Chapter 27: Varanasi and the Indian Rail

8 03 2013
A new friend...

A new friend…

Note:  Some content may not be appropriate for kids. But that’s how India can be.

February 25:  African border crossings may be great for people watching but it pails to Indian trains. Of the 20 million Indians ride the rail every day, 50 die from crossing the tracks, while another 9 die because they fall from the open doors or get electrocuted from the third rail while riding on top.  The others want to talk which is frequently comical as the national language, English, is only spoken by some of the 1.2 billion people.  21 other languages are recognized in the constitution yet there are more than 1600 minor languages.  It is a Hindu country yet still has 150 million Muslims, not to mention many Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians.  The only Jews are the Israeli backpackers.  And us.

Donna getting a henna tattoo from two sisters while on a train

Donna getting a henna tattoo from two sisters while on a train to Nasik

We avoid planes in lieu of trains.  Traveling on an Indian train is a reason itself to come to India.  But the days of showing up are gone so now you must master reservation chaos.  There is first class, second class, third class, sleeper class, chair class and a half dozen other mystery classes.  There are quotas for women, foreigners and “emergencies.”  ‘RAC’ class is half a seat, which means the railway admits to selling at least double the capacity.  The online system rarely works; booking offices are rarely convenient; ticket agents know only enough English to explain their premium.  And you better have cash.  Getting front row seats to Lady Gaga is easier.  But Ryan seems to have found his way through the maze and gets us what we need.  For the record, we are a third class traveling family as it provides the right balance of comfort and Indian interaction.  Sarah says we are a third class family because I am cheap.

Typical train station chaos...

Typical train station chaos…

Our 17-hour journey from Nasik to Katni left at 1:30am yet the station was buzzing with hundreds of people chatting on mats or praying to one of their many gods, while others were selling tea, biscuits, sweets, samosas and other fried snacks that you really don’t need at 1:30 in the morning.  The dogs were barking at nothing in particular and kids were running across the tracks, not only to avoid the trains, but to outrun the rats. Train stations may not be so pleasant for the nose but they a feast for the eyes.  Good thing, because there was not that much to see in either Nasik or Katni.

Rather easy to meet people....

Rather easy to meet people….

But the real joy is on the train.  You quickly make friends with the Indians sharing your 8-person compartment, which really is not a compartment but a closet-sized section where cooperation is key.  Seats become beds when everyone decides it is time to sleep; you all need to agree to turn off the lights and turn on the fans.  Be mindful at night when climbing down from your third-tier bunk such that you don’t wake the sleeping.  Squatter bathroom visits are not so bad especially if it’s dark and you are half asleep.   Then again, after seven months our standards may be suspect.

Trains that depart in the evening are packed with Indians eating thali dinners such that the smell of curry never leaves.  Actually, trains that depart in the morning also smell of curry. Good thing we like curry.

The kid needs to eat

17 hours on a train, the kid needs to know where his food will come from

We have our train routine.  Bunks are assigned which gives you the right, upon embarking, to awake the sleeping local who is in your bed.  Get your blanket, pillow and surprising clean sheets.  Climb into your bunk and have water and toilet paper handy, with valuables such as Kindles and computers under the pillow.  Indians are modest and everyone sleeps in clothes.  Sarah gets top bunk as this reduces the likelihood that she finds the local back in her bunk the following morning.  Speaking of which, you want to be certain you are awake prior to arrival, as the train does not stop long.  But this is typically not a problem.     Mornings come early as Indians rise way before the sun, the lights go on and despite their many customs, whispering is not one them; they have no inside voice.  Vendors are shouting when walking down the narrow isle selling chai and egg biryani.  A crippled guy sweeps the garbage down the isle to one end of the train, when another sweeps the same garbage back.  Beyond being sympathetic, I admire their efforts and give each a few rupees.  I avoid using my Kindle for fear of missing something much more interesting.

Indians could not be any nicer and befriending compartment-mates is part of the experience.  Yet be cautious when asking questions as their sincere attempt to be helpful with the infamous Indian head nod means “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, or “yes, but I have no clue”.  Beyond time and patience, the secret to enjoying India is having a sense of humor.  We laugh a lot.  Which is a good thing because we were about to arrive in Varanasi…

Ryan with a few Sadus

Ryan with a few Sadus in Varansai

March 3, Varanasi.  India is like no other country, and Varanasi is like no other Indian city.  It is where the Ganges River, the holiest of the holiest, is located and everyone here is dying, praying to someone that has died or burning someone that has died.  There are 300 cremations every day, all public, and the ashes are sprinkled in the river.  Spend some time at the burning ghat and your clothes will wreak from the smoke. Those that cannot afford the 200 kilos of wood to burn the body for three hours, simply tie a few rocks to the deceased then place in the river.  Take a sunrise rowboat down the river and see floating bodies and animals.  People bathe in the river; my laundry is now being washed in the river.  No doubt the water from my chai came from the river.  I wonder if my shower is from the river.  Yesterday they were hosing down a street with water pumped from the river.

