The funny thing about any journal that I keep is that I tend to withhold the extreme joys and pains. Perhaps the highs seem too ethereal – or somehow karmically flawed. And the lows, well, they’re etched into my mind anyhow and hopefully time will erase them altogether… Note to future generations: if there are gaps, it likely means it was very good or very bad. Bottom line, I’m not the best journalist.
I set my alarm to leave Varkala before sunrise (ugh) and met the driver who would take me to Trivandrum (approx an hour away with no traffic). The streets of southern India in the early morning hours were so similar to life in Ecuador (people going to prayer, work, setting up stands, etc), it was comforting to watch out the speeding window. Trivandrum is one of those tiny developing world airports where you’re never quite sure what is going to happen when, and yet you’re treated a bit like royalty. Clueless extravagance.
Long story short: flight delayed, anxiety (due to connection in Bangalore and ultimately a train to catch in New Delhi), quick flight on Kingfisher to Bangalore (aka Bangaluru, which is much more fun to say), posh layover in BLR (shocking distinction from TRV, but such are the extremes in India), long flight to New Delhi (flying from TRV to DEL is like flying from BOS to SFO), immediately grab a cab to the train station, all hell breaks loose…
Well, not exactly, but kindof. People in the south warned me that they “were much friendlier.” And all the tourist books tell you to look out for scams. So after three-plus weeks in southern India, I stepped out of my cab at the New Delhi train station without any suspicion (clearly everyone exaggerates!) and stepped straight into a set-up. I had a printed ticked for a 6pm train to Varanasi. It was 4pm. When you enter the station at New Delhi, you have to go through security which wasn’t uncommon but rarely enforced. In this case, the “security guard” looked at my ticket and told me that my train was delayed due to ice in the Himalayas. No problem, I’ll wait. But oh no no – there’s a train from Old Town leaving in an hour and I can take that one instead. He’ll hail me a rickshaw directly to the ticket office. Gee, thanks. Except that ticket office is actually a travel agency where I’m immediately told that there are no seats on that train. But they have a solution. How wonderful! For $200ish, a driver will take me to Varanasi the next day – and even stop in Agra for a view of the Taj. And now I know this is a scam, but I don’t know where I am and I don’t know how to leave. So after nearly an hour of lamenting that I don’t want a private driver and really just want to go back to the train station to see if my train gets canceled (as they promised it likely would), the owner comes along and says he’s heard the train is on the move and will do me a favor and take me back. But hey, if that train doesn’t show, they’re here to help. How generous!
It isn’t until I’m dropped back at the train station and get the same story about the train being delayed that I realize even the security guys are in on it. I insist that I just want to enter the station and look at the departure board and demand that they cannot prevent me from going in. And when the guy grabbed my ticket from my hands and walked away from the line, I lost it because I KNEW this was all orchestrated and DO NOT try to move me somewhere that people won’t notice. And wouldn’t you know?? By the time I entered the station, my train was listed on time and at the platform so I went immediately there and found my sleeper class (SL) berth without issue.
Except that I was traveling in a car with a family and very outspoken father who, in broken English criticized me for traveling alone and not speaking Hindi. Not for nothing, his son was sitting next to me wearing a Polo shirt with an American flag on it and reading an English-language magazine. And I was so. fed. up!! Shortly thereafter, guards came through the car and asked me to sign a document stating that I would not hold them accountable if anything happened to me (theft, battery, worse…). Where am I??!
So that was my introduction to northern India. For the most part, it got better from that point on.
Warning: Varanasi is an exceptionally photogenic place. I’ve done some major editing and still ended up with over 30 photos…
January 26, 2011
After traveling from Kerala and an overwhelming introduction to Varanasi (walked the ghats without a moments peace; vendors and beggars descend like vultures and follow you), I took today to rejuvenate at Hotel Surya – sleep late, watch a movie, read, lunch, facial/pedicure/threading. While I was online tonight, there was an increasingly loud procession moving our way. I stepped out to find a full blown wedding march – lights, bands, dancing, banners – in the street in front of the hotel. Apparently the groom (along with everyone else in town) was on his way to meet the bride.
January 27, 2011
Wandered the ghats and Old Town today, taking tons of pictures of the art. The Ganga (Ganges River) was black, but still people of all ages were bathing at the shore. The Ganga at Varansi is believed to absolve people of their sins, and so even though it’s ridiculously contaminated, people dip in and even drink from the water! The most interesting had to be an Asian woman wearing a SARS mask, standing at the foot of a ghat calf-deep in the Ganga. Ended up behind a funeral procession winding through Old Town and watched some of the ceremony. I’ve been timid about paying too much attention at the burning ghats (feels like voyeurism) but was told that it’s actually a sign of respect to stop and witness the ceremony; to acknowledge the life that was. The music, the dancing, weaving their way through the tight streets of Old Town – feels like a movie. You could be lost forever in Varanasi.
January 28, 2011
I’m learning that if you take Varanasi slowly, it’s a pretty phenomenal place. It’s the kind of experience where you really want a travel buddy, though. Took an evening tour to see the Aarti ceremony on the Ganga. It was quite peaceful to cruise the Ganga at night with hundreds of other boats and small candles floating in the river – wishes made. The Aarti ceremony is a traditional daily ritual to pay respects to the holy Ganga, from which life flows, and was very colorful and festive.
January 29, 2011
On a train… Highlight of my day was a little girl (maybe one or two years old) giving me a silent namaste. Woke at 5:30am to watch the sun rise over Varanasi – people bathing, praying, practicing yoga, washing clothes. It was cloudy, but still magical. Then over to the Viswanath temple at the University. Back into town to walk the alleyways and buy some beads. Found a yummy vegetarian restaurant for aloo palak and masala chai. First real rain today too, just as we stepped off the boat, so we hurried through the back alleys to the car.
More of my India diaries: