This weekend, a friend and I went to Varanasi, a holy city situated on the banks of the Ganges. We left on Friday night by overnight train, spent Saturday and Sunday there, and returned by overnight train (it’s about 10-12hrs journey) Sunday night. I got home by about 8:45am Monday morning, and got ready for work… and I. Am. So. Tired. Now.
First, the train: as I’m sure you can guess, the trains of India are an adventure on their own. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – if you read too much TripAdvisor, you can get put off by some of the horrific reports. Anyway, like most things in India, the system works as a whole, but it’s very confusing, there’s not much signage, and no one will help you. There are tons of people everywhere, and a lot of people sitting and lying on the floor on the platforms or flash mob dancing to Jai Ho a la Slumdog Millionnaire. We did eventually find our train, and our car. We had booked Second Class AC, which is an air-conditioned coach with sleeping berths two high. There are 4 beds per curtained off area on the right side and then others running lengthwise along the left side. It’s… cozy, to say the least. As soon as we found our berth area and sat down (across from the two men who were sharing our cubby), we were an instant attraction for everyone else on the train, especially the kids. It was a very rickety train and didn’t go very fast, I think the average speed was only between 50 and 60kph. The washrooms were, shall we say, basic: squat toilets that open straight onto to the tracks below and there’s a grab bar to hang on to as the train rocks and jerks its way along. It took some balance. I actually liked sleeping on the train, despite the fact that it was a clunker. I woke up at 4:30am – on my birthday!!!!!! – when people started getting up and getting ready for earlier stops and couldn’t really fall back to sleep. Someone did come to tell us when it was time for us to get off (no announcements, no signs or anything) but it was still very confusing. We were standing there at the open back door and the train was still moving, albeit slowly, and this guy was telling us we “must get off now” and I wasn’t sure if he meant we had to jump down. I honestly didn’t know if the train was going to stop at a platform, because I couldn’t even see the station at that point, or if we were just expected to jump from a distance of 6 ft off the ground from a moving train and walk the rest of the way. I mean, people were running up to the train and getting on while it was moving, so my thinking here really isn’t all that unrealistic.
Fortunately, the train did eventually stop at an actual platform. A driver from the hotel was there to meet us (one of the only good things about being a token whitey is the ease with which a driver can find you) and took us to the hotel, where we had breakfast (greasy aloo paratha and curd), rested for a little bit, then went to Sarnath where there is a Buddhist museum and temple ruins and where Buddha is thought to have given his first sermon. After, we went down to the ghats for the Ganga Aarti, a fire ceremony that is performed by a group of priests every night. [Unfortunately, something is up with my camera so I could only take pictures with my iPad this weekend. The pictures are ok, just the size and weight of the iPad meant I didn’t take any unless I was sitting down, so no interesting “street views” this time]. We sat on the roof near a temple to watch. It was awesome, my favourite part of the weekend! The chanting is recorded and blasted through a sound system (though I think the 5 priests are still chanting along at times) and there were a few musicians with bells and drums being played constantly. The noise is just fantastic. Each of the priests also has a smaller bell which is rung almost continuously with the left hand while the right works the torch, incense, and all the other objects I don’t know the names of. The priests were all pretty young and what struck me the most about them was how they moved their hands and arms so gracefully, it was almost balletic. The whole ceremony lasted just under an hour. We bought puja flower candles and floated them in the Ganges, then went on a walking tour of the ghats through the back alleys. They’re very narrow and winding and you really have to watch where you step because there are droppings (cow, goat, dog…) and garbage everywhere, but it’s really interesting to see in all the open doors to the little shops and homes and shrines on almost every corner. It’s Durga Puja right now, and Dussara is on Wednesday so there’s a very festive atmosphere, with coloured lights strung up everywhere and music playing in the streets. We went and saw the burning ghats, where they do the cremations, but we didn’t get too close. After, we made our way back to the hotel and had dinner (oversalted dal and mushroom Peshawar – I’m looking forward to a repeat birthday dinner, if anyone’s interested) and went to bed.
Sunday morning we got up at 5 and met our guide who was taking us on a boat ride to see the ghats from the water. The ghats really come alive at sunrise, as people meditate, wash in the holy Ganges, perform personal rites – and do laundry and brush their teeth. It’s hard to imagine using that water to actually clean anything – we considered ourselves lucky the only dead body we saw in the water was a cow’s because the dead who aren’t burned are just thrown in with a rock – and hand sanitizer played an important role in our weekend. Some ghats were busier than others, but it was just incredible to see that huge human experience going about the different parts of life alone or in groups. As a holy city, Varanasi is a big pilgrimage site so there are lots of religious rituals going on all the time, it’s really fascinating to have a glimpse into something so meaningful and personal even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on.
After, we had breakfast, chilled for a bit, then went and saw the temple at the university and then the Muslim area of the old city where there is a lot of silk production. Then late lunch, then we went and wandered around the ghats some more and just soaked it all in. I think Varanasi probably has the highest proportion of dreadlocks outside of Jamaica – and that’s on the white people. We saw part of that night’s aarti at a different ghat, got blessed by a little boy, attacked by a bunch of street children, then had dinner at a pizzeria overlooking the ghats before heading back to the train station. Because of the festival, we’d been advised to get there early but we ended up really early and our train wasn’t on the board yet. First we went into the Women Only 2nd class waiting area, which was empty because it smelled like a urinal, so we left and found some space on the floor of the train station where once again we were a source of incredible interest to young and old alike. At first we had quite a bit of space to ourselves, but eventually as the place got more crowded the men started settling closer and closer and, while I’m not claustrophobic, it’s one thing to be stared at and quite another to be stared at from less than a foot away.
So we went to the platforms; our train still wasn’t listed on the board or on any of the platform signs, but when I looked down I happened to see the number on the train on Platform 3 corresponded to our ticket and that was the best link we’d seen, so we got on, found our berths, made up the beds, and were asleep in no time.
This return train was nicer, actually; first of all, they gave us ice cream just for finding our berths. Score 100 points right there. The ride was smoother, faster, and they had Western toilets and gave us tea in the morning. Spoiled, I know! We made it back home from the station in a rickshaw, got ready for work, and came into the office like the troopers we are.
Overall, it was a great experience and I’m so glad I went. I’m not the bravest sort when it comes to travelling with a lot of unknowns, but think this little adventure was a good way to kick off my thirties by doing something different and just diving in. We met a Canadian family at the hotel who were in the middle of a 6 month trip all through South Asia – with their 10 and 13 year old kids. That takes some guts. They were a lot of fun and we did some sightseeing with them (their travel blog is http://mcewansonthemove.blogspot.ca if you want to follow their journey too). I have one more trip this week; I’m heading to Lucknow for a field visit, then in only a week I’ll be done and on my way to Hawaii. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone, how much I’ve seen and changed. I’ve pretty much made peace with the fact that I’m almost done now, and I am getting excited to see everyone, but leaving still feels bittersweet.