Saturday, November 17, 2007

Varanasi, India

Sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” – sort of
Clanking of train wheels and tooting of loud horns
Sellers of chai tea and people of loud snore
Bare toes that wiggle under white crispy sheets
These are a few of the things best to ignore.
When the flies bite
When the sanitizer stings
When I’m feeling bad
I simply ignore all these things in my space
And then I don’t feel so sad

Yep, we spent the night on a sleeper train clanking our way over the Indian rails to travel from Orchha to Varanasi. The night on the sleeper train was a much-dreaded component of this Gap tour but it simply wasn’t as bad as my raw throat and dizziness.

It’s winter here so instead of reaching 48 degrees in the afternoon the temperature merely ambles toward 30 or so and that passes for “cold” here. The point is that since it’s winter the fans weren’t turned on. From my slot on the top bunk, I looked longingly at the aluminum blades wishing they would move the air but seeing the Indians mummy-like in woolen blankets, heads buried to conserve heat, it was senseless to ask.

Let me describe the train. The length of the car on one side has triple bunks where the middle berth folded down to become the back of the bench and created seating for three when folded or sleeping for 3 when deployed. On the other side of the train there are only two. The bottom berth becomes two seats or one berth. (I’ll try to get photos posted.)

During the night, the train seemed to move about 10 minutes and stop for 5. While it moved the snoring was masked by the many train noises. When the train stopped it was as if the snoring went through a clarifying filter sharpening the edge of each sound to increase the fingernails on chalkboard sensation.

I hesitate to speak of dinner last night but it was, again, part of the experience, an experience that moves between fascination and “totally bummed out.”

Treat Restaurant occupied one side of a large building while the other side had some kind of children’s restaurant or play area whose main purpose was to provide music loud enough to cause brain damage. Shortly after we ordered the music stopped inducing in me an enormous gratitude.

We ordered and I glanced to my left, toward the kitchen, to see a rat scamper across the floor and scoot under a cabinet.

I was sitting across from a pale, sad Jen tightly wrapped in her shawl. We talked earlier while she recharged her Blackberry and she told me she thought herself adventurous before this trip began but is now reassessing. I hoped she hadn’t seen the rat.

I guessed she would either stare open-mouthed and silent in an over-load condition or scream insistently but her eyes were closed putting me in a moral dilemma. Should I tell her or be silent? I chose silence and instead gave deep thought on my own situation. Would I eat the meal we just ordered?

Certainly we had seen rats throughout Asia and in some Hindu temples the people share food with rats and consider that to be a blessing. I can live without such a blessing.

The train station was like others but since it was night it didn’t smell so bad. We settled in and rode for about 12 hours. When we arrived in Varanasi, a group of porters fought over who would carry Jen’s bag to the tuktuk and finally the tour leader took her bag and walked away. We tuktuked through staggering traffic to arrive at the hotel where our rooms were not ready.

When we finally checked in, the room looked nice but for the cockroaches on the walls in the bathroom. At least traffic sounds don’t penetrate into our sleeping area much at all.

There was a wasted hour during which we assembled as directed to go on our walking tour orientation to the city but that’s not what we got. We were told to pay the tuktuk drivers money and they would take us to a temple in the next village. We had been on a train for most of the previous 24 hours and then in a tuktuk from the train station so going another 20 km in another tuktuk didn’t sound great.

There was more conversation and an exchange of ideas and then the group split into shoppers and explorers and walkers. We were the only walkers. We just headed down the road and saw a Hindi wedding and browsed in shops finding spice alley and metal work factories. I took enough photos to fill the memory card.

There have been a lot of wasted hours with people being late or having misunderstandings or because Brahm, our tour leader, gave incomplete information or because he spends forever haggling or because he simply isn’t very organized. Others say that GAP tours are generally better organized with more involved guides.

Rick and I walked the streets of Varnasi for a couple of hours. The city is a mass of humanity, all driving or walking or riding bikes on a single street at one time. The street is clogged with cows, piles of trash, goo, spit and urine. If there is a corner, there is a man peeing in it. If there is not a corner, likely a man will pee just the same.

Bells ring, horns blast or beep or squawk and flies fill the spaces between all. (I exaggerate marginally.)

We have in our group three Jens. Tall blonde Jen is sick and not interested in being sick here so is going home. She is getting to the airport by air conditioned car and saying farewell to the tuktuk experience.

There is also not-tall blonde Jen, called Jenny at times, who is always, always laughing and smiling. Third is dark-haired mysterious Jen, adventure woman. Dark haired Jen is the Jen involved in the “my tea leaves have legs” incident in Agra. She has been traveling for months and will go home around Christmas.

Jen and I joked about being able to eat bits of things in our food as long as they had no legs but then I sat across from her at dinner and she delicately picked a bit from her dal. When placed on her bread plate, out of the way, I saw tiny legs sticking up – a cockroach escaped from a bathroom perhaps. She just smiled and ate the dal. Gotta admire the pluck.

Saturday started early with a trip to the Ganges for morning festival. This is the festival to the sun god who will give “sons” long life if he is kept happy. Every morning many people go to the river to bathe and brush their teeth and wash clothes but on festival morning there are a few thousand extras. We went in a huge row boat to view a long stretch of river.

Rick expected the Ganges to be a astench-pit but it wasn’t though it would take great effort to clear it up enough to someday call it murky. We took about 200 photos. Again, to be posted when possible.

(Jen, I know that you will read this so please forgive me for the rat story. Take care and best to you in the land of first class service. Elaine)

1 comment:

Emilie said...

I don't know whether I should laugh or cry for you, Mom.

Shall I just distract you then? Ok, I'd rather tell you this while you a world away anyway, so here's something new to think about: we made your cat fat. I'm sorry! It's true. She's a round little spaceship. I don't know how it happened, but there is way more York to love just think about a warm fat cat on your lap in your own home soon.

love you,