The first time I experienced claustrophobia was in Northern Laos, in a cave, on my belly, covered in dirt, wriggling through a tunnel so tight both my arms scraped the sides and my head brushed the top. It was 1999. My best friend crawled inches ahead, following two young local boys who eventually guided us to an opening on the other side. As the tunnel grew smaller, my panic grew stronger, quickening the pace of my heart and amplifying the voice in my head, which said, over and over, I want out of here.
The second time I experienced claustrophobia was four weeks ago, on a sleeper train in Rajasthan.
I had the top bunk, which in India, is the best bunk to get, because it allows about six inches of extra space between your head and the ceiling when you’re lying down. If you’re careful, you can even sit up, sort of, without knocking yourself out on one of the fans attached to the ceiling. Sleeping in the middle or bottom bunks means you’re staring up at the bed above you, sandwiched between it and the vinyl mattress, with no room to rise. Once you’re down, you’re down.
Joe lay on the bunk across from me. Below us: two men in the middle, two men on the bottom. On the other side of the aisle, a man lay on the top bunk, another on the lower. Eight bodies sharing a space the size of a walk-in closet. Toes stuck out the ends, brushing the shoulders of passengers squeezing by. Metal bars covered the windows, and a cage-like barrier separated my bunk from the next compartment.
My friend Ashley, who travelled here last year, calls this mode of transport the Prison Train, but it’s actually not that bad. I was pretty comfortable up top, tucked inside my sleeping bag, head resting on a rolled-up blanket, my canvas bag and flip flops wedged between my body and the wall. Most passengers had quieted down by the time I was ready to drift off, leaving me to listen in peace to the sound of the wheels turning on the track. We were leaving Sawai Madophur, where we’d seen, earlier that day, a wild tiger in Ranthambhore National Park. And we were headed for Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Bordered by these kinds of experiences, a night in a sleeper car was nothing to mind, even if I did fall asleep to the scent of sweaty feet.
Around 1 a.m., shouting woke me: distant, but loud. Then louder, and fast. Chanting, whistling, clapping, yelling. I turned to my side and tried to fall back asleep, but the noise drew closer and more frenetic. Lights turned on. I sat up as Joe said, “What’s going on?” and we leaned on the edge of our bunks, watching the aisle fill with bodies.
People entered the train from every direction, pushing past each other, yelling, and climbing onto bunks already inhabited by passengers. Bags and boxes and shoes were stuffed in the cracks of space that remained below the bottom rows. Fists banged on the train from outside, the emergency windows were opened, and more bodies crawled through, passing clothes and babies to people on the inside, who then pulled the others in, tugging on their arms as they leaned across bunks and wriggled onto the sleeper car.
Hindi pop music blared from cell phones. Another chant began: one verse shouted by a man or boy, then repeated by several voices as though the train was a stadium in the midst of a match. Mothers and grandmothers and barefoot men settled onto the dirty floor, knees to noses, babies tucked into saris, elbows touching thighs, feet touching feet. Children clambered onto mattresses, leaning against the legs of strangers, shouting and laughing to each other. Passengers who had been sleeping were forced to sit up, suddenly sharing their bunk with two or three or even four of these new, presumably ticketless people. No train staff were in sight; no one appeared to be in charge.
Of course I had to go to the bathroom. (A small bladder is the traveller’s nemesis.) Joe and I were still sitting upright on the edge of our bunks, watching the throng of people in disbelief, attempting to guard our territory from encroachment. Where had they come from, and why were they bombarding our train? I peered to the left, which was the direction of the chanting: bodies, still moving, still clamouring for space, the bathroom door blocked completely by the crowd. To the right, more bodies, the floor invisible, the aisle a carpet of people. It was around this time that I noticed my heartbeat speeding up, my mind absorbing the notion that navigating this mob to relieve myself may prove impossible. Fire, too, entered the imagination–how would we escape? And surely there were more stops ahead–would people continue to board? My heart was really pounding now, a panic seeping in. I took a couple slow breaths. My bed felt suddenly very small, the threat of someone overtaking it imminent.
Agra was still five hours away; waiting wasn’t an option. “I’m gonna go for it,” I told Joe, slipping on my flip flops and grabbing a wad of toilet paper from my bag. I grabbed the metal bar attached to my bed and placed one foot on the edge of the bottom bunk. Faces looked up as I scanned below for a spot to place my other foot. Most of the lights had been turned off again, the people transformed to shadowy shapes. A woman caught my eye and pointed: a crevice beside her, big enough for toes. I stepped into it, cradling my other foot in my hands and pivoting it around to avoid kicking anyone in the head.
The bathroom was about 15 metres away. Slowly I drew closer, the path both blocked and guided by people, fingers pointing to openings, hands touching heads to signal my presence. The crowd on this side had begun to quiet down; chants still erupted from behind. I continued in the dark, one foot in front, the next to the side, dodging body parts, finding room where there was none. If I could make it to the bathroom, then I could make it through the rest of the ride.
Space, India has taught me, is a luxury. Between the train cars, in front of the bathroom door, people sat crammed together on the filthy floor, side by side, foreheads resting on their knees, bags tucked beneath their thighs, riding through the night. As I approached, they stared, then leaned sideways to make room. I closed the stall door behind me and crouched down above the metal squatter. Relief. Back on my bunk, heart beating at a regular pace, I lay beneath the ceiling of rusted fans, grateful. Alone on these beds, Joe and I had more space than anyone else on the sleeper car.
Despite the children shouting in the compartment next to mine, and the music blasting from a man’s cell phone on the bunk below them, and the urgent banging of fists against the train’s windows at our next stop, and the chants that continued to burst from the end of the car, and the intermittent lights switching on then off then on again, I managed to fall asleep. A broken, dreamless sleep, that carried me out of the train and into that darkened space we drift to in our minds.
So when I woke, some time later, to see a man sitting on the edge of my bed, I jerked upright, unsure if he was real.
He was real.
Joe, too, had woken, and was asking the man to get down. He just sat up straighter, securing the blanket around his shoulders and waving his hand in a loose gesture that seemed to insist his presence wouldn’t bother me.
“This is my bed,” I said, but my voice was faint, the protest brief. Could I really kick him off, considering all the space on the train that others had given up? His hands were folded into his lap, his back leaned against the wall–he was taking no more room than necessary. If I curled my legs a little to the side, our bodies didn’t even touch.
I sighed and laid my head back down, closing my eyes to the sight of whirring fans. We stayed that way for the rest of the trip, my toes beside his knees, riding silently until light began to filter in through the windows and the noise of the children in the compartment next to me grew too loud to ignore. I sat up, exhausted.
“Good morning,” the man said, nodding at me. I stared back in surprise. To my Western mind, the greeting seemed ridiculous: a stranger had stolen part of my bunk in the night, and now he was tossing me a casual hello?
But this wasn’t the West.
We were pulling into Agra now, the train slowing on its tracks, dirt-streaked windows revealing a landscape of garbage and buildings and miles of people. I looked at the man, orange blanket wrapped around his shoulders, orange cloth tied around his waist, residing on a square foot of space at the end of my bed.
“Good morning,” I said.
*Click on a photo to view gallery in full size