13th- 19th January 2014
The Indian Microcosm
Varanasi. A melting pot of India in one city, so they say. Week 21 and the Sabretoothed Chickens’ Tour train arrives at Varanasi Junction. Well they’re right so far: the train arrives about half a kilometre short of the station and waits for half an hour. Some people climb off onto the tracks and wander off, others stop for a smoke. Bemused travellers wait so we can get our bags off onto the platform. A barefoot, bearded, ageless orange-turban-clad holy man clambers across six sets of tracks, carrying only a cane and a linen bag. A cow wanders past.
Finally the train grinds into gear and shunts the last stretch to the platform. We haul ourselves off – do a bag and child count, and plunge into the mass. We’re actually getting used to this routine a tiny bit now: line up a few hotel targets from the guidebook, brace ourselves, and plough like everyone else through the crowds of touts offering the best hotel deals their commission deal will earn them.
Entering the Maze
A prepaid autorickshaw putters into the streets, fully loaded. A u-turn here, the insane horns there. Crowds of pilgrims, a pile of garbage, dogs, goats, mobile phone vendors. A busy chai-wallah cart with a pile of terracotta cups outside.
We pull up alongside a wall with a hand-painted billboard for cable TV. The rickshaw vendor ensures his hand-brake is left off, and a mysterious friend who has joined us for the journey nods vigorously to our insistent “Hotel Alka”, and promptly leads us on a merry trail through the tiny streets to some other guesthouse.
It’s Varanasi’s old town, and the ancient streets are not wide enough for anything but motorbikes, people, corpse-bearers and cows. It’s been a long night on the train, and we just want a rest. A few hundred metres of dragging our bags and children and more than a few signs pointing down opposite alleys to the Alka and we realise the game that’s being played. We consult a local, and he points us in another direction. Pointing this out to our ‘guide’, we reverse direction and soon get to the hotel. The rickshaw driver gets his fare, as agreed, but the only tip we offer is: “Next time, right place, first time”.
We collapse into a small but clean room. A few hours later, we rouse ourselves and stroll to the terrace. The courtyard ends in a misty expanse: the Ganges washes and gurgles past below.
A stream of tourists – Indian and international, pilgrims, dogs and children trickle along the concrete steps. Wooden boats splash through the water, their oar strokes muffled by the fog. Above the narrow and twisting lanes and leaning buildings, a hundred small diamond-shaped paper kites flutter and jerk in the swirling breeze.
These are Varanasi’s famous Ghats.
Next morning, we head downstairs and along the Ghats, dodging a minefield of cow pats and boat wallahs. The famed steps teem with people of all kinds – it’s not hard to imagine that the scene has changed very little in the thousands of years that this has been a place of pilgrimage. Very little except perhaps the cricket pitch, painted onto the flagstones with due regard to the Laws of the Game. This is India.
Our path takes us up into the tiny winding streets again, into what appears to be a Muslim quarter, with secluded courtyards, women hurrying past in burkahs, and green flags draped above elaborate lintels. Once again we burst upon a busy street, audible from the cacophony of horns long before it is glimpsed at the end of a laneway. We watch an expert two-man team rolling, flipping and frying puris before a waiting crowd of customers. We hungrily devour some of their fresh stock.
An auto takes us to Assi ghat, where we watch people, first from a rooftop restaurant, then for a while beside a sandbar, populated with beggars, tourists, all manner of touts, and a goat which sneaks in and snaffles one of our bananas. After a good-natured haggle, a boat is secured, and a river man takes us down river back to the hotel, along the Ghats. Miraculously, the sun has emerged from its thick winter blanket, revealing the water borne perspective of this unique city.
The Burning Ghats
In the afternoon, the grown up Sabre-toothed Chickens take a stroll a hundred metres or so from the hotel to the famous Manikarnika Ghat, site of cremations. It’s a curious place, demonstrating the mix of spirituality, fatalism, and pragmatism of the Hindu approach to death.
