Varanasi

Trip Start Oct 20, 2008
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Trip End Oct 20, 2009


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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Sunday, December 21, 2008

The long and arduous trek from the southern tip of India up to the Nepal border for Christmas (and perhaps even a drink served over a real bar) set off on the evening of Sunday 14th December with a 27 hour train journey.  Indians like to rise with the sun and by 6am the carriage was full of unmuzzled conversations and music blaring from mobile phones.  As we settled into the day's ride, sharing the carriage with 4 brothers, a man with pitifully thin preying mantis legs crawled through the train corridor pointing from his legs to his outstretched hand repeatedly.  This was the start of what became a procession of freakish, out-of-work circus performers filing past every hour or so.  We had four agressive eunochs, a shouting blind man with no eyes, an indian dwarf, a boy showing us his mangled hand, an aggressive singing woman with such a peaceful haunting voice when she stopped punching the locals for money, a man with his arm back to front (his elbow was where his biceps should have been and the rest of the arm folded backwards and lastly a shaven headed old lady who kept lolling her sleeping head on Fiona's shoulder.  Where these people come from and go to on the train is a mystery but we concluded there must be a separate carriage where they let one out every hour to stalk the train.

The train arrived at midnight in Visakhapatanum and disembarking we started to walk the eerily dark and quiet streets to find a lodge.  With most places seemingly full or unwilling to take us we eventually found a room and dismounted from our packs ready to flop.  Brushing my teeth i heard a scream from Fiona and rushing in i knew from her face we had an insect.  In the bed turning over her pillow Fiona had revealed the enormous cockroach.  It scuttled for cover under the base of the bed and unable to find it we nervously secured ourselves in our silk liners and watched TV pretending it wasn't there and managing to convince ourselves that it was probably time for it to sleep anyway.  The sleep timer on the TV clicked off the set and the room plunged into darkness as we tried to drop off.  Not sure why i opened my eyes but in the gloom i saw the cockroach climbing up my silk liner and with screams of "Not the face" i successfully levitated off the bed bouncing fiona into action in a millisecond.  It stared back at us on the white sheets and without thinking i managed to drop a glass over it and moved the critter to be dealt with in the morning.

The industrial town of Visakhapatanum was not the most welcoming of places and obviously didn't entertain many visitors but we found an oasis in a cultivated mountainside park where the views of the coastline were magnificent.  From the top we spied a walkway to the beach where we had ascended the mountain so heading back in the cable car we went for a walk along the beach.  We noticed an old man squatting near the sea and, getting closer, it was clear he was having a crap.  Focusing forward we began to see little, open shallow graves of shit everywhere.  Now seeing a number of staggered people squatting and seeing silhouttes in the near distance flickering round a major fire of rubbish on the beach we hot-footed it off the beach in disgust.  It is bewildering to us how little respect they have for nature and their environment sometimes.  Are they blind to the mountains of plastics and packets glogging up the vile streams of sludge. Their deficating liberalism and active disregard for tossing personal rubbish wherever they choose goes beyond mere western aestetic appeal and although indians rave about their fantastic immune systems i fear it is ultimately Mother Earth who will not be able to stomach the fight . 

At the station that night we met Danny, a friendly indian man who sat next to us and as was now normal started to talk to us.  He asked us if we could do him a favour and try and find a wife for him in England and keep in close contact with progress.  He was deadly serious.  After trying to explain women in England may not easily drop everything and come to India he said he would help smooth the move.  The intensity of our 30 minute conversation was completely alien to us but his openess and honesty at times was touching (if not sociopathic).  

The train was cold and by 7am the next day with little sleep we arrived in our next destination to scramble north.  The train after this was leaving at 7pm so we had 12 hours to kill without a hotel room hanging around the station and grotty town streets.  Cutting the day up into hourly segments didn't really help and by 7pm our resolve was wavering. 

Although our train arrived in Umaria at 2am we had no way of knowing what lay in wait.  No books, apart from the train timetable, confirmed the existance of Umaria.  It was close to the National Park we wanted to go to and instead of stopping in the large town further away we decided in our push for time (and drink) to chance it hoping a hotel awaited us!  The only ones to disembark at Umaria we crossed the bridge at the dimly lit station and were immediately offered a tuctuc and clean hotel. Success!  As the sun streamed through the curtains a loud, continous banging on the door broke through our consciousnesses and i opened the door bleary-eyed and annoyed.  It was 6:30am and the tuctuc man who picked us up was stood there offering us a lift to the National Park!  

Taking the local bus we arrived in the peaceful Tala.  Walking along the road looking for a place to stay we met a scottish couple who were looking for people to fill a jeep for a cheaper tiger safari in the park.  Things were looking up.  There was the scottish couple, fi and me and an incredibly bored looking canadian who spoke only to confirm his identity.  A 4 hour trek around on the hunt for tigers yielded nothing but a couple of wild bicycles and goose chases but we had a good laugh apart from the candian who was left expressionless at the end and we left him just standing at the exit waiting for death.  A couple of precious hours in the warm sun before the bus back to Umaria was the last we were to experience for the next couple of months.  Back in Umaria we waited and waited before boarding the 4:20am train to Varanasi.

