Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered in Varanasi!

Arriving in Varanasi, the spiritual heart of India was the realisation of a long standing travel dream for us. More than anywhere else in India, Varanasi had fascinated us, maybe even scared us a little. We had read that few people visited the holy city by the Ganges without falling ill. We had heard about the proximity to death, the funeral pyres, the floating bodies and also the constant hassle from touts and beggars. We had also heard about the beauty amidst the squalor - the river ceremonies, vibrant colours, the faithful pilgrims and floating candles. We decided that if we could survive Varanasi, both physically and emotionally, we could survive anywhere.

We had crossed the Nepalese-Indian border early in the morning. From the border, we took a bone-shaking, ten hour journey on a dilapidated bus in searing heat. We travelled at breakneck speeds and had one breakdown, when the passengers had to disembark and push the bus! We were eventually delivered at the sprawling Varanasi bus station around mid-afternoon. We were shattered.

We were approached by the well-spoken driver of a rather snazzy tuk tuk, which stood out from the others. It even had a regal sounding name in gold lettering across the front window, 'Princess of the Road', or something similar. We jumped in the back, and off we went anticipating the air-conditioned comfort of our pre-booked guest house by the Ganges. The temperature was one hundred and fourteen degrees, and we were already regretting our decision to travel in the extreme pre-monsoon heat!

Our driver proceeded to tell us about how the hotels by the Ganges use polluted river water in their tanks. Apparently, an Australian woman had taken a shower and accidentally swallowed some water. Her body became bloated beyond recognition. She was taken to hospital, but sadly died. Was this a true story or was it a ploy by the driver to take us to a hotel that happened not to be by the river and from which he would perhaps receive commission?!

Suddenly, we came to a halt on a quiet side street. The driver produced a folder, within which were page after page of recommendations for his tours. Having talked our way out of two days worth of tuk tuk touring, we were driven a little further and unceremoniously dumped. The driver told us that we would have to walk the rest of the way as the lanes were too narrow to drive through. He pointed vaguely in an indeterminate direction and drove off!


Despite not having a clue where we were, we wandered down an alleyway in the intense heat, grateful that neither of us were carrying full size backpacks. The lanes were full of activity and the tiny shops sold everything from mobile phones to bindis. Asking several shopkeepers "Which way to the Ganges?" resulted in blank stares or shrugs. "Ganga", we tried, knowing that we couldn't be more than a short walk from the revered river, but having no idea which direction that might be. We were hopelessly lost in the bewildering labyrinth.

We came to a clearing in the lanes, where we decided to take a bicycle rickshaw. Surely, a rickshaw driver would know where the Ganges was. Apparently not. After a five minutes of riding round in circles, we realised he clearly didn't understand where we wanted to go. A few words were exchanged - he had a surprisingly cocky attitude for someone who didn't know where he was going, and we jumped out and started walking again. We were no closer to the evasive Ganges than when we had arrived! If ever we needed help from Ganesh, the Hindu god and remover of obstacles, today was the day!

By now, we were dehydrated and exhausted. We went into a shop to buy some water. As we stood in despair, we spotted a group of men carrying a dead body. The body was draped in an ornate cover and the men chanted as they made their way through the chaotic street. If we followed the body, surely it would lead us to the river where it would be cremated! We would then be able to locate our guesthouse!


We followed the chanting mourners. Considering that they were carrying a body, they were moving swiftly. We were forced to run, our packs as small as they were, weighing us down and perspiration pouring from us. The alleyways became more intense. There were intriguing glimpses into ancient buildings and strange temples. Sadhus, beggars, pilgrims and cows wandered through the maze of lanes. A myriad of smells wafted through the thick air, incense, sewage, spices and garbage. At last, through the gaps in the buildings, we could see the River Ganges!

We arrived at the burning ghat, steps leading down to the river and the area in which cremations take place. "No photos!" shouted a man, standing by the entrance. The last thing in the world that either of us wanted to do was to take a photograph! In fact, out of respect, we would never consider taking a picture of a funeral pyre anyway. "We don't want a photo" I explained, "All we want to do is find our guest house!" When we mentioned the name of the guest house, the man said he would take us, so we followed him down to the river. He told us he was a Brahmin, a priest belonging to the highest caste. By now, the sun had gone down and glowing candles were drifting across the river, offerings to Mother Ganga.

It was with great relief that two minutes later, we arrived at our guest house. We gave the priest two hundred rupees, which we considered quite generous. He expressed discontent and demanded five hundred rupees. His shouts were ringing in our ears as we walked up the steep steps to our home for the next few of nights. Never had we been so pleased to be given the key to a room, and were especially grateful that we had booked an air-conditioned one! 

Our first few hours in Varanasi had been exasperating, but exhilarating and we had survived!  A good night's sleep by the Ganges was all we needed and tomorrow we would be ready to take on another day in Varanasi.