Monday, 8 June 2015

Incredible India - Part 4 - Varanasi


It is a word which will, for the rest of my days, inspire incredibly vivid emotions in me. I fully understand now why G Adventures place the Varanasi experience at the end of the Essential India Tour. Quite simply, to put it near the beginning or to jam it in the middle of everything else would be insufficiently respectful of this wondrous, mystifying, technicolour befuddlement of a city. You kind of have to work your way up to it. And also, you can only really witness and experience it (without losing your mind) if you appreciate that it is the pinnacle, the apex, the crescendo, of your north Indian adventure. It makes sense at the end. Like one last hurrah for old time’s sake.

On the Ganges at sunset

Looking at the banks of the Ganges

If you started your India trip here I reckon you would simply stand around blinking in astonishment until a cow knocked you into a ditch. And that is not a good place to start, let me tell you. 

So, first we had to get here, right? Which involved, I shit you not, the most hilariously terrible overnight train experience of my life. Ok, so it’s actually the only overnight train experience of my life to date but I am pretty sure in my mind it was never meant to turn out like this. I had romantic images and notions in my head of nodding off all relaxed while being gently rocked in a comfortable bed. Ha.

It went something like this.

22:30 A group of fairly bedraggled and mostly hungover travellers arrive at Jhansi station and attempt to board the sleeper train to Varanasi in an organised fashion. This was mostly thwarted by the usual stampede for the train and also the fact that the group was split into 2 smaller groups of 5 in entirely separate carriages. It should be noted that on this train you cannot walk between carriages so once we had gone our separate ways that was it for the night.

23.00 After a great deal of ticket checking and Jai frantically jumping on and off each carriage making sure we were all ok, we were finally settled and the train had started moving. Stu, Bina, Isaac, Emma and me were in one compartment. Each compartment sleeps 8; 3 on each side wall and 2 on the back wall. Some kind of deal had been done, in Hindi, between Jai and a group of 3 middle aged Indians who had swapped their bottom level bed for one of our back wall beds. It turned out they had bought 1 sleeper ticket between them but were planning on sitting next to each other on the 1 bed for the duration of the night (bargainous!). It was easier for them to do this with the beds on the back wall because there was only 2 of them so a taller gap to sit up in. This will later come back to haunt us.

Stu on the top bunk, me in the middle

Bina looking glam as ever on her bunk

Isaac in his bunk opposite me

23.01 Isaac is up on his middle bunk having a right lark when Emma and I notice that his bunk is hanging on only 1 of the 2 industrial hooks meant to support the weight. We both panic, try and secure the other hook, and thoroughly rattle Isaac in the process. How the bed did not break is beyond me, the boy is blessed.

23.10 I am on the middle bunk of 3 with Emma below and Stu above me. I attempt to sleep. I am trying to sleep on a shelf. It is, supposedly, a bed but it is not very wide and it appears to be made of concrete. Getting comfortable in this space is literally impossible. Isaac is laughing to himself opposite me at the strangeness of the situation and the other passengers in our compartment are just watching us, curiously but not menacingly, like we were the best soap opera they had ever seen. I need to keep my bag in my arms so I know it’s safe. Have you ever tried sleeping whilst holding on to all your valuables? It is not very conducive to sleep. I toss and turn.

01.05 I need a wee. This is not ideal. To get into this bed in the first place required hoisting, climbing, double-jointed contortion and a complete loss of dignity. And that was with the light on. It is now dark and the train is moving. *sigh*

01.15 Fucking hell. I really have to go. I begin unravelling the many layers of blankets and sheets I have cocooned myself in and shuffle on my back to the bottom of the bed. Somehow I manage to get down from the bunk without any major incidents though I am very aware of a number of pairs of eyes silently watching my progress. Isaac, Bina and Stu are all snoring. The bastards. I peer at Emma despairingly, she’s awake. I search for my flip flops which were on the floor when I last looked but the bastard things have disappeared. Something tells me I will really need something on my feet before I face a toilet on an Indian sleeper train. I start shifting luggage round in the dark but to no avail. Pitifully I turn to Emma and say the dreaded words “may I borrow your sandals to go to the loo in please?” and because she is totally all the awesome she just laughs and nods. Toilets on these trains are literally holes about the size of a dinner plate. An actual hole. You can see the tracks going past underneath you. There is a recommended footplate to use. Note the word ‘recommended’. Somehow I pee through the hole in the floor of the swaying train and make a mental note to punch Stu in the face when he wakes up. I somehow manage not to get pee (that I can see) on Emma’s shoes. I shuffle back to our beds and sheepishly declare to Emma “I didn’t get pee on your shoes, honest” and realise that this holiday has made me say so many things I never thought would come out of my mouth ever.

