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August 30, 2005

Tourist of Terror

The day before leaving Varanasi, I got a boat ride to Panchganga Ghat. I had tried walking there a couple of times and decided to risk getting murdered by taking the more direct route of a solo boat ride up the river. The boatman seemed pleasant, so I put my life in his hands.

Panchganga Ghat is where Trailinga Swami used to hang out. I mentioned earlier that he used to walk accross the surface of the Ganges. He also liked to drink milk and one time someone brought him a massive bucket of lime and water to drink, saying it was milk. The guy wanted to test him. The big fat buddha picked up the bucket and downed the lot. The man who gave it to him then fell to the floor screaming in pain. After a while Trailinga Swami told him not to test him again and stopped the pain.

Panchganga Ghat was a really pleasant place. It was like a little Spannish port with steep stone steps twisting up both sides of a tall building and meeting in a courtyard at the top. There is an ashram there in memory of Trailinga Swami and I was able to touch his sandles.

I spent seven hours waiting for the train at Varanasi station. It was late because of a scare about a bomb on the tracks. It's quite unusual for a train to be that late. So I sat on my suitecase on the platform and read for seven hours. I got through both packets of biscuits that I had brought to eat on the eighteen hour train journey to Haridwar.

Kids holding smaller kids, old ladies and men without feet would periodically come by with their hands out. I was trying to read and they would poke my hand. So I would say "na he" and they would poke my hand again. And I would say "na he". We would do this about four or five times until I had to look them in the eyes, say "na he" very sternly and then "go" and point up the platform. I did give five rupees to one guy without feet, I don't know why I gave to him and not the others.

I was trying to read and one lady started putting her hand in the way of the book that I was reading. I told her not to and she did it again. I then felt a little angry and even less likely to give her anything. I got up, put my book away and turned to her. I think that she thought that I was going to give her something. I just told her to go away. But it was weird because I was about three feet taller than her and she looked at me like she was so hard done by. I remembered when I had been tending the fire for the Native American Indian sweat lodge in Oregon earlier this summer. A guy who told me that you had to treat the fire like your grandmother, gently and with respect, and you would not get burned. As I looked at this old lady, I thought that she was like my grandmother and all this stuff came up about how can I treat her like this. But I told her to go.

For the seven hours that I was on the platform, there was a continuous and very loud series of announcements. They came back to back and each announcement was delivered in Hindi and then in English. The English version was always a lady saying something like: "For your [pause] kind attention please. The train in platform seven is for Delhi, calling at Agra ..." That "For your [pause] kind attention please." is liable to drive you nuts if repeated to you continuously for seven hours. So be warned.

I slept for about twelve hours on the train. The Indians in my carriage were once again very nice and spoke English really well. I've been travelling in the two tier air conditioned class. This means that there are four bunks per cabin, a pair on each side with a bunk on the top and a bunk on the bottom. It's comfortable and you can sleep.

I cancelled my train ticket from Haridwar to Rishikesh and just took a taxi for about the same price and with much more convenience. Rishikesh is much cleaner and more peaceful than Varanasi. Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh are all important pilgrimage spots on the Ganges. Rishikesh is set in the Himalayan foothills, so it's higher and cooler. I'm staying in a very comfortable hotel with a really nice restaurant. The restaurant is open on two sides and is very high up, with a cool breeze and a view out across the Ganges and of the various ashrams that line it.

I heard from someone that yesterday there was a big undercover police operation near to where I am staying. A whole bunch of police moved in and arrested a western guy with a beard who was staying in a nearby hotel. This guy had taken some rolls of film to be developed in a local shop. When the pictures were developed, they showed him in those open roofed courtyards in Afghanistan handling and firing AK47s and all kinds of weapons. There were pictures of him chumming up with various people who looked like terrorists. So the people working in the shop thought that he was a terrorist and reported it to the police. It turns out that he's not a terrorist, he's a tourist and that's what you do in Afghanistan. I've even saw Michael Palin doing that on his series "Himalaya". So right now, the guy has to stay in Rishikesh while they do a few more checks on him.

I'm really enjoying this trip. It's so totally different from anything I've done before.


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