ON THE HIPPIE TRAIL

VARANASI – Holy Madness

The conductor rudely awoke me at 5.00am. I think I was blocking the aisle. He also woke up Janette to make room for an unhappy-looking, fat Australian girl to sit in my seat. I stayed where I was until we reached Allahabad and then appeared from my filthy heap to breakfast on chai and toast delivered to the train. How civilised!  The Australian girl left the train, struggling with a three-storey backpack, and I reclaimed my seat as we chug-chugged our way through the countryside on a warm, sunny morning, the breeze (along with granules of coke from the steam engine) blowing into our faces through the open window. This train, the Upper India Express, stopped at virtually every station on the line and trundled slowly across a rural landscape of green fields dotted with tiny villages. Women in brightly coloured saris filled containers with water from ancient hand-pumps and elegantly carried them away, balanced on their heads. Grey buffalo bathed in rivers and ponds, stray dogs barked and children waved as we passed. The pace of life looked as slow and sedate as the camels strolling alongside the track.

Varanasi Station at two in the afternoon was bedlam.  BEDLAM!  No sooner had the train screeched and groaned to a halt it was invaded by red-turbaned coolies laden with bedrolls, bags and metal trunks, followed by the owners of the luggage, all single-mindedly intent on finding seats. We battled against this human tide, forcing our way out on to the platform. Exiting the station we fought a second skirmish with the screeching hordes of taxi and rickshaw-wallahs competing for our attention. Rather than get involved in any discussion or debate we jumped into the first trishaw, which took off on a trip around the block, only to deposit us at the ‘Tourist Hotel’, which was directly opposite, and a very short walk from, the station. The rickshaw-wallah took advantage of our confused arrival and we somehow found ourselves agreeing to to being picked up at 9.30am on the following day to be taken on a tour of the city.

Our hotel room was at the far end of a long balcony and was cool and clean with its own toilet and shower.  Unfortunately the shower was home to a very large hairy spider that Janette spotted on her ‘bug search’.  Initially we thought that it was a drawing on the wall, about the same size as a small hand, but then I threw a pen at it, which caused it to move slightly and Janette totally freaked out.  I had to get the hotel boy to come and get rid of it otherwise Janette wouldn’t have stayed in the room.  I think he thought that we were mad, but he did as we asked.

Sitting on the balcony in the sun we were approached by a smooth talking Nepalese guy who introduced himself as Kuru. He claimed to be in Varanasi to buy goods for a handicraft shop that he owned in Kathmandu and invited us to accompany him to see how saris were made, the city being famous for its silk. We told him that we weren’t really interested, sensing that he was a salesman, and that we were planning on just having a gentle stroll. He went away but suspiciously, just happened to be there as we were leaving the hotel. He invited himself to join us, pointing out places of interest including a cheap restaurant before hailing a trishaw and insisting that he show us some local handicraft work. This was the point when I should have told him to ‘Fuck off’ because it was obvious what was going on. But I didn’t and we passed the next hour being shown silk weaving, (children being paid a slave wage of 5Rupees for a twelve hour day) and then on to the wholesalers. There was a lot of pressure to buy but we resisted, (we’d already paid the trishaw fare) determined that this man would not get a paise out of us. When he finally realised that we were not buying he called another trishaw to take us all back to the hotel. We were driven around for ages before Kuru decided to get out and have his shoes cleaned. What he was actually doing was once again avoiding paying the trishaw fare. We left him there, glad to be rid of him.  But then the trishaw-wallah decided that he might be able to make a bit of easy money out of us and transported us all over Varanasi, stopping once for a squatted piss on the side of the road and once more to buy paan, (betel nut). He then took us to the wrong hotel where we had an argument, if you can call two people shouting at each other in different languages and neither of them understanding a word, an argument. Thankfully a passing sadhu who spoke both languages managed to calm the trishaw-wallah and explain to him where we wanted to go. But, of course, when we did arrive at the Tourist Hotel we had another disagreement over the fare. He wanted 5Rupees because he had travelled so far and I wasn’t willing to give him that much because it wasn’t our fault that he’d taken us to the wrong hotel. He begrudgingly agreed to accept 3Rupees and some loose change and cycled away mumbling to himself.

Glad to be back in the relative safety of our room, we showered, spliffed and went out to the restaurant recommended to us. We ate until we could hardly move, every time our plates were nearly empty more food was placed on them until we flatly refused to eat anymore. We were charged 3.20Rupees, which worked out at 8Pence each.

The following morning, in order to avoid the trishaw-wallah, who had taken it upon himself to pick us up at half past nine, we got up early and were on our way to the Chowk Bazaar, the main shopping area, by nine o’clock. We breakfasted in a Sikh restaurant and then made our way down to the Ganges running the gauntlet of the outstretched, skeletal hands and stumps of the leprous, the emaciated, the legless and the blind. Their haunting, pitiful nasal cries of ‘baksheesh sahib, baksheesh memsahib’ accompanied us all the way down to the bathing ghats. We had come across many beggars in the short time that we’d been in India but had never experienced such a mass degradation of humanity, it was like the road to hell. There was no hope there, only a desperate, daily scrabble for survival amidst the scavenging scabby dogs and stinking garbage.

