Day Twenty-Four: 22 Miles Biked and Twelve Hours by Train, Onward to Varanasi
I am collapsed in a beanbag in our hostel’s lounge in Varanasi, after a long physically intense 24 hours.
Yesterday (Oct 28th) turned out to be way more adventurous than my newly vegetarian body could physically handle. I’m sure we would have been just as happy taking up lots of space in our hostel (as we were literally the only ones there) and reading books while sipping on masala tea all day – but instead, we decided to go all out and do the opposite. We heard there were waterfalls not too far outside the village, about 20km away and about 30 minutes by bike. In hindsight, we should have pulled out Google maps right away to confirm this, but we figured we had a whole day to kill before our train would depart later that night.
In true vagabond spirit, we began our journey through the intense heat on a narrow path with only one liter of water to hold us through. We passed by tiny colorful villages welcomed by strong whiffs of oregano, dancing roadside butterflies, and barefooted children smiling the biggest smiles and pouring out their heartiest hellos. Other than a minor incident where a small Indian boy unexpectedly groped me, the ride up to Raneh Falls was a great workout with really awesome lush views and aromatic scents of the countryside.
We eventually made it up top – the volcanic canyons were dramatic; the waterfalls, less impressive but still a really beautiful touch. Surrounding us was crocodile jungle, but we decided a safari on top of another long journey back to Khajuraho would be way too much for one day. Twenty-two miles and sore butts later, we made it back to town and treated our bodies to all the carbs at an Indian-run Italian restaurant. Our bodies loved us once again.
Fast forward to midnight later that night, and we were hauling our backpacks onto our overnight train to Varanasi, specifically third class with AC. In India, third class simply means a mixture of bunk beds with three beds and two beds stacked on top of one another. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you get the bottom bunk of a normal two-bed bunk – not my kinda luck this time around sadly.
Wylie got the top bunk of a two-bed setup, and I got the top of a three-bed setup. I have no problem with getting up top, but you have to imagine that the top bunk is majorly claustrophobic to the point where you can’t even sit upright without getting major beck cramps. The vent opened up to where my head fell and I caught glimpses of black crawling bugs – ohh hellllllll NO. I was not cut out for this, and had to draw the line.
I jumped from that bed over to the opposite site – same setup, just no vent where mysterious moving creatures could crawl out. I crossed my fingers the train conductor would let me be in peace, and surely, he woke me up to tell me I was in the wrong seat. I played dumb and thankfully he just shrugged it off and let me be.
Seven hours later, light peeked through the window curtains and woke me up. I scanned my section and realized the two Indian families sleeping underneath me were also waking up. Apparently during daytime, the second bunk bed can be propped up to create a larger seated space on the first bunk bed seat. I kept peeking down in the hopes I’d get an invite to come sit with them (otherwise I’d have to be horizontal for another 6 hours). Finally my obvious peeking paid off.
And such a joy it was! They offered me sweet and salty biscuit crackers and we talked about all things Diwali and American v. Indian culture. The more I just soaked in their vibes, the more I appreciated the train for providing me with this genuine experience.
We rolled into Varanasi in the early afternoon and it was chaotic on the streets as expected. After settling into our hostel, we bee-lined straight to the restaurant to scarf down much needed food: thali (Indian tapas with a variety of curries and sauces which can be eaten with naan and rice) and crispy paneer. I think it may have been the best Indian meal we’ve had to date.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking off our meal down to the Ganges River. The streets were alive with vendors selling Diwali trinkets, Ganesha mini statues and marigold flower offerings. As the Ganges River emerged in front of us, I turned around to see a local Indian man giving Wylie a very intense unwanted arm massage – which I realized was the first time we got haggled that day (not bad, given how much a reputation Varanasi has for its haggling). We followed our scents to the nearest ghat where about 200-300 bodies are cremated on a daily basis, as supported by three adjacent hospices. We watched as bodies covered in colorful fabrics were hoisted down to the river, where family members washed them with Ganges water. Afterwards, they were laid down on wooden logs to be burned for the rest of the day. I’ve never seen death celebrated with so much color and aliveness – cows were roaming the grounds, eating remains of the marigold flowers while locals left and right kept the fires burning.
The smoke became unbearable after some time, so we left the scene and found ourselves soon wandering through Varanasi’s narrow streets. Surprisingly, we wandered peacefully without any worry of being haggled, able to fully feel the walk instead of trying to find the nearest and quickest exit as we typically have been doing. Luckily for us, we stumbled on the Lonely Planet recommended Blue Lassi (in business for 75 years), which serves up a huge variety of lassi drinks. Since mango, blueberry and strawberry are currently out of season, we settled for the Coconut Chocolate Banana lassi. Mmmmmmm-hmmm.
As we made our way back to the hostel, we watched as the locals prepared for Diwali (Festival of Lights starting tomorrow, Oct 30th) – children spilling firecrackers on the streets and men and women making puja (prayer) by candlelight at one of the city’s many temples, over approximately 30,000. Time to get our festival on!