Or “The Day Mummy Totally Lost It,” are the two possible blog titles suggested by Alisha. This week we’ve experienced both the frustrations of overlanding in India and one of its most interesting places. Steve left the last blog as we were driving towards Varanasi, a drive that took us a whole extra day longer than we had expected. Fog, traffic volume, terrible driving and villages every few kilometres made the going very slow and needling constant vigilance from both Steve and I. Even though we are sticking to major highways, part of the frustration is that we can’t seem to predict the quality of the road. We’ve been on single lane roads full of potholes, in such a state that 20kmph is good going, between major towns and then find fabulous dual carriageways between tiny villages. It’s so unpredictable.
Our tummies were rumbling when we reached the nondescript town of Arrah, “Let’s pull up the other side of town for lunch,” we told the girls, “Not long now,” – famous last words. It started off like any traffic queue, well with a bit of cars scooting 100m down the other lane to turn, but very normal for here. We could see it was a level crossing on the map, so just relaxed. I even popped in the back to start making lunch. Eventually we started slowly moving forward, just one car short of the barrier it came down again. Nothing happened after the first train. “You might as well finish making the sandwiches,” Steve suggested. Then the next train passed, then another slowly passed in front of us foot by foot, then it inched backwards a bit, then forward, then back again. Sandwiches long ago eaten, we waited another 20 mins for nothing to happen and another train passed by then another long wait, all quite relaxing apart from the craziness happening directly in front of us.
Long fed up by the long delays in opening the barriers pedestrians and cyclists were taking the matter into their own hands. Climbing the metre high barrier with their bikes and dashing across. Even the slow moving train didn’t deter them as some foolhardy men crossed between the moving carriages. Both sides of the road were now completely blocked as motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cyclo-rickshaws and even a couple of horse carts had decided to queue on the other side, blocking the exit for anyone who had made a dash across the tracks. By now the motorcyclists had had enough, on our side they had found a route through so lined up 10 bikes deep on the tracks facing the opposing barrier. We prayed a train didn’t come along to squash them all.
From our vantage point, we could see the signals man waiting for instructions but none came, so he just sat back and watched the chaos building. Eventually after what seemed like an age, with nothing happening, he got the call and raised the barrier……and nothing happened. Apart from a deafening cacophony of horns that is. Everyone manoeuvred themselves into such a position that now we were all completely and utterly stuck. Looking behind us, we estimated that there were about a thousand people behind us and the same number the other side. There was a lot of roaring of engines, shouting and more people tried to push their way in from the side. Eventually a lone policeman, tried to clear a path through all the motorbikes for a truck coming the other way. The truck slowly moved forward as he cleared the path inch by inch. However almost every time he cleared a bit, when he turned round to wave the truck forward someone pushed their motorbike into the space he had just created. The signalman tried to help him but soon gave up, shaking his head at the impossibility of the situation. Those people from the other side who had successfully crossed couldn’t leave our side as people kept on pushing their bikes forward into the narrow gap that was left for them to exit. It was absolute chaos.
The only way out was forward – so that is what we did, centimetre by centimetre. Big and at the front we were like a cork in the bottle. If we managed to create a path through the seething mass of humanity on the other side, then the people on our side would have an exit. It was incredibly stressful and we prayed a train wouldn’t come during the time we were all in the middle of the tracks as there was nowhere to go. We were hyper-aware that any false move of the truck could crush someone. But still that didn’t stop people from pushing in from the wrong side of the road and totally jamming themselves up against our front. I had to scream at Steve to stop when a cart driver whipped his horse so far forward that the shaft of his cart was jammed against our front wheel. Slowly, slowly we made it to the other side, only to find our path was blocked by not only motorbikes and bikes but jeeps and cars too. They couldn’t be bothered waiting in the queue behind everyone else, so thought they should push themselves forward. Thankfully a policeman and a Sikh gentleman, who seemed to have more sense than the whole crowd put together, instructed the vehicles to inch aside to make some space.
