There was not a single seat available in any of the many trains heading from Delhi to Vrindavan.
"You take bus, Madame. No problem," said the chubby, bald, travel agent/internet manager with the red and gold swatch of gulal between his bushy, salt and pepper eyebrows.
"How long does it take by bus," I asked.
"No. Not long. Best way. Go to Kashmiri Gate. To Ayesbeety. (I.S.B.T - Indian State Bus Terminal). Get bus to Mathura."
I left my guesthouse at Pahar Ganj at 10a.m. Hopped a rickshaw to Kashmiri Gate I.S.B.T., only to find there were no buses there going to Mathura.
"You must go to SarayKalikan for bus to Mathura," one saried lady who looked remarkably like a poor Indira Gandhi, told me.
"Come," she said, "Follow me across the pedestrian bridge."
On the other side of the road, she showed me to a city bus which she explained would be much cheaper than a rickshaw.
A half hour later, I was at Saray Kalikan.
As I started down the lane that led to a hub of buses, I heard a bus hawker yell: "MathuraAgraMathuraAgraMathuraAgra!" as if it were one long word, and realized that this bus for Agra made a stop at Mathura.
So, I grabbed the two rails on either side of the incredibly steep entry steps, and hauled myself up and in. Taking an aisle seat on the right side of the bus, I gingerly lowered myself down and next to the young man seated in the middle seat. Even for a tiny person like me, seated next to two small-framed, young Indian men, meant a ride in which my right thing was pressed against the left thigh of the gold-earringed man next to me; my right shoulder and upper arm in constant contact with his left. The window on our side was broken and unable to open. The temperature in the bus was about that of a Swiss sauna.
When we were half an hour from Mathura, the bus pulled into a dusty roadside eatery, everyone got out, ate thalis, and finaly returned to the bus. I had left my guesthouse in Delhi at 10am. I arrived in Mathura, more than somewhat disgruntled, at 4pm, and then had to grab a jam-packed tempo from Mathura to Vrindavan .
What a ridiculous way to spend a day, I thought to myself. I metaphorically clicked my tongue at my foolishness at spending one of my last few days in India riding on a hot sweaty bus. And considering how long it took, I inwardly seethed with frustration, knowing that I'd have to repeat the process the very next day. How bloody stupid, I thought.
Then, to put the cherry on the top of the melting sundae, I discovered that because it was the Hindu holiday of Navratri, there were no rooms at the proverbial inn. I sprinted from one ashram to the next, hot, dusty, sweaty and tired, each time receiving the same reply: "Sorry Mam. No room. All full."
But thanks to my former Rishikesh guesthousemate - a long-time Indian traveler from the UK, I had an ace up my sari.
"It ain't pretty. But it's cheap and safe," he told me. "It'll do in a pinch. If all else fails. The manager - a big bloke - 'll sleep outside your room and snore like a chimney. But mind the monkeys. Don't even think a going out a yur room with any food. And don't wear any kind a glasses. Those cheeky monkey's 're notorious fer stealin the glasses right off your face and ransomin them for food. And not just any food. They'll hold out for somethin special,they will."
So down a side street I hustled, and sure enough the "big bloke" showed me the room right behind where he sleeps on a cot outside. Not exactly a celebration of the senses, but maybe not the very worst room I've ever stayed in India. (pretty close to the end of the spectrum of low expectations, though). But for 200 ruppees (less than the equivalent of $3.75) it was perfectly manageable.
Room settled, I rushed down the main road to where I saw a sign for a travel agent as I was coming into town.
It turned out that there was a seat available at 7am from Mathura to Delhi the day after the following day. Yes! I could spend all day tomorrow and then just a ride of only three hours on a vehicle with a toilet and roaming food and drink vendors the following day. Things were looking up.
"First just go across the street to ISKON," my friendly travel agent told me. "Everyone should visit there. Then tomorrow you must go to the most important temple in Vrindavan, Banke Bihere. It's where the famous black Krishan is. And there's a Durga temple where many Navratri celebrations are taking place. By the way, are you on Facebook?"
* * *
ISKON stands for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. And these people know how to throw a good worship.
As I approached the main hall, I could hear the drums and tambourines, finger cymbols, harmonium and one beautiful voice leading the faithful in rounds of: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.
I'd expected shaven-headed devotees wrapped in saffron sheets. What I hadn't expected was to be greeted by an official greeter, whose first act was to invite me to dance.
Yes sir! My kind of temple. My kind of prayer.
And so within my first minute inside Balaram Temple, I was twirling ecstatically, waving my arms in the air, and chanting "Hare Krishna."
Then I felt a tap on my left arm. I turned to see a small, gray-haired Indian lady in an autumn-leaf motif sari, who smiled into my eyes and indicated she wanted to dance with me. Another woman joined us and as the music grew in tempo and intensity, more and more women joined the group, as well as children and men.
"Hare Krishna" was sung in ways I could never have imagined. A devotee with a voice somewhere between an Aaron Neville warble and an Ella Fitzgerald scat, sang soulful variations on the them of the old standard. "Hare Krishna" morphed into a spiritual opus and the crowd went wild. Faster and faster. More and more frenzied. Everyone clapping chanting dancing spinning. Men women children. The only thing to be concerned about was stepping on one of the prostrate bodies on the floor.
And I was so glad, so unbelievably glad I had traveled those hot, sweaty hours in that unairconditioned bus, plastered against the passenger to my right, on a 100 degree day.
* * *
Smiling ear to ear, looking into other radiant, smiling eyes, dancing together, singing together, celebrating life, it was a great way to end my two and a half months in India.