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 overnight train without a seat reservation was always going to make for an interesting 24 hours. The trials of immigration ("How can you not know the name or address of the charity where you're volunteering for a month?" "Do you really feel comfortable travelling alone around India?" - all reasonable questions I had no reasonable answer for) and luggage delays were tempered by the presence of a Costa in the arrivals lounge, but as soon as I had to begin navigating India alone, the trouble began.
After negotiating beggars, food carts and signs in Hindi, I eventually managed to find Delhi train station. It genuinely took me two hours, six times in the lift going up and down (running past security each time because the queue was ridiculous and the thought of taking off my insanely heavy bag too much to contemplate), two emotional outbursts at policemen who spoke no English and refused to help, an argument with an angry Indian woman because her group of about 20 tourists pushed in front of me in the ticket line (the queue truly is a British institution - the word 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 allot the ticket holder any space on said train. Furthermore, there is no limit to the amount of "tickets" that can be issued. The only upgrade available all evening on any of the four trains to Varanasi was an AC Chair at $40... So I refused, and accepted my fate.
After sulking on the platform, things began to look up when I managed to find the workers' (clean-ish) toilets and a cafe manager who, shocked to hear that I only had a general admission ticket, tried to help me find the train controller. He couldn't be found, so I had to negotiate for my seat (in Hindi) with a man lying down on the luggage rack - and so taking up enough space for an entire family or coop of chickens. Luckily, I was backed up by some locals and succeeded in persuading him to move a whole two inches. 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. Apparently not. I also had the pleasure of sharing my "seat" with some old chewing gum, and so now have grey sticky stuff permanently entrenched into my only pair of trousers, something the locals are finding 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 - I'll spare you the details) turned into an obstacle course of sleeping bodies. But it was my first Indian 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 using the only thing we had in common: food. They passed around my issue of The Economist with an interest so intense it was as if they actually had some idea of its content, and were absolutely fascinated by my Nepalese coins. 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 - 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.