The 10.20 to Varanasi

February 2000 - Five months into our Indian odyssey my girlfriend and I walked off the Khajuraho- Varanasi train with … the clothes we'd slept in, a little money, passports, 2 sleeping bags. The rest, two huge rucksacks - our life basically - all gone. You have to admire the skill involved in cutting through a thick chain and padlock, fastened 6” from my head while I was asleep.

We've since spent many hours re-living this event and consensus has it we were drugged. Not sure how or when - we ate with the locals, drank with the locals, followed our usual routine, veterans of numerous overnighters. The monumental booze up and king sized hangover from our last night in Khajuraho has been airbrushed from memory and most certainly was not a contributing factor.

This was a pre-digital age, so included in the haul were 36 rolls of film. Every photo from every day. Life lesson number one - never, ever snap snap snap away at a once in a lifetime moment without fully taking in the scene with your own eyes and committing it to memory. It took me 3 years to pick up a camera and take a photo.

We spent the last 4 hours of the train journey into Varanasi crying, raging, hugging, we were spent.

Our fellow passengers, helpful to a fault, were quick to point out that this journey, of all the train rides in India, was notorious for overnight theft. The chap opposite told us he and his wife always took it in turns to stay awake throughout the journey. Except for last night, my friend.

Varanasi police station was several Indian travel clichés rolled into one:-

British Empire issue, bolt action rifles - check.

Dusty, ancient ledgers a foot thick, filled in by an equally ancient man, in triplicate, using 100 year old carbon paper - check.

Numerous prisoners beaten with lathis -check

Desk sergeant wanting baksheesh (bribe) - big check. He knew that we knew that he had to provide a police report for any insurance claim.

Unbelievably, my girlfriend let slip she was was a dancer. You know what happened next.

Several hours later we were "released" into Varanasi, the city of lights - what we saw that day were corpses floating in the Ganges, hundreds of people without arms or legs, the stench of burning flesh, absolute pandemonium to our sad little eyes.

Just to add to the fun, uber guru Sai Baba and his thousands of devotees were in town for the Shivaratri festival.

It's funny what you think of in a crisis. We thought "we're going to die of malaria, tonight". A trip to the main hospital looking for anti malarial tablets brought a doctor out to see us. “What are you doing here, people come here to die, go away”. There were dead bodies in the hospital grounds. There were no anti malarials to be had.

Finally, the sanctuary of our hotel. Our first encounter was with Jean-Paul, drugs smuggler par excellence. By way of introduction he told us that on a previous trip he had swallowed 25 condoms filled with cannabis but passed only 24...


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