01.25 After a substantial amount of what I shall term “scrambling about” I am back in bed. I try to sleep.

02.10 A pair of very rude, very loud and very angry Chinese tourists appear to have decided to ruin the 5 minutes of sleep I had so far achieved. Groggily, I sit up in bed. They are waving and shouting at someone “Get up, these are our beds, you are in our beds!!” and the 3 people who originally were in Emma’s bed (and are now in one of ours on the back wall) are all pretending not to understand and just repeatedly pointing at Emma. Bina, diplomat extraordinaire, intervened at this point from her upper shelf (note to self, do not fuck with a German’s sleep) and asked to see the Cockface’s tickets. The seat numbers are the same as ours but the carriage number is different. Bina calmly points this out to Cockface. Cockface responds by asking to see OUR tickets. There is a slight problem with this as Jai has them and he is not in our carriage. Thankfully, before world war 3 kicks off, a ticket inspector has been roused from his (no doubt delightful) sleep and has appeared. He double checks the tickets and makes the same observation as Bina. They are in the wrong carriage. Without a single word of apology or even acknowledgement of the fact they have woken everybody up so aggressively, the pair turn on their heels and walk out. At this point I notice we are in a station and have been for the duration of this exchange. Lucky really as if these people had been trapped in our carriage until the next stop, they *may* have been subjected to a blunt trauma injury to the head.

02.30 Everyone else has gone back to sleep. Isaac is lying on his front and snoring. I did not think this was even physically possible. Emma is becoming a little freaked out by the man on the lower bunk opposite her who is groaning in a very erotic way. Both she and I are relieved that this noise is not coming from Isaac but are a tad unsettled by it nonetheless…





07.00 By this point I just kind of give up sleeping. My eyeballs are on fire. My brain is starting to taunt me with hallucinations, I didn’t eat all day yesterday because I kept vomiting and for the first time in 48 hours I am hungry. I have scratched a mozzie bite on my foot until it has bled. My nose is running. I think about the time difference to Adelaide and my team who will probably be going for their coffee around now and I HATE THEM for being in Australia. I tell myself not to be a bitch and to enjoy the experience. I laugh hysterically at that last thought and start drafting this very blog post in my head in an attempt to while away the remaining 6 or so hours.  
09.00 Everyone is pretty much awake now. I have eaten 3 out of date cookies from the pack we bought at Jhansi station last night. It is the first solid food I have kept down in a few days. I would literally crawl over hot coals for a cup of Twinings Earl Grey right now. The train has thinned out some, the 2 men travelling on their own got off a while ago and the 3 middle aged people left at the last stop. We pretty much have the compartment to ourselves. 

12.30pm - So close and yet so far. We have come to a stop about 10 minutes outside Varanasi. The train has not moved in a good 20 minutes but as we are not in a station we cannot get off the carriage and go find Jai. Emma phones him, "The train has stopped" he helpfully confirms (!). 

13.00 - We have packed up the beds and are now sitting on the normal bench seats, which are still covered in random bits of bedding. Isaac and I are sat on the lower bunk that the 'orgasmic moans' bloke was asleep on this morning when Isaac absent mindedly picks up a crumb of something off the sheet...and eats it. I nearly lose my mind, Isaac is horrified but laughing. What happened in my life to lead me to this point?? 

13.15 - Isaac has gone back to sleep and the rest of us are starting to feel like we are on some kind of hidden camera show. The train is getting very warm because the air con has gone off. I cannnot remember my life before I got on this train. It feels like I have been here for ever.

