Day 14-15: Varanasi, India

 

The journey from Orchha to Varanasi, the holy city, was very much an experience. I think it is safe to say everybody had misconceptions on what the next few days would entail!! Most had experience European overnight trains, which look like 5 star hotels compared to what we were on! I had done a bit of research so I knew to expect the worst. But I had also envisioned the city to be a bit mystical on the banks of the Ganges. I saw a picture that had tea lights blanket the water. Here is what really happened….

It started when AJ announced the bunk numbers. We were all separated. When we first heard the configuration of 8 in a “compartment” (they are not closed), we had images of staying up most the night together and playing games. Nope not going to happen. Some people started to get a little nervous. I was ok at this point. Then we had to contend with being everyone’s entertainment on the platform. People were staring at us. And not in a discreet way. This one guy was basically a couple of feet away from our group, standing face on and staring. This made most of us uncomfortable to a point I said in a firm way “What are you staring at?!” He shook his head and said nothing, shuffled a bit, but kept staring until I gave him another award-winning Skye interaction and he moved on. Our favourite was a guy who we called crazy eyes and his family. At first we thought it was just him and he looked like a crazed person, until we realised his family of 8 had their eyes also fixed on us. We weren’t doing anything of interest except standing and waiting for a train. It was sad as we didn’t know if these people were homeless or in transit as whole families were asleep on the platform.

crazy eyes

As the train pulled up at 11pm, again we scurried on with our bags. It was packed and this is when I started to get a little bit anxious. Ryno was the first on. Now he is our South African lad who is not small in stature. He is over 6ft and when I looked up and saw he was scrunched up on his bunk with his bag my thought was “OH HELLLLLL NO!! NOT FOR THE NEXT 12 HOURS!” I was happy that my bed was a top bunk and on the side of the train as there is only 2 beds. Opposite me was two bunks of 3. Someone threw my bag up for me and I climbed up and just sat to get away from the crowded aisle. I was happy that Stefan was on the next bunk and was only a thin wall away. The train was so overcrowded that people waited for hours in the aisle for free bunks. I had to wake up a guy from Stefan’s bunk and tell him to get off it.

train 2

I just sat there for a while taking in my surroundings and trying to come up with a game plan and how to work with such a small space. I was super happy I had made myself a separate bag for the trip that had my snacks, my neck pillow (made from thick memory foam) and my pashmina. I pulled out my cable lock and secured my daypack and backpack which was up on my bed with me. Which everything locked up and secure, I now had piece of mind and I didn’t have to worry. Next was to get into a sleeping position. I managed to create a little cradle area for my feet. With my pashmina as my blanket and my neck pillow in place I drifted off to sleep. I actually slept really well.

I awoke to the sound of a man yelling in fast succession “Chai Chai Chai Chai Chai”. It was morning and at each stop, the tea guys would jump on selling cups of Chai to weary travellers. The man under Ryno’s bunk sat across on another bed so he could unwind himself and sit up. When I came to say hi, Stefan and Amanda where also chilling there. The four of us had a breakfast of Oreo cookies and Amanda’s Chex mix. Aj came and found us and broke the fantastic news that the train was running 2.5 hours late! The good news was that the next stop most of the people were getting off so we commandeered an area to ourselves where we did finally play some games, got to know each other with a bit of “Never Ever” although it was a bit lame without any drinks. We arrived in Varanasi and headed to the hotel for a much need shower and toilet. Next it was our sunset boat ride on the river Ganges!!

three monkeys
Train shenanigans…

With 3 to a tuk tuk, we squished in the back. Off we went with our first look at the city. First impression was not good and I wish my review got better, but it doesn’t. It is very polluted and dusty. Many people have face masks on. I did develop the same cough I got in China from their pollution. After a 20minute ride we ditch the tuk tuks and walk through some alleyways to get to the water’s edge. Oh my lord was this bad. The smells! Cow shit, urine and maybe human shit, who knows. It was absolute filth. We then entered a covered alleyway lined on one side with homeless people and as we exited, there it was, the great Ganges!

Again something serene came over me. Maybe it was just being able to see a body of water. Before getting on our wooden boat, we went for a wander down near where they do the cremation. They do 160 a day. We saw one that had just started. The body was wrapped up but you could make out the head and the feet. Hindu’s believe that the circle of reincarnation is broken if you get cremated on the Ganges or if you die next to it. The body must be there within 24 hours of passing. Due to this reason, Varanasi built an airport to fly “people” in.

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Cremation fires.

Out on the water we lit little tea lights that were placed in the middle of marigold flowers. We had to make a wish and float them out onto the river. It was a really nice moment. We then went down to where they do their nightly ritual on the river bank. A hundred or so boats had people on the river watching, while hundreds of others were on the bank itself. Again the Chai guy came by so we sipped Chai on the Ganges as we watched the sunset.

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on the river

Afterward we split up as a few went back to the hotel while the rest of us went to dinner at Varanasi’s only “Steak House”. Now remember we are in India were cows are sacred. It was run by a Nepalese family and the steak was actually water buffalo. I had a “steak” with garlic sauce and I tell ya, it was the bomb digity! It tasted so good.

We had an early rise in the morning as we were going back to the Ganges for a sunset ride. I enjoyed this so much as living on the west coast, I don’t see many amazing sunrises. it was lovely. We all opted to wear the same clothes because they were dusty and smoky from the night before. Might as well only grub up one outfit.Afterwards we went to a bakery and I had pancakes for breakfast. They were so yummy. We then had a free day, to which a lot of us went back to bed.

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In the late afternoon we squished back into the tuk tuks and headed out to Sarnath. It is the first place Buddha gave a sermon and is considered a very holy place for Buddhist. Got a little excited at the site of my first pray wheels.

It was then on to dinner. When we pulled up we were so excited. The place was part of a swish hotel. Finally a bit of old school imperial India. As we sat down we got the drinks menu. It was huge and it had alcohol!! We excitedly trilled that tonight’s dinner were going on credit cards so we could enjoy the bar. The first person went to place their drink order and things started to take a turn for the worst. They were out of most alcohol to make the cocktails. The mood mellowed very quickly. One couple ordered a jug of margaritas, this should be funny. We all waited with bated breath as it came out and they poured their first drink and took a sip, “Well…. How is it?”, with his lovely Scottish accent, I say lovely because I think anyone who has one is an instant comedian because I am a huge Billy Connolly fan, he simply said “This is NOT a margarita”. He pulled the bartender aside to have words and it turned out he put all the right alcohol in, but was missing some mixer and decided to top it up the jug with water! So lesson learnt, don’t order cocktails in a country that don’t drink and can’t taste their products!

By the end of dinner, Amanda was rudely spoken to by the hotel staff, Graham had a confrontation with the bartender, it was safe to say we were ready to leave India. We were very excited for our travel day tomorrow as we were crossing the border to Nepal.

On the way home I didn’t have to squish into my tuk tuk as there was only two of us. Myself and Carol. We made some small talk and then suddenly we broke away from the group. She had asked the driver to stop on the way home to get insect repellent. We went to the first place but they only had cream, she wanted spray. Then we went somewhere else. By now my patience was very much tested. It was late, I had to still shower and repack. We had a 5am departure.

We finally get back to the hotel. We entered and exited through a back ally as the front was on a main one way road. I told Carol I was just getting water from the little stall. I turn around and realised she had left me out there out alone. Thanks a lot Carol.

The best thing about the night, was getting our laundry back! Fresh clean clothes, which was probably bashed against rocks in the Ganges!

 

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