Day 8 of our trip began by saying goodbye to our drivers and the amazing bus we had had for the past week. Little did we know as we parted company with them how much of a hilarious contrast the next bus would be, or what fate waited us after the train journey between Agra and Jhansi.
This first train ride in India was surprisingly smooth and the train was modern, air conditioned and comfortable. Indian train stations on the other hand are absolutely batshit mental (to the casual western observer). As with many things in India which at first look completely baffling and overwhelming, however, there is a strangely ordered undercurrent to the chaos. It just somehow works.
In my experience, at Indian railway stations, there always seems to be way more people on and around the platform than the station or any of the trains can possibly cope with. Also, people set up like a picnic on the platform itself, by which I mean they lay out a blanket and sleep/eat on it, which generally does not help with the complete insanity going on around them. I am continually amazed and humbled by the way Indian people can and do literally sleep anywhere, it makes me feel like a very precious, coddled person to require black out blinds, total silence and at least 8 hours of uninterrupted rest to feel remotely human.
Anyway, this ‘chaos’ is something which it can be tricky to navigate around with a massive backpack but nobody seems to get bent out of shape when you accidentally step on their blanket or kick their sandal across a platform (ahem). Testament to the wonderfully laid back Indian mindset I think. This mindset tends to momentarily disappear, it has to be said, the moment a train actually arrives, when there will be a full on, elbows out, stampede for the doors like you wouldn't believe. No time for British hesitation or politeness – Jai was an absolute godsend at moments like this, shepherding us, continuously counting we were all there, being very assertive about our seats and luggage and generally just being awesome.
It goes without saying, by the way, that railway station platforms also play host to dogs, monkeys and the occasional cow. You can pretty much assume by now that these creatures make up the background to pretty much every scene I mention, in some description, even when not explicitly stated.
Anyway, this first train ride was only about 2.5 hrs long. We spent the journey reading and watching the landscape and Stu noticed a strange feature of Indian newspapers whereby they print very graphic pictures of unidentified dead bodies with descriptions of where they were found and any distinctive bodily features, to try and get info on who it might be. Strange (and rather unsettling to the casual reader) but true.
On arrival in Jhansi we were due to board a bus for a 3-4 hr journey to Alipura. We shall christen this bus “The Venga Bus” because the experience was rather psychedelic and traumatically memorable, just like the 90s song of the same name.
This is a stock image of what our Venga bus looked like in terms of size/shape. Oh the fun.
It needs to be remembered that it was over 40 degrees outside and there were 10 of us plus luggage to fit into the bus. A very small transit style minibus had been provided - this would have been bearable if the air conditioning actually worked and our new driver was convinced that it did. After the spacious comfort of our previous bus we all found it slightly amusing to cram into the very small space with the blowers seeming to continuously circulate the hot, dry air. Once the bus started moving, we figured, the air con would kick in properly, right?
Wrong. After about 20 minutes, Jai tried to boost morale and give us a pep talk as it was clear we might actually boil to death in this bus. He gave us some inspirational quotes from Mahatma Ghandi about "being the change" and somehow, in a state of delirium, this ended with a line which will stick in my head for all time - “Mahatma Ghandi once said, open the windows m&*$%f*&$s!”
As we roared with laughter and opened the windows there was a brief respite of the outside air rushing through the parched interior; within 5 minutes, however, it just felt like someone was aiming hot blow driers into the cramped space and we all started to get a little bit heat-strokey.
Isaac got his speaker out at this stage and we turned the infernally hot bus space into a comedy disco, singing along to Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’ and ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and basically getting through the experience with laughter (hysteria/deliria). Isaac also took to wailing “Heeeeelllllpp” out of the bus window as we drove through small villages, much to the confusion of the people on the streets.
I think all of us were very relieved to finally arrive at Alipura Palace and Jai was straight on sorting out a different bus for the next few days which was reassuring. This was another hotel converted from the royal palace and apparently it is still used from time to time by the local King and his family (though I believe he was not in residence when we visited).
This was one of my favourite hotels that we stayed at during our tour, the building was beautiful and full of character and every room seemed to be different. Ours was huge with a fabulous shower (and plenty of hot water) and a great air con unit right over the bed. There was the prized addition of a kettle and tea/coffee in this hotel room which also scored points and it was quiet outside due to the rural location (no honking horns!).
