I had never been in India before, and now here we were, in Varanasi, after less than 24 hours in the country, stranded on the steps leading down to the Ganges River. In what could easily have been a scene out of a National Geographic television special, pilgrims in their thousands were dunking themselves ceremonially in the holy Ganges water.……
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
….. Everywhere I looked there were frail old men, their skin hanging off their bones like ill-fitting suits, their only clothing a white loincloth and a smear of yellow paint across their foreheads. There were young men doing exercises, merchants selling incense, coloured dyes and other devotional items, beggars, families, old women wrapped in saris singing mournful tunes to themselves, solemn funeral processions. The air was smoky; the light wonderfully diffused. It was surreal.
And there were armies of Saddhus – emaciated Hindu ascetics who renounce all worldly comforts, live a life of deprivation and hardship, and grow dreadlocks and smoke pot for good measure. These guys are the original hippies. A white bearded Bob-Marley lookalike, who had beseeched me to have a photo taken with him, was now pestering me to pay him for the privilege. Foolishly I had thought that I was making some guy who had never seen a camera before a very happy man just by allowing him to be in my photo. I handed over a few coins, and was somewhat surprised when the Saddhu demanded more, and even specified that a note in the order of ten rupees would be appropriate. This was outrageous, given that it was about half the average daily Indian wage. Still, I handed over the ten rupees, because this was all a novelty to me, and because I felt that this amazing display of brazen, unmitigated chutzpah deserved to be rewarded.
It took around two weeks in India before the Chutzpah Admiration Factor turned to simple disgust, and I became hard and indifferent to constantly being hassled, jostled, touched and downright annoyed by beggars, women clutching babies they had rented to make themselves look more needy, children who had been permanently disfigured or crippled by their parents to increase the chances of a hand-out from sympathetic Westerners, and blind men who, despite their lack of sight, could instantly and miraculously identify the only Western couple in a crowded Indian railway carriage. By the end of our journey around India, and I am a little ashamed to admit this, I refused to hand out a penny, and occasionally even told beggars to “get a job“, or words to that effect. But that’s India for you – it causes you to do strange inexplicable things, it makes you to behave in ways that you ordinarily would never and could never even contemplate, and for better or worse, love it or hate it, India changes you, and makes you look at the world in a totally different way.
These were early days in the journey, though, and sitting on the banks of the Ganges that morning we were not grappling with the noble intellectual concepts of personal growth and self-awareness. Our more pressing issue to deal with was: “where the fuck are we going to sleep tonight?”
It had been a less than pleasant past 24 hours, and on a scale of 1-10, our arrival in India had rated a minus three. We had left Nepal, after a glorious trek through the Himalayas, at 7:00am the day before, and despite assurances from the bus company that taking the “super-deluxe-express-tourist-bus” would translate into a four-hour ride to the Indian border, wouldn’t you know it, the bus was a run-down old heap of dubious vintage, made numerous detours and lengthy, inexplicable stops, had not a single other tourist on board, and took over eight hours to navigate the 200 kilometre stretch of road. Then, like being tossed to the proverbial lions, we were made to walk across the border, running a gauntlet of hustlers, money changers, street hawkers, people who “just wanted to practice their English“, and of course the ubiquitous beggars.
Border formalities took 25 minutes, an astonishing amount of time when you consider that the fat slob running the border post only had to take the toothpick out of his mouth, open the passport, and stamp it, to record for all posterity that we had in fact entered India via Sonauli, a God-forsaken, dust-blown and otherwise completely forgettable town on the India-Nepal border.
We, at least, were the lucky ones. As we walked away from the border post, the guard turned to deal with a particularly troublesome (and frankly quite hysterical) Israeli, whose visa was somehow not in order, and who was being very unreasonable in refusing to return to Kathmandu, a mere 14 hours away, to sort the matter out in person at the Indian consulate there.
We left the poor fellow to his uncertain fate, and went off to deal with a few problems of our own, namely: extreme hunger, escaping from Sonauli, and ditching the 17-year-old budding financier in the shiny red pants, who had attached himself to us in the hope that we would select him as our Indian banking and foreign exchange agent of choice.
Problem number one was easy to deal with, if not pleasant. For a few cents a man in a filthy T-shirt served us a mound of rice with some form of meaty substance slopped over it. Despite the distinct lack of hygiene in this dining establishment, overpowering hunger and a lack of any better alternative drove us to eat. As a token gesture to self-preservation, however, we declined the mugs of oily water that were offered as a free accompanying beverage.
