No post for yesterday as I took the day off relaxing and soaking up more of the unique atmosphere in Varanasi.
This morning’s fog is a real pea souper. I can’t even see the ground from my balcony let alone the river. Walking for breakfast I spot a number of tourist boats chugging by flash bulbs popping as if that is going to help penetrate the gloom.
Today however is a moving on day. I have a ticket booked on the 10.35 Doon Express up to Ayohya where the supreme god Rama is said to have been born. It’s more holy towns and temples I’m afraid. I am booked in sleeper class which essentially is long distance cattle class. This time however I ensured that A. proper attention was paid to the call of nature before I left the safety of my guest house and B. I have a top berth so I can just lie down, sleep and read without the constant attention from the other passengers.
The train you will not be surprised to hear is late. By one hour initially which grows to 2 hours by the time the train finally sets off. In sleeper class there are no station announcements. I guess people just know where there are going. My strategy is to lie on the top bunk until the arrival time stated on the ticket plus the delay and then claim my place on the bottom bunks and look for the station names as we arrive. The arrival plus delay time comes and goes. Then another hour passes as we stop in stations and wait, and wait, and wait until a downline train passes. I’m beginning to think that the train must have passed through my station as it is now nearly 2 hours after our scheduled arrival but I know deep down that “making up time” just does not happen on an Indian train.
I have said before that if you want to come to India you have to be very prepared to be stared at constantly. This is especially true in sleeper class where a westerner might as well be from Mars. You can feel the suspense as each if your fellow travellers wait for the opportunity to engage. For your part, you know it’s coming but you want to delay it as much as possible as whilst engaging is one of the joys of Indian travel, hours of being asked the same questions you have been asked hundreds of time before can be wearing.
The “trigger” on this occasion was a 23 year old local policeman who got onto the train and as he was passing asked “British?”. I must have a George’s Cross tattooed on my forehead. I reply in the affirmative. Well that was it, he abandons his seat, nestles into the 3 already on the opposite bench and the conversation starts.
The top three questions you will be asked in India if you ignore “Wanna see my shop?” are: “Coming From?” meaning which country. We have established this. It is normally followed by an inquisitive “London?” It’s best just to say yes unless you have a map of the UK with a pin pointing to your hometown.
“What is you good name?” I have learnt how to say “My name is” in Hindi. That always goes down well.
Tied for third place would be “What is your religion”, “Are you married/how many children” and “How many times India” When faced with this question never say “First time” even though it might be true.
You would be surprised just how many times you can be asked these questions in a single day. The moment a conversation like this starts a crowd will magically form. Everyone who has been primary educated speaks a smattering of English but what is difficult is the “tuning in”. Sentence structure and consonant pronunciation are very different here and the lower the English skill the more effort you have to put into the tuning. This can be very tiring after a while.
My new found PC friend, he did not tell me his name so I cannot make it up, has little English skill but luckily two of the other travellers are more refined, one is a lawyer, the other a lecturer. Between the three of us we get by.
PC plod has an unusual line of questioning. He wants to know how many countries in the world speak Scottish. Now this is a first. I fall into a bear trap as I find the word Gaelic falling out of my mouth. This conversation topic is a cul de sac and it takes me a while to volte face.
Another of the group wants to know why I like India. I use my analogy of India biting you and it’s how you react to the bite that determines whether you never visit again or, like me, finish one trip to start planning the next. Blank looks all round. Oh dear, I’m not doing very well here and I am going to have to get a new analogy.
I redeem myself gloriously however when plod asks whether I think his is black. This is very odd indeed but I guess I need to explain my take on this.
India is no different to many countries that have very real geographical distinction in terms of wealth, influence and intelligence. Here it is north and south. Northerner’s are generally lighter than their southern brothers and this is compounded exponentially by Bollywood where you have to be fair skinned and the Indian media and advertising industries which favour almost exclusively the light skinned. You can be at the southern tip of India where everyone is very dark but you will still be bombarded with advertising from the north. The real power is in Delhi, in the north.
I think this could be what the policeman is alluding to as he is very dark skinned but from the north. My answer brings universal acclaim once it has been translated by the lecturer. “I see absolutely no distinction here”.
Incidentally, you have to look hard for unfriendliness in India. You get indifference and sullenness in spades but very rarely is someone unhelpful. Also in my experience of travel around the sub continent, the friendliest people of all are in the south.
At least travelling on my own allows me to blank attention for a time. My partner is pretty and has blonde hair. When she is with me she gets all the attention (rightly so) but the time where we can avoid engagement reduces significantly.
My new found friends assure me that I have not missed my stop and that Ayodhya is about 5 minutes away. The lawyer and lecturer both get off at the same stop and point me in the direction of town. At this point I make a stupid, stupid error. I allow a rickshaw driver to take me to the door of a hotel. You never, never do this as he will then claim a commission from the hotel for introducing a western guest. This commission of course goes straight onto the price of the room. In a bigger town you can get away with it as there are many hotels. Ayodhya is back in the hinterland and has two only. I ask if he has rooms and it’s yes. I ask if I can see it. The room is fine, tatty but clean enough with an attached bathroom and a softer bed than I have been used to recently. I go back to ask the price. R600.
Outrageous, the room is worth R350 at most. I decide then to move on and check out the other option. As I move down the corridor I see him lift the ‘phone. Maybe I’m being paranoid but this happened to me in Bhopal. When I baulked at the high price of the first hotel and left suddenly all the other hotels locally became “full”. The guy was on the ‘phone as I left.
I am annoyed with myself but there is nothing I can do apart from change my plan. This hotel has a checkout time of 12pm. I will now only stay one night, do all the sights in the morning with my bag in the room, check out and move to another town in the afternoon. Bollocks to them.
As I write this my evening meal is being cooked for me at roadside restaurant. It reminds me hugely of the tumbledown shack eateries we saw and ate in in Orissa a couple of years ago. My profile picture is taken outside of one. The floor is just trampled earth, it has simple wooden benches and tables and a long kitchen range made from compacted earth over a brick substrate fired by wood and charcoal. Large steel pots sit atop the range beside a clay tandoor oven fired at the bottom by glowing charcoal. My roti have already been rolled and stretched out and attached to the side of the tandoor and mein host is busy cutting onions, ginger and green chillis into a frying pan over a cooking ring of charcoal set into the range fanned by an ancient electric fan from behind. The fumes of the chillies hit me hard so I repair to my bench to wait and wonder why is it that I choose so many holy towns where beer is verboten. It can be found in Varanasi but at the pricier hotels so for the last few days I have been completely on the wagon (or is it off?). I must apply for a medal.
My food is here. A mound of steaming rice with cumin seed, a portion of vegetable curry, a bowl of dhal swimming with chopped dried red chillies, something else that tastes of garlic, a tomato and onion salad and three superb fresh charcoal tandoori rotis. All for R35 (30p) I may not be able to stay cheap but I can eat for next to nothing.
I talk too much………Eat.