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Friday 19th November - Varanasai to Siliguri
By Claire
Monday, 22nd November 2004 05:47

I woke up with what felt like the flu - every bone ached, my skin hurt, I was hot and cold at the same time, and on top of that, the thing I did to my back a while ago was back and it hurt when I breathed. Reception phoned to ask if we wanted breakfast and I told them maybe later. I went back to sleep.

We packed our bags slowly and then Ahmed, the friendly hotel lad, came to ask again if we wanted breakfast. I said we'd probably do lunch instead. We went into town to try and find some echinacea tablets, as I had hoped to take some before coming home for Christmas, but no-one seems to sell them, and some snacks for the train. Then we had lunch at the hotel, ordered some sandwiches and asked Ahmed to sort us out with a taxi to the station. He came back with a driver about five minutes later, and we agreed a price and a time. The phone man had suggested that it would take between one and two hours, so to give us enough time to get to the train at 6.30, we thought we should leave at half past three. That way we'd be able to fight our way onto the right platform. Then we did a bit of emailing and I sat in the corner and read. In a way, being sick today was the best day for it - all I'd have to do was sit on a train.

Our taxi turned up before the sandwiches were ready so we left without them. I wasn't in the mood for food anyway. The only problem with the rickety minibus was that the battery was flat, so as long as the driver didn't switch off the engine, we'd be fine. They push-started the van and we were off. To start with, the speed and the recklessness was quite entertaining, and the worst that could happen was that we'd end up with a few dents and scratches. Then the accelerating towards on-coming rickshaws, bikes or pedestrians meant that the outcome could be more serious than that. Unfortunately, squeezing Mikey's arm at every close call didn't seem to effect the brakes at all.

We hit a traffic jam which gave us a moment's respite, and then the van stalled, which gave us an even longer break. The driver called to a few lads to help push the van, and most of them ignored him. A couple tried, but there was only about eight inches of space between the van and the vehicle in front of us. Any more of a gap was claimed by someone else. I was glad that we'd given ourselves long enough to get to the station. In a move of pure comic genius, the driver and a couple of friends managed to execute a six-point turn in total gridlock (hitting a few rickshaws and knocking a couple of people off their bikes) and then they ran the car down the road and the engine started. Then the driver tried to make up for lost time by taking side streets at high speeds. Some of these roads looked so small that they were barely meant for walking down, let alone a mini-bus. I actually closed my eyes for a bit because I would have felt so guilty if someone had died because we wanted to get to the station on time!

For a while, further out of town, the roads cleared, and the only thing we had to worry about were dogs, cows and huge holes in the road. Then we got into the area of huge lorries, but our guy wasn't worried about them - he or they would sweve at the last minute. He stopped once, to buy a garland of marigolds from a man in the middle of the road, which he draped over the rear view mirror. I don't know if it was for good luck, or as a prayer of thanks that we hadn't died so far.I was tempted to get one myself! Breathless and shaking but alive, we arrived at the station with about an hour and a half to spare.

We spent a while in the second class waiting room until the cloud of flies and mosquitoes round the guy behind us got too annoying, and then we made our way to the first class waiting area on platform 2, which Mikey thought was the one we wanted anyway. On the way down the steps, I heard a very cheery hello, and I turned round to see two girls, waving cheerfully. 'How are you?' They asked. I was still trying to work out where they'd thought they'd seen me before. Then, when they asked where I was off to, they said that was sooooo great, they were going to Darjeeling too. I was so confused, and my head was still all swimmy, and I looked at them blankly until they went away. They were just two French girls delighted to discover white kindred spirits. It annoyed me.

Along the platform we were pawed by half a dozen beggars under the age of six. They were persistent and annoying and filthy and walked in front of us the whole way. To escape, we sat in the Gentlemen's Waiting Area (because I was allowed in too, rather than the Ladies' where Mikey would have to stay outside) and read for a while. The beggars were shooed out whenever they came too close. The French girls asked us if this was the right platform, and we said that as far as we knew, it was. They sat and waited behind us. An announcment said the train was running about an hour late, which we were expecting, but the girls must not have heard it - they were running around all over the place in panic. Towards the end of our wait, a large man in olive green army-style clothes, a tight black turban with long sides and holding a huge machine gun, came into the waiting room and then prowled around a bit. He was definitely the sort of fellow you want on your side!

When the train finally turned up, we searched for ages for our carriage. We got on a random one in the end which happened to be the one we wanted, and found our beds. The French girls were there, telling an old man he was in the wrong place. Someone else had already chained their luggage up under our bunks so there was little room for ours. We got settled and then, as soon as blankets arrived, I tried to get to sleep. We were due to arrive in Siliguri at about 9am, so I had 14 hours or so to rest. I was still in pain and shaking and aching, but I couldn't sleep and spent almost the entire night awake, trying to work out if we could get a train back to Delhi and then fly to Madras and bring our departure date forwards. I wasn't a happy bunny.

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