Problem number two was actually solved by problem number three. In an effort to endear himself to us, Red Pants escorted us to a waiting bus, where we joined a group of three other Western tourists cowering behind their baggage. A middle-aged German man and I climbed onto the roof of the bus to strap down our baggage, while Red Pants entered into some serious negotiations with the German’s wife and a balding Israeli (the ex-travelling companion of he who had been turned back at the border – backpack travel is a fickle, loyalty-free world, where the law of the jungle prevails).
Red Pants, it turned out, in addition to his day-job as a currency dealer was also a bus ticket broker of sorts, and proceeded to arrange tickets for us to Gorakhpur, the nearest railhead, from where we could catch a night train to Varanasi. Not content, however, with a five ticket sale, Red Pants then tried to put the squeeze on us by demanding a 100% surcharge for our baggage, plus a porter’s fee, never mind that I was bleeding from wounds sustained on the rusty luggage racks when I had climbed onto the roof of the bus to tie down our bags myself. The balding Israeli went berserk, Red Pants fled for his life, the bus jerked forward, and the German man seated beside me turned and uttered the following prophetic words: “India is not a holiday; it is hard work“.
Several bone-crunching hours later we were standing in the queue at the booking hall of the Gorakhpur Railway Station. We patiently stood in the “tourists only” queue for about 20 minutes whilst the clerk who issued tickets chatted eagerly with a friend (Indian, and obviously non-tourist, I might add). At exactly 8:00pm the ticketing clerk wound up his conversation, at exactly 8:00pm the entire India Rail computer reservation system went off-line, and at exactly 8:01pm the ticketing clerk informed us that until 8:00am the next morning there was no way humanly possible for us to obtain a ticket on the overnight train to Varanasi.
Less than thrilled with the prospect of spending my first night in India in some flea infested hotel in Gorakhpur, of all places, I paid a visit to the station’s Tourist Assistance Bureau, where a helpful tourist information officer came to the rescue, and pointed out that what was not humanly possible was nonetheless within the capabilities of the train station mafia.
So less than five hours after arrival in the country, I found myself fraternising with the Indian underworld. The tourist information officer made the necessary calls to set up the deal. Things moved swiftly from there. A hurried meeting with a representative of the Supreme Commander followed, where it was explained that the black market price of the proposed train tickets reflected the fact that everybody – from station superintendent down to the train conductor and the tourist information officer – had to be “rewarded” for their participation. A complex chain was initiated whereby at 9:00pm I made contact with a teenage boy, who in turn led me to an old man with a pointed moustache, who in turn led me to a gorilla of a man with hairy chest, oily skin and a fake gold chain around his neck, who in turn produced (hallelujah!) two pieces of cardboard and a scrap of paper covered with some indecipherable squiggles which, so he claimed, were the promised train tickets. Yeah, sure….
Strict instructions to board the 11:00pm train on platform 10 were also provided.
We therefore had two hours to kill, and we decided on grabbing a bite to eat in the Railway Station canteen, which turned out to be one of those surprisingly wonderful Indian experiences you have in the places you expect them least. The highlight in this case was our waiter, a safari-suited relic from colonial times. Despite there being only one dish on the menu – mush – the waiter described it in such lavish detail as to make it sound appetising. He then served us our mush on prison-issue tin plates, but, because it was obviously the proper thing to do, he wore white gloves. We were attended to like royalty, the waiter clearly enjoying the opportunity of being able to ply his trade to an appreciative audience. I couldn’t help wondering how on earth this level of service had ever been required in Gorakhpur, but as we were to discover during our travels, colonialism has left some strange footprints on the Indian landscape.
Dinner done we gathered up our bags and set off to catch our train. Convinced that we had been sold bogus tickets, I was thus rather pleasantly surprised when we showed our tickets to a railway supervisor, who escorted us to platform 10, and placed us in carriage S6. We discovered that we were in the “foreigners” carriage, along with a couple of Australians, two Brits, a brooding European of uncertain origin, and the bald-headed Israeli from the bus. Feeling security in numbers, we all started congratulating ourselves on having made it this far, and put the train’s early departure down to the vagaries of Indian Rail scheduling. Everyone stretched out on their couchettes, and after 18 hours on the go, I was asleep in minutes.
Some-time later I was woken by an irritating tugging at my left leg. I opened my eyes to see a conductor’s unshaven, flabby face, framed by a loud silk shirt. He demanded to see our tickets, which I promptly produced.
