Varanasi – Somebody Get Me Out of Here!

Varanasi, India


I finally fell asleep in my VERY uncomfortable berth only to be awakened around 3:00 a.m. by grandpa, father and daughter preparing to leave. On the one hand this was a pain for me because they chattered incessantly, moved luggage about and put all the lights on. On the other hand, it meant that I would have the berth all to myself for the remainder of the trip. Finally after about 15 minutes of fiddling around, the train came to a stop, the family got off, and I was left in relative peace. I quickly dozed back to sleep and proceeded to have one wacky dream after another. The weirdest was the arrival in my compartment of a very good friend of mine who proceeded to sit on the end of my berth and tell me he had been looking for me on all the trains. This was followed by the arrival of some people I know generally in the legal community in Seattle who wanted to know if I would be returning to Seattle in time to organize our annual women bankruptcy attorneys Christmas party. The dream was so vivid that when I woke up I had to stop and think whether it had been a dream or not.

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Amazing porter at Varanasi station with my luggage

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally arrived in Varanasi about two hours late (10:00 a.m.) and was fortunately met at the disembarkation area by my Varanasi guide Shivum. As I was pulling my luggage off the train, a porter approached and indicated he could assist me. Shivum told me we had to go up a couple flights of stairs so it was probably worth it to have him help out. I agreed and so the porter proceeded to pull out a long scarf, curl it into a circle, place it on top of his head and then hoist my luggage on top of his head with Shivum’s help. HOLY ****! My two pieces of luggage easily weigh close to 70 pounds thanks to all the stuff I have purchased along the way. I could not believe what I was watching, but this porter proceeded to walk along with us balancing the luggage on his head. Then the tricky part … the staircase. But this was no problem for this professional. He moved with amazing grace up the stairs and did not miss a beat. I was absolutely incredulous. When we finally reached the car, the porter wanted 150 rupees for his time (about 3 dollars and Shivum even objected saying it was too much). Screw that. He entertained me so much I told Shivum to butt out, doubled the amount the porter asked for and thanked him profusely. The guy was a real talent!

Now a little bit about Varanasi. The town is one of the oldest in India at 2,000 years old, is situated on the western banks of the Ganges River and is considered to be one of the most spiritual and holiest cities in India. Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi they will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death (Hindus believe in reincarnation) and move to a higher plane of life. The beating heart of Varanasi is the ghats ( a ghat is a place along the Ganges for spiritual ceremonies) where the faithful come to bathe, be cremated and participate in and a witness Hindu ceremonies. The old part of Varanasi is a series of congested alleys and narrow roads where the Hindu faithful wander all day long chanting, praying and moving form ghat to ghat.

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Welcome to Varanasi

Anyway, I piled into the car and met my driver Sandeep aka Charlie (he looked a wee bit like Charlie Chaplin and was a funny, funny guy). As we began the drive to my hotel, the Hotel Ganges View by the Assi Ghat, it became apparent that the drive to from Delhi to Agra had been the rookie leagues compared to Varanasi, which immediately jumped to award winning status. I even told Charlie that he deserved a gold medal for maneuvering through the mayhem. Horns were nonstop. Not a silent moment on the whole 30 minute drive. Nada. Zip. Zero. And after almost a week in India, I had now come to believe that cricket was not the national sport of India, honking horns was actually the number one pastime. In addition, the number of motorcycles, tuk tuks, and cyclists crowding between the cars was multiplied by 10 fold as compared to the drive to Agra. Cows, and dirt and smoke reined supreme. What the F had I got myself into. THIS was one of India’s holiest, most spiritual cities. Somehow over the next couple days I was going to have to wade through utter hell to find the spirit.

