The 6th of March didn't get off to the best of starts. I had a lie in, knowing that I had a 24 hour train ride from Jalgaon, not far from Mumbai, to Varanasi ahead of me, followed by a five hour journey from there to Gaya, in the state of Bihar. Instead of awaking refreshed I felt even worse than I normally do of a morning. I went to withdraw some cash from an ATM and stupidly left my card in the machine; fortunately the guard sent someone running after me, and I got it back. As my train pulled out of the station at half past one, I realised that I'd left the lock I use to padlock my bag on the train in the hotel room, and I wondered what more was to come.
I was a little apprehensive about the journey, as I'd been assigned a lower berth rather than my favourite upper berth, where I can hide away out of reach. As far as I know, I was the Westerner on the train. In my compartment were five Indian men who were also travelling to Varanasi, and didn't have a word of English between them. One of them I soon began to think of as Starey, as he hardly took his eyes off me. Train journeys can be boring (to those who aren't glued to the scenery), and I always seem to be fidgeting with something or another. I felt it understandable that I was watched while I thumbed through my guide book (which was then studied in detail by each of the men), or took pictures out of the window, but Starey took things too far.
The trains here seem to spend as much time stopped as moving, but the stops at stations are interesting, with much to observe of life on the platform. One station was rather curious; it was a shiny new looking platform that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, not a house in sight - no one got on or off, except the chai-wallahs to fill their kettles with water. A man in a nearby berth spoke English, and cautioned me not to accept food or drink from strangers (after I'd already accepted an orange and a cup of chai from the men sat around me). He said I should even be careful with the chai-wallahs, and only take a drink if I had seen it poured and was sure nothing had been put in it; it was a reminder that I was returning to the north of India after the more relaxed south.
Evening came, and we all settled into our respective berths. As usual I had trouble getting to sleep, kept awake by the noise of people getting on and off the train, turning lights on, and so on. I went to the loo, and afterwards stood at the sink in the corridor washing my hands. A uniformed man - policeman or soldier - went in to one of the toilets, and after a minute opened the door but remained inside. I was vaguely aware of this, and glanced in his direction, being careful not to make eye contact. It took me a moment before I realised what he was doing; he was having a wank in my general direction. He was pretty flaccid, so I couldn't even take it as a compliment! I returned to my bunk, and soon realised that he was in the lengthways berth of the next group of bunks, sat at the side, looking at me. I have to admit that this concerned me somewhat. I have the feeling that in India few people would step in to help if anything untoward were to happen, and even less of those would lend a hand if the perpetrator were an official.
I hung one of my many sarongs (I have seven with me at the moment - just don't ask!) at the end of the berth obscuring my view, and crossed my fingers as I settled down. Starey was in the top bunk opposite me, leaning over so he could - predictably - stare at me. I managed to squish myself as far back as I could, so he couldn't see me without risking falling out, and after a while he gave up looking and went to sleep. I managed to doze off for a while before the train pulling away from the station awoke me. Unfortunately it woke Starey up too. He climbed down and sat on the lengthways berth watching me, as my sarong-curtain had fallen down. I put it back up, and after a while he sat on the end of my berth. This I was not having, so kicked him off, literally. He then sat on the lower berth opposite mine, so he could get a better view.
Whilst on the whole I have a handle on the staring thing, and try my best not to notice it, I found it a bit threatening in the enclosed space of the train carriage. Getting increasingly frustrated - and wide awake - I tried to dissuade him from looking gesticulating in a manner that traverses the language barrier, but to no avail. I made an imaginary phone call to my imaginary husband, who was meeting me off the train, telling him that a man had been bothering me, and that he would have to thump him when we got to Varanasi. Of course as the man had no English this was pretty pointless. It didn't make me feel better, I just felt a bit of a tit, but I was running out of options. With him sat there I wasn't going to lie back down, so I just kept going on at him to leave me alone and go back to his berth, until eventually the man whose bed he was sat on - who had been awake the whole time - got bored with me whittering on, and told him to go back to bed.
I lay back down, but couldn't sleep, and before long the dawn chorus of chai-wallahs had begun, each trying to out-shout the others. Strangely, once everyone was getting up and active, I did manage to drop off, and got a couple of hours sleep, eventually getting up at nine. During the night we had moved into the north of the country, where the towns we passed were dustier, and the landscape more parched. I saw camels and colourful birds and some colour inside the train too when a strangely dressed saddhu with ash smeared on his face came past begging, agreeing to pose for a photo for ten rupees (though he subsequently attempted to get another hundred - fruitlessly).
