I leave half-an-hour early on Nawal’s recommendation. Nawal owns a very nice silk shop, full of colourful scarves and cheap little objects so nice that you feel like buying one for every single person you know. He sits upstairs, cross-legged on a carpet, with a big book in front of him. He is calm, smiling, and hard-nosed in business – because it’s a silk emporium, a heritage from the time when the Britishers were here, and the prices are fixed. Nawal has a certain aura, one might say. He told me he also owns a shop in France, in Lyon. He goes there several times a year. It’s an instruments shop. He finds the finest instruments in India and ships them over to his French shop. He took care of shipping my packages to France and Austria – with a little commission of course, but he argued that it would save me the hassle of the post-office and I believed him. So, Nawal had advised me to leave half-an-hour earlier because the whole Kumbh Mela crowd was now coming to Varanasi and the whole city would just be a big traffic jam. On my way back to the hotel that morning I had indeed found it trickier than usual to make my way through the picturesque maze of narrow streets, and that was without my backpacks, without my guitar and without having to make it in time for anything. The lines of pilgrims advancing in a single tight line, sometimes with a hand on the previous person’s shoulder, had suddenly gotten endless.
I hug Julia tight and leave shortly after 15:30. It takes me longer than expected to get to the chowk. I have to change routes once at the sight of the crowd in a congested street. Better this wa, I think to myself – at least until I get to the old town’s gate. A mass of people is trying to get in and out at the same time, and, of course, the guards are completely inefficient at regulating anything. A western guy on a motorcycle, who amazingly enough made it through the gate with his vehicle offers me a ride, but he is going to a different train station, the main one, when mine is 18 km away. I have to get to Magadin, a square from which I can take an “auto” (short for “autorickshaw”). An auto is a three-wheeled vehicle that can fit from one to twelve people, depending on how you load it, the maximum authorised being four. You’ll often see autos filled with up to 7 people or more though.
Magadin is about two kilometres away. The whole time I am walking along an endless queue of devotees waiting their turn to go into the Golden Temple in the heart of the old city, with security check at the gate. The queue I am more or less following doesn’t end upon reaching Gate 4, it is joined by another queue coming from another direction. They just merge at the gate. A queue, in India, means a continuity of bodies, with no space between them. Only when I get to the main road does the queue seemingly dissolve into a normal busy Indian street. But even then, I am not sure it’s actually the end of it. At the precise moment I am walking by, I see some men and women -the latter holding up their colourful sarees to free their feet- running around the corner to catch the end of the queue.
Apparently, as a foreigner, I am some sort of VIP for the auto driver. He didn’t take anyone else in, although he normally would have. Around me was is festival of honking. The driver stops once to drink some water, and once to have what I called to myself a “leaf sandwich with toothpaste”. I was to try it myself, only much later in my journey. The little leaf sandwich, also known as pan, accounts for all the bloody-like spitting to be seen all over the streets in India, for the red teeth and tongue of people, for the constant chewing and for people talking to you in a strange way, as if they had some liquid in their mouth – they actually do, because of the little leaf sandwich. It also accounts, in my opinion, for one of India’s characteristic smells. Because yes, India has a smell, a smell on a country scale. India smells of betel leaf and betel nuts – that’s what pan is made of. Betel nut and spices, with marmalade and even candied fruit for the sweet version, rolled in a betel leaf. Pan. The toothpaste part is limestone and supposedly gives you a hard-core mouth cancer.
But all of this, I was to learn only much later and it took a few more weeks until I could try it for myself. For now, from the back seat of my auto, I am only watching, bemused and fascinated, as the auto driver orders and then starts chewing a weird little leaf sandwich with toothpaste.
Once we are out of the city, the rest of the drive turns out to be a refreshing and smooth – except for the occasional big holes in the road. It didn’t take that long at all, in the end. I arrive at the train station… three hours early.