Varanasi – ghats, goats and gazillions of germs

(apologies for bad typing on this entry – the keyboard at this cybercafe is particularly bad!)

We gathered our stuff at the hotel last night – they’d charged us 40Rp to keep it safe all day – and ventured out to get a taxi to the train station. Waving one driver away for trying to charge us 150 Rupees, we managed to talk another down from 120Rp to 90Rp and into the bargain found a third person heading the same way who we split the fare with.

On the way there, we got stuck for almost ten minutes at one traffic light while a woman who could only grunt tried to get money off our new friend in the front seat. She must have rattled her tin cup for five minutes right by his ear. Hans was on the point of taking it off her when the lights finally went green.

The station was the usual bedlam one has come to associate with Indian public transport, but it’s organised bedlam. We knew the train number and the platform announcement was clear enough. We headed for a food hall which, as luck would have it, was showing the Liverpool v Chelsea game on a nice big screen. I only got to watch about twenty minutes, but saw replays of both goals.

As ever, getting onto the train was a nightmare. Indians stand in puddles, not queues. A “Q” is just a letter in a foreign alphabet to them. As such, getting onto the train was probably somewhat akin to one of Hans’ army training exercises. Arms, legs, suitcases, bags containing I don’t want to know what (but which at least weren’t wriggling) and children thrust underarm. Trying to remove my rucksack was a nightmare. Back home, common sense would dictate that allowing me the 10 seconds required to shrug it off and throw it on my bunk would be 10 seconds well spent and allow easier movement in the carriage. Not here. Oh, no. I think I smacked three people in the jaw trying to get the thing off as they simply wouldn’t stop trying to crush past.

I tried to sit on one of the lower seats, but it began to get a bit crowded when we realised that three people were sharing the lower (single) bunk. I don’t even know how you’d book this, but they’d managed it. I just slung all my stuff “upstairs” and lay there reading. Hans clambered up onto his as the other 5 bunks in his little enclave opposite had six or seven people spread across them.

Dot on time, we took off as people screamed and ran for the exits because they were only onboard to see relatives off. Not a problem as it’s not like they lock the doors on moving trains over here.

This was to be a 14-hour train ride, so we settled in. Annoyingly, they didn’t have anywhere near as many food options as we’d got on the ride to Mumbai so I went hungry overnight. My own silly fault.

There was a loud argument between the guard and someone at the end of our carriage at one point, which seemed to hold up us somewhere around 10pm but we’ve no idea what it was about. The guys with guns (there were several on board) didn’t get involved, thankfully.

The best/worst part, though, was the old guy in the middle bunk opposite Hans. Now I know I’ve gone on about Hans’ snoring and it’s become a running joke. But this man… oh, wow. Hand on heart, no exaggeration, he drowned out the train. Even at its loudest going through tunnels and over bridges. He sounded like a horse being choked.

Hans tried to film him, but it was a little dark. He’s managed to get the sound, though. At one point ourselves, the three guys beneath me, and a few people in the “unit” behind Hans were in tears of laughter as he got louder and louder.

Until we tried to sleep. This man didn’t stop even when he rolled over. All flipping night. My earplugs pretty much shrugged their little yellow shoulders and said “Sorry – best we can do” and put their fingers in their ears. Thankfully he’d gone to sleep at 9pm, so was awake by 5am. Which is when I actually managed to nod off before we arrived in Varanasi at 10:00.

On arrival, we had to get off the train (which involved more pushing an shoving) and then the entire trainload of people was forced through a single doorway into the outside world through one of those doorway metal detectors. Utterly pointless and incredibly uncomfortable – as well as distressing for some of the smaller kids caught in the crush.

One able to breathe, Hans rang the guest house and they send an autorickshaw to get us. A good thing as it was over five minutes’ walk from where the vehicle had to park to the house itself. The streets near the river are very narrow and filled with cows!

We dropped our stuff there and went for a walk along the riverside. There’s a lot to see and the city stretched a fair distance. Semi-naked hairy men bathing, people scrubbing with soap and then washing it off with water containing 1.5 million bacteria per 100ml, kids with kites, a mad Indian dancing like a loon, more people trying to sell us drugs…

Lunch was at a German bakery where I settled on veg fried rice – my stomach needed something easy after not having anything in it for 14 or so hours. Then onwards we walked further along until we got to the cybercafe I’m sat in now. Tapping this up while chatting to Noa on MSN and getting sore fingers from the dodgy keyboard.

But we must dash. We have a boat trip booked in a little over an hour and we’re not sure how far from the guest house we are. Again, photos will be published when I can. The guest house has wireless but it’s insanely expensive.

Waving bye-bye to Calcutta

Or Kolkata, depending on which name you want to give it.

We didn’t do a lot yesterday, mainly just swapping hotels and walking about. The food is good here – a couple of great cafes round the corner – and we got chatting to a nice bunch of people from Oz and Ireland before encoutering the largest gaggle of Americans I’ve seen in one place since I visited Texas. They were all in India to work for a non-profit organisation helping people to fund themselves. Good stuff.

