Since the train journey from Yangon to Bagan turned out so well, why not try a road trip from Kathmandu to Varanasi, India? The original plan was a tourist bus from Kathmandu to the border and then a train on into Varanasi. For a variety of reasons, that was not going to work and I was left with the choice of flying or driving. Flying is such an unsatisfactory way to connect places—like every place in the world is flyover country that isn’t in possession of an airport…when the most interesting experiences in life are down there on the road. Besides flying is too simple.
Road trip it was to be. And we know how I do love my road trips. This time I’d have a driver and a fresh eye for new territory that didn’t include my tried and true Great Plains. And best of all a fixer.
Note: I’ve mentioned before that the only degree I was ever encouraged to go for while still in high school was journalism; my science teacher thought that was the career for me (since he could tell early on it was not going to be in science). I believe that would have been an excellent career choice, not necessarily because I would have been a great writer—although who knows—but because a lifestyle of travel, photographing disasters, having fixers and drivers and insiders who connect you with what you need to know, where it’s happening, and how to get there is so absolutely appealing. Once in awhile when I’ve been traveling I’ve come close. Kathmandu and my beloved Apsara Boutique Hotel was one such time. The manager was my ‘fixer’ arranging how this road trip would be implemented, the food and beverage manager my companion on the road, and along the way even a slightly shady character or two. My god…it was perfect.
The plan was this:
5am, November 15th, my pal Hari, my driver and I would leave Kathmandu, driving about 7, 8, 9, 10 hours, depending on road conditions to a border town, the name of which I forget as I’m writing this. Then my fixer’s contact would meet me, guide me through border control, introduce me to another driver for 6, 7, 8, 9 hours to Varanasi. What could go wrong…
PART ONE: 5am…right on time. We’re off. Hari has prepared a breakfast he thinks I will eat—in other words pathetically boring rolls and fruit. We are eager; he’s never been to this border town either. Only the driver, a skinny driving demon of few words has traversed this route through the mountains. And what a route it is…they’re rebuilding much of the road, all the way from the hotel in fact, so for the first seven hours it’s a ribbon of broken concrete and dust. All the smoothness and consistency of the Myanmar train. The frequent traffic backups could be compared to heading west from Santa Rosa on I40 when there’s been a snowflake or two OR (Teresa, you remember) that truck line-up in Kansas. But it’s all good. An adventure, and this time we can stop for the toilet—unlike that darn swaying, pee-flinging train—yup, now I would have access to The Public Roadside Toilet with which I’ve grown increasingly comfortable…just takes a day or two. I like my friend, Hari, so much. He has his own life issues as does his wife who’s a teacher; there’s a sister in the US which is still a beacon for a lot of the world’s left behind. Wish we were as good as they think. I will leave Hari with gratitude and just the tiniest moment of trepidation about the next unknowns.
PART TWO: Hmmm. Not so happy with the guy who’s the fixer’s border contact. Too smooth-faced and…untrustworthy-looking…have no idea what that means except he looks like a stockbroker.
Through passport control. No issue. Then my new driver/guide/companion for what will turn out to be the next nine hours. Oh good. Zero English. So it’s not his job to speak my language, I know that. But a word or two might have eased the way.
It all seemed more dramatic night before last than it really was now in the warm light of a Varanasi day, no big deal really but, trust me, it was for a short while back then.
The roads in northern India are nothing to brag about, let’s just say. Stretches of normal, more stretches of that damn broken concrete and dirt. And the poor live along the road don’t they? Trying to eke out a living from selling trashy fast food bits and home-cooked basics to the truckers and poorer nearby townfolk. Are the poor in India more desperate and living closer to the edge of life than even their Nepalese counterparts? They seem to be…?
Now and then my driver stops, asks “toilet?” or motions for me to come sit at the roadside table where he eats and I sip my bottled water flavored with Nescafe. This guy is not your local tourist guide; places we stop at are barren dirt-floored with big pots of the food of the day and a bunch of extremely scruffy-looking men about. Knowing the reputation of Indian men it’s good to be a little old lady. I know that’s a snide remark…but honestly…the stories out of the India-that’s-not-high-tech-and-getting-rich are not encouraging for females of any age or caste or class. But then neither are the stories out of Hollywood or Washington. Men, could you get it together…or at least keep it out of sight.
The day grows dark, late, uncomfortable, exhausting…shut up Marjorie, it’s just one of your damn road trips. Deal.
My tired manical (yeah, probably a necessary trait to deal with these roads) driver wants to deliver me somewhere, anywhere, safely as much as I want to be delivered. So we do eventually reach Varanasi about midnight.
I think we’ve reached one of Dante’s Circles of Hell…but then I looked them up and none apply; maybe Blade Runner scenes? It’s after midnight in the riverside heart of old Varanasi…not a Starbucks in sight. But plenty of men, cows, dogs, rats, shit, trash, alleyways. We eventually find my hotel (driver doesn’t want to ask anyone—sound familiar?), the already-sleeping night manager gets me a bowl of cereal because I look about to expire and I’m led to my oddest of odd rooms but OVERLOOKING THE GANGES. I wasn’t quite happy-happy yet but almost. Pure happiness would take a few hours of sleep.
Perhaps. No. More. Hard. Slogs. This. Time. But then I haven’t had my first Indian Rail ride. Adventures to come. So this post brings me to Varanasi. I’ll try to catch something of what this is to me in the coming days. India. India. India. INDIA.