29.10.2012 - 30.10.2012 30 °C
Heading straight from the airport to Varanasi (the holiest and therefore craziest city in India) on an unbooked overnight train was always going to make for an interesting 24 hours. Despite being quizzed by immigration ("how can you not know the address or name of the charity where you are volunteering for a month," "do you really feel comfortable travelling alone around India" - all reasonable questions I had no reasonable answer for), and waiting over an hour for my luggage, the first 24 hours actually started off quite well. Not only did the arrivals lounge have a Costa, but a lovely Aussie couple suggested sharing (paying for) a taxi - result. However, when the taxi dropped me off at the Metro station, and I had to navigate India alone, the trouble began. Negotiating beggars, food carts and signs only in Hindi, I eventually found the station and the right train.
After arriving at Delhi train station, it took me genuinely two hours, six times in the lift going up and down (running past security each time because the queue was ridiculous and my bag precariously balanced), two angry outbursts at policemen who spoke no English and refused to help, an argument with a crazy Indian woman because her group of about 20 old bats pushed in front of me in the ticket line (the saying that the queue is a solely British institution is absolutely true - the term simply does not exist in India) and a small breakdown at the inquiries desk because no one would help and all the timetables were in Hindi, to actually acquire a ticket and the necessary information. A problem remained: a "ticket" in India means simply "permission to board the train", it does not alot the ticket holder any allocated space on said train. Furthermore, there is no limit on the amount of "tickets" which can be issued. The only upgrade available all evening on any of the four trains to Varanasi was an AC Chair at $40! I refused, and so accepted my fate.
After sulking on the platform, things again looked up when I managed to find the workers' toilets (clean-ish) and a cafe manager, shocked to hear that I only had a general admission ticket, agreed to help me find the train controller. He couldn't be found, and so I had to engage in a full blown argument with a man lying down on the luggage rack (and so taking up enough space for an entire family or coop of chickens) in order to aquire a seat. Luckily I was backed up by some locals and succeeded in persuading him to move two inches - enough space for me OR my bag. I chained my bag to a pole a little further down the train and climbed up onto my seat, literally. Thus commenced fourteen hours of sitting on metal poles, unable to put my legs down without knocking out the poor woman and child underneath me (which I almost did on several occasions), squidged in between two men, one who snored continuously. Blissfully naive, I had, until this moment, believed that sleep was a prerequisite for snoring, but apparently not. I also had the pleasure of sharing my "seat" with some old chewing gum, and so I now have grey sticky stuff permanently entrenched into the arse of my favourite trousers, something the locals found hilarious.
As the night went on, people seemed to materialise from thin air and covered literally every square inch of seat, luggage and floor space. I soon became grateful for my two inch high-rise perch.Going to the toilet (an experience in itself) turned into an obstacle course of sleeping bodies. However, once I was settled onto my perch, I began to see the journey as an adventure. Although no one spoke a word of English (and obviously I was the only white person, let alone white GIRL in the carriage), we managed to communicate through food and knowledge sharing. They passed around my 'Economist' with an interest so intense, it was as if they actually had some idea what it's content was about. I gave two gorgeous children Haribo, and an old lady gave me (what I later found out were) pickled mangoes. They were so spicy my lips were on fire for the rest of the evening, but I smiled and 'thank you'd' and somehow managed to eat the second slice. I totally forgot the "don't accept food from strangers rule" as well as the "don't eat street food" rule, and in the space of a few hours managed to consume daal and rice, a samosa, some sort of bread and vegetable paste, vegetable patties, pickled mango and about 10 cups of masala chai (tea) - my new favourite drink - all without washing my hands or using a fork. I realised about 11pm, having just experienced the "toilet" for the first time, what a serious muddle I would be in if I got sick. Thankfully, my stomach held out. This time. I arrived in Varanasi, a little scarred (several men stared at me the entire journey, and one licked my foot - not joking) and sleep deprived, but alive.