With Bodhgaya and seven hours on the slowest train in the world behind us we arrived in Varanasi. Angelo and Corrado practically had butts shaped like wooden panels thanks to the fact that they spent the whole time sitting on the upper baggage racks. Marni and I on the other hand spent half an hour insisting to the onboard police that we didn’t mind sharing our seats, and that no, you don’t have to beat that poor old man so we can have a seat each. Indian hospitality is flattering and disgusting at the same time.
Unfortunately, when it comes to guesthouses in India, you’re at the mercy of the rickshaw driver. It doesn’t matter how many phone calls you make, reservation slips you flash in his face, or times you insist that you know which hotel you want to go to, if he has an opportunity to make a quick-commission-buck by taking you to his friend’s hotel – he will. Fortunately for us, we learnt this early on, and stopped making bookings altogether. At the end of the day, so long as we agreed on the price for the accommodation and the area, it didn’t really matter where we stayed. So, as suspected, we were whisked off to “the best guesthouse in Varanasi.”
I love Varanasi. It has to be one of the most frustrating, and intolerable places on Earth thanks to the overwhelming tourist trade and infinite Indian crowds. But, my god is it fascinating! Due to the fact it is arguably the most important pilgrimage site for Hindus, there are literally people from all walks of Indian life there at all times – kinda like a mini Indian microcosm. Take a stroll along the ghats and you’ll come across Rajasthanis in colourful turbans, dark-skinned Southerners, and the relaxed locals taking their daily dip in the sacred soup. There’ll be a meditating sadhu next to a meditating Scandinavian. A rich woman bathing next to a poor woman. A man washing his clothes, another washing fancy hotel sheets.
We woke before sunrise one morning to go on the boat ride along the Ganges. This is the only time when India is peaceful. Small shadows on the ground stretched out and folded up blankets as we walked by. Groups of people huddled under blankets and around the blaze of a chaiwallah’s fire, clutching the small terracotta cups of spiced, sweet tea. We start our quiet journey being swept along with the swift current until we come to the place that many others finish their journeys – the burning ghat. The fires burn all night long, and the black smoke twists along the side of the river. We move slowly past bathers, and fishermen, and small lit candles. Life is moving towards the river and out of the cracks of the buildings as more and more pilgrims come down to bathe. It is fascinating to watch this movement of life and death and purity and worship.
But the peaceful serenity is short lived, as always. A white face in Varanasi means endless touting, and coaxing towards silk shops and other guesthouses. I spent an afternoon sitting in a small park along the river. I needed to write in my journal, and I watched a bunch of young kids playing cricket. It was only a matter of time before I was approached by someone. The first was a young boy who insisted I should come and stay at his fathers guesthouse – literally next to where I was sitting. The next was a young girl and her brothers who lived a few houses down. She giggled and laughed at my funny attempts to speak Hindi, and then collapsed into histerics when she saw my reaction to her shoving her two six-fingered hands in my face. She literally had two small thumbs growing out of the side of her thumbs. The next were two young boys – barely a day over eight and 10 who insisted on telling me that they knew an American prostitute, and that they always sleep with the girls in their class. I had to laugh at the ridiculousness of this statement, but soon scolded him when he proclaimed that when he has a wife he will pimp her out to make money. This is how sick a society is when small children are talking about these things. I had to leave, because if not, I would have thrown him off the side of the wall.
We switched guesthouses (I was approached by another person on my way back), and stayed in Varanasi a total of 10 days. Angelo had organised some sitar lessons – with a baba no less – and I was keen to try out some yoga. I’ve never done yoga before, and was hoping to do a course of some sort in India, but the Western yoga trade is incredibly daunting, and it’s hard to know which schools are worth your time and money. I settled for a few sunrise lessons on the rooftop. This was definitely not Western yoga. The teacher instructed us to bring tissues to class, as between the stretching and downward-facing-dog-ing we would do other yoga stuff – like clearing our throats of phlegm, and our noses of snot with loud bursts of air and subsequent animal noises. I followed up my morning yoga with a breakfast of sugar cane juice, and bananas and raisins in curd. Then I met the others for a second breakfast of masala dosa. I don’t think I’ll ever be a yogi.
Then came Diwali: that all spectacular festival of lights. You know, spectacular when you see it on TV. We had to experience it in the small narrow alleyways of Varanasi. And it wasn’t all pretty lights and grand explotions, oh no, it was small children throwing tiny bombs directly in front of you as you shuffled through a metre wide space, with buildings along all sides. Reverberation comes to mind. So does wanting to punch a kid…
Our guesthouse had gone all out for the festivities and spent god knows how much (or worse, how little) on crappy explosives to let rip on the roof. It quickly turned into a mass of people jumping around the lit sparks on the ground in an attempt to not burn themselves for fun. We watched for a while, but on an account of not wanting to lose an ear of my sense of hearing I retired to a safer part of the guesthouse. I did have to wonder how many children (and animals actually) must get hurt every year.
A trip to Varanasi is not complete without visiting the burning ghats. I took off to check out this mental place through the winding alleyways of the old city. It is a surreal thing to see, and a place I’ll never forget. Especially since afterwards I got stuck in a narrow street with a stressed out, large-horned cow, then even later on, caught in front of a stampede of monkeys. Holy cow. And then there’s the monkey temple – as if the first encounter wasn’t scary enough…
It was time to leave Varanasi and escape to a part of the country where the Ganges is still relatively clean. Well, even if it’s not clean, it’s at least blue. Rishakesh, you’re up next.