We finally arrived at my hotel after bobbing and weaving down narrow alleys and roads made for only one car but crowded on both sides in either directions by two and three vehicles. We had dodged around every form of vehicle in existence and past more cows and beggars than I could count. The hotel, to say the least, was a very welcome relief. This very small, family run hotel sits up above the Assi Ghat, is made entirely of wood and contains charming Indian art. I was given a small, but gorgeous room overlooking the Ganges. It was a stark contrast to the dire poverty just outside the door. I had about two hours to relax before Shivum and Charlie returned to take me on a tour of some of the “sights” in Varanasi, including some temples.

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The man making lassi at a street stall

At 1:00, the boys arrived right on time and were already teasing me. (These two are best of friends and Charlie is the obvious instigator. I figured it was going to be a fun couple days.) Anyway, as we headed out, Charlie wanted to know if I had tried lassi yet, a yogurt and milk mixture that is a staple in the Indian culture. “No I have not Charlie.” With that, Charlie made a bee line for a very ramshackle food stand. He pulled over and we piled out. “Uh Charlie is it safe for me to have this. No disrespect, but my stomach is not used to some of the uh less hygienic aspects of your culture.” “Madame I would not take you here if it was not safe.” Well, I wasn’t sure about that, but I decided to go with blind faith and ultimately my faith was rewarded (I did not get sick). I watched as the man running the stand mixed milk and a yogurt like substance and then added some coconut and some other spices. He pounded the mixture with a long stick and before you know it he was handing me a ceramic bowl filled with the mixture. (I had seen these tiny ceramic bowls being sold in mass quantities everywhere and wondered what the heck they were used for, and now I had the answer.) Shivum and Charlie were both given a bowl as well. I paid the man 45 rupees (about $1) and took a taste. My God! Where has this little slice of heaven been all my life. It was refreshing and absolutely delicious. After downing the lovely little concoction, I was directed to throw the bowl away. Charlie explained that the ceramic is hygenic only until used and once used must be thrown away. I wasn’t sure about this logic, but went with it.

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New Vishwanath Temple at Benares Hindu U

After the wonderful lassi break, we piled back in the car and headed to Benares Hindu University. After weaving through the masses, beggars, animals, dirt and smoke once again, we passed through a set of gates and entered another world. The campus was an oasis of green and peace. I learned from Shivum that the university was one of the oldest universities in India and is the center for education in medicine, Indian art, music, culture and philosophy. It was absolutely lovely. Horns were not permitted on the campus, so it was almost strange to pass a tuk tuk or cycle rickshaw and not hear a horn. Anyway, the boys drove me around the ampus through orchards, past gardens and utterly beautiful buildings. Finally we pulled over, got out and headed to the New Vishawaneth Temple on the campus. The temple is open to people of all faiths and was, quite frankly, unremarkable for its architecture. However, what I found simply divine was the singing throughout the temple. I came to find out that the voice belonged to a blind man who sang daily from a perch on the second floor. We walked up the stairs (sans shoes) and made our way to the man’s location. We sat on the floor with him while he played an accordion like instrument and sang. It was beautiful. (Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed so I could not take a picture of this gentleman who entertained me for about 20 minutes.)

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Washingt

We finally moved on and as we were leaving, I saw a huge statute of Nandi, which is the bull that the god Rama rides and is said to also be Rama’s son. Nandi is also one of the primary gods in the Hindu religion. After staring at Nandi for a bit I have decided that upon my return to Seattle I will commence calling my friend Denice aka the Bull, Nandi. I’m not sure if she will go for it, but what the heck. At least it is original. (And speaking of bulls, I don’t think I ever explained why cows are free to roam the streets of India. There are apparently a number of reasons: (1) Nandi is a cow (bull actually) and is therefore considered godlike; (2) according to legend, lord Krishna was in the forest and was very hungry, he befriended a cow (which actually became his pet) which gave him nourishment in the form of milk and thus Hindus respect the animal (the cow) that provided necessary nourishment for lord Krishna; (3) the cow is the principally the supplier of milk, a symbol of purity, piety, serenity, peace and motherhood in Hindu religion, and as well, the cow’s dung was a necessary fuel and fertilizer; and (4) the bull was a beast of strength valuable to man. So in short, there are a number of reasons the cow is important to Hindus, but the Hindu don’t necessarily “worship” the cow in the same vein as a god. Rather, Hindus treat cows as a loved and cherished animals so hence the freedom to move without restrictions.)