We were running a couple of hours late, but I had a four hour gap between trains so wasn't unduly worried about missing the next one. We got into Varanasi Junction, AKA Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station, around three, and I alighted onto platform five discovering the station to be a particularly dirty, fly-blown place. I crossed over to platform one to find out how delayed my next train would be, and what platform it would come in on. The waiting hall was in the entrance to the station, a large room with some seating, and many more people sitting or lying on the ground. I found the information booth and - this being the north - joined the scrum fighting to be served. I got shoved hard my one man trying to push in, but elbowed him out of the way. As I was asking about the train - which was "at least two hours late" - I felt an impact from behind, someone punching my pack, or barging hard into it. Once I'd finished, I turned to deal with the miscreant, finding a man smirking behind me. To be honest I don't think it was him that had pushed me, but I was pretty frazzled by now and needed to unleash, so got in his face, shouting at him. He continued smirking, so I shoved him hard before stomping off.
I asked at the information booth if there was a restaurant, as I'd eaten hardly anything since breakfast the previous day. I was told it was on the platform I'd just come from, so traipsed back over to platform five. It didn't look hopeful when I found the sparse canteen, where I discovered that the only options were bread and butter, or veg cutlet. I'd been sick the last time I'd eaten a railway veg cutlet, so was reluctant to repeat the experience, and bread and butter wasn't going to fill the gap. Tiredness and hunger were getting the better of me by now, so I pulled a chair into the corner and sat facing the wall for a bit of a cry. Once I pulled myself together I went to the ladies waiting room on the same platform, as I couldn't face returning to the main entrance. I had a wash, brushed and re-plaited my hair, then bought and ate some fruit and felt better than I had done all day.
An announcement informed me that my train was an extra hour late, not due in until gone seven, so I settled down to wait in the room where there were almost as many men as women - so much for the ladies only sign. At approximately 1815 hours there was a loud bang, which rattled the windows of the waiting room. My immediate thought was that it had been a bomb, but the Indian woman next to me laughed and assured me that it had only been thunder. Not convinced, I went onto the platform, but there I found nothing more than the usual chaos of an Indian railway station; nobody seemed unduly worried.
Some time later I was joined by a Belgian mother and daughter, who were catching the same train as me. The daughter went to check on the time of the train, crossing the overpass to platform one. She returned several minutes later, looking very pale. She told me that she had asked a uniformed official where to find out about the train times, and he had directed her to the information board in the main waiting area in platform one. The area was crowded with people and she made her way to the front, where she was confronted with a scene of destruction. She saw blood on the floor, and victims receiving medical care. On asking, she was told that a bomb had exploded, and that many people had died.
The pair were concerned about a male Japanese tourist, who had left his bags in the men's waiting room before the blast and not been seen since. We informed the railway police, and a while later the bags were removed; we do not know whether the Japanese man was caught up in the blast. At no time were we officially informed of the explosion, and no announcement made in English, although I can not say whether one was made in Hindi. I contacted my parents to let them know I was unharmed, and they texted me back the information reported by the BBC. Two bombs had gone off, one in the station and another at a temple in this holiest of Hindu towns. A third bomb had been defused by police. We wondered whether we were safe where we were, so I found a policeman who had a little English, and asked if the station would be evacuated, or what we should do. He said to stay where we were. There was little sign of what had happened; everything continued as normal - trains arriving and leaving, passengers getting off and on, seeming oblivious to what had happened so close by.
I later surveyed the damage from the balcony surrounding the waiting area, and was surprised to see that the scene was not cordoned off. Police and bystanders were milling around the hall, walking close to the still-wet blood. A crater approximately two foot in diameter and one foot deep had been surrounded by a circle of bricks, and appeared to be the spot where the bomb had gone off. All the windows overlooking the large room had been blown out, and the floor was littered with broken glass. Several pools of blood lay on the floor, with personal possessions scattered around. Advertising boards were hanging off the wall. It was shocking that something so tragic happened so near. I was not just in the same town as the bomb blast, I was at the very station where it happened. It certainly put my bad day into perspective. Of course I took a few pictures - you know me - and thought that I'd send them to the BBC in the morning.
