The journey to Varanasi was pretty seamless.. a taxi from Rishikesh (first a motorbike ride across the rattly bridge, my suitcase on a separate bike this time) to Haridwar, and a two hour wait on the platform. The train was waiting, but locked. Indian trains are quite spooky, especially in the dark, great big rusty hulks with faceless square engines. They may look a bit clapped out and are dirty inside but, so far, they have been amazingly efficient. An hour before departure a passenger list appears by the carriage door.. and there, by the light of the full moon, was my name. Good. And when I got on board I realised what all those plastic cans had been for... there were as many litre cans of Mother Ganga as there were home-bound pilgrims on the train.
I had been fretting mildly in the taxi about this journey.. the loos mainly, and the fact that I could only get a top berth, and my legs were so stiff. When I got off the motorbike in Rishikesh I had discovered a hole in the back of my (luckily quite voluminous) trousers and couldn’t tell how big it was, and the thought of clambering up that ladder to the top bunk...I am enough of an oddity already without such an added worry. It isn’t just the gymnastics involved in climbing the ladder, but there is virtually no headroom when you do get up there. I decided to try to forget about the whole in my trousers, and it worked.
My companions (6 berths) were a couple who had been visiting their son in his ashram in Rishikesh. Professor Mukherjee is a retired head of philosophy and maths from St Xavier’s College in Kolkata and his wife had a terrible cough, and wept to leave her son – they only see him every 2 -3 years. He came on board to say goodbye, and had a magnificent beard, a vivid orange turban and shiva beads around his neck. There was also a sourfaced woman in a glittering sari whose family were in the next door compartment and she had obviously had a row with her husband. All offerings they brought to her of meals and snacks were refused and she didn’t speak. The other two berths were men who slept most of the way and worked on their computers. One helped me my choose lunch - veg curry with rice and dal (again) - 40rps.
The arrival time into Varanasi (or Banares) wasn’t clear. I thought it would arrive at 1.45pm, the ticket inspector said 4pm, someone else said 3pm. So when I scrambled up the ladder again at 11.30 (we had an early lunch) to read my book, I asked the Professor to alert me if he heard any talk of arriving in Varanasi.. (Approaching stations are not announced and the name on the platform is always written large in Hindi and small in English – but by then it would be too late anyway, they don’t stop long.) “Quickly Madam, come down now, Banares is coming,” the Professor was jumping up and down and tugging at my blanket, and I was sound asleep. I gathered myself together and waved goodbye to the Professor, hauled my case along the train and made it - to a celebrity welcome from all the porters on the platform.
The hawkers and hasslers are really bad at Varanasi. Taxi drivers will try to stop you going to where you want to go and tell you of a better place. But I said no, firmly, I wanted Hotel Alka. They said the trouble is Hotel Alka is in the old part of the city and there is a long walk at the end because the roads are too narrow for cars. They were right - it was a long walk - but luckily the taxi men came with me and carried my case, still trying to persuade me to stay somewhere else. But Hotel Alka is good – it’s at Meer Ghat, near to the main burning ghat – and it is right on the river with a lovely terrace. My room is large with a little balcony. Magic.
(written Sunday 17 July)