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Washington clothes amongst the bulls in the Ganges

Anyway, we moved on from the temple and the university and back out into the great noise. We stopped at the Vishwanath Temple aka the Golden Temple, but non-Hindus are not permitted entry (although I later found out for a substantial amount of rupees I could have “bought” my way in) so I could only look at the temple from the outside. (The security was incredible as the temple is the most popular temple in Varanasi having been built in 1776 and dedicated to the one and only lord Shiva.) We quickly moved on from the Vishwanath Temple and headed to the Dhundhiraj Ganesh Temple dedicated to, who else, Lord Ganesha (NOT my guide Agra Ganesha but the elephant god and the symbol of good luck). This was a very small temple, but also one of the oldest in Varanasi/ However, for the life of me I cannot remember the year the temple was built. And the likely reason is that as we walked up the stairs to the temple to jump up and ring the bell that hangs over the entryway (which you do for good luck upon entering any Hindu temple) I smashed my head with the clanger in the bell … don’t ask how.) Anyway, it was a pretty little temple. I watched the holy water of the Ganges drip down from a holder above a an offering pool, wandered around for a couple minutes and then walked back down the stairs careful to ring the bell as we were leaving without hitting my head.

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So

After we left the temple, we headed to the Muslim sector of Varanasi so that I could see how silk garments were made. (I planned to have a couple blouses made so as part of the process I got a, demonstration of how the cloth and the designs on the cloth are made and how the cloth is dyed.) We wandered down alley after alley to the clack clack clack of the weaving machines. We finally stopped at a very small doorway and I was ushered in. There were four elderly gentlemen at the looms and I learned that the craft had been in their family for generations. Unfortunately, these men were the last of a dying breed as the younger generation had no interest in the art. I spent some time watching these men deftly weave the cloth and the designs. It was not only fascinating, but pretty damn amazing how quickly their fingers moved while making it appear pretty effortless. We moved into the color room where I watched how they boiled the cloth in plant extracts and roots to create the vibrant and allegedly fade free materials (we shall see).

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Silk Weaving in the Muslim quarter in Varanasi

They finally took me to a measuring room where a tailor came in, took my measurements and I was left to choose the type of silk and colors for my blouses. I ended up choosing cream, red and black (boring I know, but this was work attire). In addition to three blouses, I had a skirt made. The results (which I picked up 2 days later) were pretty impressive. The blouses fit like a glove, but the skirt was a little big. I told them not to worry because I decided that the skirt needed a lining after all (which I had originally decided not to get), and I would just have my tailor take care of it when I got home.

By now, it was getting dark so the guys took me to a restaurant for a quick bite to eat before we headed to the Ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. (The Ganga aarti ceremony is a religious Hindu ceremony performed by disciples of the priest which includes “puja”, the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals such as blowing conch shells in unison, burning incense and balancing fire torches and candelabras.

So we stopped at a restaurant serving Indian food and I ordered up some Indian curry and some roti (flat bread) and was settling in when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash and turned just in time to see the tail of a mouse disappearing under the counter. Uh … good enough for me. Boys get me out of here. I threw down 200 rand since the food was already in process and got the heck out of there with apologies to the staff. No way was I eating any food cooked in that joint. (I may have eaten in other restaurants where mice are plentiful, but at least I hadn’t seen the evidence.)

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Riding in a cycle rickshaw in Varanasi

The boys were apologetic and rather embarrassed. I told them not to worry, and I would have something to eat later at a restaurant near my hotel that came highly recommended in Lonely Planet. So we set off through the madness once again and as we neared Dasaswamedh Ghat we came to a standstill. At this point, Shivum got the bright idea that we should jump out and take a cycle rickshaw through the backstreets where the car is not permitted to reach the ghat. Uh… what the heck. So we jumped out leaving Charlie with the car and got on board a rickshaw. Once out in the thick of things, I actually began to enjoy the raucous surroundings. Since I was now I participant in the insanity and not a bystander sheltered in a car it somehow became palatable.

