Al came back announcing that he had found a place just down the street. As we approached the lunch stall, it looked like everything we had been told to avoid. Street food, very unsavory place, no semblance of hygiene. But we all looked at each other and found places to sit. Smashed samosas and dal on a small silver plate was placed in front of each of us. It smelled wonderful and was steaming hot. I muttered a short prayer for all of us, “May our first meal in India stay put until we reach Gorakhpur!” and we all dug in. The lady of the establishment then passed around little plastic disposable cups (I was feeling better already) and we soon had chai to wash down our meal.
We were all feeling quite good and when the cook motioned to us for seconds, we confidently agreed. That’s when we saw how the samosas got smashed. The cook grabbed several in his (probably filthy) hands and smooshed two at a time onto our plates. His assistant came by next with ladles of dal, which by now were not so steaming hot. Well, we had come this far; it made sense to finish what we had started. Everyone finished his or her food and we hopped back on the bus for the remainder of the trip to Gorakhpur.
It took a few more hours, but eventually we entered the dusty, congested, and certainly rough around the edges town of Gorakhpur. The town’s claim to fame it seemed was the train station, which apparently connected to all of the places in India, where Indians travel but not to any tourist destinations. Therefore, our mini bus with TOURIST splashed across the front of it, was quite the attraction. I am sure we were not the only tourists in town, but it certainly felt like it.
Al, in his very upbeat manner now updated us about our hotel. “Hi guys! Be prepared for the hotel to be just a notch below our accommodations of the last three nights. We are staying in the best hotel in town but it is very basic. No worries, cheers!
Here is how the advertising might read in the local newspaper: The Hotel Sunrise, conveniently located just across from the train station, offers balconied rooms with ensuites, room service from the rooftop café, and any number of eateries and shops within walking distance.
Here is the reality: Our bus stopped in front of a three flight walk up, grimy building, with several food stalls, and snack vendors lining the street below. After pulling our bags out of the back of the bus and dragging them through piles of garbage excrement and spit, we walked up two floors of narrow, black with dirt stairs past several Indians starring at us, a reception desk of sorts to a long doored hallway. Al appeared again all smiles, “Hi guys! Just trying to locate the hotel manager, won’t be a minute and we will all be squared away — no worries. Cheers!”
As the doors along the hallway were unlocked one by one, I think we all were hoping this was just a nightmare we were having on the bus and soon someone would pinch us and it would all disappear. But in fact we were really here and at some point each of us two by two were going to have to choose a door and pass through it. Reluctantly Marc and I took room 115 — with as advertised a balcony and an ensuite. Clearly some kind or sexual orgy had taken place in our selected room, on our bed, and someone had forgotten to alert housekeeping. The “facilities” were useable, but barely. The view of the train station from our balcony would have been a real plus if we were catching a train as we could hear the announcement of each train leaving the station quite clearly all night., only interrupted by the constant honking cars, motorbikes and trucks passing the hotel all night. Are we having fun yet?
Al appeared at our door all smiles, “everything ok here?” I replied as courteously as I could, “AOK as long as we get clean sheets.”
We all managed to get clean sheets, towels and bars of soap after a few smiles and pleases and thank you’s. None of us were quite sure what to do next. Everyone split up into small groups to take a walk through town and possibly try to find a place to eat dinner. Walking through town was extremely uncomfortable. All 16 of us were the freak show in town, and everyone wanted tickets to the show. After about an hour of that, we met up with a handful from our group who had found an eatery just below our hotel. The owners had segregated all of us to the very back of the restaurant to keep the spectacle at bay. Everyone was very happy to stare at us, but no one really wanted our business. Marc and I of course were still getting over lunch and were quite happy to observe the others eating while we sipped on a beer and nibbled on a bag of chips (Thank god for processed food when you can’t bare any of the real stuff!).
The younger members in our group had dug right in and gone completely local, throwing all cares to the wind. They were gleefully eating with their hands, and not giving a second thought to what it would be like to be sick all night in our beautiful ensuites back at the minus four star Hotel Sunrise. They had also discovered that there was a rooftop bar at the top of our hotel and as soon as they had licked the last piece of rise off their fingers, they were off to investigate.
Nothing like an Everest Beer (8 percent alcohol) to blur the world just enough to slip into our sleeping bags, and doze off without too much thought about the reality of the Sunrise Hotel, or the toilet we would have to face at some point. The honking of the horns and the loudspeaker from the train station were so loud and constant that it actually lulled us to sleep, and the night passed without incident (or any unscheduled trips to the toilet).
We are on the road now, nearing Varanasi, and I think we are all hoping that the promise of a good hotel with a pool and wifi for the next two nights is not a dream, but a reality. We are all in need of a shower and an experience that will remind us why we are in India!