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31st December

I’m writing from the Vishnu Rest House in Varanasi, looking out over the wide grey expanse of the Ganges, on the 2nd January. Thank God I’m looking back over the last couple of days because they were hell!

At least we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn this morning for a change. We were trying to get a flight out – slim chance – but when we got to the office the stupid computer was down. Checked the time at the bus station for the bus – 2:30 pm. Went to the bank to change some more money. An interesting and quite shocking thing happened in the bank. An old man went up to a middle aged man who was in a uniform (we thought he may have been the bank manager) and bent low to touch each of the man’s feet, then his forehead, in turn, then repeated the cycle. As this very quickly happened, the manager looked imperiously off into the distance with his hands behind his back. It was all very quick, very accepted, obviously well entrenched, and it was the most startling and blatant display of caste difference I’ve seen so far in India.

I managed to buy a book to while away the coming hours. At the bus station the bus arrived on time, but it was the most decrepit piece of moving junkyard refuse I’ve seen in my life. I thought we had been on old buses before but this one took the prize.

We made ourselves as comfortable as possible and buried our heads in our books for the bouncing, jolting, four-hour trip. I’ve taken to wrapping myself up in my shawl with my hat holding it in place, only my eyes showing.

It was dark when we were dumped by the side of the road and into the arms of waiting cycle rickshaw drivers. These guys sure have a hard life. Satna was a non-descript crowded mess. We squeezed into the back of the rickshaw and he peddled us to the station, giving us the expected “no Varanasi train” line which we ignored, but to our surprise it turned out this time he was telling the truth.

Satna station was awash with bodies and cowshit, and after much confusion we finally discovered that there had been an accident and that the Varanasi train wasn’t coming until 7 am. Well, so much for watching the sunrise over the Ganges on New Year’s Day. We had no choice but to spend the evening in Satna.

After some confusion (it may as well be assumed that everything written in this diary was done “after some confusion”) we found the Khajuraho Hotel, near the station, and got a room with a TV (only Hindi stations though), some food, and a bucket of hot water to wash ourselves in. Another New Year’s Eve in a seedy hotel room in nowhere land – we seem to be making a habit of this. Also I was the sickest I have been in India – coughing non-stop, completely nose-blocked and feeling like shit. Totally miserable in fact! The only redeeming moment of the evening was when at the end of the news, they showed film of the fireworks going off at Sydney. We both felt close to tears and very homesick!

Slept through 12 midnight. What a miserable night.

1st January

This really was a terrible day, a trip right up there with the bus journey to Udaipur (that one still takes the prize for me; K thinks this trip wins). It took us 15 hours on a train to travel 317 km. That’s about 20 km/hr, folks.

We were on the freezing, misty train platform about 6 am, the train engine on the track breathing like a sleeping dragon. It seemed that all the people from the night before were still there, having somehow managed to sleep the night on the cold concrete floor next to cows and cowshit, wrapped in thin blankets like corpses in shrouds.

Most people seemed to be heading south however– our platform was quiet. One sleazy bastard began asking us the usual questions, including “this is your wife?”, then about Khujuraho and the “sex-u-al intercourse” depicted in the carvings. My disgusted look and “excuse me?” was enough to drive him off, luckily.

Eventually, what we thought was the correct train arrived at 8:30am, and we piled on and got two upper berths on the 2nd class carriage, which were to be our cramped little homes for the next 15 hours.

All the rest is tedium. The train stopped continuously, once for several hours at a village in the middle of nowhere, where almost everyone got off the train and milled about. Indians seem to have an endless reserve of patience when it comes to train travel, no doubt developed from long experience. In this case I talked to a man who told me there had been a goods train derailment – we assumed this was the same accident we had heard about the night before.

When the train did move it was usually painfully slowly, but at least we were moving. There were not many people on board thankfully, so at least we didn’t have crowds to contend with as well. Eventually we inched past the buckled and broken goods carriages beside the track and made a bit better progress. Then there was an endless wait at Allahamabad, slow crawls from station to station, the constant worry we might actually be on the wrong train… finally, at about 11:30 pm, we crawled into Varanasi Junction, and I’ve never been so glad to alight from a train in my life.

An auto-rickshaw driver began shadowing us as soon as we stepped off the train, of course. We drove to a big international hotel nearby, but it was full, so walked to the nearby Hotel Surya, the driver shadowing us all the way trying to get his bloody commission. Luckily the Surya had a room.

I can’t describe the relief of finally collapsing on the bed in a hotel room in Varanasi with our nightmare week of solid sightseeing and travelling behind us. Some food and a beer later, we were in bed and asleep.

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