In the evening, we channel-surfed for about four hours seeing as we had a telly. Eventually, we settled on Headbanger’s Ball n VH-1 which whiled away some time as we remenisced over some good old early 90’s heavy metal.

Today we wandered around the museum, which wasn’t too bad for 150Rp (plus 50Rp camera fee we didn’t pay). It’s got an enormous collection of fossils, bones, rocks and the like and really seems more of an impressive reference place than a browsing one.

Afterwards we headed on the underground for the Kali Temple (Kali Ghat) a few kilometres away. The morning ceremony involves the ritual sacrifice of a goat and we missed that. Funnily enough, I’m relieved… Although many people were still praying in the area where it takes place and blood was still very much evident.

We didn’t bother going into the temple as the queue was really rather long and we were getting peckish by then. Not for mutton, though.

Lunch was back where we’d had dinner the night before. I settled on a pizza as we’re travelling by train tonight and I guarantee dinner will be chicken fried rice!

Next stop is Varanasi. We should arrive sometime early tomorrow morning, hopefully refreshed after a comfy train ride. Back in the real world, however…

Bollywood! No! Bust!

We pulled into Mumbai at around 6am, only to find we were at the wrong station – or at least not the one we’d hoped for. Our train was bound for CST, but ended up in Dadar (the next one out) due to engineering works.

As we needed to store our luggage somewhere more convenient, we hopped in a cab to complete our journey. This was annoying in two ways: the train journey is charged per kilometre, so we’d already paid for the final leg and we won’t get that back (though it’s only pennies); the taxi ripped us off. The journey was barely 20 minutes, the metre read “273” and the driver pulled out a posh laminated card which “converted” this to 546Rp. Far, far higher than can possibly be right.

Even given antisocial hours and so on, we argued. But with another taxi driver in the cab and exhaustion most definitely not on our side, we caved, paid up and hauled our luggage out. Inside the station, we asked someone and they reckon the journey should have been nearer 30Rp. Mind, it was a posh laminated card.

Luggage storage was an incredibly reasonable 10Rp per item per 24 hours. Much cheaper than Sydney Airport where it worked out barely cheaper than getting a hostel for the night. We dropped our stuff and went for a walk into Coloba where the travel agent was situated. Today’s visit was mainly to pick up flight tickets.

Indian cities are utterly different during the early hours. Mumbai is like a ghost town at 7am. Hardly anywhere opens their doors before 10am, though shop traders start setting things up from around 9:00. From the station to Regal Circle took us about 15 minutes, though whenever we asked for directions people just told us to get a taxi as it was “very far”. This was the same response we got every time we asked people how to get anywhere during the day. Every destination was “20 minutes’ walk” even when we’d already followed one set of directions, walked half way and were just confirming our trajectory.

Thankfully, one place opened early. Leopold’s, where we’d eaten last time, does breakfast from 7:30 so we chatted with a German and an Austrian (and the friendliest cat in India) outside until the shutters lifted. I had a chicken pancake and Koochi (if I remember correctly) juice for breakfast while we kicked out heels for the travel agent to open. A couple of the aforementioned shop owners could we watched outside slowly setting up their stalls. Agonizingly slowly in the case of the sunglasses salesman who took a whole minute to pick out, polish and mount each set of glasses.

Shortly before 10:00, we ambled along to the shop and found it open and our tickets put to one side. Both sets were in envelopes with our names, the details and information regarding checkin times helpfully printed on the front. Top notch service. The staff also knew where the nearby Inox cinema was, so we got directions before popping online for 90 minutes to kill some more time.

Then the annoying happened. Not one but two people asked us if we wanted to be extras in a Bollywood film. But we had to be available tomorrow and our flight to Calcutta was at 8:30pm tonight! Argh! Where were the talent scouts last time we were in the city! Global megastardom so close… yet so far. Damn and blast!

The walk to the cinema didn’t take too long (though, according to the people we kept asking should have taken 40 minutes) and we got tickets for Blood Diamond before settling in for lunch at the next door Ruby Tuesday restaurant. This was the only choice for food in the immediate vicinity, and they’re milking this fact with the most ludicrous prices I think we’ve paid for a meal in India. The menu prices are insane, then there’s 12.5% tax and then they put a service charge on top. Ouch. For two soft drinks, a plate of cheesey chips and a margharita pizza the bill came to over 690Rp. The same meal on the beach in Palolem would have been less than half that amount.

This was counteracted slightly by the cheap fare in the cinema. A decent sized Coke and salty popcorn is only 75Rp, making them a virtually mandatory purchase. And the film was good. Damn good. Go see it.

I don’t like Leonardo deCaprio. OK, he was good in Catch Me If You Can but he was also in Titanic which was awful. All is forgiven with this film, though. The action scenes are jaw-dropping and scary as all hell. Imagine a cross between Hotel Rwanda and Saving Private Ryan with a huge dash of City of God thrown in. The other performances are OSCAR-deserving, frankly.

Hans erupted from the cinema like a tornado as soon as the credits came up as he’d been dirnking too much Coke, and we walked back to the train station (you guessed it – 20 minutes) and on the way collected a Bangladesh Lonely Planet and – finally – a decent Indian flag sew-on patch. If anyone finds a good quality Sri Lankan one, could you let me know? I couldn’t find one anywhere when I was over!

