We boarded the train at the notorious pink Jaipur, where rust coloured dust lingers in the roads. We’d caught a Bollywood film at a Rococo cinema painted in a delicate shade of pistachio that had velvet seats mottled with deep red betel juice, and later I had been outrageously groped by a teenage boy. I wasn’t inspired by the city and we didn’t dawdle. Journeys made within a country often give a deeper insight into a culture than just visiting historic sights, and I was eager for our next one.
The train started to clunk its way through the grim city outskirts, where skinny women washed colourful clothes in grey water outside dwellings made of corrugated iron and plastic. Soon enough we reached the desert and the views through the barred but open windows showed children herding goats to find scrub, the occasional hobbled camel and a salmon pink police station, outside of which were two policemen holding hands.
At this point about fifteen soldiers in full desert army camouflage, complete with helmets with grass stuck on top decided to relocate to our carriage. My boyfriend had to shake hands with each of them – I was given shy waves and smiles. They then made themselves comfortable on everyone else’s beds and we submitted to the annoying but effective advertising of “chaichaichaichaichai” that chugged with the train. For a few rupees we procured the hot sweet spiced tea at every opportunity.
A few hours in we were hit by a sandstorm; all at once the air was an opaque yellow, everything gained a grainy texture and my teeth were coated with a fine crunchy grit. Windows were belatedly struggled shut, and scarves went over mouths and eyes. I went for the sunglasses on, sarong across the face approach. It made drinking chai very awkward. For perhaps an hour there was nothing to do but try and blot out the sand and just exist in the sweltering dark.
Later I leant down from my upper bunk to reach some water. I stopped mid-stretch in astonishment; one sleeping soldier was perched on the bed below, with the butt of his rifle bumping about on the train floor, whilst he rested forehead first on the killing end. This journey across Rajasthan may have been a twelve hour sand-filled affair, but it was a snapshot reminder of how eccentric, frustrating and comical India can be.