Another Indian adventure…It’s become a common refrain in our group, but it’s quickly becoming redundant.

Vonnegut said it’s best to start a story as close to the end as possible, so I’ll try:

At 4:43 a.m. Monday  I woke up on the middle bunk of a Indian National Railways third tier AC cabin. As I ran to the bathroom, I glanced at my watch before realizing that I had never felt exactly this way before.

I proceed to vomit and have diarrhea at the same time, which I didn’t know was even possible. This scenario repeats itself several times over the next few hourse until I become convinced it’s impossible that there’s anything left in me. I prove myself wrong.

On Indian trains, there is no tank below the toilet to catch the waste. As a result there are little bits of my misfortune scattered all the way between Varanasi (Benares) and Kolkata.

Three days earlier, we took the overnight to Varanasi – a holy city on the banks of Ganges renowned for its holies as well as its hawkers. As we crawled into our bunks to sleep our way all the way to Varanasi I realized that the bunk – like all other things in India – is three sizes too small for me. I spend the night fitfully trying to find a balance between the fetal position and stretching my legs out into the aisle. When I wake up, we’re almost to the city and ready to embark for a weekend that none of us could have predicted.

A piece of advice: guidebooks tell travelers to use the pre-paid taxi stand whenever they arrive at the railway station of a new city. DO NOT DO THIS. You might end up like us.

Our pre-paid taxi driver tried to take us to a hotel where he gets a comission for every foreigner he brings by. When we told him we wanted to go the hotel where we already had reserveations, he laughed and told us it was not possible. He also told us that the area was full of ‘junkies’ and that we were likely to get robbed (both of which, in retrospect, had shades of truth).

As a result, we were forced to begin a 2-hour odyssey that consisted of a cab ride, then a stint in a bicycle rickshaw and then a boat ride along the Ganges to our guest house. It was a ridiculoulsy circuitous route for what should have been only been a fifteen minute trip in an auto-rickshaw.   

A few hours after we got to Varanasi, the monsoon rains (first of the year) decided to follow us. We search for the Golden Temple in vain. Eventually, we find the entrance and after sweet-talking a squad of Indian MPs we get to go inside. The army is there for security purposes, because the temple sits adjacent to a mosque, and there has been sectarian violence in the past. The temple, like many of India’s treasures, is hidden behind a row of drab knick-knack shops, and its golden spire is only visible when you’re right next to the structure. Still, it’s beautiful.

There are cows everywhere in Varanasi. They’re allowed to roam freely anywhere they like: narrow alleys, the middle of the road, even the train station.

And they’re also allowed to shit wherever they please. Cow pies litter the ground, and aren’t picked up because stepping in them is considered good luck (so we were told). My friend Chris, who hadn’t been walking carefully enough, ended the day with a lucky right foot.  

Later that evening, we wait on the ghats (docks on the Ganges) for the beginning of a nightly worship ceremony, whose purpose and meaning is still obscure to me (any readers, please enlighten). At the stroke of seven, seven orange-robed Brahmin boys appeared on the ghats and the music and clapping began. While fighting off adolescent hawkers, we watch as the boys proceed to burn incense, light fires in golden lamps and turn rhythmically. The crowd of a few hundred is rapt, and so are we.

The next morning we wake up early to take a dawn boat ride along the Ganges to observe the burning ghats. At the two burning ghats, the bodies of pious Hindus are dipped in the sacred waters of the Ganges and burned on top of funeral pyres. We watch from the distance, but I still feel like an intruder – being a tourist at someone’s funeral doesn’t sit well with me.

But in India the space between the spiritual and the mundane seems more fluid. Right next to the burning ghats is a yoga class and to the right of them are a group of people doing laundry and slapping their clothes against the rocks to dry them.

Later that morning the rains pick up. We don’t pay much attention and decide to visit the Buddhist temple at Sarnath outside the city. We don’t make it more than a block into the city before discovering that the all the roads have at least two feet of sewage infested water.

We take refuge at a gas station. I ask if they have a toilet and they laugh. I proceed to pee on the side of the road (this is acceptable in many places in India) and get claps of approval from the attendants. To them, a foreigner doing this is hilarious.

Equally hilarious were my attempts to walk in the road. Even though everyone else is in the water, passers by can’t resist the urge to point at me and laugh as I try to make my way. It’s okay. Mostly I’m not concerned with them, because in my mind I’m slowly ticking off the list of parasites and diseases I could get from this adventure of necessity. I thumb the bottle of Purell in my pocket to gain a little bit of fortitude.

Back at the hostel we all take turns furiously showering, scrubbing and sanitizing, and spend the rest of the day trying to make it to the train station.

I’m not sure what made me sick. It could have been the banana lassi I had, but my money is on the brackish water. So much for the good luck of the cow pies; I spent the week bedridden struggling to eat toast.

This weekend we’re going to the nearby Hare Krishna center which promises to be another Indian adventure.

 

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