Bodies are carried here on wooden stretchers, through the streets by chanting parties of men, wrapped in white cloth and strung with garlands of orange and mauve flowers. There are never less than two or three ‘funerals’ occurring at once, at all times conducted in public, with the usual crowd of staring locals, cows, and bemused or furtive tourists here to catch a glimpse. Inevitably, the touts are here as well, preying on the inherent awkwardness of the situation for us western travellers, haranguing us for ‘donations’ to nearby hospices, and offering to soothe our hesitation with a paid-for view from a nearby balcony.
While the cremations are not exactly private, nor necessarily solemn (indeed having one’s earthly remains cremated by the holy Ganges is something of a privilege for devout Hindus – and the production line of corpses arriving are not conspicuously trailed by a wailing entourage), the tout who bothered us somehow compromised the experience. We were not there to snap photos, but to observe, like many of the others standing there: this man was like a fly in our faces.
Suitably impressed, or fed up, or whatever, we returned to the hotel. Having sussed out the situation and explained the context (despite the lurid tales of some travellers we did not linger close enough or long enough to witness smouldering skulls or detached feet) we offered the boys the chance to observe the scene from an appropriate distance. It was their choice: see it now, get an idea, or perhaps return another year. They chose the latter.
Varanasi really slams India into your face. It’s quirky, it’s dirty, and it’s colourful. And it can nearly knock you off your feet, like the lumbering bovine which nearly trampled Prunella on the way home from dinner that evening.
Lassi in Varanasi
At a tangent, the theme continued the next day – I cannot say that we have experienced a more strange combination of things: sitting alongside travellers of every ilk in the Blue Lassi cafe, a tiny nook of a place established in a hundreds-of-years old ten-foot shopfront deep in the old town, sipping on a sublime concoction of curd, sugar, pomegranate seeds, almond and pistachio flakes, surfing the free wifi and watching a steady and alternating stream of cows and wobbling human corpses pass by. What a place.
Not far from the Blue Lassi is another traveller’s refuge from the inevitable diet of thali and dosa – the Brown Bread Bakery. Over four floors, a german baker years ago established this oasis, where five eternally grateful Sabre-toothed Chickens indulged in a dinner consisting solely of the finest wholemeal bread and most incredible cheddar cheese we have encountered in the four and a half months since we left Australia.
Now we are fans of chapattis, and have consumed more Naan breads in India than we could possibly count, but the simple delight of sliced home baked bread and cheese is not something easily forgotten. We had something similar the next day for breakfast, eating our Rhine lunch amid the cloudy rooftops, fluttering kites and scrambling monkeys.
The Great Varanasi Rickshaw Race
We departed Varanasi in carnival style. Unwilling to pay the tourist price for an autorickshaw to the station, we held out as the time for our evening sleeper train approached.
Eventually, a deal was secured with two pedal rickshaw drivers, and our bags and crew were loaded aboard. There followed a crazy 40 minute ride through busy streets and bumpy back roads to the station. Here the rickshaw is not a tourist vestige, but a cheap form of public transport used mostly by locals for short hops. The wiry riders, with calf-muscles that could make a Tour de France rider’s eyeballs pop, weave confidently along the street, in our case plunging through more motorised traffic with courage, skill and several hundred kilos of passengers and luggage.
Three of the passengers spent most of the trip with huge grins – for this was the Great Varanasi Rickshaw Race!
Gwalior – The Misty Fort
Day 145 of the tour sees us wake as the train pulls into a wet and misty Gwalior station. This city is a stop suggested by a few people, and is mostly bypassed by the tourist trail.
We clambered off the train, and strode through the station precinct. A combination of over-optimistic planning for on-train food seller and a thieving monkey (no, I mean a real Macaque!) at Varanasi platform 5 had robbed us of our food supplies, so we headed immediately for the only open breakfast venue – the somewhat antiquated feeling Indian Coffee House.