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Ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat

We were dropped off near the ghat and Shivum and I hiked the rest of the way through the very dirty, very smelly alleys being careful to step over the cow dung and people lying all over the place (seriously). Beggars were everywhere and if it hadn’t been improper, I might have grabbed hold of Shivum and held on for dear life. We finally reached the ghat and the puja was just about to start. Shivum found a perfect location for me on the stairs. I settled in and proceeded to watch the ceremony featuring 5 disciples blowing conch shells, waiving lamps filled with incense, dancing with fire and chanting. I have no idea what the symbolism was behind each of the actions, but it was fascinating. While all of this was going on, people pulled up close to the ghat in their boats, waded into the Ganges, and set lighted candles and flowers into the holy river. I enjoyed it thoroughly although the spiritual meaning of the ceremony was lost on me.

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Ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat

After the ceremony was over, Shivum and I climbed the stairs of the ghat retraced our steps through the filthy, stinky alleys to the car. I was back at the hotel and ensconced in my room by 9:00 p.m. I went to bed immediately because Shivum was coming to pick me up at 5:15 a.m. for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges.

When Shivum arrived at 5:15 a.m. he had a surprise for me. Since the only othere activity I had scheduled for the day was a walking tour, Shivum thought it might be fun if we took his motorbike back to the Dasaswamedh Ghat, where I was meeting my boatman who would be rowing me along the Ganges for an hour or so. Shivum assured me that since it was so early there would be little traffic on the roads so I agreed. I jumped on the bike (sans helmet … good grief) and we took off down the alley reaching the nearly deserted streets. OK. This was not going to be that bad. And it turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun. We weaved through the streets and down alleys before running into a lot of foot traffic walking to the ghat. Shivum finally parked the bike and we wandered the rest of the way with the masses.

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Sunrise boat ride on the Ganges

When we reached the ghat, Shivum introduced me to my boatman who proceeded to check-in with the boat owner and then try to locate an open boat for me. I soon learned that the boat owner, who owned a bunch of boats, made the final decision on which boat the boatman got to use. I watched in amazement as my poor little guy climbed over boats, retrieved a boat, rowed it to shore only to have the owner order him out and allow another boatman to take the boat. It soon became apparent after the third try that the boat owner was deliberately giving my boats to men who approached him. On the fourth go I had had enough. As the owner was about to give away boat #4 I let out a bellow … “NO WAY! THAT IS MY BOAT!” Shivum shrunk, and the boat owner stared at me. I shouted again “NO WAY” as the boat owner motioned to my boatman to give the boat to another boatman who was standing with a male client. At this point I marched over. Yelled again “NO WAY” and climbed in the boat. The owner stared at me, shrugged and nodded. Shivum skulked away (probably horrified by my rant), and the boatman and I set off (with the boatman smiling at me the whole time). By now the sky was pink and and as the boatman began to row, he broke his paddle. Good God. Eventually another fellow provided him with a paddle, and we finally got going for real this time and just as the sun began to peak over the horizon.

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The faithful bathing in the Ganges at sunrise

Now early mornings are a special time on the Ganges as pilgrims come to perform puja along the banks of the Ganges including prayers and offerings. In addition, pilgrims come to bathe in the waters and to perform yoga. (Others as I soon learned also come to just wash their clothes in the river.) Anyway, as my boatman rowed, I watched as men, women and children stripped down and proceeded to bathe in the filthy Ganges. We passed men performing yoga, Hindu priests performing rituals, cows swimming, children fishing, men at burning ghats building fires for the cremations to take place later, beggars looking for handouts, men and women having their heads shaved (apparently a ritual in Hindu religion) and servants washing clothing (and I have no idea how the clothes would EVER get clean in the water) Through it all I watched in amazement as this daily ritual went on.