13.45 - VARANASI WE ARE IN YOU! Thank christ our hotel is literally across the road from the train station. 5 minutes from disembarking we are in an actual restaurant in our hotel ordering food and connecting to wifi and so excited to get a room key and to know that SLEEP is on the cards in the near future.

So, I think it is fair to say I have no urge whatsoever to repeat the experience of an overnight sleeper train in India ever again. Maybe it was just the perfect storm for me, being over tired and ill - I am glad I can say I did it but I feel like I survived some kind of endurance challenge. Nothing about it, to me, was relaxing or particularly enjoyable. That said, most of the people I travelled with (including Stu) slept through it almost entirely and enjoyed it to some extent.

Varanasi, from the get go, is IN YOUR FACE. The roads are particularly mental and that is exacerbated by the fact that this is a place of pilgrimage for Indian people as well as being an international tourist magnet. The traffic here makes Delhi look like a fairly sedate and organised place. We had a number of near misses with traffic, all over India, but the ones that literally had a hairs breadth between life and death/injury were all in Varanasi and included:

  • A cycle rickshaw vs school bus moment which defied physics in how nothing actually touched
  • A cycle rickshaw vs 10 ton lorry moment at an intersection where the lorry was so close I could taste the paint 
  • A tuk tuk rolling backwards with no handbrake into a gutter with 4 of our group in it
View ahead from a rickshaw

View behind from rickshaw - Dean and Jade and crazy roads

But from the moment you near the edge of the Ganges the sounds of chanting and the vibrancy of the people and the smell of the incense becomes overwhelming and hypnotic and you can feel this powerful vibe about the place, which must be because of the importance and the history of it in the lives of so many Indian people.

On our first evening in Varanasi (after some restorative food and sleep and showers) we went down to the Ganges at sunset and went out on a boat to view the riverside activity from the water and to perform our own blessing ceremony.

Stu and I on a boat on the Ganges as the sun sets

Our group preparing to perform a candle flower ceremony

We also got to see the funeral pyres burning at the edge of the water which, despite my previous reservations, were not as disturbing as I imagined they would be. The Hindu religion places such a wealth of value and importance on a person after their death, part of which is through this ceremony and actually, after spending so much time in and around Hindu people it made a lot of sense and felt right for them to honour their departed in this way.    

Although our boat were respectful and did not take photos of the funeral pyres but just sat very quietly observing, it was a little uncomfortable to witness other boat loads of tourists doing exactly that and making literally no attempt to be discreet about it. Sometimes, I am ashamed of my fellow human beings and their lack of restraint.

After the boat returned we watched the prayer to the river ceremony and had free time to wander along the banks, which was not as relaxing as you might imagine due to the sheer volume of people selling things and the tendency of them to try and hoodwink you into parting with cash in all kinds of innovative ways. One of these which I can't really see a way out of involves a 'blessing' being performed, whereby a fellow with a bowl of the sacred red dye sticks his thumb between your eyes to leave the special mark and then demands money for this service. Unfortunately, this happened to me when I was completely not expecting it, I turned round from looking at the river to find him right behind me and his thumb was between my eyes before I could even open my mouth. I was having this blessing whether I liked it or not. On this occasion I was so cross at having been duped I refused point blank to pay any money which led to a rather uncomfortable and prolonged exchange. 

The blessing I was bestowed with (and did not expect)

A continuous problem for the men in our group (though not the women) was the offer of a massage. Offer might be the wrong word. Poor Dean got thoroughly massaged despite repeatedly telling the guy "no thanks" and it is a bit of a strange situation as they will persist in massaging your shoulders despite this, completely ignoring your body language and clear protestations about it being done. And then of course there needs to be payment for the service. Basically you just need your wits about you continuously here and being assertive and persistent is key. 

What was far more relaxing and I would thoroughly recommend is revisiting the river at dawn. It is far quieter, you are able to people watch without being bothered and the atmosphere is much calmer at this time of day. My favourite memory of Varanasi is the boat we took out as the sun started to rise, watching people doing yoga on the banks, enjoying the serenity and beauty of the temples and the ancient buildings. In this atmosphere Varanasi feels like a salve for the soul and I feel truly honoured to have experienced this holy place.

