The Last Leg Solo and Train Ettiquette.
I finally got to Varanasi after two nights on sleeper trains… which was not easy or pleasant. For a start, I very nearly missed the train here, as I left it ridiculously late to catch the second train from Delhi. I had about 5 hours so I went and left my big bag at a guest house, said goodbye to James etc, generally pissed about, and then my rickshaw got stuck in traffic. I got to the station with about 9 minutes to go until it left at 4.30pm, and didn’t have a clue where the platform was… so I started running about Old Delhi Train Station shouting ‘Platform 7?!’ at innocent bystanders, and then not trusting them to have understood me when they pointed to various contradictory bridges and staircases and running off in a different direction. I finally found Platform 7 at 4.31pm, and there was no train… but I hadn’t seen one leave and I thought it can’t have gone early, so I sat on the bench and waited.
About ten minutes later I suddenly realised that Platform 7 was on both sides of the bench, turned around and there was indeed a train behind me.. but which train?? It was all in Hindi… Up until then I had used a very simple method for getting to where I wanted to go, which involved just repeating the name of the place to as many different people and in as many different tones/accents as possible, and assuming that somebody somewhere would put me in the right direction. It had always worked- I always looked like an idiot, but it had got me so far. So I went along the train saying ‘Varanasi?!’ to everyone, sometimes stressing the ‘Vara,’ sometimes the ‘nasi,’ etc. and the non-plussed faces looked more on the verge of a ‘yes’ than a ‘no,’ so I sat down. I showed my ticket to the guy next to me and he nodded, and I thought ‘thank God’ because we’d already set off.
It wasn’t particularly good fun, but also not as soul destroying as I thought spending the second night in a row on another 18 hour train- I slept a lot of it and read ‘The Lost World.’ I got up in the middle of the night for the toilet though and the guy on the bunk opposite me was blatantly taking a photo of me on his phone. Not even /trying/ to be cool about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pathetically flattered by the attention, generally, but sometimes you /just/ don’t need it… the next morning I got chatting to a young business type, who seemed perfectly nice and normal at first, but then started insisting that I meet up with him in Delhi on my last day for a Lassi (Indian fermented milk drink). I said I would if I had time, but clearly I won’t. I mean he seemed nice and all, and it was probably all perfectly innocent, but still.
The train from Jaisalmer to Delhi was interesting, we were in the same carriage as this family who’d brought their own food with them, just puffed rice and those spicy stick things you get in Bombay Mix in a plastic barrel, but they shared it all out. Now, the way things work here regarding sharing food, as I understand it: If they offer and you say ‘no,’ that’s all fine, it’s the polite thing to do. But if they offer again, you have to accept or it’s really offensive.. which in this case was fine by me because I was starving, but it’s generally a nusiance if you want to avoid getting dysentry. I thought I’d be okay with puffed rice though.
So now I’m in Varanasi, which is the most sacred place in the Hindu religion, and is on the banks of the Ganges. It was supposed to have been founded in the 6th century BC by Shiva (the main god) and most of the buildings and traditions haven’t really changed since then- apparently if you die here you go straight to heaven rather than get reincarnated, so people come here specifically to die, if they’re at the end of their tether.. so when you walk through the labyrinthe of narrow streets (the cows and motorcycles are a particular problem here) every so often you’ll here ‘RAM RAM something something, RAM RAM’ which is some kind of mantra, and you have to step to one side while they bring a body through on a stretcher. I went on a boat trip alnog the Ganges to see the ghats, and I’m pretty sure one of the rowers listed the ‘cow’ as one of the ‘five elements’ along with fire earth air and water.. The ghats are these steps all along the side of the river for pilgrims and sadhus and Brahmins (priests) and the likes to use to bathe in the Ganges. Then there are the ‘Burning Ghats,’ where they burn the bodies and send the ashes into the river. I saw it happen today, but you’re not allowed to take pictures, which makes sense.
I arranged a city tour today with the rickshaw driver who picked me up from the station, and we settled on a price, but when we set off three Spanish women had booked along as well. Which was great, because I had company and they were dead nice. But then it turned out he was charging me twice what he was charging them… so we had a bit of an argument at the end, which I won, but was unpleasant… he was supposed to be taking me to this Buddhist village called Sarnath tomorrow but I don’t know if he will now.. James and I got into a fight in Jaisalmer with a rickshaw driver who charged us 30 rupees but then a local got in and he only charged him ten. He lied about it but I happened to know the Hindi word for ‘ten’ so he wasn’t getting nothing past us. Anyway, at the end the guy blatantly just gave him ten in front of us anyway and walked off.. we argued it out but gave him the money in the end- it wasn’t much – but it’s the principle!
SO, the city tour was good, we saw lots of temples, in this one I was just looking around, minding my own business, when a couple of priests ambushed me and plonked me down in front of a shrine, gave me some insense, slapped a black bracelet round my wrist, but a Hindu spot on my head and the gave me a golden ladel full of Ganges water… I’d seen the Indians put this on their heads and then into their mouths, but I just pretended- I’m steering clear of Ganges water after what they’ve dished out of there, human body parts and ashes and sewage and the likes.