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Shaving heads (woman and man) on banks of Ganges

We also passed ghat after ghat and temple after temple. In front of each ghat the same rituals were being performed. Bathing. Yoga. Begging. Ceremonies. And on and on and on. After more than an hour, my boatman reached our original starting point. I tipped him, thanked him, gave the owner the evil eye and found shrinking violet Shivum for my trip back to the hotel.

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Bathing in the Ganges

Shivum was most apologetic. “Madame. The boat owner was wrong. You did the right thing.” “Madame I will tell my boss we need to use a different boat owner.” “Madame are you mad at me.” I looked at Shivum with a combination of amusement and sympathy. Jobs are cherished in India, and I got the distinct feeling that Shivum was petrified that I would say something negative about him to his boss. Finally I looked at Shivum and said “Look. The only way I was going to get a boat is if I created a scene. You could not do that. He would not have listened, but a woman yelling at him was an embarrassment to him and the only way to eliminate the embarrassment was to give in to me. I know how the game is played here and if I wanted a boat, it was up to me. You did not do anything wrong.” Shivum seemed satisfied with the explanation, but assured me again that he would tell his boss about the problem (which he later confirmed he did).

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Morning on the Ganges

We walked back to the motorcycle and by now the road was rather busy. Uh not sure I am going to enjoy the trip back. However, Shivum assured me that once we left the ghat area the roads would be quiet again, and he was right. As we neared Assi Ghat, Shivum took a detour and took me to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. The security at the temple was incredible, and I soon learned the reason why. Apparently in 2006, a suicide bomber killed over 20 people at the temple so no one was taking any chances. I also learned that the temple was one of the most important temples for Hindus and because of this, the place was packed. We took off our shoes, rang the bell and walked up the stairs. The faithful were lighting candles to the various gods depicted by shrines, and in a room to my right, men and women were seated on the floor singing and chanting. It was hypnotic and wonderful.

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Meditating on the Ganges

Shivum then entered the main portion of the temple while I hung back and watched as he made an offering to the god Hanuman. As I stood there, a group of very old women sitting on the floor smiled at me and nodded. Shivum finished his offering, and we turned and walked back out of the temple. It turned out to be the most enjoyable temple I saw and quite frankly the most moving experience of my time in Varanasi.

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A view towards Manikarnika the Burning Ghat

We jumped back on the motorcycle, weaved through the alleys and reached my hotel by 9:00 a.m. Shivum was going to return at 12:30 for our walking tour of the ghats. I walked upstairs, had breakfast on the deck overlooking the Ganges and contemplated the poverty below me. It was depressing and guilt inspiring. Everywhere I turned there were tiny children with hands out, crippled men and women crawling about looking for a handout and destitute families living in the alleys. As much as I came here to see the spiritual side of India, all I was really seeing was the abject poverty and filth. I hoped that my afternoon walk with Shivum would change my perspective.

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Breakfast on the streets in Varanasi

When Shivum and I set off around 12:30, it became apparent that my perspective would not change. As we walked the ghats, all I could smell was smoke and urine. All I could see was filth and poverty. I watched as a young man stood in the dirty Ganges among the bulls and wash clothes. He stared at me as I took his picture, and I felt guilty. I watched as two children played in the dirt oblivious to their dire circumstances. I sat and stared at fishermen trying to reel in something to eat. I held my nose as we walked past a burning ghat and refused to look as a body was set ablaze. However, the most heartbreaking and gut wrenching sight was watching a child of no more than 3 years old cradle a tiny, screaming baby in his arms while he stared at me as I walked by. I wanted to run over and hug both of them. I turned to Shivum and told him I had had enough. I wanted to go back to the hotel before my heart broke any further.