“This ticket is not valid. You are wrongfully riding this train. You must disembark“, the conductor said in perfect sing-song Indian English, after carefully studying the alleged ticket. It took a while for this to register in my sleep addled brain, during which time the conductor inspected the tickets of the other Westerners in the carriage and informed them all likewise: “This ticket is not valid. You are wrongfully riding this train. You must disembark“.
A stunned silence followed, and then all hell broke out in the carriage. The bald Israeli’s eyes glazed over maniacally (he had, after all, done two tours in Southern Lebanon), and he began screaming: “vat do you mean diz iz not valid. I am going to Varanazi – I am not getting off ziz train“. The two English girls looked bewildered, the Australian duo kept mumbling “But we paid for this ticket – we don’t understand“, and the brooding European engaged in some inward dialogue.
Thinking that perhaps the conductor had not been amply “rewarded” by the ticket organising mafia, I swung my negotiation skills into gear. “I bought these tickets in Gorakhpur. I paid 240 rupees for them. The man who sold them to me told me that they were valid“.
“I tell you, this ticket is not valid. You are wrongfully riding this train. You must disembark“.
“But I paid for these tickets. Surely you would agree that if they are not valid then I have been cheated?” First principle, Negotiation 101: find some grounds of consensus.
“Yes, you have been wronged“. Bingo. We’re making progress. “But this ticket is not valid. You are wrongfully riding this train. You must disembark“.
Obviously, this guy had been well programmed, and would keep repeating the same old thing until we arrived in Varanasi. So I decided to see if this really was a shakedown. Maybe a bribe would work. “Look, forget the tickets. Is there no way we can stay on this train and go to Varanasi. Maybe we could pay a supplement or something“. There, nice and subtle.
“Certainly” – so, a bribe would work – “If you each pay a penalty of 100 rupees, you can stay on the train“.
That was only four dollars each. Fine, we’ll pay it and be done I thought, turning to bask in the glows of admiration coming from my fellow travellers. As much to blow my own horn as to confirm the terms of the deal, I said slowly, in the tone of voice one adopts with a slightly dim-witted schoolboy: “So, let me understand this. We pay you 800 rupees – 100 for each of us – we can all stay on the train, we can all go to Varanasi, and I can get back on my bunk and sleep in peace“.
“What do you mean “no”? You just said I could“.
“I said you could stay on the train, but this is not your seat. These seats are reserved for other passengers with valid tickets“.
This little weasel was beginning to bug me, and my reputation was at stake. “Well, are there other seats?”
“So where will we sit then?”
“You can stand in the passage or sit on the floor“.
“But that’s ridiculous“. I was losing my cool. “This journey will take 10 hours. We can’t sleep on the floor“.
“Then you must disembark“.
We were back to square one. It was time to change tack and try to bluff my way through this.
“I paid 240 rupees for this ticket, which you tell me is not valid. Well, the man who sold me this ticket was an India Rail tourist official. I have been cheated by India Rail, and I am entitled to be compensated. I am aware of my rights. And when I lodge my official complaints with the Indian Ministry of Tourism – I have friends there you know – I won’t forget to mention how unhelpful you’ve been“. My goodness, that was laying it on a bit thick. Before the conductor could respond to this outburst of false bravado, I tried a reconciliatory move. “Look, I appreciate your position, but we are tourists, we paid for our tickets in good faith, and you’re now telling us that we have fake tickets. What are we supposed to do?”
“But sir, they are not fake tickets“.
Now I was thoroughly confused. “You said that the ticket is not valid“.
“It is not valid for this train. This is the 11:00pm express train to Varanasi. Your ticket is for the 11:00pm passenger train to Varanasi“.
“So why didn’t you say so before?” It was all I could do to refrain from adding “you stupid goat“.
“You did not ask“.
I mean, really. Little did we realise that we had just been given our first and extremely important lesson in Indian Logic, which is this: no information is ever volunteered, and unless you ask questions that demand an exact, direct answer that is precisely to the point, no-one will ever tell you what you need to know.
However, at 11:40pm after a long and exhausting day, we were no position to appreciate the full significance of this lesson, and all our remaining energies were directed towards extracting the following details from the conductor: one, disembark from the train at the next station; two, wait for the passenger train which will follow; three, because the passenger train is slower than the express train, it will only follow in two hours.
So, at 12:15am, in pitch darkness, in the middle of nowhere in the vastness of the province of Uttar Pradesh, eight dishevelled European backpackers disembarked from the 11:00pm Gorakhpur to Varanasi Express, to sit huddled in a group on a windy, dirty railway platform, waiting for the 11:00pm Gorakhpur to Varanasi Passenger Service. As it turned out the wait was a chilly two hours and 45 minutes, broken only by periodic cups of tea and having to chat with three Indian teenagers about the ongoing Cricket World Cup. Even this latter distraction was short-lived, however, the teenagers throwing up their hands in disgust when they discovered that I was unable to name the entire Australian team by heart.