My connecting train, that was meant to arrive at 1625, eventually turned up just after eleven, and myself and the Belgians got on. We were on the same carriage, but at different ends. I was very glad to have been around fellow foreigners during the preceding events. The train was travelling through Bihar, India's most troubled and dangerous state; it was in this state that my destination of Bodh Gaya lay. I stretched out on my upper berth, three armed soldiers that were on board to protect the train sitting on the bench below me. The soldiers were also getting off at Gaya, the station 13km away from Bodh Gaya, where the Lord Buddha gained enlightenment, so they were able to wake me from my fitful sleep in good time to get off.
The surrounding area is bandit country and it is not safe to travel the roads at night, so I was quite pleased that the train managed to lose a further two hours during the journey, and deposit me at the station just as the sun was coming up. An Australian girl approached me at the station; she'd arrived on a different train at four thirty, and had been waiting for daylight and a white face before venturing out of the station. We crossed to the exit, where we were pounced on by numerous rickshaw touts, and realised that we were not quite ready to face the world. Instead we scuttled back to the relative safety of the platform for a couple of cups of chai, and to steel ourselves for the battle ahead.
Feeling more prepared we again left the station, and were surrounded by the full-on touts intent on parting us from way more than the going rate for the journey. Although it was now the eighth of March, not having had a night's sleep or a proper meal since the sixth, it felt to me that it was the same day - and what a day it had been! I was determined not to take any shit from anyone, and countered the touts aggressive approach with my own. The two of us ganged up with a Japanese man, and managed to find a rickshaw-wallah who'd charge us only twice the correct fare. As we set off I saw that the driver had a lathi, a large bamboo stick that the police are found of using on scoundrels and demonstrators. I had visions of us being beaten and robbed, but fortunately that was not what the stick was for. The driver took advantage of a traffic jam to hop out of the vehicle for a cup of chai - and I do mean hop; his right leg was withered, and the stick was to support himself.
We continued though the chaotic town and into the countryside, which got increasingly peaceful as we approached Bodh Gaya. There each Buddhist nation has a temple, and a distant relative of the bodhi tree that the Buddha sat under while he meditated his way to enlightenment remains. The Australian and I had formed a tentative plan on the station, and headed to the Bhutanese Monastery, which has lodgings. The temple was beautiful and peaceful, but the clouds of mosquitoes were so thick you could hardly see through them, so we abandoned that idea and came instead to a guesthouse, which was grotty, but had a super-friendly and helpful manager...and considerable smaller swarms of mosquitoes.
I was shattered, but figured I'd sort out the photos for the BBC before hitting the hay. Then I came to the conclusion that if I was going to send them off, I should do it straight away - after all news isn't news once it's old, is it? I wrote a brief report, prepared the pictures and headed to an Internet cafe. Checking the news site I saw that some photos and eye-witness accounts were already on the site, so I thought it would be unlikely that they'd use mine. I was wrong. I'd just returned to my room ready for a long overdue sleep when my mobile phone rang. It was the BBC asking if I had any more photos, as they wanted to use them and my report. I sorted a few more pictures and headed back to the Internet cafe. Once I'd emailed, the BBC phoned again, asking if I'd mind if they passed my number on to the World Service who wanted me to speak on a radio special about India. Things were getting more surreal by the minute!
The World Service called a short time later, confirming that they wanted to talk to me on a show that went out at 1800 GMT - 2330 my time - if I wouldn't mind speaking to them so late. Well, it would have been churlish to refuse my five minutes of fame, so I agreed. The adrenaline kicked in again, so I came back to my room and rehearsed what I would say, in an attempt not to come across as a total fool. Assisted by a bottle of Thumb's Up cola, I managed to keep my bleary, bloodshot eyes open until the phone call came, thankful that it was only radio. Once my mobile rang my hands were sweating and shaking so much it was all I could do not to drop the phone. I thought I'd got myself under control as I waited to go on air - until I spoke. I sounded like Larry the Lamb, my voice was so wobbly with nerves - still, at least it was only going out to a world-wide audience!
It won't surprise you to hear that I'd prepared a longer speech than they had time for, but I wasn't sorry my ordeal was cut short. The caffeine still racing through my veins, I decided to sit up and write this, so here I am at three o'clock in the morning of the 9th, reflecting on the bizarre happenings of this, the longest day. I hope you'll forgive me if I've lapsed into gibberish along the way. I think I'm ready to surrender to sleep at last - who knows how long it will claim me for. I'm sure I will awake feeling that I've had the strangest dream.
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