Welcome to Varanasi
by Gabriella Sonabend
‘Excuse me mam’
‘Excuse me mam, welcome to Varanasi, how long you stay?’
‘Thank you but I live here’
‘Ok mam, welcome to Varanasi, how long you stay? You want I take you a cheap guesthouse?’
‘No thank you’
‘Ok, where you want to go? First time in Varanasi?’
‘No, I live here’
‘Oh, first time, very nice, mam, welcome to Varanasi, very old city’.
It has been almost 40 hours since we left the mountains where ominous storm clouds and bright white lightning filled the sky. On our way to the train station we encountered a mountain-side traffic jam, which delayed us by an hour and caused our young driver to speed along the winding roads at a pace which certainly was not safe. The quiet and determined 21 year old local knew that the traffic jam would probably lead us to miss our train and he was determined to see us reach home. I have now lived in India for enough time to know that being ‘cautious’ is not really something one can actively choose to do. Here is a world ruled by bizarre fate and so as the young driver sped along the roads I did not panic and grab the edges of my seat. I relaxed as water jumped up through the holes in the car floor and my mobile phone went flying, (probably out of the window), never to be seen again. The driver looked uncannily like my younger brother. His thin earnest face and large features made me warm to him immediately and I insisted on calling him Rafy, (my brother’s name), as I tried not to back-seat-drive. In fact, his resemblance to my brother was so acute that for those two terrifying hours on the road I convinced myself that I was actually with Rafy; and I felt completely safe in his hands.
We arrived at the train station at the exact minute that our train was set to depart. Fortunately Indian lack of punctuality ensured the train was a few minutes late. I was relieved beyond expression. Trains from the mountains are scarce and at this particular time of year they are completely booked up; missing a single train might have led to a very expensive plan B. Aboard the train it soon became apparent that we were in fact on the wrong train – but luckily this is India, and a discreet bribe can quickly change wrong to right.
Back in Varanasi it was merely moments before I was re-immersed in the truly insane and peculiar nature of this city. Our tuktuk driver proudly told us ‘Look, we are soon having new roads’ and I could offer little more than a laugh and a reassuring nod in response. I wonder whether he was trying to convince me, or rather delude himself – perhaps he was simply employing the word ‘soon’ in a more poetic manner. Either way, it feels strange and slightly mad; but I can honestly say, I am glad to be home.