Totally focused on the task in hand, both Steve and I had stayed remarkably calm throughout. Just ask the girls, we can both lose our rag over relatively minor things on the road especially with each other. But here we concentrating too hard to get angry. We had just slipped through the bulk of the chaos and I could see feet of clear road in front of us rather than just inches, when 3 teenage boys slipped passed us on one bike. Obviously enjoying the spectacle of the surrounding chaos, they were joshing and tussling with one another. They jumped off right in front of us, causing Steve to brake again. Two of them started waving pink tickets at us and shouting jokes to one another. While the third just stood directly in front of the truck just staring gormlessly up at us. Steve inched forward again, “Mr Gormless” just stared at us chuckling at his friends jokes. The truck was now just centimetres from him and yet he still didn’t move. The honking grew even louder behind us and we could see the free space in front starting to disappear as more vehicles used the opportunity to push in the opposite from the side. At which point I totally lost it, winding down the window I verbally released the tension that had been building for the past few hours. Eventually he got the message and moved over, so we could squeeze through, I felt a lot better too. Finally after a kilometre more of negotiating (more politely this time) through a scrum of vehicles who couldn’t be bothered to wait on the queue of their side of the road we managed to get through. Scores of motorbikes and cars streamed passed us as the road freed up, thankfully to be on their way again at last.
We never made it to Varanasi that night, so pulled into another petrol station for the night. Early the next morning we made our way along the Grand Trunk Road towards town. Being India’s most ancient city, we knew it wasn’t really suitable for trucks so had come up with a plan to leave the truck in a hotel’s secure parking in the outskirts and stay at a guesthouse in the old city near the action for a couple of nights. We had heard of a hotel with parking on the far side of the city but could see a possibility on the Google satellite map closer by. Friendly enough but very slow to make a decision , the Grapevine Hotel could offer us parking if we stayed with them for the night and possibly for 2 nights after for a fee. We didn’t really want to pay for an expensive 5 star hotel room, just so we could park the truck. So we headed off into the crazy traffic on the main road to try the other place. There were no restriction warnings or signs before we got to the metal gates limiting the size of vehicles on the big Northern bridge across the Ganges, nothing larger than a small car could get across. You can imagine the chaos that ensued as Steve had to accomplish a 5 point turn in a rubbish filled mud patch at the side of the road. No one willing to wait even a second to let us move out of the way. Tails between our legs we returned to the Grapevine, we were now 3 hours later than we had expected and our conservative estimate was that it may take 3 more hours to get to the other side of the city. “Yes, we’ll take that extortionate room…and you can only offer parking outside the main gates on the road……OK fine, whatever.” We’d almost given up the will to live. Thankfully the next morning after a hot shower and a good nights sleep we were in better spirits especially as the truck had been fine overnight. Now we were ready to see one of the most interesting places in India, the ancient holy city of Benares, or Varanasi as it is now known.
As we made our way into Varanasi in the taxi the girls started counting cows on the street, they made it to nearly a hundred when we decamped and made our way on foot towards the narrow alleys of the old city. The taxi couldn’t get us any closer but there were still hoards of motorbikes, cyclo-rickshaws, bikes, wheeled fruits stalls and people all weaving there way through the streets. We both took a girl each firmly by the hand on the inside and tried to march confidentially towards our destination, trying not to wince too much every time a motorbike almost sideswiped us. It was a relief to step into the narrow lanes, where only the most determined of motorbikes try to get through. I’ve been to the city several time before, when I was a backpacker in my late-teens and early twenties, so I was prepared for feeling of stepping back in time. The alley ways feel almost medieval with the tiny shops, just big enough for a man to fold himself up into, and blackened cauldrons full of bubbling milk to make sweets. Around each corner was an another fascinating surprise. Temples, tall buildings, schools and shops were around us, the bottom part of their building all stained brick red by the spit created by chewing betel nut or pan. The air smelt sweet with pan and cow dung, with the odd whiff of insense. Holy men, pilgrims, soldiers, priests and beggars all rubbed shoulders in the labyrinth of alleys. All life takes place on the street here. Cows browsed their way through the piles of rubbish in the corners. As holy animals they are revered by Hindus and those without owners are free to roam the streets where they choose. Others are kept for their milk, treated well and as Hindus never eat beef have long and happy lives. In Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities, they definitely rule the alleys. If there is a cow blocking your path, if you can’t squeeze round it, you wait. As we rounded the final corner to Ganipati guesthouse we counted Cow number 114, tied up outside a house. With long lopped ears, glossy coat and a shiny wet nose she was a beauty and a signpost for us during our stay that we were nearly home.
