We’re super excited to have a brand new lovely contributor here at Magpie Towers – Richard Winter. He’ll be regaling us with tales of his past travels and giving us all something to look forward to when we can indulge our wanderlust once again. First up, his Indian train tale…
I was sitting on the dirty cold floor of a slow Indian train. The drafty corridor between two carriages was lined with unwashed, and uncomfortable, steel treadplate that branched into two overflowing squat toilets. In the early morning light, silhouettes of dusty towns passed the barred windows. My hair was matted, my sleepless eyes were carrying great bags, and my hands were coated in a film of grease that I knew extended over my whole being. So, in the infamous words of The Talking Heads, How did I get here?
India is a country of contradictions, where families build homes from tarpaulin under billboards advertising a Bentley Continental. You can find yourself in a miserable situation in the morning, and in the solitude of peace by the evening. Two months ago, I had sold everything and bought a one-way ticket on Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight to Mumbai, India. Within a week, my partner Sara and I had given up on the chaos of the country’s largest city and found an oasis of happiness on the coast of Goa; the tiny ocean village of Benaulim.
The three-wheeled tuktuk bumped its way down a raised sandy track between green rice paddy fields and dropped us at a hamlet of makeshift beach shacks, shaded by palm trees. We woke each morning to the sound of gentle waves breaking on the shore, coming from over dunes covered in pink orchids. For uncounted days we lost ourselves in happiness.
We watched the fishermen bring in their catch, while wandering the shore with a new friend; a golden-coated stray beach dog with an injured foot. We would feed and fuss him, and he would sit in front of our shack and keep guard at night. But, we couldn’t stay here forever, a week in Mumbai had not quelled the urge to learn more about what was beyond the Indian horizon, so we left.
The day before the miserable overcrowded train journey to New Delhi, I was in the ancient city of Varanasi – regarded as the holiest of the seven sacred cities. I was barely awake at 5am, and I followed our guide through streets that were thousands of years old. In awe of its heritage, something caught my eye, and I yanked Sara by the arm. She gave me a shocked look but would soon thank me; she had almost stepped a Black Cobra belonging to a street entertainer – if the chai didn’t wake us up, that certainly had.
The last day of Diwali, the festival of Light, is the holy city’s busiest day of the year. The red stone Gahts were teeming with crowds. The cities inhabitants were here to wash, to celebrate, and to earn a living on the water. We climbed into a little rowboat and launched onto the river Ganges. It was the widest river I had ever seen, and as we drifted downstream, we watched the sunrise over the contrasting red and gold temples on the riverside.
Celebrators bathe in the holy river to attain ‘Moksha’ – a fundamental philosophy to many of the nation’s religions. By washing away their sins they embrace enlightenment and emancipation. It’s here, just out of the city, on the muddy riverbanks that families build pyres to cremate their loved ones.
The day had been spent walking the streets of a three-thousand-year-old city. It simply made no sense; crammed curving alleyways branched off unpaved roads in all directions. There is an unspoken rule in India, about how accepted it is to break rules, and it requires a rapid learning curve, primarily for safety, but also for respect. Regardless, we were lost. We sat in a busy teashop and regained our thoughts. We found our hotel business card with an address, and paid an enthusiastic tuktuk. To earn his fare, he worked the little one-cylinder engine to its full potential. The Putt-Putt-Putt soundtrack didn’t ease as he shot across junctions and revved into oncoming traffic. We arrived at the hotel, with our nerves frayed.
Indian cities always require you to be alert, and we were exhausted from our early start. After two months, we were feeling burnt out, and missing the humble beachside shack Benaulim. We sat at the hotel bar with an ice-cold Kingfisher and organised how to get back. The plan was simple; an overnight eight-hour train journey, departing at 2am, and arriving in New Delhi in time for breakfast and a hot Masala Chai. Then on to Goa.
What they don’t tell you when you book a ticket, is that the trains in India are so popular and overcrowded, that they double book the seats – just in case one of you doesn’t show up. We managed to push our way through the crowded train and finally found our seats, my heart sank. A young family were already fast asleep; a baby draped over her father’s shoulder, and their son spread across our seats with his head of black hair in his mother’s lap. Some Indian trains literally travel for days, I didn’t know how long they had been aboard, so I couldn’t bring myself wake them. And that is how I ended up here. I was tired, cold, and dirty. I was sitting on an even dirtier metal floor, in a draughty walkway between two brimming squat toilets. We agreed that it is here where we spent the worst eight hours of our travels – or they would have been if we could stop ourselves from laughing about the situation.
As with everything in India, we arrived at New Delhi station late. Part of the unspoken rules was learning that India runs on its own time. We flew to Goa and travelled down familiar lanes. The tuktuk passed jungle forests at the roadside, that hid a wealth of wildlife. A mother pig wandered into the road followed by a trail of tiny brown piglets. Soon we turned the corner at the verdant paddy fields and arrived at the shack. The golden stray was asleep among the pink orchids on the beach, and walking in felt like coming home. India is a country of contradictions, you can find yourself in a miserable situation in the morning, and in the solitude of peace by the evening.
Next up will be Richard’s road trip in the Californian wine region…