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"Welcome to my little helicopter"

rain 28 °C

I'm finally in Varanasi, after about 2 days of travelling from Dharamsala. It's definitely been an interesting experience to say the least. The bus ride was uneventful besides the monk meditating next to me and the guy behind me puking the whole way. Yum.

We got to Delhi earlier than expected. That will probably be the first and last commute in India that happens. Maybe it's because the driver was Tibetan. Thankfully after a couple of bike-cart rides (I don't know what they are actually called) and a first experience in the Delhi metro, I was weaving back through familiar alleyways to Hotel New King. I was meeting my friend Gemma (from Yog Peeth) there so I asked if I could crash in her room until she arrived. They agreed and gave me the first room off the reception. After a much-needed shower, I fell asleep for the entire morning. I only woke up because Gemma was knocking on the door. Her guitar had been stolen as she was leaving Kashmir, and she had been on the road for almost two days. She was exhausted and demoralized. Really, really bad luck. I was glad to be there to give her a hug and try to cheer her up for her last day in India.

Out strolling in the horrible Delhi heat (over 110 Fahrenheit in the sun), we were both homesick and annoyed at the hoards of Indian men staring at us and making comments. Some guy put his hand on my butt while I was walking down a main street. "SIR! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" I confronted my harrasser. He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. I shrugged it off, realizing that there was no way I was going to get an apology out of the man. Ridiculous, but unfortunately I've come to expect such things. I know not all Indian men are like this--I've met loads who are wonderful and totally don't fit this stereotype. But I can't ignore the absurd frequency with which I've felt disresepcted in this country, especially in Delhi. More and more, though, I'm trying to employ the buddhist philosophy of keeping it cool and wishing the people who do such things love and happiness. If they were truly happy people, they wouldn't act the way they do.
Anyway, Gemma and I were kind of fed up so when we saw the sweet shop on the corner we simultaneously suggested we make a pit stop. The only Indian sweets I've ever tried were at Yog Peeth, and I never liked them. This place had such a wide assortment however that I was certain to find at least one kind that I liked. Gemma knew a bit about the sweets, so with her guidance as well as the man's behind the counter, we compiled a small box of treats to try out. Some had nuts, some dried fruit, some what looked like an egg paste, and others completely unidentifiable ingredients even after tasting them. Where to eat our Indian delicacies? I've been to McDonalds twice in my adult life. This was the third, and certinaly the most necessary. The McDonalds was air conditioned, the tables were clean, and I could order a soda without having to worry about contamination. My small coke cost 42 rupees, more than half the price of the entire box of sweets. It was worth every cent. Carbonation, ice (made with filtered water!) and caffeine on a hot day really hits the spot.

We opened our heavenly box and started sampling little bits of each sweet. They all had distinct flavors I couldn't pinpoint as expected, except one that tasted like pecan pie filling. That was my favorite. Another one tasted kind of cream-cheesy... weird. Some of the others seemed like the pastry chef had dumped his entire supply of granulated sugar in the batter. My coke didn't really help dilute the situation. We left McDonalds satisfied, but definitely on sugar-overload. After wandering around Old Delhi for a while, we decided to head back to the metro. People kept telling me Old Delhi was cool and that I would enjoy walking around there, but to be honest, I don't see what the hype is all about. I don't want to trash talk the area too much so I'll leave it at that.

When we walked down into the metro station, we were confonted with something we had both forgotten about: rush hour. There was an absurdly long and aggressive line to cross the metal detectors (all the subway stations in Delhi are equipped with something similar to airport security). To our satisfaction, we realized that there were only men in the line. The womens' line was just to the left, and there were only 3 people queued up. My revenge on Indian men had been executed for me. Gemma and I ambled up to the front of the line, breezed through our security checkpoint, got patted down by an Indian lady in uniform, and made our way through the station to our train. Once again, we boarded the women's car. About twenty minutes of listening to what I'd imagine to be Hindi gossip (because what else would a bunch of women do together after work or school in the metro), we were back at our station radiating with contagious estrogen.

The way back to the hostel was relatively uneventful besides on guy staring at me as we walked saying, "Ohhhh, beautiful! Where are you going?". When I didn't respond and kept on walking -- I've gotten damn good at pretending people don't exist when they try to talk to me in the streets-- he says, "Why you look so pissed off?". Gemma and I supressed laughter until we were out of his earshot. I guess I've acquired an ice queen gaze due to perpetual harassment.

