Friday, January 22, 2010

Trip Part 3: Varanasi and Agra

Train travel in India is widespread and convenient. There are no less than 8 classes for passengers to choose from, ranging from crowded, grubby unreserved class (we'll get to that later) to spacious air-conditioned bunks complete with meals and bedding. The dozens of times I've taken the train have always been on "sleeper" class, which isn't uncomfortable but is pretty barebones. The three-tiered bunks are narrow and uncushioned, and fold down for sitting. Nights can get cold because the windows don't seal. Sleeping on the bottom bunk ensures waking up layered with a film of sand and dust that blows in during the night. Fellow travelers are usually lower-middle class families.

Considering the fact that the train ride from Jalgaon junction to Varanasi would be a draining 24 hours, Matt and I decided to "splurge" a little and move up a couple train classes to 2AC, which stands for "two-tier air-conditioned". By paying $30 rather than the usual $7, we got cushy bunks with enough room both to sit up and to stretch our feet, non-drafty windows, bedding and towels, a personal reading light, and a reasonably clean toilet (by Indian standards, that is). Moreover, each bed was curtained off for privacy, which meant we hardly even saw our fellow passengers.

Our decision to take 2AC on this leg of the trip was fortuitous. Early into the night, Matt came down with serious food poisoning, not surprising given our adventurous approach to both eating and traveling. I felt guilty for lapping up the comforts of 2AC while Matt had the worst night of his life, but he agreed that there was no better time for him to be sick. Thankfully, after subsisting on white rice and yogurt for a few meals, he promptly recovered.

We took it easy in Varanasi. It was my second time here, and I was happy to just wind down and soak up the atmosphere of the city.

We visited the burning ghat by the Ganges (read about it in above link) one afternoon. Every ten minutes a group of men marched in shouldering a decorated stretcher upon which a wrapped body lay, chanting the mantra "Ram nam satya hai! (The name of Ram is truth!)". The god Rama is associated with dharma, the concept of duty which is of central importance to Hindus. Later on, an Indian man who thrust himself upon us as guide (and grew upset when we denied him money for his "services") told us about how lower castes are cremated lower down on the bank, and brahmins are cremated high up on a separate terrace. Sometimes I feel like religion is more about death than about life.

When we arrived to Varanasi, it was just two days before the International Kite Festival that was to be take place in India. The skies were filled with colorful paper kites belonging to the children flying them from rooftops below.

Inspired by the sight, Matt and I found a kite-shop in the old city and purchased a green-and-purple kite and spool of string -- much to the hilarity of children who met us in the street, two foreign adults with a child’s plaything in hand.

We met total failure. The thing just wouldn’t get any lift, and we looked longingly across our hotel’s roof at the other kids who seemed to have no problem getting theirs to duck and dive across the sky. Who knew that kite-flying required such deft of hand?

We spent our last hours in Varanasi walking along the banks of the Ganges, and then said goodbye to the lovely town.

A surprise awaited us at the train station: the train I had booked to Agra had been cancelled for over two weeks. Wanting to leave Varanasi that same day, our only choice was to purchase “unreserved sitting” tickets for another train going that way. The ensuing 18-hour journey crammed next to five tobacco-spitting men on the same bench was the starkest contrast imaginable to the comforts of 2AC class, a few compartments down. There’s India for you.

We only spent an afternoon at Agra, just enough time for Matt to see the Taj Mahal. His evaluation of the iconic monument: not overwhelmed, but not underwhelmed either.

That same evening, we took a 4-hour bus, this time with actually comfortable seats, back to Delhi. Our trip ended here, and I was happy to be back in familiar territory.

Final post to be continued...


Cara said...

I wish there were more trains in the U.S. It looks like you had a lovely time.

Anonymous said...

very nice.