And he is the most religious...

And he is the most religious…

The narrow streets are equally fascinating but no cleaner.  After a few days here, it becomes second nature and you no longer need to look down to avoid stepping in the piles of cow dung or garbage piles.  And anyways, you want to keep your head up so that you don’t get hit by a motorcycle, rickshaw, or roaming bull in heat.  But more importantly, you want to watch the people.  Whether it’s the hoards of locals visiting Varanasi temples prior to their dip in the Ganges, religious Sadus in their bright orange saris, or the more religious and highly respected that have foregone all possessions and walk around fully naked, with the exception of a ring around their penis and a body coated with ash from a cremated body.  My efforts to chat with them are comical more than educational – in their typically stoned state, I am not sure if they are speaking Hindi or chanting Sanskrit mantras.  Beggars have their palms out – and frequently it is only their palms, as leprosy has taken their fingers.  It’s not a town for the timid.

Donna praying...

Donna praying…

The alleys are abuzz with commerce.  Sarah and Donna spent an afternoon at a local fabric market then found a tailor to make clothes. I managed to find black market beers.  Vishnu sold us chai tea.  Ryan went to the railway station for tickets to Darjeeling.  And there are plenty of local restaurants if the train has not sickened you from the smell of curry.  Korean Kimchi and Tibetan Momos were a nice change from Indian spices.

...while Mike consults with the astrologer.

…while I consult with the palm reader.

There is no need to go on any tours or visit temples or mosques or museums. Just sit on the ghat steps leading down to the Ganges and watch, listen and learn.  Locals will soon be sitting by your side.  They will stare at Sarah; they will pick at the hair on my arms; they will take Donna’s photo; they will practice their English with Ryan. A Sadu prayed with Donna while a palm reader envisioned a wedding in my future – which makes me wonder what Donna prayed for.

Varanasi is the definition of chaos; Indians can be indiscreet; the sights and smells can be overwhelming.  It is perhaps the most fascinating Indian city, which says alot, but can be challenging for those that value quiet, privacy or hygiene.  We stayed five days.  Apparently, the Ludwigs have different values.



Photos uploaded for those interested:  — Hampi and Goa.  Mumbai and Varanasi

A few of the 60,000 per day that wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges.

A few of the 60,000 per day that wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges.



6 responses

8 03 2013
Linda ludwig

i guess India will not work for the Wolovits-Ludwig xmas vacation, but it sounds like u are enjoying your time there. Stay well – we miss all of you.

8 03 2013
Doug Furth

Suddenly the Cuyahoga River catching on fire seems a bit mundane…..

Interesting how the more religious you are over there the less you wear…..thank goodness we’re reform…..can you imagine the High Holy Days!

Have a great time – I hear that lemon juice is great for getting the smell of curry out of clothes…..just sayin’


8 03 2013
Mike Madorsky

Hi Ludwigs, really enjoy reading your adventures riding the rails. I traveled in India 25 years ago, and I never had the guts to ride anything less than first class. If fact, I bought a Indiarail pass, so never had to make a reservation, just showed up, talked to the Stationmaster, and on I went. By the way, their is a local Jewish population, mostly in Bombay, who are descendants of Baghdadi Jews who came around 100 years ago. There’s also a group of Jews on the coast near Cochin who have been there for over 1000 years. check it out! You can contact our buddy Moses Jhirad and he’ll get you in touch with his people.
Love reading your blog, its so inspiring to hear of your family sharing such a experience. Miss you all, and love Ryan’s do!!!! Happy trails, Mike Mad.

11 03 2013
Ann Garson


18 10 2013


20 06 2015

Hey friend …you should have travelled in first class. You could have slept their like a baby :). Yes Varanasi is not a very clean city but efforts are being made to change this picture. Just imagine you are owning a house with three rooms in it and two people are living in it. Now add 10 more people to it. In India , over 1.25 billion people are living within a area which is less than 1/3 than that of USA. Your article is nice my friend.But you can only see what you want to see.

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