Thursday, 19 February. 

The wee hours. Waiting for the very delayed night train to Varanasi. Staying awake. I watched the barefooted boys hose down the platform and squeegee it “clean” only to have a puppy do its business in their wake, immediately afterwards. I later was able to point it out in time to a guy who was running down the platform to jump onto a moving train. 
I bought some 15Rs water. The shop keeper said he couldn’t give me change for a 20, so he gave me 5 little chocolate candies as my change. J said they tasted like tootsie rolls. I wasn’t interested in eating, yet. 
What would have been a night train turned into more of a day train, but we still slept most of the way to Varanasi. We were lucky enough to be in the same section, and with 1 lower bunk and the upper one just above it. Awkward to get in and out of the top bunk, so I just stayed put most of the time. 
Nicer train than the first (same layout, but a bit cleaner, and better windows). When I finally woke up, I hung out with some Germans and the Indian saree business man also heading to Varanasi, who were also in our section. 
Outside, trash everywhere. Pockets of rural houses next to the tracks. What I think were cow patties drying in elaborate stacks. Green fields. Rusty bicycles.

The train should have arrived in Varanasi at noon. We got there after 7:30pm (including an hour long standstill less than a mile from the station). Would the driver from the homestay be there to meet us?
Finally, Varanasi!  Stepping off our (slightly) air conditioned coach and into the night. Swarms of people everywhere. Colorful sarees. Nobody holding any placards… Then a man hurrying up to our coach and waving a saffron colored piece of paper. “Homestay?” He asked. The paper had my name on it. Yes!
He took J’s bag and led us quickly through the crowds. We’re moving faster than yesterday, but still not 100%. Not quite so fast, please? Up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs, out of the station, and to a nice little Toyota mini van. Honking our way through town (“to clear the road”), and to the homestay. We like the looks of Varanasi already. A mix of old and new. Enclosed stores and Bollywood movie theaters and banks. Tiny shops and carts of fruits and roadside stands selling lots of things. Cows. Dogs. People everywhere. Feels like a “normal” town. A nice change from Agra. 
Weaving through some alleys, we arrived at the homestay and our host welcomed us. “You are under no obligation of course, but if you would like to join us for dinner?” We looked at each other. Company sounds nice, and food doesn’t sound horrible, anymore… Sure!
And it was lovely. Mild by Indian standards, but super tasty food and great company. We heard a bit about what the other guests had seen and done, and what they were planning for the next day. 

Friday, 20 February. 
After discussing options and logistics, I decided to join a couple of other guests on a walking tour while J stayed closer to home and worked out travel plans for the rest of her trip. 
The tour was great. Down and back up flights of stairs to the riverbank. Through tiny alleys. This is the south India part of town. This is the Muslim area. Here is the cremation ghat. No pictures allowed, but some vivid images in my mind. Bamboo ladders taken down and used as stretchers. The dead are wrapped in white. Some will be adorned with decorations, but the one I saw was just in white. Back down to the riverbank, where we saw wood fires burning. A family sitting nearby. Nothing happening, yet? And then I saw the feet. 
Back up, past the goats playing on the steps, and through other parts of town. Chai at a little cafe, where a French(?) guy at the table next to us looks JUST like a friend of mine in New Mexico. I pulled up a picture of my friend and showed it to my walking buddies. Then showed the guy, who agreed. “It’s me!” 
Late lunch at a little restaurant tucked behind some clothing stalls. Lasses out of clay cups at a streetside stand.

Slather on the insect repellent before the evening ceremony along the Ganges. Watch our guide play cricket along the bank with some kids, while we wait. Past the cows, we find our seats on some carpeted platforms. The Mosquitos are brutal. Huge, and dive-bombing is despite my permethrin treated clothes and 100% DEET. The ceremony might have been nice, but I’m distracted by the bugs. And by the beautiful, tiny old lady sitting next to me, helping ring the bells for the ceremony. I asked if I could take her picture, and when she said yes, used the front-facing camera on my phone so she could see. 

Back to the homestay for dinner and meeting back up with J. A good day! 

Saturday, 21 February. 
Sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. A few Mosquitos but nothing like the night before. Beautiful morning. Boys doing yoga on bright mats. People feeding birds from a boat. More cremation fires. People bathing in the river. Women washing clothes. Old man swishing around in the water and then folding himself into a yoga position on the bank.

Back to the homestay to shower and pack up. I rode with J to her next place, had lunch there, and then headed to the airport for my trip home. Plane only delayed an hour or two. No big deal, as I had given myself a 6 hour connection in Delhi. 

Goodbye, India! Hope to see you again, soon!