Monday, January 30, 2006

Islands of calm in a sea of chaos

Travelling in India (for the backpacker class anyway) seems a bit like island-hopping through wild and challenging oceans. Take my trip from Jabalpur to Varanasi. Because it was a Sunday the resevations office closed at 2 but I'd already found that the train I wanted was a less popular one so I took the risk of buying a basic ticket and hoping!! The ticket collector at Jabalpr couldn't issue a sleeper number/ticket ("no information on that train") so I put my fate in the hands of the on-board inspectors. It took 4 hours for the ticket inspector to come up with a berth for me, having sold me a ticket (after about 2) for a seat number already taken (with a valid ticket - I checked). In between many to-ings and fro-ings up and down the train, sometimes within(you don't know perhaps what sleeper class gets to be like after about 24 hours journey!) and sometimes bypassing by using the platform when train stopped (every hour or so) until the train nearly left without me in some remote outpost - the ticket I was originally sold was 9 carriages down the train!! Too many tedious twists and turns to go into but I was faced several times with the prospect of spending the night perched on a stool in the loo lobby of 3-tier A/C (at least I got a glimpse of how the other half travel until a horde of Russian ?? tourists surged in a supplanted me from one of several temporary refuges. I even had a "why can't they just say "no" ' episode only with frills in that this quite sophis guy (Mumbai-based presumably) offered me his kid's bunk if all else failed but when I tried to track him down I found a kid but if he was there it was under a vast blanket which I could hardly disturb for a favour. In this case perhaps I shouldn't criticise him, just fate.
However, when I did get a bunk I slept like a log in between stations, despite all sorts of distractions. Arrived as I knew we would before 5 a.m. so I had time to kill at the station until dawn broke: the place looked much like a post-disaster zone with bodies strewn all over and at least average levels of piss smells and crap in many corners. These did not end when I emerged. Once at the Ganges (hassle-free rickshaw ride: I must have overpaid!) I sought out my old "Lodge" but got absolutely lost in the maze of alleyways and thoroughly pestered by touts (not just for hotels but boats on the river, massage and the gods know what else!) so of course I eventually had to step in it - cow's only, I fervently believe. This place would really test most people - it does me! Either I've got more fastidious (but not so much as the Japanese tourists walking back from the burning ghats with masks and horror covering their faces! What a contrast from super-hygenic Japan). So you see the subject line is perhaps wishful thinking or retrospective (Bharatpur and Kanha both qualified as islands: here the island may be confined to my hotel directly overlooking the Ganges, facing into the sunrise and looking down from a height).

More on Varanasi in another post, unless I'm driven away to the Buddhist calm of Bodh Gaya (though another chaos-ocean, this one called Bihar)


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