We collected our bags and – after checking how much we should be paying – jumped into a taxi to the airport. Ninety minutes later and 400 Rupees lighter (after refusing the “extra luggage fee” pleas) we strode into the Domestic terminal and checked in nice and quickly.

A short email check, a chicken ball sandwich (don’t ask – it was about as appetising as it sounds), Snickers and Snapple later and we were ready to board the flight. Deccan Air uses the “free seating” policy, so we nabbed two on the emergency exit row. In exchange for ripping a door out of the wall in the event of us plummeting into a mountain, I get the added bonuses of being the first one out and also of extra legroom. I’m more likely to be able to run away from the burning wreckage as the seat in front won’t have crushed my ankles to powder. Handy, that.

I slept for most of the flight, and prevented anyone else doing so by snoring. Well, that’s Hans’ story anyway. I still think he’s wrong and I don’t snore. As we have agreed, this is my trip. It’s my blog. And I’m always right. Hans snores, I don’t. End of.

At Calcutta / Kolkata (take your pick) we queued for a pre-paid taxi and settled in for another mystery ride into another of India’s largest cities. The worst part is, it was a mystery ride for the driver as well, who had to stop and ask directions umpteen times. In between stops for information he kept asking for “one dollar tip?”, assuming that Hans was American.

After doubling back on ourselves twice, we finally got to the hotel Hans selected (yes, I’m blaming him – only because I can. It’s my blog…) and checked in, leaving an annoyed taxi driver outside with his palm outstretched, likely cursing all tourists. Frankly, I wish he’d got lost and we’d ended up somewhere else instead. The Gulistan Guest House is a dive. Our room’s pokey, the bed’s dirty, there’s no shower and the TV doesn’t have a picture. It’s 450Rp a night and overpriced by about 250 in my reckoning. Still, we have until midday tomorrow to find somewhere else.

Right now, all I want to do is zonk out.

Chuffa chuffa toot toot

Well, the train journey wasn’t bad at all. There are several classes over here, ranging from “first” (which you hardly ever see) through 2AC, 3AC, sleeper and downwards. Tonight’s train was a “SL” – sleeper class. This means no A/C, but overnight temperatures were fine.

The carriage was divided by walls to which were attached three tiers of three bunks, the middle of which is initially folded down so three people can sit opposite each other on the bottom one, like a bench. As luck would have it, the other passengers in our little enclave didn’t board for a couple of hours, so we had plenty of space pretty much up until we wanted to bed down.

One thing you’re not short of is food. There’s a near-constant stream of official railway salespeople barging up the carriages screaming “Chicken lollipop!” or “Soda! Lassi!” in a vocal style reminiscent of the old guy who stands outside Eldon Square grunting “Chronicle!”. At a guess, I’d say there were about a dozen different sellers, each with a different food or beverage. These included those mentioned as well as chai, coffee, fruit salad, sandwiches, roast peanuts and foil-wrapped dinners.

I opted for a chicken fried rice for 45Rp which was – frankly – really tasty. I’d have had a fruit salad as well, but the rice was such a generous portion I was full afterwards. Far, far better than the famed British Rail stale sandwiches of old.

For about an hour, I chatted to a middle-aged Indian man who was on his way to Mumbai for a conference. We mainly talked about the food in India, books and authors, and films. Nice guy, though he stopped me finishing my book!

The only real downside to the journey was the noise, as someone kept insisting on opening the door and the route had a lot of tunnels. Having said that, I was exhausted so slept pretty well regardless. This despite sharing my bunk with two rucksacks and a camera bag.

Planes, trains and autorickshaws

It may be a day or three until the next major update although I have time to kill in Mumbai tomorrow, so may spend most of it online!

We’ve left Palolem (sadly) and started our trek northwards. A big wave and a “really hope to see you again soon” to everyone we met at the beach. I simply can’t remember all your names, but of the top of my head: Sharna, Harriet, Alex, Emma, Charlie, Noa, Katrina, Caroline, Leigh… I know there are more! We had a great time and with any luck will catch up with a handful of these folks in Nepal.

The bus ride up here was bumpy to say the least, but I slept for most of it courtesy of very little kip the night before. Too many beers and great company – thanks, Noa! We popped into a service cafe – I think used by the bus drivers – when we arrived in Margao and paid a whopping 7/- each for two bottles of Mountain Dew before hopping into an autorickshaw to the train station.

Right now I’m at said station waiting for our train to Mumbai. It’s an overnight sleeper and I look forward (ish) to seeing what the facilities are like! We arrive in Mumbai/Bombay at around 6:00 or 7:00 tomorrow morning when nothing will be open. We’re really only there to pick up our flight tickets to Calcutta and Bangladesh, but we’ll have the day to kill so I may update there. As it is, I best dash as Hans is sat on the platform with only our bags for company and I think he wants to check his email as well.

Oh, and it looks like I might be visiting the Middle East sometime this year as well. Maybe on the way back to Europe. Anyone know a good Hebrew phrasebook?