Seemingly a chain of these places exist, an offshoot of some organisation called the Indian Coffee Worker’s Co-op, and the waiters serve up standard fare dressed in elaborate fan-topped turbans. Clearly they take pride in their heritage, for we were served some of the finest Nescafe powered coffee their larder has to offer. Still, the coffee was hot and the French toast was….hot as well.
Our hotel proves functional – at least the stern requirement for two sets of forms and entries in the enormous guest log book is functioning correctly, if not the dual circuit power system or anything as advanced as the advertised hot water.
In the evening, returning from a pleasant dinner, we are welcomed by Dharmendra, a History PhD candidate who we’ve contacted through couchsurfing and who offers to show us around on the morrow.
The aforementioned morrow arrives, and we head out with Dharmi and a friend to explore. At first we are taken to the surprisingly magnificent Mughal-era Gwalior fort, which looms over the town. The central citadel is in the characteristic local red sandstone, and features a row of yellow ceramic ducks emblazoned on the bastions to add a menacing warning to potential besiegers.
Later we are driven down into the old town, where we are welcomed into Dharmi’s house, for cups of chai and the warmth of a family. Soon the boy are surrounded by eight or nine of the neighbourhood kids, playing paper-scissors-rock and an impromptu lesson in “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” ensues. This continues on outside, where Perth is drawn up against Gwalior in an international friendly street cricket match.
It’s a quick game, and somewhat inconclusive, terminating when a courier’s motorbike arrives at the crease to deliver a parcel to one of the nearby houses. The game is declared a draw.
We pop in to Dharmi’s faculty for a quick hello, and enjoy a lovely local lunch popular with students for its flavour and value.
Small Screen, Big Screen
The 1980s era TV, locked securely in a massive glass and wood cabinet to prevent us succumbing to the temptation of stealing it, manages to reluctantly pick up “India’s Got Talent”, and we pass the time providing the show with our own commentary, because Hindi is alien to us. This is actually a top travel tip – and works especially well with otherwise unfathomable news shows, adding another layer of hysteria to the already melodramatic evening soaps.
In the evening, Dharmi takes Graham out to the movies. Tonight the feature is Dedh Ishqiya, a Bollywood action/romance/dance affair featuring, among other things, a classic Urdu poetry competition, a six hour mexican stand-off and a pretty incredible dance scene. The movie climaxes on the platform of an isolated railway station, and some of the railway related in-jokes ring true even after only a few Indian train trips…
Talking of train trips, our sojourn in Gwalior comes to an end, and we board the morning train for Agra. Almost as soon as we settle and start swapping snacks with the family travelling in the same cube of the sleeper train, we scramble off having discovered we’ve arrived at our destination.
The platform is oddly quiet. Nonetheless the pace picks up as we emerge onto the station forecourt, and there is no trouble finding a driver to load his three wheeler with our trappings and head to the Taj Ganj area, immediately south of the great building itself. The streets here are narrow and winding, supposedly based on the village of workers who arrived to labour on the epic monument. We check in to one of the many hotels, and lunch on the rooftop restaurant, with a view of that building.
Seeing the Taj Mahal in the flesh is one of those moments. It sends a little shiver up your spine: there it was, glistening in the afternoon haze, a dark rain cloud behind it.
It is an incredible edifice, a wonder of the world and for us, like many travellers, a touchstone that says we are in India. It’s a cliche, for sure, but there you have it – the Taj that is seen on every child’s map of India, every TV travel programme you can recall, and a thousand brochures. But it’s real, and after nearly five months, we’re here.
We savoured the anticipation, for it was late in the day, and in the evening we’re invited to part one of an Indian wedding by yet another couchsurfing friend, this time an incredibly enterprising 19 year old called Aman. He invited us to his brother’s wedding function, and we enjoyed some great food and inflicted some old school disco dancing on the young crowd.
Our boys had fun, and we were seen off to our hotel where another week ended, on the verge of visiting the Taj Mahal.