Ten hours of fear, sometimes rising into sheer panic with rushes of blood to the head, tears rolling down cheeks and murmurs of praying for it to be over. That was Lana's experience of the Delhi - Varanasi express train. Why? Cockroaches...
For the hundreds of other passengers scoffing samosas and slurping soup, the roving roaches weren't worth a glance but for the lady with roachaphobia, Lana had one of the most petrified, enclosed nights of her life as they scuttled everywhere from the bathroom floor to the bed sheets we slept in.
I spent the best part of an hour standing by her bunk trying to portray Colin the cockroach in a friendly light but it was like telling a cow loving Indian that he should try a Big Mac. I had no chance. In the end, we slept on the lower bunk together with me acting as a kind of cockroach barrier and although we did eventually manage a few hours sleep, Lana was still in a state of mild panic until we set foot on the platform at Varanasi.
In fact, when her little flip flops finally took her off the train, such was her relief that she failed to notice the two stalkers we had picked up after less than 15 seconds in the station. They didn't exactly show KGB levels of stealth as they plodded along in front of us, stopping when we stopped and occasionally throwing a brief glance. But they also went out of their way to avoid any direct eye contact and tried to make out as if they weren't interested in us and were merely enjoying the ambience of the loud, jostling station. It wasn't until we neared the exit that one stalker scampered over and whispered, "Hello, you need auto-rickshaw?" A question which immediately infuriated his companion. Within 60 seconds, not only did this lead to a heated argument, but also a bout a fisty-cuffs, thus completing the perfect Monty Python stalker sketch.
We skirted the squabble and opted for a bespectacled tuk tuk man who, with minimal haggling, weaved us through 10km worth of Varanasi traffic, to the southern end of the bathing ghats on the Ganges. However the beginning, set the tone for the entire 3 or 4 days in Varanasi. Crazy tuk tuk drivers, traffic clogged streets and constant followers offering everything from help to hard drugs. Serious brain overload...
Any longer than two hours out among the chaos meant slow mental shut down. It sounds quite extreme but in less than five minutes, on a Varanasi street, you will have 15 offers of tuk tuks, 10 offers of cyclerickshaws, 10 people ask where you are from and what your name is, you will hear a constant pumped up version of Ghandis symphony no.3 (the car horn concerto), you will step in at least 4 different types of shit and you will narrowly avoid two fatal traffic accidents. And that's not including the obstacle course posed by the cows, pigs, donkeys, horses and chickens.
As such, chilled out sightseeing was needed to prevent mental meltdown. An early morning boat-trip up the Ganges to enjoy the sunrise and see the pilgrims bathing in the poo-infested, holy river was first on the cards. After reading that there are 1.5 million faecal particles per 100ml of Ganges water, I didn't actually believe people went into the river, let alone attempt to wash in there, but they do. Every plunge likely taking a couple of months off thier SAGA holidays. Despite this, every morning the ghats are lined with people dousing themselves with the brown water and worshipping the rising sun.
We disembarked at Harishchandra ghat where, daily, between 250 and 300 bodies are cremated, filling the Ganges with yet more funk. As we arrived, nobody was performing the "I can fit in an ashtray" trick but, without sounding too hippy about it, the death vibes were strong. Lana, freshly recovered from the cockroaches, freaked out once again after seeing piles of hair shaven from the dead and I became claustrophobic when surrounded by nothing but stacks of firewood, the only way out being a narrow lane into the old town, which wasn't any better.
Varanasi's old city is a bewildering maze of metre wide alleyways, a place where you can easily get lost and not see the sun for a full hour. In addition, the walls of the lanes around the burning ghat are adourned with photographs of the recently deceased, a dangerous combination for a couple suffering from claustraphobia and deathaphobia. It was a long, frustrating half hour before we found our way out and back into the hectic world of "Hello sir, rickshaw?" All in all, a failed attempt at chilled out sightseeing.
Over the next couple of days we tried to chill out in Varanasi but generally, it just didn't work. We spent an hour or so watching monkeys fight and fornicate in a small temple but were hassled the whole way there by every Indian with a set of wheels for hire. We tried to explore the muslim quarter but without success, in hindsight it was a stupid idea to take a blond Russian through streets filled with sex-starved males.
In the end, we gave up. Our final 24 hours in Varanasi were spent in a colonial style hotel on the edge of town, splashing in the pool, puffing on shisha and enjoying a break from the chaos. A bus to Allahabad was next on the cards...