Back at the hostel, we got a recommendation for a restaurant in the area and headed off for an early dinner. Mixed vegetables cooked in a spicy masala sauce, some yellow dal, and white rice. A perfect dinner. What made this restaurant really special though was their toilet. It wasn't a squatter! And it had toilet paper! And soap!!! What a find. I will definitely be returning for my last Indian meal.

After dinner we went back to the hostel so I could get my stuff together for the train. My second night in a row in transit was about to begin. This time I'd get an upgrade from a bus with questionably reclining seats to a sleeper-class train. Around 7:30, I said 'goodbye' to Gemma, 'see you later' to the receptionist at the hostel, threw my pack over my shoulder and walked the five minutes to the New Delhi Train Station. The station was packed. I saw one other foreigner, a small elderly chinese lady with a giant camera. The train pulled in 10 minutes before departure. All the electricity in the train was out. Good thing I brought my headlamp, or else I would have had a hell of a time finding my seat. I had stupidly booked a "middle berth" seat, ugh (in each compartment there are lower, middle, and upper beds on both sides. The middle bed folds back during the day, so all three people can sit on the lower bed and the middle bed becomes a backrest. If you are in the middle or lower seat, you have to wait until everyone wants to sleep to fold out your bed. Pain in the ass). Also, I was the only woman and the only foreigner in the compartment. I knew this poor seat choice was going to haunt me for the entire journey if I didn't set some boundaries up between my bunk mates and me. Gemma had just warned me to be careful with strangers in transit: she's usually super friendly, and the last 'friend' she made ended up stealing her guitar. You just never know, so better to play it safe especially when travelling alone for 12 hours overnight with nothing to lock my bag to the train with.

As expected, the second the electricity in the train came back, the guy squeezed up next to me says, "So, where're you from?". I looked at him blankly. "Are you travelling alone?" he probed. "Disculpa, pero no hablo ingles," I bluffed. This was a tactic an enchanting Argentine percussionist had shared with me over drinks in Dharamkot. It worked like magic. The guy smiled, looked away, and didn't say a word to me for the rest of the trip. The ride went really smoothly. It was totally weird to constantly pretend that I have no idea what people are saying to me when I understand every word, but so worth the effort for the peace and quiet I enjoyed as a result. I asked the guy in the lower berth if I could set up my middle berth bed around 10 pm with only hand gestures. No one asked where I was going, where I was staying, if I had a boyfriend, where my family was, why I was in India, if I had children... it was paradise. I slept for 10 hours. Fede, if you are reading this, thanks a million. Eres un genio y te debo mi vida :-)

The train was supposed to pull into Varanasi at 8:30. At 10am, were were still moving along with no sign of my destination. Since I had been pretending for the last 12 hours that I didn't speak English (and I clearly didn't speak Hindi), I had no way of asking how far we were from the station. I started to get a sneaking suspicion that perhaps we had already passed Varanasi, and that maybe I had slept through my stop. That would be a nightmare. I would be halfway to Calcutta if that were the case. I decided to wait it out until noon, and if I still didn't sense any sign of arrival I would expose myself as a linguistic imposter. Thankfully at half past ten, I saw the first billboards advertising places in Varanasi. Realizing we must be close, I rolled up my yoga mats (I use them as extra padding on sleeper trains), put on my amphibeous Israeli sandles (aka Chacos), and got ready to brave the rumoured chaos of my home for the next couple of days.

I got out of the station around 11. That's pretty much considered 'on-time' by Indian standards. I chose a riskshaw just outside, handing my bag (and my life) over to the driver. "Welcome to my little helicopter," he said to me as I hopped in the back, "driving in Varanasi is like a video game." He wasn't lying. In fact, I'd probably estimate that traffic patterns here are crazier than in Delhi. For some reason, though, it didn't really phase me. I was as zen in that back seat as I was during meditation in Dharamkot a couple days back. I think I've been in India too long.

I'm writing all this from my little room right off the Ganga in the old part of the town. I like this guest house. It's called Elvis. There are probably 4 or 5 other guests here. At first I thought I'd want to be somewhere social, but now I'm realizing that these couple days are exactly what I need. Varanasi is a very spiritual place: a lot of people come here to die. I don't really know what this entails, but when I go out exploring later today, tomorow, and the next day, I'll let you know.

Someone told me recently that when you travel the way I have been these last couple of days, you body moves rapidly but it takes your soul a while to catch up. That may explain my exhaustion even after sleeping soundly last night to the rumble of the train. Nap time. Shanti, shanti.

Posted by pack_it_in 02:53 Archived in India

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