ticket office and was quickly sent on my way. Three guys were in the middle of a lively conversation and when I asked for help, they waved me back out the door without a pause in their conversation or even a glance in my direction. I have no idea why the ticket agents wouldn’t help, or even acknowledge, me. Usually in India, such dismissive behavior is reserved for women.>>>>>
I talked to a few workers around the station and they all said I should just get on the train. I would be able to buy a ticket for the regular price plus a small fine once on board. Several ticket-less Indian passengers told me they were going to do the same. That sounded like a plan.
On the train, I waited between two cars with the other ticket-less passengers for the conductor to come by. When he did, he quickly issued tickets to the Indians. Then he started yelling at me.
One of the other passengers told me he was furious that I had boarded the train without a ticket and was demanding I either pay him a fine of around 10 times the original ticket price or jump off the (moving) train immediately. When I asked the other passengers why he was suddenly so angry at me when he didn’t seem to mind them not having tickets, they told me he simply didn’t like foreigners.
Obviously, I refused to pay the ridiculous fine and I wasn’t about to jump off the train either. Instead, I offered him double the original ticket price. That was a bit more than the Indians had paid, but I figured it’s probably the best I could do.
In the end, another conductor came by and he ended up issuing me my ticket after sending the racist to a different car. Since I was paying a larger fine than anyone else, the new guy even took me to an empty sleeping berth and told me I could sit there (none of our tickets came with a berth or even a seat).
At first I thought I might actually get to to lie down during the journey, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case ,when the conductor brought over a family of 10 or so and directed them onto the same berth. A few minutes later, a couple more random guys squeezed into any remaining empty space, despite there not actually being any empty space. I ended up squished into one corner with my bag on my lap. It was not comfortable. Luckily, I only had 20-something hours to go.
I had not slept well on the previous overnight train (where I had a berth) and things were not looking up for the coming night. For now it was still morning and my (very close) neighbors talked to me for a bit, but they soon exhausted their limited English. Besides, they all wanted to catch up on some sleep.
They were out within minutes. I was not so lucky. I got almost no sleep at all, but I’m pretty sure I managed to doze off briefly at some point, because I was sitting there in my little corner of the berth with my bag on my lap one second, then I was sitting there with two kids on top of me the next.
The only good thing about this train journey was a stop in Allahabad. 90% of the passengers got off, leaving plenty of sleeping berths for me and the few other people remaining on the train without a seat. I could finally catch up on some much-needed sleep. Unfortunately, Allahabad is only a few hours from Varanasi, so I didn’t get nearly as much sleep as I needed and arrived completely exhausted at 7am, with a whole day ahead of me.
In the end, I got what I wanted: leave Goa to continue my journey around India. Yes, I left two weeks later than planned and I endured the worst train journey of my life, but I was now in Varanasi. And the first thing I did, after finding a room to dump my bag, was secure a train ticket out. It left five days later. I was on the waiting list.