Finally at around 3:00am we boarded a train for the second time that night, and, after confirming with the conductor that this was in fact the correct train and he would not shortly be along to make us disembark, we set off to claim our couchettes, only to find them occupied by sleeping Indians and their luggage.
Indians, so it seems, like to travel with massive hard-pack suitcases, and a minimum of four parcels and packages per person, not to mention bags of cement, crates of oranges, billboards, bundles of fabric, and the occasional live animal. After waking up the sleeping Indians and explaining that these were our seats, and after further explaining, via sign language, that yes, we do mind if they do not move their luggage, and no, I will not share my bunk with a large cloth wrapped box, and after everyone shuffled about and the four Indians all travelling on the one ticket huddled up onto the one couchette, silence finally descended on the carriage, and I drifted off to sleep. It was one of those restless, toss-and-turn sleeps that you wake up from wishing you’d never had. When my eyes opened at 7:00am I was thoroughly exhausted.
Polite inquiries revealed that through the night the train had steadily lost time, and was now running over five hours late. So by the time we arrived at Varanasi Central at almost midday, we had plenty of time to research our arrival strategy, courtesy of the Lonely Planet Survival Guide to India. We knew every scam in the book, and we weren’t going to be suckers. Thus, with a voice full of conviction, I told our rickshaw driver as we pulled away from the kerb: “take us to Dashashwamedha Ghat“. According to the guidebook this landmark set of steps leading down to the Ganges River was a good central location, with many budget hotels nearby.
“I take you to hotel“. Ah, the standard rickshaw driver opening gambit – we were fully prepared for this one, knowing that the driver would pick up a commission at any hotel he took us to, and therefore we would invariably pay more.
“No“. I was firm. “Take us to Dashashwamedha Ghat“.
Five minutes later, the driver turned around. “You want I take you to good shop“.
Another obvious commission making ploy, another line we were ready for. “No. Dashashwamedha Ghat“.
Five minutes later, the driver dropped us outside the Yogi Lodge Hotel. There was no Ganges River in sight.
“We said Dashashwamedha Ghat“.
“Dashashwamedha Ghat closed to traffic. This is as close as possible. Yogi Lodge good hotel“.
Something smelled fishy, especially since I had recently read the following advice in the Lonely Plant guide: “[Yogi Lodge’s] success has spawned the Jogi Lodge, the Old Yogi Lodge, Gold Yogi Lodge, New Yogi Lodge and Yogi Guest House, some of which are inferior copies offering commissions to rickshaw-wallahs be warned“.
So I protested: “We said the Ghat. You said OK. Now we are here. You said you would take us to the Dashashwamedha Ghat“.
The rickshaw driver began to get angry. “Not possible. Ghat closed to traffic. You think I try and cheat you? I not interested in commission. I just driver. Ghat closed“.
He said it with such genuine, heartfelt emotion that I immediately began to feel guilty. Here was a poor, sweet, hardworking Indian man, trying to make an honest living, and I, the arrogant insensitive tourist, had automatically jumped to the conclusion that he was trying to rip us off. Shame on me. We paid the driver, gave him a generous tip as compensation for his troubles, and after ascertaining that we did not want to stay at the Yogi Lodge (despite the happy reunion with the bald Israeli and the British couple from the train – their rickshaw drivers had mysteriously brought them to the same place) we asked directions to the Dashashwamedha Ghat.
For the next 45 minutes, as we trudged with our heavy packs through the heat, the dust and the crowds, we cursed the poor, sweet, hardworking rickshaw driver in every way we knew how. Every person who saw our backpacks tried to sell us something, we were jostled and pushed, and a passing bicycle handlebar caught and ripped through sleeve of my favourite shirt, so blood was pouring out from a cut on my shoulder. Each time we asked, the Dashashwamedha Ghat moved another five minutes further away. When we finally arrived at the Ghat to find that it was swarming with traffic, and in particular with rickshaws of every shape and size, I was ready to commit murder if I so much as laid eyes on the culprit rickshaw driver.
Things only got worse – a quick room hunt revealed that every single hotel lining the banks of the Ganges was full. I was at the end of my tether, and we made the firm decision to flee India the next day. That still didn’t solve the immediate dilemma: “where the fuck are we going to sleep tonight?”
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 2: Varanasi]