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Child holding a baby on the banks of the Ganges

As we reached the hotel, Shivum’s telephone rang. It was the silk guys. They wanted to know if I could come by to try on the first shirt that was completed to make sure the size was right. I was really in no mood to go, but decided if I wanted the shirts I should make the effort. Unfortunately, we did not have a car so that meant that I would be back on the motorcycle. I cringed at the notion of riding through the hellacious streets on the bike at this time of day, but decided I would give it a go. BIG MISTAKE. I clung to the bike in terror as we weaved through the cars, mortorcyles, cycle rickshaws, tuk tuks and pedestrians. Horns never stopped beeping and the traffic never let up. Shivum was a good driver, but the others around us scared the bejesus out of me. As we drove on, I became paranoid that someone would try to pull my shoulder bag off me and pull me off the bike with it. I just wanted off this thing fast. When we finally reached the shop, I got off and told Shivum I was taking a tuk tuk back to the hotel because I had not liked the ride. This lead to Shivum becoming paranoid that I was mad at him, and that I would report him. He pleaded with me not to say anything. After numerous assurances from me he finally calmed down.

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Ghats on the Ganges in Varanasi

The blouse turned out to be perfect so the tailor was given the go ahead to make the other two shirts. Shivum located a tuk tuk for me and insisted on riding with me back to the hotel. Once at the hotel, I walked next door to the Palace Hotel to find out if I could get a massage. I was so stressed out from the noise, chaos and stuff around me I needed to relax. I was told I could go right in and have an Ayurveda massage which involves lots and lots of oils and rubbing and kneeding. I was ushered into a room where a met a lovely young lady who would be my masseuse. I was told to take everything off and hop on the table. I was immediate doused from head to toe in oil and given a FULL body massage (and when I say full I mean full as this woman did not miss a spot). It was, however, heavenly and just what I needed. After the massage, I had a quick dinner and went to bed at 8:00 p.m. I was exhausted.

Next morning I lazed around, had breakfast on the terrace and packed for my overnight train trip to New Jalpaiguri (“NJP”) where I would have a driver take me 2 hours into the mountains to Kuersong so that I could pick up the “Toy” Train to Darjeeling. (The Toy Train is listed on UNESCO’s world heritage site, began operations in 1881 and is one of the only continuous running hill railway services. The train hugs the hillside as it chugs up the Himalayan foothills and as a result, is a much narrower, shorter train hence the name Toy Train.)

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Fisherman with their catch on the Ganges

Shivum and Charlie picked me up at 1:30 for my trip to Sarnath before they were to drop me off at Varanasi’s Mughal Serai train station for my 6:00 p.m. overnight trip to NJP. We made a quick stop at the silk shop so I could pick up my handmade clothes and we were off on the 10 km trip through the villages to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon to a handful of followers.

Once in Sarnath, the first stop was the Mulgandha Kuti Viharm, a Buddhist temple that was built in 1931. The temple is the site of the offshoot of the original bodhi tree that was transplanted from Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka where Buddha attained “enlightenment”. The temple was quite nice and filled with lovely frescoes painted by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosi featuring the history of Buddhism.

Next stop was the Sri Digamber Jain Temple. The temple was pretty plain and quite frankly, the only thing I found interesting about the temple was the actual Jain religion in which the practitioners do not believe in wearing clothing. (The rule apparently only applies to men though as the women wear a simple white cloth … quite frankly, why bother?) Anyway, I told Shivum I wanted to move on and see what I came to Sarnath for: the Dhamekh Stupa and Buddhist ruins.

The Dhamekh Stupa marks the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon and actually looked like the base of a gigantic pillar. The Stupa dates to the 5th century AD, but the sign said the some of the brickwork may be as old as 200 BC. The Stupa was in a lovely park and was surrounded by the ruins of a number of monasteries that were built and occupied in the years following Buddha’s speech and the rise of the religion. The site was apparently destroyed by the Mughals when Islam became the religion of “choice”. The site is still in the process of being excavated, but contained a number of remnants of shrines, buildings and temples. It was a lovely, lovely site and one that I could have spent at least a half day at if for nothing else than to get away from the noise.

