Sunday, January 4, 2009

Back in Benares, at last

We couldn’t escape the weather the third time. We got out of Western Mass just before the snow, and we got to Delhi just before the fog. We woke up on New Year’s Day in New Delhi to a gray, misty world, but by 1 p.m., the sun was out, and the train to Varanasi left on time that evening.

In the morning though, at 7:45, 15 minutes past when we were due in Varanasi, we were somewhere in the middle of rural Uttar Pradesh. A chai wallah rushing by said we were “bahut late.” A moment later, he clarified that to mean that we were 8 hours late. The fog had finally got us. As the day progressed, 8 hours became 10 became 12. Our train arrived at 7:30 p.m. rather than 7:30 a.m., our 13 hour trip became 25.

We were very lucky, in our traveling companions. Sharing our compartment were a couple of Berkeley grad students, researchers in the Middle East but on holiday in India, and an extended family—Indian but now living in the US—consisting of the parents, their two grown sons, and the older son’s oldest child, a charming 9 year old named Yamuna. (Her younger siblings were at home with their mother.) During the first few hours, Andy and I talked to the family for awhile (very scientific, the father an organic chemistry professor and the sons both with engineering degrees) and then to the grad students (Maia and Ryan) for awhile. We all cordially ate our dinners together, took turns heading down to the bathroom to brush our teeth and swapped berths according to who wanted to go to bed first. (Because we were in the 3-tier AC compartment, once the middle berth was set up, no one could sit on the lower berth anymore, at least not without leaning forward or getting a crick in the neck.)

The next morning, when we learned that we’d be on the train a lot longer than we’d thought, everyone loosened up even more. Over the course of the morning, we consumed my packet of HobNobs and Maia and Ryan’s packet of choconuts. Over the next few hours, we managed also to finish their package of orange flavored Marie biscuits, the bag of roasted chickpea snacks and the bag of “magic masala” potato chips. (They had come extremely prepared in the snacks department.) Yamuna seemed thrilled to be asked if she wanted biscuits first thing in the morning, before breakfast, and she accepted every biscuit she was offered. During the train ride, she played many games of Uno with various members of her family, took photos and video out the window, wrote in her notebook, napped and was otherwise a model traveling companion.

By midday, we had bought each other multiple rounds of chai, and Ryan treated the four of us to bread omelets—little packets containing 2 slices of buttered white bread, an omelet (with onions but no chilies, to my relief and Andy’s disappointment) and a small packet of tomato sauce (aka ketchup). After a morning full of biscuits and sugary chai, we all were in need of some protein (the grease probably didn't hurt either). We passed around copies of various Indian newspapers and magazines, and by the middle of the afternoon, the father of the family was giving Maia and Ryan (along with his younger son, who was born in the US rather than in India) a Hindi lesson. By the late afternoon, we were all punchy and tired and ready to be there already. We were nearly out of biscuits, and the magazines were all crumpled and bent. The only time Yamuna came even close to complaining was when the train stopped just moments outside of Varanasi. “Are we going to be here for an hour?” she asked, and we all laughed. It was a fair question. When the train had stopped at Allahabad, in the late afternoon, the train wallah had said it would be a 10 minute stop, so we all got back on the train with minutes to spare (having all been caught out on the platform when the train left Kanpur in the early afternoon). But the train sat there for another half hour, for no reason that we could discern except that our train was, by then, so late, that it had no priority on the tracks whatsoever.

In Varanasi at last, we said goodbye to the family and their many suitcases (they were en route to the father’s hometown of Ghaziabad), and we made plans with Maia and Ryan to meet up the next day. Ramu and Goswami had said they would be at the station, but we couldn’t find them. We found out later that they’d waited for 6 hours (!) until the board announced that our train was delayed “indefinitely,” which they knew could mean we would not get there at all. (It turns out that they left an hour before we arrived.)

So, a bit of an arduous journey, at least in terms of length, but made much more enjoyable by the company. What could have been just long and boring or long and actively unpleasant was still long but mostly fun (and biscuit-filled).

And Maia and Ryan and Andy and I did enjoy another nice afternoon together. Andy had offered to give them a bit of a tour, and they’d accepted. The train delay had meant that one of their two days in Varanasi was gone, and they’d gone back to the train station to try to change their tickets to give them a few more days in Varanasi, but they found out that some trains from Varanasi were cancelled entirely because of the fog, so they didn’t want to mess with the reservations they already had. So, that left them with just an afternoon, which meant an extremely abbreviated tour. We met in Assi, and after what could have been a much longer stay at Harmony books, we headed up towards Godolia in a rickshaw.

First, there was a visit to the flower market, where flowers for garlands and pujas are sold. I’d never been there before, and it was lovely. Ryan sweetly bought Maia and me short garlands of marigolds and thistles which were too scratchy to wear around our necks but adorned our wrists and then our bags.

After that, Andy brought us to the silk shop owned by his friend Arun. (Maia and Ryan had mentioned the possibility of buying some silk.) Ryan and Andy went out to get some sweets and snacks for their train trip, while Maia and I had gorgeous silk scarves and stoles draped across our laps.

Somehow, that went on and on. (And various friends and family members of Maia and Ryan are going to have some gorgeous silk scarves as presents when they get back.) (I will not pretend to be virtuous--I would be lying if I tried to pretend that no silk ended up in my bag at the end of our stay there.)

And somehow, enough of the afternoon had passed that all we had time for was a walk back through the gulleys and by the river to their guesthouse. Andy pointed out that if sweets and silk (and books) were all they’d seen of Varanasi, it still wasn’t a bad introduction. (And they had gotten up early for a dawn boatride, so had at least participated in one Benares ritual.)

That's one thing that was different from last year. When I was here a year ago, the boat-wallahs were on strike. The river looked like this:

I don't think the strike lasted more than a few weeks (and I never heard the resolution of the dispute that led to the strike), but it was strange to be here with no boats. Now, as usual, every few yards along the water, someone will ask if you want to go in a boat. Still, it's nice to see the boats back on the river.

I'm hoping the fog will lift soon, but foggy or not, it's still nice to be back.


Lisa said...

Wow, what an ordeal! But it sounds like you made an adventure out of it, so good for you. Funny, because I have friends who are a couple named Maia and Ryan -- not the same ones, though. Hope the rest of your stay is smoother but equally fun.

Kitt said...

What a great trip! I'm glad you had pleasant companions and lots of biscuits to tide you over.

You make me miss long-distance train travel in China, which was like a big pajama party in the second-class sleepers. First-class was stuffy and boring.

Looking forward to more of your travel tales!

austere said...

Welcome home.

I'm sorry about the train, but.
(We never travel without water, snacks and a good book.)

Lovely photos. Liked the one with the silk and the empty ghats- beautiful.