Sunday, February 12, 2012

Around the World: Strangers In The Night

February 12, 1992

Very early in the morning I wake up to the sounds of something primal and tribal occurring in the nearby streets.  There is constant chanting and drum beating that continues for hours.  It's not an irritating noise, like a neighbour with a loud stereo.  This is more unsettling, like the natives are restless.

Outside my frosted window, the rhythmic beating of drums is getting louder, the chanting is growing more intense.  Three hard, deliberate knocks bang at my door. I'm searching for something to beat off an intruder with when I hear knocking at the door next to mine and fade off down the breezeway.

Varanasi is it's own reason for celebration.
Photo courtesy of The Longest Way Home.

It's morning and daylight appears to have ended last night's festivities.  I open my door to a rendition of, Strangers In the Night"Zoomie zoomie-zoom..." sings a man as he polishes a car parked at the end of hotel rooms, "...zoom zoomie-zoom-zoom... zoomie zoomie-zoom." 

In the morning, every one enters the garden with the same question.  "Was someone knocking on your door last night?"  Some remark on the disturbing night time sounds of  tribal cannibals dancing around a large caldron and waking up to Frank Sinatra.  Just when you think India is starting to make sense, she throws you a new kind of strangeness.

I must investigate the possibility of reserving a seat on this afternoon's train to Agra, the first stop on my Golden Triangle tour that also includes Jaipur and India's capitol city of New Delhi.  At the train station's reservation office, I am told I cannot make a reservation because this is where they prepare the train schedules.  I should go to booth #8.

The clerk at booth #8 sends me to the deserted post of booth #16.  I return to #8 to report this and am redirected to booth #18, which is closed. Back to booth #8 for the third time, where I suggest he can stop playing 'hide the tourist' and just book me a reservation.  "Then I promise I'll to go away for good."  His head starts the side to side bobble and moments later, I have my reservation.  I also have several hours to spend taking one last look at eternal Varanasi.

Train departing Varanasi.
Photo courtesy of National Geographic

I'm on the train bound for Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, although the section of the train I am currently in is headed to New Delhi.  The trip so far is relatively pleasant.  Seating is plentiful, and I have brought with me a plentiful spread of snacks. The only real nuisance is the staring.  Who knew watching me eat crackers was so riveting?

There was no time to find my reserved seat because the train was pulling out of the station at the same time I found it.  Jumping on a moving train with a backpack takes some Indiana Jones-like agility, which I was pleased to learn I have.  In the meantime, I'm in unreserved 3rd class, just like the trip to Varanasi but with more leg room.

Five hours into the journey, the train pulls into Lucknow and it seems that the entire population of Uddar Pradesh is boarding the train.  The comfortable single seat I had all to myself is now being shared with me by three other women.  One of them is sitting on half of my leg and the muscle aches and cramps.  When I try to move it, two of the women fall off into the aisle.  The third turns and glares at me.  An elderly man on the floor starts shouting out to the packed car in Hindi.  The Indian passengers are responding with affirmative grunts and cheers.  The only words he shouts out in English are, "Break bones.  Break bones hard!"

Reserved sleeper class seating.

I stand to work out the pain in my leg and the three women pile into what used to be my seat.  The train stops and I use the opportunity to get away from the lynching that is, fortunately for me, still in the planning stages.  Dashing up the platform, I find my car and the seat I reserved.  The coach is clean and full of sleeping backpackers. My only regret is not moving up here earlier.

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"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all that we really need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
~Charles Kingsley