“Welcome to India.” These are words not spoken by customs officers here. To my surprise, mine doesn’t speak English and just looks at me blankly, pointing to a form and repeating the word mandatory, mandatory. I manage to get passed him, find my bag and my taxi driver, and suddenly, I’m in Delhi. But more on that later, because we don’t stay in the capital long. Instead, we take a night train to Varanasi, a holy Hindu city on the banks of the river Ganges.
Varanasi is a small town of 3.6 million inhabitants. After a short drive from the train station, our rickshaw driver stops. He can’t penetrate the maze of the old city, so he gets out and leads the way by foot. Dodging people, cows, huge pot-holes and garbage/shit is a sport I’m not yet accustomed to and it takes my full concentration. It’s 35 degrees, about 10 am, and my eyes are wide open.
Varanasi is made up of 82 ghats (stairways to the Ganges). Most serve as bathing sites, but a few are reserved for cremation rituals, or what the Indians call “burning place.” Our hostel is on the small and quiet Meer Ghat. We learn to memorize that for directions, which, in India, sound something like this: “turn right, then a little left, then straight until many many policemen, then you ask for main road.”
To enter the Golden Temple, we have to take our shoes off, wash our hands, and go through many metal detectors. A policeman checks our passports and makes conversation.
- Do they have rural areas in France?
- Yes, a lot.
- Illiterate people?
- No, literate.
- And what kind of crops do they grow? Mango?
- No, not mango.
- Talk to me about the Indian mango. It’s the king of fruit, right?
- Yes, it’s delicious. In France, we grow grapes to make wine.
- Just to make wine, not to eat?
- Yes, also to eat.
- Do you drink wine?
- That’s a very very bad habit. And do you eat non-vegetarian items?
In the largest cremation site, a small group of people from a special caste burn 200 to 300 bodies a day. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to burn, explains a volunteer without flinching. Not everything burns completely. The hipbone and parts of the skull for example can be found within the ashes, he says. Sick and old Hindus come from all over the country to die and be cremated in Varanasi. This way, they stop the reincarnation of their soul and the cycle of life. Their ashes are thrown into the Ganges, which is said to provide a path to heaven. The volunteer shows us a boat with a tiny round package wrapped in a white sheet. Children younger than 13 are not cremated because they are innocent, he says. They are thrown directly in Mother Ganges, just like pregnant women, lepers and people who died of a cobra bite. Cobras belong to the god Shiva, who, according to legend, founded the city of Varanasi.
Everyone here looks at us intensely. Our clothes, our skin, our eyes. Clearly, we are different. Still, one rickshaw driver recites the names of French football players. Zizou is his favourite. As he drives us back to the train station, he talks about his seven kids, his friends in Paris and gives us his take on our cultural differences.
-You marry for love, not arranged?
-And you, you marry for love, not arranged?
-All Europeans, they marry for love. They meet, they talk, they become friends, they talk, they become girlfriends, they talk, and then, they get married. Too much talking.
The sun sets early in Varanasi, and with the night comes celebration. People gather on the Dasaswamedh Ghat as the air cools down in order to get the best possible seats for the evening ceremony. We stare into the brown Ganges and can only imagine what swims below the surface. People take a dip between boats while a dog squats.
-Do you ever see dead bodies in the river?
-Yes all the time.
-We know for you it’s hard to understand. You think you would die if you went inside because it’s dirty. But I swim in Mother Ganga every day and I never got sick.
The people of Varanasi come together for the ganga aarti ceremony every evening. During this Hindu ritual, hundreds of candles are lit and offered to the gods. The priests dreamily dance and sing until the night has completely fallen.
We already know it’s going to be hard to find our way to the hostel tonight. The map of the old town looks like a smashed spiderweb. When we finally ALKA HOTEL painted on the walls, we turn left onto a pitch black street. We walk silently. On our left, two men are leaning against a stone wall. In between, a cobra. I’m too scared to take a photo, but instead fantasize about the way its body can stand up although it’s only a fish. We get home at 10 pm and fall to sleep. Our travel guide says there can be bandits at night.
Our train back to Delhi was supposed to take 13 hours. Like all white tourists, we reserve tickets which guarantee a bed per person. Indians don’t travel the same way. A bed can easily be shared between seven people here. After a sweaty and disturbed night, I wake up around 7 am. We should be arriving in half an hour, according to my ticket. Not the most comfortable ride ever, but I have the top bed under which three small fans have been attached. I’m daydreaming about where on a map we could be when the Swedish tourist occupying the bed below mine asks when we’ll be arriving.
“In seven hours. There was an accident.”
The train is going slower than the guy walking on the tracks beside us and seven hours is a long time to go before I can use a bathroom. Still, Ganesh must have been on our side (we bought 5 different representations of the elephant-headed god between the two of us) because our train arrived safely. The train before us derailed and 42 people perished.
I pretend this didn’t happen when I get on a train to Agra two days later. It seems I’m in a more expensive section this time because there is A/C and the coach is almost empty. I’m on the Kerala Express, a “SuperFast” train according to my ticket - though its average speed is 63km per hour and it makes 39 stops until its final destination.The guy is front of me is watching episodes of “How I met your mother” and reading the newspaper, which displays a huge photograph of the victims of the Mumbai bomb blast that occurred the day before. He’s got a 50-hour trip in front of him, all the way to Kerala.
I get up way early because trains here don’t stop very long at each station. As the train slows down, an elderly couple jumps off. The woman nearly dies as she pulls her bag from the moving train. I wonder if I’m going to have to do the same, but a woman in a green saree grabs my arm.
“Don’t stand here, the door might knock you over and you’ll fall,” she says while we ride over a small stone bridge. “There are many many deaths like this.”
Being back in Paris is a bit like waking up from a dream. A hot, smelly and dusty dream. Paris feels empty and cool, and the feeling of rain on my face is different than the one I had in India. Here, no one asks me to pose with them for a photo. And no one looks straight into my eyes, saying “where from?” And kids don’t go up to me to touch my hand. And women don’t laugh when they see I’ve got a little pendant in the shape of a shoe around my neck. When I get on a bus, I look at the clean and shiny city unfold and laugh, remembering what the woman in the green saree told me to make me feel at home in Agra.
“You see, even with cows, you have the black ones and the white ones and even the brown ones.