Many travelers will agree that the train is the most efficient way to traverse the long distances of India. Just as this country, its railway system is vast, so buying a ticket for the first time requires a lot of research to understand the differences among every type of class, why it is better to take a train with origin from a certain city rather than from another or where are the different 4 train stations of a certain town. It could arguably be said that those things that seem the easiest in Western countries (like in this case buying a train ticket) are actually the hardest in India. Creating an account takes us several days, because for that you need an Indian phone number and that by itself will take 1 day to activate. Once we are all happy and supposedly ready, our purchase attempt is in vain; our foreign credit card wouldn’t be processed, so after all the struggle we give up and go through the travel agency next door (paying some commission…) and buy tickets East for Lucknow, where we will be meeting our friend Victor.
Many folks talked about the experience of night trains and this time we get to see it ourselves. We pick third A/C class, which is comfortable and quiet, but in the middle price range. The coach has 8 berths in total, six in what would be the main space, and two on the side. We are both assigned to the upper berths, which will become our favorite (especially Irene’s) because they allow more privacy. In this class two clean sheets, a pillow, a towel and a blanket are provided. The beds are surprisingly comfortable, and even more so, the toilets don’t stink and are quite nice. However, we have so often been warned about theft that we are nervous about having our bags stolen and sleep very little, checking every now and then that everything remains where it should be. (As a side note, in the end we become used to the experience and our things are never, ever, stolen, and we are able to sleep for several hours on a row.)
Victor has been invited by two friends of his to an Indian wedding that will take place in two days’ time and they are staying in a super fancy hotel. I mean, not any hotel, but a high rank hotel, where some Bollywood stars stay, where there are at least 3 suited employees to receive guests at the door, where you don’t carry you own baggage and where there is a shiny and impressive entrance hall with people of the highest class nicely dressed and smelling to perfume. And then, there is us, with all our backpacker’s glamour, arriving by tuc tuc, dressed in our sportive, dusty clothes, messy hair from semisleeping in the train and completely exhausted. There are some looks in our direction here and there, but what can we do? Victor comes meet us and we enter his very nice and comfortable bedroom facing the swimming pool area. We feel so out of place, but it is so nice having a break from budget hotels!
We take a nice nap and what might be our warmest, longest shower in a long time. After being introduced to Saumi and Ujjayan, Victor’s friends, we all leave for lunch in a car we’ve hired for the day. They want to go to a very popular local restaurant whose specialty is kebab. There’s barely anything vegetarian here, but we promised ourselves we’d still try new things during our trip and, if this involved eating some special customary dish, we’d do it. It is AFTER our meal when we discover that the kitchen is outside, in the busy street.
With full bellies and crossing fingers to not get sick again, we walk through the commercial area, busy as hell and extremely lively. Ujjayan needs some shoes, Saumi some bracelets matching the saree she’ll wear at the wedding. There are all kinds of products on sale—copper, silver and plastic kitchen ware, snacks, spices, toys, tons of jewelry, clothes, flowers, fruits and vegetables, prayer offerings… And we have a blast observing the overwhelming amount of things happening around us, avoiding the traffic of bikes, rickshaws, tuc tucs, cars, cows and women wearing colorful sarees, babies with makeup, men and women with a tikka on their forefront. Telling from the amount of staring and laughs we see as we walk, the locals are seemingly not used to the presence of Westerners and, whoever we look at, they are observing us.
When all purchases are done, our driver takes us to The Residency (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Residency_Lucknow), a now in ruins but very interesting monumental complex. It is called that way because this was the area where the British used to live in Lucknow. The Indian people rebelled against the British ruling and besieged the buildings, and the numerous markings of the cannon balls against the walls still remain here. Saumi explains a lot of things about India and Lucknow in particular, as well as about Indian weddings; she is a great guide and sparks our curiosity about Indian traditions.
The hotel bar has now Happy Hour so some cocktails are due! We go have some drinks and later head for dinner to a nice restaurant for some yummy food, and finally go back to the hotel for a much needed sleep.
The following day our friends have to move to a different hotel with the whole family, so we don’t do much. The future new weds learn about our presence and invite us to the event, but our train tickets are already booked and we don’t want to impose nor have appropriate clothes or time to prepare, so with much regret we politely reject their generous offer.
The following morning we leave the hotel. The street is full of colorful and richly decorated chariots that are used at weddings. It is amazing how many flowers, lights and bright decor are put on them. A bit further, there are a bunch of cows eating from an extension of trash. This is seen everywhere all around India, but this time there are also people in there, including some kids, which is something we’ve seen in films but it is still tough to witness in person. We did not dare making pictures.
We say goodbye to Victor as we find a tuc tuc and head to the station for the sacred town of Varanasi.