The reason why Varanasi is the most holy city for Hindus – the mighty Ganges. The old city tumbles down the stepped ghats into its greasy grey waters. Pilgrims come from all over India to bathe; pray beside; and even die next to it. From our guesthouse balcony we could see big boats full of older pilgrims arrive every few hours, I guess it would be the equivalent of a British church coach tour. They faithfully braved the icy waters for their ritual bathing before heading off to the nearby temples. More used to the rural pace of life, we often saw them in mass confusion during the strict security check outside the main Vishwanath Temple.
In the evening there were pujas (prayers) for Shiva on two of the ghats. Big spectacles with 5 priests dressed in maroon and gold robes on platforms above the river. Ritual waving of incense and towers of lamps accompanied prayers sung with tabla and harmonium. Our first night we took a rowing boat down to watch it from the water and joined a flotilla, just off the ghat. I was impressed to see that not only were we serviced by floating candle sellers and holy fire bearers, offering blessings for a few rupees, but also tea sellers. They hopped from boat to boat with their kettle wired to tiny charcoal stoves below; with just a little bit of pipe blocking the spout and stopping them from spraying everyone with boiling tea. They served it up in disposable little earthenware handleless cups.
On the boat again for sunrise, it was too cold and foggy for even the most devout to start the day with a morning dip. However the washermen and ladies were out in force. It’s amazing how they get those sheets so white in such muddy coloured water.
We were just tucking into the most delicious banana lassi (yogurt) in a tiny stall, when we heard chanting and saw people stepping respectfully to the side of the alleyway. It was a funeral procession passing by, the body on a bamboo stretcher was swaddled in red and gold scarves. We had inadvertently chosen a stall on the main route down to one of the burning ghats, where bodies were burned 24hours a day. As I mentioned Varanasi is a very auspicious place to die and there were burning pyres at different stages as we passed by.
From our balcony we could see many kites flying high over the city from the roof tops. Looking more closely you could see battles occurring, special sharp strings cut kites free and they sailed down to the ghats. Lost kites were collected by a little gang of boys, who tried to fly them again. The girls wanted to try it out out so we found a tiny kite shop with tissue paper kites for 5 rupees (about 8p) plus a little more for a spool of beginners thread. Taking them down to the top of the ghats we realised getting them airborne in such little breeze took a lot of skill. The little boys were all too happy to get them airborne for the girls but took a little persuading to let them have it back for a go. Lucy unfortunately lost her kite to the Ganges in a brief battle and Alisha passed hers onto the boys before we left.
It was two rather miserable short days of driving south to the temples of Khujuraho, especially as we had all picked up an “intestinal disturbance” in Varanasi. Passing a few Jain monks, who are completely naked, was the only sight of note. It was a relief to find a lovely quiet parking spot in the grounds of a rather grand emporium that had a nightly dance show. We asked about the show for the following night and they kindly let us stay for a couple of nights, they even wanted to refund our tickets once they got to know us.
Khujuraho’s temples are known for their erotic karma sutra carvings. As a Biology teacher I’m used to teaching sex education but even I wasn’t sure how to approach this with the girls. In the end I didn’t bother telling them anything apart from them being famous temples before we went. Thank goodness I didn’t arouse their curiosity beforehand, as the erotic carvings were amongst lots of religious carvings so you had to look for them. The only thing Alisha noticed was that the heavenly nymphs had chests that made even Barbie’s boobs look realistic. There was a bit of a dodgy moment when Lucy looked up and noticed a carving showing that in fact it is a horse who is man’s best friend. Thankfully a high climbing ground squirrel popped his head out from one the carvings above, distracting her. The whole exterior of the towers are covered in thousands of exquisitely delicate carvings and hard to believe it was over a thousand years old. We came away more impressed with the artistic rather than its titillation value.