On our first evening we went for a wander round the village with a guy from our hotel and Jai, the people were so awesome again, wanting to talk cricket and brewing masala chai for us and generally being so incredibly welcoming and warm that you really felt like you could relax and enjoy the experience. They invited us to play a full game of cricket with them the following evening and the lads (plus Emma) all duly went. Apparently this became a highly competitive event which much money was placed on. As I understand it, at some point the sledging from Australia got a little out of hand and one of the Indian lads stormed off (well, rode off on a motorbike which I guess is the equivalent). Stu also claims during the same game he “slogged an Aussie for 6” which I believe is a feat he will never let Dean forget. Ever.
Two of Dean's photos from the Alipura cricket match
In the evenings at Alipura Palace we mainly wandered around like fools holding our phones in the air trying to connect to the mystical wifi. Only Bina and Isaac ever seemed able to connect. It seemed mighty strange until we realised Isaac had given a dud wifi password to the rest of us….we couldn’t prove that this was mischief but the suspicion was certainly there….
We also watched a couple of pretty good Bollywood movies on the TV in the restaurant, my particular favourite was 3 Idiots which had a very amusing storyline. The food at Alipura Palace was pretty awesome, my favourite butter chicken of the trip and special mention must be made for their cheese toasties. I am pretty sure the staff here thought our group was slightly unhinged after Jade ordered a cheese toastie and the rest of us saw it and immediately ordered a heap more. Sometimes, when you have been eating curry 3 times a day for a while, the thought of a cheese toastie on plain white bread can do funny things to the mind of a human being raised in the west.
Day 2 here we visited the Karma Sutra temples at Khajuraho. They are quite epic in size and stature and decorated with literally every sexual position and combination of beings you can imagine. Bestiality is not off the table. Neither are orgies. Isaac bought some very amusing and graphic key rings here from Hawkers who can only be described as dogged. A number of them actually stood right outside the door of the restaurant we had lunch in waiting to continue their hard sell the moment we stepped back out. Anyway, thanks to the fact these temples were over grown and off the beaten track when the Muslim crusaders came through many years ago, these ones survived and really are a sight to be seen.
Group shot at Khajuraho
After 2 days based in Alipura we headed to Orchha for a night, a small town closer to Jhansi station where we would be getting the overnight train to Varanasi from the following evening. Orchha is beautiful, set on the banks of the Betwa River and full of historic temples and buildings. Inhabited by rival troops of langur and macaque monkeys who are continuously jumping between trees and rooftops above your head, it is fairly chilled out and has a number of small shops and restaurants you can browse without too much hassle.
Orchha will also retain a very special place in my memory because of Rum Party #2 – aka the night we all seemed to lose our collective shiz simultaneously and indulge in a marathon session of drinking, dancing, laughing and more of the same until 4.30am. What happened in Orchha that night will stay in Orchha that night. Oh, apart from the multitude of video and photographic evidence that exists across peoples phones. Whenever I am having a bad day now I have an immediate memory bank (and physical FB bank) of sheer lunacy to amuse myself with and I think the events of that night cemented our crazy intense bond as a group, some (shareable) moments included:
· A rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody which involved STUART actually DANCING!!!
· Bina and Jade somehow procuring beer at 2am from a closed hotel bar
· Stu following that up an hour later with the procurement of 2 more bottles of rum
Little did we know what was to follow...
The quote ‘You don’t know, man, you weren’t there’ has never been more appropriate in my life.
Breakfast the next day (well lunch, truth be told) was a very strange mix of still-slightly-drunk-and-worryingly-aware-of-it with horrific incredulity at the video/photo footage which seemed to show some kind of crazy frat party culminating in Isaac being sick on the floor of our room to everyone’s amusement.
It turned out not to be sick (phew). It was spilt beer which he was going to try and lick off the floor. Of course it was. Stu and I both had zero recollection of the smashed bottle or the spilt beer or the resulting series of photographs. I tell you, dear reader, this is the stuff dreams are made of (psychotic, terrible, dreams).
Jai had been very sensible of course and missed the rum party for an early night, though I believe at some point he may have been disturbed and photographed in his bed. Poor guy, he had such a beautiful amount of patience with us at times.
The hangover that eventually caught up with me the next day (the very day I had to get on a freakin’ train for 15 HOURS no less) could legitimately be described as an utter bastard behind the eyes worthy of remark in my eventual obituary. Add this to the cumulative exhaustion, dehydration, stomach upset and the start of a head cold that would plague me for the next week (oh and the 20 or so ‘active’ mozzie bites I had by this point) and I would have happily knocked myself out for the next 24 hours and “come up smiling on Tuesday” instead if that had been a medical option.
Unfortunately for me, there was no such option and as such the most harrowing, hilarious, quite frankly insane chapter of our Indian adventure was about to begin, whether I was ready for it or not…