The river at dawn - much calmer

In the late afternoon of our second day in Varanasi we went for a tour of the silk factories in the Islamic quarter of the city with a fabulous, delightful elder of the community whose name, I believe, was Dada. He was so thoroughly charming and took us down small alleyways, into workshops and machine filled spaces where incredibly talented weavers spun silk into the most beautiful designs.

Silk being woven into amazin designs

Despite the fact it was around 43 degrees we managed to spend 45 minutes to an hour exploring this amazing side of the city and one of the younger guides in a thoroughly charming and gallant way positioned himself with a large fan every time we stopped and became a punkawallah for the ladies. I cannot tell you how grateful we were for this service.

At the end of the tour we were taken into the studio/showroom of one of the local silk merchants and he led us into a wonderfully air conditioned room with heaps of cushions on the floor, plied us with masala chai and showed us his wares. The best thing about this (and again we have Jai to thank for it) was that from the word go we were told "you are not obliged to buy anything" and he meant it. 

There was no pressure at all, it was one of the most interesting and relaxed experiences I have ever had. It turned out this guy sells to retailers across the world, that's his bread and butter so the pressure was certainly not on to buy from him. Around half the group bought some bits and pieces, I bought a beautiful scarf for myself and we got scarves for our mothers too. A lovely touch at the end of the session was that he gave every member of our group (even those who bought nothing) a basic silk scarf as a gift.

I have to say here, this was another example of the wonderful job that Jai did as our guide. Every encounter we had, such as the one described above, was so thoroughly researched and checked out by Jai. He never took us to anywhere that we were even slightly pressured, he never let us head off with anyone who he was not 100% sure would look after us as well as he would. I have never met anyone who is as diligent and committed to their job as he. The fact that he does all this and is also one of the nicest, funniest blokes you will ever meet is astounding. I am honoured to say he is my friend and I know that our paths will cross again in the future. G Adventures must think themselves incredibly lucky to have this guy on their staff, I feel incredibly lucky to have had him as our CEO.

Me and Jai

So, the final night in Varanasi was also our final rum party. It was a LOT more subdued than the Orchha affair (but then most other things in my life have been to date). Somehow it was us hosting again (must be the British desire to be polite) so everyone piled into our room and we broke out the final bottles of Old Monk. By now we were all so relaxed with each other that this just felt like a family gathering and I think it was probably on all of our minds that it might be the last time we had such an event. 

Final rum party in Varanasi

Next morning we checked out of the hotel and headed to Varanasi airport in a bus seemingly driven by The Stig (although by now we just didnt even flinch at such hi-jinks). Along the journey, which rattled the teeth of us all, I pointed out to Jai that the most common vehicle make in India (Tata) is a word with a rather different meaning in Australia and Europe. This tickled him enormously and coined the innuendo filled phrase "Touch the Tatas". 

We flew from Varanasi back to Delhi for one final night in the hotel where the tour began (at the aptly named Good Times Hotel). The familiarity was particularly appreciated as we were all pretty shattered by this point. Everyone started making arrangements for getting back to the airport the next day, organising their next tours and travel onwards - except for Stu and I, the only members of our group who were heading back home after this tour. It was sad. 

This two week period of my life will be ingrained in my memory for the rest of my days. India truly is a remarkable place, full of life and colour, amazing food, good people, sights and scents and sounds that are distinctive and vivid. We were so incredibly lucky to have a brilliant, open minded, laid back group of people to share it with and a CEO who made the experience so joyful. I came home absolutely knackered, completely overwhelmed and with a whole new perspective on the life I lead and what it all means. You cannot spend time in India without questioning what you need to be happy and I think I will always now be calmer in the face of adversity thanks to the train ride to Varanasi. 

Strangely, we have not eaten curry once since we got back but my appetite for it is returning and it won't be long before we are back on that wagon too. We gained some awesome friends and some amazing stories on this holiday, the anecdotes are still making us laugh and the pictures are still making us smile and I believe they will continue doing so for many years to come. We have already had out first mini India reunion (less than 1 month since returning!) and I am pretty sure it will not be the last.

Thank you India - never has the description of 'Incredible' been more aptly applied.