Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sleeper Class

I find a reputable travel agent and book my train for Varanasi. Although the journey itself is 680 kms, the price is less than 300 rupees including service charges. I am told the trip will take just 9 hours, but have been told by others it could take as long as 15. The train is called the 'Howringi Express,' and all AC compartments are fully booked - I will have to take sleeper class.

I had been warned about sleeper class in the past, but the lack of air-conditioning was worrying enough. Kolkata was sweltering, and I expected Varanasi to be no different. The train doesn't leave until midnight, so I have a little more time to wander the city streets and soak up the atmosphere. I am chased by a pack of stray dogs for a few streets, which would have been good fun if not for the possibility of rabies, until a late night diner comes to my rescue outside a local eatery. He shares with me a secret on the Indian psyche, all creatures have a right to life - even vicious street dogs.

He goes on to tell me that if anyone dared kill them, there would then be a mob of people chasing down that same person. No wonder India has more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined, there's also a great deal more respect for all living creatures (Jains even cover their mouths to avoid inhaling insects by mistake). After a cheap dinner of Dahl and roti for 15 rupees (less than 40c), I intentionally get lost - for the purpose of finding someplace new.

Before long I find myself in the city's Muslim corner. This fact is evident by the open-air slaughterhouses, with many hungry dogs looking on with interest. The smell and sight of death is overwhelming, particularly after spending time with peace loving (and predominately vegetarian) Hindus, so I opt to walk a little further. I get the feeling that this part of town sees few travelers, as before long I have a crowd of people following me. They jostle in position, push and shove in order to get a better view of the westerner in the midst. The braver ones approach me, asking me where I'm from and shake my hand.

After asking if it's alright to take a picture of an eye-catching Mosque, I soon have a group of street children acting as tour guides, showing me their neighborhood and practicing their broken English. They disregard a 'Do Not Enter' sign and show me their pride and joy, a larger than average aquarium, home to several species of fish. There is no light, so I can't quite make out all the fish that they are squealing excitedly about, but I feign a great deal of interest for their benefit. When it comes time to go, the kids ask me for an autograph. They extend their hands, and some even indicate their foreheads for my scrawl. I comply, bemused, but opt instead for paper and ink. I've never given out autographs before, so I don't know quite what to write, but their smiling faces and jubilant attitude tells me I have done well enough.

I make my way to Howragh train station with an hour to spare, only to find that my train has been delayed. When I ask for how long, I am told "I don't know, maybe an hour." I'm apprehensive about sleeper class, and wonder if it's just a name. Howringi Express, show yourself! Release me from the clutches of death. This train station isn't just third world, it's fourth or fifth - I'm losing it. When it finally shows itself, it's over two hours late. I don't care though, I'm just so happy to be leaving this hellhole, the station and not the city.

The compartments are a little stuffy, but apart from that it's not so bad. It's more comfortable than any plane ride I've been on, as instead of just a seat, I'm given a full bench to stretch out on. We are stacked like sardines though, with 8 benches per compartment! Luckily though, this section of the train is not overbooked and there are just three of us where there could have easily been eight. My fellow travelers provide me with chai from the passing wallah, but don't allow me to pay. It is almost 3am, which is no time for pleasantries or small talk. It's time to sleep.

Goodbye Kolkata, I'll miss you :(

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