Day 69: Agra to Varanasi
At 5 a.m. I’m awake and feeling like numero uno in contrast to yesterday’s number-two troubles. The shower option is a frigid bucket bath, but even a pail of ice-cold water is a spa treatment after three collective days of dirt. I meet Marnie on the rooftop terrace for a banana lassi and to watch the sun rise over Agra.
The exposure of the sky fades in like the opening scene of a foreign film; a luminescence integrating the Taj Mahal like a marble mirage, an alabaster oasis. An orb of smouldering fire burns orange and red–the sun rises easterly, singeing the cityscape with tangerine beams. We sit above the horizon, sipping our fruity curd, with a vantage of all the surrounding rooftops. Monkey gangs rooftop-hop, scrounging for the day’s goods; workers carry loads of bricks on their backs up countless flights of stairs. Jane from Philadelphia, a spunky lady in her sixties chats us up. She’s traveling India for five weeks–alone–because all her friends said that going to India was a crazy idea.
I attempt to book a train to Varanasi online, but alas, the wi-fi is down. This prompts a trek around town in search of a travel agent, which is closed at this hour. Time to hit the Taj then, we reckon.
At the mausoleum’s South Gate, we’re lead through security who confiscate my lollipop because of the strict ‘no food on the wondrous palace grounds’ rule. We enter.
There it is! Peeking from the archway of the second inner gate, magnificence reigns. Hordes of people group up for pictures in the spot where everyone else wants to take pictures from. At the inner grounds, people let their inner sass loose where the overcrowded prime photo-op spots are. Some have hired photographers, some make passive aggressive comments; all vie for the perfect picture of themselves and this picture-perfect structure. The same picture, in fact, that thousands of people have from yesterday, today and who will have it tomorrow. It’s beauty is universal, and undeniable.
Jane from Philly! She’s here, and with more sass than anybody. Tossing her elbows around like a house salad, she shoves us between a couple with a photographer and a large, extended family with such insistence it’s difficult to say no but incredibly awkward and our faces burn with the glares of the sassed-out tourists next to us.
Marnie and I stroll the grounds, then make our way inside the palace where the ivory marble continues, from top to bottom, floor to pristine ceiling; a cavernous realm of bleached rock. It’s dark inside the main turret, and the carved gates looking to the outside make me wonder who looked through these in 1642, during the mausoleums birth, and what did they see? The rooms lack the character necessary to define their use, whatever they once were. The Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, described it as “the teardrop on the cheek of time”. It was, after all, built to house the tomb of the Mughal emperor’s favourite wife and has remained an exorbitant beacon of Mughal art and Indian history. Some say it is the ultimate, indulgently romantic gesture of all time. Some marvel at this extravagant luxury borne in the context of death while the neighbours putter just outside it’s gates, existing amongst trash heaps and scarcity as they beg the tourists for food.
Outside the Taj’s grounds, Marnie and I hunt for a travel agent, already jonesin’ for the next adventure. India will test your haggling skills, your patience, your sanity, your instincts; often all at once. And compensation isn’t always instant (but it’s always worth it). The next two hours put us through the test as we go back and forth between agents while ticket prices and departure times change exponentially each time. With our patience nearly taking a nose dive into the concrete sidewalk, we pay the agent too much for a pair of Varanasi-bound train tickets and are told to be back in an hour to collect them.
We’re starved. There’s a roof top restaurant nearby that is blissfully empty. Chow mein, thali, lassis and beer. I have luck with the wi-fi and the rail website. Exercising my ‘planning ahead’ skills, I manage to book a train online that will take us to our destination after a few days in Varanasi–Jaipur. This is how you ‘wing it’ on a dime in India.
Back at the travel agent, our tickets are ready. He sorts us a free rickshaw ride to the train in exchange for a nice rating on TripAdvisor. After grabbing a few snacks for the trip (it’s going to be a long one, folks), Fayad the rickshaw driver takes us to the train station. We have a two hour wait, then it’s all eyes on us as we walk to our platform; not one fellow foreigner is in sight. It’s 5:40 p.m. The tracks are empty. A man approaches us–the train is forty minutes late. Hopefully, we will make it in time for our connecting train in Bharatpur at 8:05. Hopefully.
Marnie and I grab a foil container of biryani while we wait, and then the train arrives and it’s a wild five minutes of people blitzing off and on the cars and then it is rolling out of the station, and we roll with it on the sleeper coach.
