Unforgettable Fire

Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, May 13, 2010

After a surprisingly good sleep, we awoke on the train to find that we were even further delayed than at time of boarding, although this wasn't altogether a bad thing giving us a chance to view some of the countryside from the "comfort" of our air-conditioned cabin. With our breakfast still in front of us (omelette, roti and tea) we were asked if we’d like to order lunch…veg biryani or non-veg biryani? I’m amused by the fact that many dishes are either veg or non-veg i.e. no description of the non-veg, and it is often egg! Having established that the non-veg was chicken this time we ordered some of each and took advantage of the situation to get some school work done.

Lunch arrived and was surprisingly good, though maybe not worth the 480 rupees asked for. Upon questioning the price and brandishing our paperwork showing that meals should be about 30 rupees each, the disgruntled railway employee disappeared and returned a short while later with a copy of the official Indian Railway menu (might’ve been nice to have seen that before ordering). The actual price for our whole lunch was 150 rupees not 480... you have to keep your eye on the ball here.

On arrival at Mughal Serai, we disembarked from the train to be met with a wall of heat (~45+C) and nobody from the hotel anywhere in sight. A quick phone call determined that we were facing the task of finding a taxi into Varanasi (about 12km away) at a reasonable rate ourselves as the supposed driver had abandoned us. With hot competition for our business, Derek managed to get a good deal and we were on our way. The taxi ride was quite the experience, hurtling along dusty roads, the driver constantly leaning on the horn, watching the interesting array of other “traffic” from coal trucks to tuk tuks to cows! We were a little concerned when the driver pulled up in front of a silk shop with the hotel nowhere in sight and told us we’d have to walk the rest of the way? Uh oh, had we been scammed? Two boys from the silk shop reassured us that it wasn’t far to the hotel and that we would have to walk as vehicles aren’t allowed any closer than we were. They also offered to help with the bags, and so we set off after them to find the Hotel Alka.

It soon became clear why the taxi couldn’t take us to the hotel as we walked through the narrow streets (galis) leading to the ghats. Varanasi is famed for its location on the Ganges and its ghats. The ghats are generally sets of concrete steps leading down to the waters edge; many of the ghats are bathing ghats, but others have specific purposes such as the river worship ceremonies or the more famous “burning ghats” where bonfire-cremations take place. The galis are about six feet wide and crowded with shops, people, animals and garbage galore. After about ten minutes (seems like an hour in 47 degree heat), we made it to our hotel, where the boys revealed that they didn’t want paying for carrying the bags, they wanted us to visit a silk shop; we refused and Derek paid them anyway to clear his conscience. We checked in and settled into the room; not the cleanest room in the world, but did have A/C and a fan and a good location – overlooking the river at meer ghat (a bathing ghat), in between the main burning ghat and the daily river worship ceremonies.

With our bags safely stowed in our room, we took a stroll along the riverside, constantly hounded by people selling something, from little girls selling flowers and candles for river offerings to the men trying to get you into their boats. We declined all offers and made our way to one of the ghats where they hold the daily river worship ceremonies at sunset. Having watched most of the ceremony, we wandered up the main street to find our first non-railway Indian meal and were quite happy to stumble across Madhur Milan Café, one of the LP recommended restaurants. We ordered a variety of dishes (“special” dosa, veggie pakodas, veg thali and malai kofta) and tucked into a delicious meal. The power died partway through eating, but as the restaurant had its own generator we were able to finish the meal and made our way back to the hotel in semi-darkness. The bigger hotels have their own back-up generators, so at least the fans keep running even if the power is out, which we would discover to be a frequent occurrence.

Was it travelling through Delhi? The chicken biryani on the train? Maybe the food at Madhur Milans or something picked up somewhere else along the way? Whatever it was, it caused Derek a troubled night and the rest of the family was grateful for the noisy A/C to cover the Delhi Belly fanfare. With Derek laid up for most of the day, it was a lazy day at the hotel enjoying the A/C and the odd foray outside into the heat. Sarah and Lauren went for a wander in the late afternoon to the burning ghat and into the galis. A voyage into the galis can be something of a challenge; always watching your step (there are a lot of things you just don’t want to stand on even with shoes on), tolerating the flies and smells and figuring out just what the right protocol is – what does one do when faced with a cow’s rear end blocking your intended path?

