We were in the world's longest inhabited city, Varanasi/Benares. We got up before dawn, dressed as warmly as we could, and went all together for a boatride on the holy Ganges River. Blessedly, the boats are all rowed, thus quiet. We couldn't go upstream, as a high government official (rumored to be the Prime Minister) was arriving shortly to do his own ablutions in the river.
To die near the Ganges, and have one's body or ashes put in the river, and to bathe in the river--these are the most sacred activities of a devout Hindu. Dawn is the bathing time, though we only saw about two dozen or so bathers, who goodnaturedly greeted us from the concrete steps, or ghats, lining the banks. Most were men, usually stripped down to shorts, but a few women went in in their saris. Some drank the water, reputed by a world health organization to have 250,000 times the recommended microbial count for safe drinking.
There were meditators; priests chanting, blowing horns, and drumming; and a ceaseless parade of bodies being burned at the cremation ghat, the only place where photography was forbidden.
An hour and a half later, we went ashore to the usual cacaphony of India: beggers (diseased and deformed, kids who looked well fed and healthy, women with children), salesmen (postcards, flutes, statues, souvenirs), holy cows, men who offered a "hand massage," which turned out to be a handshake, for which they wanted money, stalls selling death cloths, flowers to offer, beads, candy, fruit and vegetables, traffic...
We went up the street to a 2nd-floor restaurant, from which we could watch the politician's motorcade arrive and leave, and the street fill up with people within a minute of the barricades being lifted. There I scored one of my favorite souvenirs, a menu for which I offered 20 rupees (about 50 cents) to a restaurant manager who wanted to be sure I wouldn't be coming back to the place to eat and tipping off his boss about the sale! Here are some of the categories of food listed on the menu: Snacks to enhance taste, World of pancake, Snacks hours omlate, Very pleasing mid-day dinner, Plentiful Chinese nourishment, and Creamy wonders.
We'd spent the previous day wandering the ghats and temples, so most took our last half day to finish shopping for souvenirs, then were off to the train station to catch the night train to Calcutta and the airport. There ensued the usual mad dash through the streets. No one drives any slower than absolutely necessary, nor do they drive on their side of the very narrow street. We think Indian drivers must be the best in the world; they know within half an inch how much room they have, they can calculate that at full speed, they use their horns incessantly (rumor has it that if there is an accident, you are at fault if you are not blowing your horn), they scream at each other if they feel wronged.
This is what shares the road (most even in the cities): tricycle rickshaws, oxcarts, pigs, chickens, goats, tuk-tuks (3-wheeled taxis), TaTa's (big open-bed trucks, the main way goods get around), cars that look like mid-50's Soviet imports, horse carts, domestic cows, holy cows, bicycles, people walking, buses of various sizes, and more that I can't even think of now.
The taxi I was in took off first, but was passed twice by another that even stopped for gas on the way. Our driver was kind, pulling over and slowing down enough once for a friend to throw out a plastic bag she'd been sick into--joining the hundreds of other plastic bags and assorted trash that is strewn all over. I think every piece of trash I've ever seen in the U.S. in my whole life would be about a block's worth in India. To be fair, Christy points out that we produce far more trash per capita here than India, but like may things we don't want to see (death, for instance), we put it out of sight.
We got to check out three different waiting areas in the train station. We'd arrived in plenty of time, and our train was 2-3 hours late. It gave us a chance to catch the rat action, watch the janitors attempt to keep the station clean in the face of the continuing production of trash dropped at the moment of generation, find Thich Nhat Hanh's biography of the Buddha (Old Path White Clouds) in Hindi at a book stall, watch the red-jacketed porters carry luggage on their heads perched on a wrapped scarf, drink delicious tea, and put Tiger Balm at the base of our noses when the urine smell from the toilet (which was actually basically clean) next to the women's retiring room got too strong.
This stretch of time was when one friend ran out of "oh, brother"s, her typical response to the amazing sites we would see, and responded to a rat sighting with a "Jesus Christ!"
Christy had hired a porter to guide us to the train and get us on the right car (she'd made reservations for sleepers from the U.S.). He did great at the first job, and screwed up the second. I was point person, forcing myself down a narrow aisle to find our berths in the middle of the car, going against the stream of the many food, toy, and newspaper vendors, only to find that we were on the wrong car and had to make our way all the way back. Our big fear was that this misadventure would mean we would miss the train, but we found the right car and were grateful. We continued munching on our post-breakfast food--oranges, bananas, peanut brittle and cookies--lunch, dinner, and Saturday's breakfast.
After all that, most of us slept pretty well on the leather (plastic?) bunks, with cotton sheets and pillows. We'd had some practice with this already, as we had spent our first night in India on a sleeper too.
Any hopes that we would make up the time lost by our late train were dashed in the morning when we were constantly shunted off to the side while other trains went through. By the time we arrived in Calcutta at 12:15 pm, we were already 20 min late for check -in to our international flight to Bangkok, and all the way across town with no freeway. By this time we were ready, and eager too, to leave India, and the thought of missing our plane sent the anxiety levels high.
The next challenge was getting taxis to the airport. Christy pushed into the pre-paid taxi line and was told it would be a "five-minute" wait (which could mean 2 to 25 minutes)--unacceptable. Some enterprising touts/taxi drivers saw our dilemma and took us to the independent taxi line, where we negotiated a 180 rupee fee to the airport. Five of us fit easily into one taxi, but this was apparently against custom. Several men kept trying to get our driver not to leave, offering him money, and repeatedly opening the door. We were beyond worrying about the cultural norms. Steve closed the door everytime it was opened, and began yelling GO---GO---GO---GO---GO---GO---GO---GO---GO---GO in the driver's ear, and Brandi urged CHOLO-CHOLO-CHOLO which Christy had taught us meant "time to go--now!" Finally we left, and we soon decided to tip our driver handsomely for his leaving, and to do it now to keep him motivated. We screeched up to the airport after the usual harrowing ride, and went to check in.
Meanwhile, the other four people of our group (three had left us to go to the Taj Mahal) were in the sloooow taxi, taking the loooong route, getting rear ended (luckily with no injuries and no time taken to exchange names and insurance information), spending five minutes at one traffic light staring at the wrong end of an anatomically correct male horse statue, and coming to a dead stop when one side of the road was blocked by a placid brahma cow chewing her cud, and the other by a steam roller.
Back at the airport, Therese could not find her airline ticket. After much discussion, it was agreed she could buy a new one. Steve, Brandi and I made our way towards immigration, and I pondered whether to go through without Harry, who was in the second taxi with Christy, Karen and Sydney. Then the plane officials announced that a boarding pass had been issued for Therese, which meant her ticket had been stolen. The second taxi arrived, we all made it through the joke of a security check, only for them to realize our friend Ron had Therese's boarding pass--and was told he was under arrest! It was a VERY tense few minutes until they figured out, and the police believed them, that Ron had been holding both his and her tickets without realizing it. So the check-in guy had given Ron Therese's pass even though he had Ron's passport as he did it. Yikes!
We staggered onto the plane, exhausted, wired, tense, filthy, and relieved. In Bangkok we went different ways, five of us to the Airport Hotel. After showering, we met in the cafe for fruit plates, and shared ice cream/strawberry desserts--yum, yum.
The next day, crossing over a neat, tidy, efficient 6-lane divided highway in an enclosed walkway to the plane home, Harry got the last word. "When," he asked, "do they let the cows out?"