In the afternoon on that train we met a chilled and genuine indian guy, called Babu, a 23-yr old from Varanasi who was travelling back after seeing family in Hampi (the boulder place).  He helped us into the old town at Varanasi to the hotel where we wanted to go but as that was full he arranged his friend to take us to his and organised a cheap price for a great view over the numerous ghats of the River Ganges now shrouded in the foggy cold air of a chilly north indian winter.  The Ganges (or Ganga here) was markedly different to the emereld green fresh waters of Rishikesh.  With that many thousands of bacterial extretions, sewage and filth it was officially termed "septic" by the UN in 2002 so what better way to appreciate it than a relaxing boat trip to view the different ghats.

We reached the infamous burning ghat where between 25 and 600 bodies are burned each day from the eternal fire that has been burning for over 2000 years.  Charred building facades, powerful plumes of grey smoke created a somber air that did not fill with emotion.  Women, on account of the wailing and sometimes throwing themselves on the funeral pire, were banned from the ghat (although tourists of both sexes were allowed to view from distances) and the male relatives of the deceased who unwrapped the stiff corpses and lit the prepared piles of firewood went about the work calmly and efficiently without fuss.  When finally reduced to ashes and thrown in the Ganga, in true Indian style, the bodies were seived for gold.

The old city was great and away from the countless touts selling pashminas, boat trips and black market currency deals the tiny shops and dizzying mass of narrow streets were full of life.  The usual smells of dung, incense, sour milk, spices, piss and tea all chopped into each other without warning.  Over the 3 days there we collected some cheap warm clothing for Nepal, met up with Babu for drinks and finished by watching the Aarti (river ceremony) in the evening circling the route by echoing our arrival to India at the aarti in Rishikesh but we were really ready to face a new challenge in a new country.  Our mission to be in Nepal for Christmas was nearly complete.

I'm going to have real problems summing india up and am not sure whether it can be summed up.  It is like trying to explain the offside rule to a deaf guy without the use of your arms.  It makes less sense the more you try to articulate it - a country full of contradictions, non-sensical complications and dead ends.

India is unashamedly India.  It does not try to be anything else, western modernisation a small dent in their hard shell of deep-rooted culture.  Its true heart, like any country, lies in its people.  With a population that will overtake China in 15 years on half the land mass the country could not function without the great level of tolerance or the unflinching drive for postivity and life whatever the circumstances.  A double-edged sword for us really insofar as the daily smiles and friendly, out-of-their-way help (not counting the annoying touts) was never an effort or chore to them and made our passage through India a really pleasureable eye-opener but the fact in 2 months we couldn't get a minute to ourselves was tiring and, at times, wearing. 

Train travel was the best way to watch their interactions and bizarre social codes without too much interruption.  For example, the unreserved parts of the trains were packed with bodies.  At any station hundreds of people pile into the small openings pushing, shoving, clambering and bawling at each other  Fighting for seats and space the train slowly pulls away as stranglers and the older folk throw themselves over each other onto the moving train.  As soon as its left the platform however the shouting and commotion stops and a sudden polite calm descends and guys who were near violence moments earlier are exchanging customary head wobbles.  It's bizarre to watch (and unimaginable in the UK) but this as with the chaotic but rage-less roads, the miles of slum housing and even the cows wandering the streets seem to work off some doctrine of necessity.  Every person wants/needs a seat on the long journey so of course they'll do everything to get one.  They'll do what they have to do but accept and understand that others are merely trying to do the same so getting irrate or confusing faux-politeness is alien to them.  All's fair in love and war.  In the UK we have love and hate, they have need and greed (but in India both are played out with a genuine smile!)  

This is why they love the English's purported sense of fair play (one of many collonial stereotypes they hold and cherish) and why the Mumbai bombings were such a blow to them (no pun!?) as the incredible range of strongly-felt religions mingle easily and visibly in peace with each other.

This could go on so i'll stop but needless to say we loved every hectic minute and no doubt the country's magnatism will draw us back one day.

.....bring on Nepal....

      

   
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Comments

sazzle-tee
sazzle-tee on

Wowed away
My lovely mr and mrs jones. What can I say -i am so utterly wowed away with your tales of travel and culture and people i am literally lost for words (a first for Sazzle! ha ha). You sound and look like you are having the best, most loved up time and i couldn't be happier for you both. Obviously missing you like crazy but your tales are helping me feel like i'm there with you on your travels (apart from the fact of the fantastic tans you are both developing which I am sadly not in the December newcastle sun!!) Looking forward to the next installment. Love you both oodles. Sazzle and bump x

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