To escape this medieval scene we descended the ghats and, avoiding looking too closely at the two dead dogs half submerged in the water, hired a boatman to take us out on to the murky river of shit which is the holy Ganga. Accompanied by the distorted, piercing sound of mantras emanating from the kind of tannoy speakers that you used to find at village fetes in England we drifted downstream.  It was a great way to see the many temples that line the riverbank and the hordes of Hindus ritually washing away their sins and drinking the piss and dysentery. The boatman took us to visit the Kathwali or Nepali temple on Ralita Ghat, this is an exact copy of one in Kathmandu and is covered in erotic wooden carvings which the wild looking sadhu who looked after the temple took great pleasure in pointing out: ‘Here is vun man and two vimmin, here is vun man and tree vimmin, here is tree men and vun vuman’ etc, etc. We weren’t allowed to see the lingam inside the temple which was a bit of a shame but lingams were a common sight and, apart from variation in size and colour, one lingam looks much the same as another so I wasn’t too disappointed.

We returned to the leaky rowing boat and drifted past the burning ghats where two funeral pyres were burning and another was being lit, while two bodies wrapped in brightly coloured silk were lined up waiting their turn. The boatman informed us that it was very expensive to be cremated and that if you were unfortunate enough to be poor or a leper your body would be taken to the middle of the river, weighted down with stones and simply dropped in. As he was passing on this information a mouldy-fleshed human head floated by, bobbing up and down in the murky water. After failing to persuade us to accompany him to a silk factory, the boatman sulkily rowed us back to the ghat where we were accosted by a half naked, ash covered sadhu who offered to share his chillum with us. I’d have been happy to smoke ganga with the guy if it had been somewhere less public, but there on the crowded ghat we would certainly have attracted a large inquisitive crowd, at least half of whom would probably have wanted to take us to a silk factory. I declined graciously and we sought refuge from the heat and the humanity in a tiny chai shop run by two young boys where we drank ice-cold lassis and watched the crazy world go by.

Refreshed, we plunged back into the overpopulated madness of, what was supposed to be, one of the oldest living cities in the world as well as the religious and cultural capital of India. We wandered the streets and alleys, the temples and tea stalls for a couple of hours, soaking the place up, simply ‘being there’ in the moment. Gradually increasing irritability made us realise that we were doing the ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ trip and that it was time to get out of the sun and rest up for a while, if for no other reason than the necessity to escape the silk factory hustlers who were a constant pain in the arse. So we trudged back to the hotel for cold showers and a stoned siesta before going out to eat at the same place as the previous day. The people were welcoming, the food was beautiful and once again we ate much more than was necessary.

Our short stay in Varanasi was coming to an end and the following morning we packed our bags in readiness to leave. But we needed to change a traveller’s cheque to give us enough cash to get to Kathmandu. The first bank we came to didn’t open until ten o’clock, which gave us time to eat breakfast. We sat in a wooden shack café and watched a tiny, brown mouse clamber around on the shelving while the owner prepared us perfect omelettes. It was no surprise to find that the bank didn’t deal with traveller’s cheques but we were reliably informed that their other branch did. We took a trishaw to the City branch but of course they didn’t change traveller’s cheques either. The assistant manager instructed our trishaw man to take us to the only bank in Varanasi that could help us, which turned out to be miles away. At least they changed my cheque, and quickly, and at quite a good rate. As the trishaw-wallah had waited for us we asked him to return us to our hotel where we checked out and carried our bags across the road to the railway station.

Being experienced now in the bureaucratic ways of Indian Railways I left Janette sitting on the floor of the station concourse with our luggage while I went off to do battle. It took about one and a half-hours to reserve bunks in 3rd class and buy tickets for the 20:35 train to Muzaffarpur. Here we would have to change for the train to Segauli where we would change once more to pick up the local train to Raxaul on the Nepalese border. We dumped the bags in the left-luggage office and took a last, slow wander around Varanasi where we discovered the Government licensed ganga and opium shop in a narrow alley near the river. Inside was a skinny, old guy in a dhoti sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor. He was taking the ganga from a large pile and weighing it out into tolas (a tola being about a quarter of an ounce), before folding it neatly into small newspaper wraps. In the early evening we stopped in at our usual restaurant where we ate our usual large meal before returning to the station. The old black steam engine came puffing and screeching into the station only an hour behind schedule and we battled our way along the platform looking for our names on the carriage lists of passengers who had reserved bunks. Already ensconced in our compartment were two middle-class Indians and a pissed-off young American couple with annoying whiney voices.

The guy kept complaining about how smokey it was in the carriage which I took as a provocation, encouraging me to smoke even more, especially as he had taken the bunk directly above me which I’d rather fancied having for myself.

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