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Dhamekh Stupa (site of Buddha’s first speeech)

The last stop was the Archeological Museum which housed beautiful Buddhist carvings, statues and a 3rd century B.C. Lion that was adopted as India’s national symbol. I spent about an hour wandering around in the museum before I realized it was time to go. I met Shivum and Charlie outside and we drove back through the villages to the train station (which was different than the original station I arrived at a couple days before). The drive was hellacious as we had to cross through a truck crossing area where huge long haul trucks idled waiting for the clearance to cross a bridge. The area was so thick with smoke it blocked out the setting sun. I would have actually thought it was fog but for the fact that the smoke was so smelly that it was impossible to mistake it for anything else but horrible smog.

We made it to the station at 5:15 p.m., and I was actually looking forward to getting on the train and getting out of dodge. Then the bad news. My train was delayed by 8 hours! WHAT? Shivum told me it would not be departing until 2:15 a.m. Good God! What was I supposed to do until then? I sure as hell did not want to stay at the station, which looked like a clone of the Agra Fort station only much bigger. Shivum got on the telephone with his boss who very kindly told the boys to leave me at the station. (Thanks jack ass!) The boys were not happy about the instructions and told me that they would come back after finishing some evening assignments and sit with me until the train came. I told them that was very kind, but unnecessary.

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Buddhist ruins at Sarnath

Anyway, we collected my luggage and found the waiting room for AC-2 passengers (the train equivalent of 1st class). The room was a tiny, dingy dirty place filled with hard plastic chairs. THIS is where I had to sit for the next 8 plus hours?! I had no idea how I was going to make it. And to make matters worse, the Ladies Only room was under construction so I was stuck sitting there with a bunch of men who were staring at me. It gave me the creeps.

Shivum and Charlie made me chain my luggage together and loop the chain around a metal post. They told me not to talk to anyone, and that the woman monitor for the room would advise me when the train was ready to board. The boys then proceeded to sit there and not get up. The boys really did not want to leave me and felt very, very bad. I finally convinced them I would be OK, and told them it was time to say goodbye. Shivum got up and got me a bottle of water and a couple apples then sat back down again with Charlie. I thought they were both going to cry. However in the despair of the moment a ray of sunshine … after 2 ½ days of utter mayhem and doubt about why I ever came to Varanasi, the answer came in a simple comment Shivum made as he stood there telling me it was not right to leave me alone at night in the train station. “Madame, it has been a pleasure to serve you and I do not wish to leave you by yourself at this station. We may be from different countries. We may have different cultures. We may have different religions. But Madame, you and I we still have the same red blood.” Leave it to a simple fellow from a village near Varanasi to describe in plain terms that no matter who or what you are we need to have concern for our fellow man. It was heart warming to know that this sentiment was felt by a young man who I had virtually nothing in common with.

I thanked the boys profusely and reiterated I would be fine. I bid both of them goodbye with hugs and healthy tips and with that they finally left. After Shivum and Charlie had gone, I sat there with nothing to do. I did not dare take out my laptop computer, and I had finished all of my reading materials. After sitting in the corner with my chained luggage for about two hours silently writing a great novel in my head, I looked around and noticed that I was surrounded by men and kind of cut off from the front part of the room. I did not like this one bit. I looked to my left and saw an empty seat with a small side table near a family. I unlocked my luggage and proceeded to move to the better seat and relock my luggage. By now I was getting hungry and could not stand sitting there silent so I started up a conversation with the young girl seated with the family. Eventually I asked the mother if they would look after my things while I ran out to grab some food. The mother immediately instructed her older daughter to go with me and 10 minutes later I came back with a wonderful currie rice egg concoction. Then the mother asked if I needed to use the bathroom. THANK GOD. I dashed off, used a rather nasty bathroom (and this was in the AC lounge) and rushed back. Unfortunately, just as I arrived back the family informed me that their train was arriving shortly.   I had hoped they would stick around for a while.