Our seating area is empty save for one man near the wall. Sitting on benches across from each other, I pull down the little table so Marnie and I can eat our rice. There are strange, foamy chunks of “meat” in it. We push it to the side. A couple high school students sit next to us, giggling every time we speak. They blow kisses through the barred window when they leave. The train is slow. It stops often, usually in the middle of the tracks for no apparent reason. We’re panicked. The next train is a big one–it’ll take us all the way to Varanasi from Bharatpur, but it leaves at 8:05 and it’s nearly 8 p.m. now. We ask around. Are we close? A kind man checks the train status on his phone. No connection.
Slowing into Bharatpur station, we stand by the door with our bags, wondering if we’ll make it. The kind man appears suddenly, showing me his phone screen. Our connecting train: two and a half hours late! Hallelujah! We thank him. Another guy, a young, tall, lanky dude in front of us grabs onto both handholds on either side of the exit door.
“Don’t worry, you will be safe,” he says.
Marnie looks at me. Safe? Then, before the train has stopped, a tsunami of Indian men hurtle themselves into the doorframe, yelling, pushing, shoving, elbowing to get through. But our lanky bodyguard stands strong, miraculously immovable against the testosterone raging torrent. He pushes them to the side, creating a protective barricade for us two white girls as the men flood in next to us.
Marnie and I stand in shocked silence, our eyes popping from our faces until disbelieving laughter escapes and we wonder if we’d be train pancakes without him, bulldozed by the unexpected crowd.
Stepping trample-free onto the platform, we shake hands with our hero and say goodbye. We walk through the dark station to our next platform, where groups of people are curled up on the pavement in thick layers; men lay on benches wrapped in scarves and jackets; extensive Indian families sleep across the platform in colourful blankets like woolly sardine rainbows. People and rats scamper across the railway tracks. Nighttime makes everything seem a little sketchy. We are the only foreigners here, again, and definitely the only girls alone. We find a bench and sit together, and somehow everything seems less scary from the steely seat. We’re just a couple of people waiting for the train like everybody else.
But it’s cold now; the seats are frigid, and we’ve used up all our layers. Ogling everyone with their thick pashmina’s, huge scarves and wool blankets, we wonder if we could have been any more ill-prepared for the night train in northern India.
After a while, I get up to ask a man a few benches down if he can check the status of our train. These Indian Railways have a tardy track record thus far. He’s catching the same one, apparently.
“Yes, the train to Varanasi? It is seven hours late.”
I look at Marnie. She covers her eyes with her hands. Her body starts shaking. We’re both laughing. Seven hours late. That is comically terrible news.
The man looks over at us, smiling.
“This is India!”
And wouldn’t you know, we can’t detect a sliver of impatience, annoyance, or surprise in his voice.
Shortly after, a train halts far past the platform. A riot of people spill from the coaches and move across the tracks in a screaming swarm. The sleepy patrons around us look over, and several sprint towards the mass and we watch as they join the pack, which runs across the bundle of train tracks and marches, raucously laughing and cheering, down the wooden ties. A man looks over at us and chuckles.
“Nothing to worry about!”
Whatever it is, it’s a spectacle.
We sit on the bench for a long time, giggling through chattering teeth, imagining the kind of uproar a seven hour-late train in North America would cause. A figure in khakis suddenly appears in front of us with a walkie-talkie.
“Go to the waiting room.”
“What?” we say.
“Come with me,” he says, turning on his foot.
We grab our bags and follow him to a waiting room painted to match his pants. It’s lined with a few benches and six people. We sit on a bench which immediately tips over. The room laughs; a man gives up his seat for us.
“I don’t feel very good,” Marnie looks like how I felt yesterday.
Sure enough, over the course of the next seven hours, she’s in and out of the bathroom more often than a cocaine-addled barista on laxatives. Bouts of sleep take place on our little metal bench. I chat with our wait-room neighbours, a married couple: a police-man and -woman who are heading out of town for work. They ask me about Canadian culture. Do women in Canada smoke and drink? They’re eyes widen when I nod. They become saucer-like when they realize I’ve never gone to post secondary.
Finally, at 3:20 a.m., our train begins to pull into the platform. Marnie and I pull our bags onto our backs, her trudging like a put-out player at play-offs.
Tossing her bag to the concrete ground, Marnie dashes to a trash can and empties the contents of her stomach–comprised mainly of mystery-meat biryani–just as the train screeches to a stop in front of us.