Braving the crowds at Varanasi’s train station makes the annual bridal event at Filene’s Basement seem like teatime at the Ritz. Like 5,000 teenage girls scampering for Justin Bieber tickets, the Varanasi train station is a troubling specter of confusion, competition and madness.
Cars, tuktuks, cows and thousands of people awaited us as we climbed from our tuktuk in a steady downpour, hauled out our bags and made our way into the main terminal. Dragging our suitcases behind us, push indeed came to shove in an extreme fashion as we battled our way out of the rain and into the throng.
Sweating profusely, we made it to the departure area and scanned the electronic board for the number of our train. Learning that we were to depart from platform 4, we encountered our first logistical problem: No numbers on the tracks. We asked passerby after passenger until we found someone who knew the score and then headed for a set of stairs that led to an overpass crossing the tracks.
Gabi went first, and was immediately descended upon by a scraggly guy in tattered white clothes who grabbed her bag and offered to help. She politely declined and then growled at him when he didn’t get the message. I laughed out loud and told him he had no idea how tough she was…better to just leave her alone. So he grabbed my shirt and tugged, making a pitch to carry my bag to the ramp.
Some people just don’t get it. Needless to say I went my way without the benefit of the scowling man’s help. He snarled at me, as if my contract with this mess in some way required me to avail myself of his services.
We made our way across the track and to an area next to a waiting train. We asked numerous people if it was the train to Agra. A group of young men stared at our tickets, spoke excitedly among themselves in Hindi and then pointed to a man in a black suit standing nearby: “Ask him.”
Aha! An official! So we asked.
“Wait here,” he said curtly. “This not your train. It come soon.”
So we stood among the women in sarees, men in blue jeans and white shirts, and grubby beggars working the fringes of the waiting crowd – once again cotton amongst coal in our Columbia drip-dry hiking clothes. We tried to make well-intended eye contact with several adults and children but were met with lowered eyes and skeptical gazes. There seems no fare for friendliness at the train station – this is serious business.
Gabi and I thought we would get out of Varanasi without seeing two unwanted displays: a dead body carried about and someone defecating publicly. On the way to the station we saw a group of chanting men carrying a corpse wrapped in gold silk on their shoulders, so that took care of that missed experience.
At the train station a grubby man clad only in a filthy pair of white pants sauntered onto the tracks, dropped his trousers and before we could turn away began to prodigiously deposit the day’s offering, aptly fulfilling previously unfulfilled shock #2.
“Oh no, don’t look….too late,” said Gabi,
“I hate this,” she added, moments later, precisely summing up my feelings about our first Indian train station experience. Simply too many people trying to go to the same place at the same time. Nothing good will to come of standing about, I thought, yearning for our train to arrive so we could ease into the air conditioned comfort of our “luxury” berths.
We heaved sighs of relief as we hoisted our bags into the assigned car and found our spots in the air-conditioned A2 Class – not Sleeper, which is basically a bunch of rubber-covered benches in an open-air car. If not for the advice of a friendly travel agent in Leh, we would have wound up stacked like Legos in the steerage of Indian train travel.
Gabi checked into her berth – the bottom bunk of a two-level affair located roughly amidships in the car with a nice window view of the Indian countryside.
My berth was a windowless jail cell in the top bunk at the end of the car jammed against the door about a mile away from my wife and wedged against the ceiling-mounted air conditioner. Every time someone opened the door it would have slammed into my head if I made my Easy Flat Pack Bed Base as design intended, so I switched it around and stuck my feet where my mouth should have been and began to settle down.
It was like sleeping in a torpedo tube, a five-foot, six-inch cocoon for my five-foot, nine-inch frame. Everything must be done at an angle.
Oh, well, at least it won’t be hot. And wait! Good news! These upscale seats – $20 a pop, including a hot meal we politely declined – come with sheets, a blanket and a pillow!
Always one to make the best of any situation, I grabbed the linens and began to make my bed for the 13-hour overnight ride. As I spread the sheet, I realized I had company. A moderately sized cockroach scuttled across the mattress and headed for Pakistan, but not fast enough to avoid the swipe of my hand.
Cockroach deposited on the floor, I climbed northward and pulled the curtain to block the light hanging about a foot from my face. I decided to capture this epic event in writing, since sleep would likely be a scarce commodity on this night.
It is now 8:11 p.m. Only nine hours to go.
Addendum: It is now 5:20 a.m., 10 minutes before arrival in Agra (does anyone else see the humor in a 13-hour journey which, according to the ticket, goes viaAgra?) and I can now attest to the fact that while Cambodians may be world-class sleepers, Indians are professional snorers. Spending 13 hours in an enclosed space with a bunch of snoring Indians reminded me of Mr. Nelson’s 9th grade shop class the day we all learned proper use of the rip saw. Jeez.