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Shivum and Charlie

Once the family left, I heard an announcement about my train. It was now delayed 10 hours meaning I would be sitting there until 4ish in the morning. How the hell was I going to stay awake to guard my things and my person for that long. I began to seriously look at my options. By 9:00 p.m. there were only two other females in the room, and I was feeling pretty damn scared about my surroundings. Then came another announcement that the train was delayed 14 hours meaning no train until 8:00 a.m. This was ridiculous. The delay meant I was going to miss the Toy Train connection and because the train’s reservations are sold out months in advance, one of the prime reasons for going to Darjeeling was kiboshed.

As I sat there stewing I made the executive decision that I would leave the station, go to the Taj Hotel in the new part of Varanasi (rather than going back to my hotel in old Varanasi), spend the night and figure out a way to fly to Bagdogra (the closest airport to Darjeeling). My biggest concern was maneuvering out of the train station through the unseemly crowd outside the lounge and finding a reputable driver to take me to the Taj Hotel. I finally figured I just needed to do it. I unlocked my luggage, put my carry-on over the handle of one suitcase and proceeded to head out the door dragging my two wheeled suitcases behind me. I had no clue how to get out of this place. It had seemed like a maze when Shivum and Charlie brought me in here and now that it was dark I had no idea where to go.

I literally stepped over sleeping and seated characters looking for someone a little better dressed to help me out. I asked everyone I saw if they spoke English and no one seemed to understand or be able to help me. When I was about to give up, I heard a gentleman ask “Madame, where are you trying to go.” I turned to see an older gentleman, a woman and another man. I explained my situation and that I wanted to leave and go to the Taj Hotel and just needed some help to find my way out of the station and into a vehicle that would get me to the hotel. “Madame you should not be here alone. It is not safe for you to be here by yourself. We will take you to your hotel.”

I looked at the three rather skeptically and the man assured me he would not harm me. He pulled out his card and he turned out to be a barrister (lawyer). The other fellow with him was his driver. The lawyer instructed the driver to take my luggage and with that the four of us headed to the car. (At this point I was really hoping his card wasn’t fake, but going with them seemed to be the lesser of two evils.) When we reached the car, I relaxed. It was a large new four wheel drive vehicle. They loaded my luggage into the car, helped me in and off we drove. They asked me about my travels and where I was going. They seemed very nice.

About 20 minutes later we reached the Taj Hotel. After the standard security screening, I was deposited at the Taj Hotel much to my relief. The folks refused to take any money from me for gas or anything telling me “Madame you are a guest in our country it is our pleasure.” They were instead happy with a handshake and profuse thanks. (At this point in my trip, I either have horseshoes in terms of finding people to help me or people really are generally good at heart … I am tilting toward the Shivum theory and going with the latter.)

I went to the front desk and explained my situation and then … bad news. The Taj Hotel was sold out for the night. However, the desk manager told me to have a seat and he would see what he could do for me. Ten minutes later I was escorted to a very tiny room that is usually used by employees on overnight duty. The desk manager apologized profusely for the room, and I thanked him profusely for helping me out. The desk manager told me that his travel staff would call me at 8:00 a.m. to help with my arrangements to Bagdogra.

Sure enough at 8:00 a.m. the telephone rang and a young woman provided me with the only realistic option to Bagdogra: a late afternoon flight to Delhi with a morning connection to Bagdogra. That meant I would lose a day in Darjeeling, but it could not be helped. I told her to go ahead and make arrangements. After I hung up with the young woman, I called the only person I knew in Delhi. Minutes later I was speaking to Meera explaining the problem. She told me she was fully booked but to “come on anyway and we will make room.” I love that woman.

With a game plan for Darjeeling and no more India trains in my future, I showered, ate a lovely breakfast and got ready for my trip to Darjeeling by way of Delhi.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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