With Derek finally upright (though still rather delicate), we decided to take up one of the boat offers, going upstream to view the burning ghats from the river and downstream to watch part of the river worship ceremony again. At the burning ghats, the flames were burning high and bright in the fading daylight; we counted about eleven different fires burning on the one ghat. People come to Varanasi to die and be cremated on the ghats before their ashes are cast into the river; the belief is that this breaks the life-death cycle. We returned to the hotel for dinner, since Derek’s been sick everybody has been playing it safe and eating fairly plain food at the hotel….maybe we’ll get braver again once he’s fully recovered.

Sarah awoke early on our final day in Varanasi, just as the sun was rising and took the opportunity to watch life unfold on the banks of the Ganges. It was mere seconds before she noticed that the hotel had some unwelcome visitors on the lower balcony, luckily Lauren was still tucked up in bed as the visitors were of the monkey variety and looked keen to cause trouble! After playing with some garbage leftovers (why do they always seem to prefer Coke) and stealing a pair of pants from the balcony of the room above, they took off and Sarah seized the opportunity to take their spot on the balcony armed with the camera. The Ganges at sunrise is quite beautiful and the mystique of the place rises to a new level in the mellow early morning light. As beautiful as the river may look at sunrise, there’s no getting away from just how dirty it is; Varanasi alone has 32 raw sewage outlets pouring straight into the Ganges, officially septic in places. And yet, all day long, people bath in it, swim in it, wash clothes in it and even drink the “magical” waters for its healing properties!

We checked out of the Hotel Alka and decided that the only way we could bear the heat of the day was to go to another hotel and pay for the use of its swimming pool while we waited for our overnight train. So we walked back through the galis, treading carefully and trying not to stare at things we’d consider unusual. Arriving at a street big enough to accommodate vehicles we jumped in our taxi and made our way to the outskirts of Varanasi to find that the hotel (Surya) was very nice and so we made good use of its facilities until 9pm before heading off by taxi to the train station. So what of the sacred city of Varanasi? Somewhat spiritual yes, but ultimately scorching and sapping for us.

On arrival at the station we discovered that the 2210 would be delayed for three and a half hours (Why was it a surprise?). We found the waiting room and proceeded to sit and sweat for ultimately another four hours before making our way to the listed platform for our train. Standing on the platform, surrounded by the usual array of sleeping and non-sleeping Indians, provided a perfect view of dozens of rats scurrying around on the tracks scavenging “food” and avoiding the dogs and railway employees servicing the train on the adjacent platform. Straining to hear the announcements over the engine of the waiting train, we discovered that they had made a last minute platform change and we had to grab our luggage and rush with the crowd to the new platform (Note: Just heard that 2 people died in a similar stampede in Delhi). We made it on to the platform just as the train pulled in and managed to find our carriage without too much trouble….it was exactly the same one that we had taken two days earlier in the other direction. Cabin B was much the same as cabin A and by 2:30 am we had all climbed into our sleeping bags and fallen into our beds…next stop Agra….
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Shirley on

I'm jealous, except for the 45degrees and the monkeys.

countrybumpkin on

Chocolate and Banana Pancakes are the way forward. Staple diet for any gastroenteritis recovery.
Keep your eyes out in Agra for a man with legs where his arms should be and vice versa. He is my hero.
Ask a local boy to get you some Kingfisher beer in Agra. They don't have bars (other than in the hotels) so they nip off to (possibly illegal) bottle shops, and provide cold(ish) beautiful beer....

Alphonsine on

India will be a superpower! It's growing at 8-9%. It's the world's biggest democracy and it is based on innovation! - not copying other people like China! You have to look beneath some of the dirt to see the emerging superpower status and the beauty.

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