Thursday, February 9, 2012

Around the World: Arriving in Varanasi

February 9, 1992

The sun is coming up.  I'm tired, but the catnaps have given me enough to stay conscious.  At one station, two men in military uniform carrying rifles board the train.  They give everyone a deliberate, inspecting glance as they slowly make their way through the car.  Their gaze and inspection stops abruptly and remains on Jane and I sitting on the floor.

Great.  What could be worse than being stared at by a pair of armed soldiers?

Photo courtesy of ImageShack

One of them looks at the benches to his right and says something to the men sitting there.  The other motions for Jane and I to approach them.  Oh, dear lord, what have we done!?  I'm too tired to panic when surprisingly, they command the seated men to move and indicate for us to sit in their place.  They sit beside each of us, as far away as possible on the aisle side of the bench. Other than some curt words to remove the men from these benches, our dutiful sentries remain silent. Relieved and grateful, I let exhaustion take me into an uneasy sleep.  

I am roused by a gentle shaking of my shoulder.  Our military escorts indicate they have to leave.  Surely, they want baksheesh for all they've done, and I won't be offended in the least if they do. As they gather their belongings, I ask the one closest to me, "What can I give you for being so kind?"

He puts his bag down on the bench, turns to face me and nods his head respectfully.

Hands together, I nod back, "Thank you."  He throws his bag onto his shoulder, picks up his gun and the two soldiers exit the train.

India is starting to show her true colours.  The interior of this coach, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.  It looks more like a compost heap.  Ripped pieces of newspaper and peanut shells are strewn in heaps on the floor.  The train remains at the station for some time, but I'm getting used to the fact that nothing in India happens on time.  The delay presents an opportunity for beggars and vendors to board the train, which I'm getting skilled at ignoring.

One man approaches Jane and I, holding a little horn and a small wicker basket, and says, "Look what I got."  I'm expecting rice or samosas.  He lifts the lid and out jumps the head of a large cobra.

Image courtesy of Pixdaus

The bars on the window are the only reason I am still on the train.  I scream out all sorts of suggestions for what he can do with his snake and he leaves, laughing.  All the other passengers on the train are laughing.  I'm not laughing.  Jane is hysterical.  One of the passengers explains that the cobra wouldn't have harmed us.  "It's just a way to get tourists to part with their money."

My heart is going to beat itself up my esophagus and out of my forehead if I stay here any longer. Jane is barely holding it together. I toss my pack on and tap Jane on the shoulder.  "C'mon," I say, picking up her pack.  Bewildered, she follows me along the platform to an empty first class car.  First class has glass windows, cushioned seats and seems to be forbidden territory for non-passengers.  It's also air-conditioned like a refrigerator.  Cold is a colossal improvement over cobras.

The train pulls out of the station and Jane and I break into hysterical laughter as we become aware of the uncontrollable, full-body tremors we are both experiencing, which took almost an hour to subside.  The train is over two hours late arriving in Varanasi.

Outside Varanasi station, Jane and I are surrounded by dozens of rickshaw-wallahs (drivers) yelling out, "Take you to my hotel for 20 Rs and 10% commission!".  Finally one shouts, "I take you anywhere you want!  10 Rs and 2% commission."

I say, "5 Rs and no commission!"  I don't know what the commission is all about, but the hotel is walking distance from the station.  I just don't know which way and hope he does.  He agrees to the price and we're off. The hotel is 88 Rs and comes with a restaurant, a mosquito net over my bed and a spacious garden.

The manager changed some money for me at a better rate than the bank.  He explained businesses will often give a better rate for cash than the bank because they get a huge tax break for holding foreign currency.  It's difficult to change traveler's cheques because they have been used in so many scams, even banks won't accept them.

During the past two days, I've had too much India and not enough sleep.  The restaurant is staffed by two wonderfully benevolent men from Nepal who suggest that tomorrow, I would enjoy my morning cup of tea in the garden.

• ¤ •

"In the blackest of nights, if you look up, you can see the stars."

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