On to our next adventure: an overnight train ride from Agra to Varanasi. Already at the station there were hundreds of people, men in turbans and women in colorful saris, who seemed to sleep, cook and wait here. There were dozens of stray dogs running around & a few monkeys dangling off the platform roof.
It was warm and loud and the air smelled of spices & sweat - nothing ever screamed culture shock at me more than this scene – and I loved it! After all, I didn't come all this way just to be in my comfort zone. We soon got used to the men walking up and down the platform banging spoons against aluminum cans shouting “Chai tea, Chai coffee”. They continued this chant on the train during the night. It had something of a calming effect together with the rhythmic sound of the train rattling along the tracks.
The beds on board were really comfy and this was only second class. The toilets were mostly tourist-friendly – but when you looked inside you could see the actual tracks. We had been advised to use them only while the train was in motion as otherwise rats can crawl up the tube. Also, I thought I totally over-reacted a couple of days earlier bulk-buying disinfection tissues – but they turned out to be my most treasured travel essential on the train journey. This is the moment when you hope you didn't eat anything dodgy. It’s probably the worst place in the world to have traveler's diarrhea...
The next morning I watched the country waking up to a beautiful sunrise. Fields, rivers and deserted train stations with nameplates that had a strange similarity to London tube signs.
Then we finally arrived in Varanasi – possibly the most authentic town on our trip. By now we were used to stray dogs, monkeys, goats, snakes, camels, elephants and cows (which we found very helpful when crossing the street because cars don’t always stop for pedestrians – but they surely do for a cow in the middle of the road!). And in Varanasi we found pretty much all this combined. Outside the bustling town center there were ruins of Buddhist temples and the Archaeological Buddhist Museum with its gardens. Strolling through the grounds we observed a Buddhist meditation with monks clad in traditional orange robes.
The city of Varanasi has its name from the two rivers Varua and Asi and is as important to Hindus as Jerusalem is to Christians or Mecca to Muslims.
The most impressive thing about Varanasi is that the city is built directly on the banks of the holy river Ganges, which is often called Gangaji. The name consists of “Ganga” which means “preserver of life” and “-ji” which means “his holiness”.
We got up early the next day to see the morning prayers on the banks of the river and go on a boat tour with another local guide. We saw people washing clothes in the river, praying, swimming in it or meditating at its banks and even a funeral was held right there on the river!
To be cleaned from your sins you must dip your head under water three times in a row. Unfortunately, this is one of the most polluted rivers on earth. In the Himalayas where the river originates the water is naturally filtered and clean but down here in Varanasi it's pretty much septic and certainly not suitable for swimming. We just dipped our fingers in the water and immediately afterwards sprayed hand sanitizer everywhere. Surely the locals would just shake their heads at us soft western tourists. The highlight, however, was the most stunning sunrise I have ever witnessed.
Ideally, every Hindu should to come to the Ganges River at least once in their lifetime for a bath. In order to verify their belief and their once-in-a-lifetime-journey they also go to pray in the Golden Temple in Varanasi. One of their most important deities (and there are many!) is Ganesh - part elephant, part human - Son of Shiva and Lord of Prosperity & Protection. To experience a local tradition first-hand we bought small paper bowls filled with flowers and candles from local women. We held them over the water, circled them three times clockwise with our right hands then released them into the river saying our prayers – right before sunrise. What a beautiful tradition!
Soon we were on another overnight train back to Delhi. The trip was almost over and it was the perfect time to reflect on what I had learnt on this adventure so far: a few words in Hindi, the fact that you simply cannot escape the mandatory stop at the tuc tuc driver’s brother’s shop and when an item on the menu is labelled “mild” it will most likely put your mouth on fire. But the most important lesson for me was that poor doesn't necessarily mean miserable. I had never before and rarely after this trip witnessed such severe poverty of such a large part of the population of a country. Yet even the poorest people wore colorful saris, were singing and chanting, smiling at visitors, greeting and blessing us on our way. Most people we met were kind & graceful and exuded an inner happiness which is hard to find in our rich, sanitized & organized western countries. If I took one thing away from this experience it’s that I’m now much more grateful for what I have in my life: seemingly normal stuff - like good food, education, a safe home - I don’t take any of this for granted anymore.
By the time this trip was over, I had witnessed the traditions of three different world religions and I had encountered wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. So yes, traveling does broaden your horizon and teach you a little something about how other people live, eat and believe. No other trip since has made me more aware of the differences and similarities in all of humankind. It has opened my mind and my eyes to a completely new concept of seeing other cultures: going out there and experiencing them myself.
And that’s when travelling became a way of life for me and when I truly started to appreciate my opportunities in this world. Namaste.