The arrival platform at Varanasi was no less tumultuous and disorderly than the departure venue at Delhi the night before . . . utter, absolute, overwhelming chaos.
I used that word before, quite appropriately, to describe the departure scene at New Delhi. It deserves some attention. As some may know, “chaos” means . . . well . . . whaddya think it means? I’ve always imagined that Chaos was a mischievous Greek goddess who went around knocking over ant heaps, real and figurative, to enjoy the resulting . . . chaos; very much like a certain ex-wife of mine who got that way after two extra-dry vodka Martinis.
Thus, confronted with yet another disorganized mess, I had no problem deciding Chaos had a branch office here in the heart of this holiest of Hindu cities, as incongruous as a mosque would be in St. Peter’s Square.
Of course, now that I’m back home and have Googled up the word, I find I could not be more mistaken about the source of the word. “Chaos” is a “gaping void” – as in, nothing there at all.
Oh, would that be true here on the Varanasi station!
Just finding the way off the train platform and into the station building was an agony made more confusing by wandering cows, towering piles of rail freight, waves of aggressive people flowing in all directions, including across the open tracks to the other side, people sitting on baggage – or even on cowshit – large crates of something that had either arrived or was due to leave – but no directional signs, no personnel with information . . . just . . . chaos.
When I finally found a doorway into the station, the scene inside was no better. Fortunately, at least I could see the squares of light marking open doors on the far side of the wide room. I went for the light with the blind fatalism of a moth.
There, on the far right side, just before an exit door, was a sign saying something like “Foreign Traveler’s Waiting Room.” I went inside. The room was a deliciously air-conditioned. I asked the man at the desk inside how might I phone my hotel to arrange the free pickup that is included in my reservation.
He was a true bureaucrat. He professed to know nothing not covered by his portfolio. Those limits were clearly stated on a crudely painted sign on the wall, to which he waved his hand. It stated, among other things, the room is for use only of of departing passengers awaiting their train or those purchasing or changing tickets. Since I was neither, neither he nor this cool refuge were available.
A friendly young fellow traveller who overheard the exchange told me, “Just step back outside this building and to your right there is a phone service. You can call your hotel for 2 rupees.”
I did exactly that. The hotel said, “Go back to the Foreign Passenger Waiting Room. A man will come asking for you by name.”
BTW – the practice of free pickup at the train or airport in India is the hotels’ response to a scam practiced by many taxi drivers. Passengers who have not arranged for transportation are often quoted an excessive fare, or they are told with a straight face that the hotel where they have a reservation is:
a) burned down, or
b) closed by the authorities for a disease infecting the guests, or
c) under investigation for thefts from tourists, etc
d) out of business, etc. . . .
. . . followed by, “But don’t worry. My cousin (uncle, nephew, brother-in-law) has a beautiful hotel and I’m sure I can get you a room.”
My own connection accomplished, I returned to the sweet a/c and defiantly sat directly beneath the sign for about 20 minutes until a man entered the room and asked, “Harykinses?”
At first I thought he was asking if I am a Hare Krishna. I was about to point to an obviously western couple with shaved heads, wearing tatty bedsheets and auto-tire sandals – but before doing that I noticed in his hand a piece of paper with my last name writ large. Thank God (with a capital G).
That gratitude soon became a constant cry of, “Oh my Goooodddd” as I experienced the wildest, most frightening ride of my life.