Even by Indian standards, Varanasi is a crazy place. I feel I’ve already acclimatised to the ‘million and one sights / sounds / smells hitting you simultaneously in the face’ effect of India, but Varanasi turns up the insanity volume a couple more notches and seems to be the place where the weird, wonderful and terrible combine in a fascinating melting-pot of contradictions, culture, faith, characters and…. cows. These beasts really rule the streets here. They create their own bovine-road-block system, holding back queues of traffic or pedestrians as they casually investigate the contents of an abandoned plastic food bag or lift their tail to leave a steaming offering in the middle of the street. Walking in Varanasi requires attention to pavement level to avoid the unpleasant ‘shit in your sandals’ scenario.
I had my most insane rickshaw ride in India so far from the airport. It started off relatively calmly but as the ceaseless stream of traffic got funnelled further and further into the narrow streets of the old town, the driver started zig-zagging at high speed between bicycles, tourists, cattle, dogs and old men pushing huge carts. Eventually we got to a point where we could only continue on foot (thank goodness I left my big backpack in Delhi). As I tried to keep up with the walking pace of driver as he took shortcuts through a maze of market streets I wondered if I’d ever find my way out again. Luckily I got the hang of things and my travel buddy from Pushkar, Michael (who had arrived a couple of days before me) was there to help me navigate my way around town. I was staying in the ‘Monu Family Paying Guesthouse’, a basic place that would have bordered on the grim if it wasn’t for the friendly family welcome and the multi-coloured paint job that they’d given it.
On my first evening we walked out to the ghats – bathing areas which allow access to the sacred Ganges river. I wasn’t tempted to join the Hindus in their ‘cleansing’ ritual, especially the man that was happily swimming between the boats. Given the amount of sewage, rotting corpses and rubbish that the river contains I’m not sure it was a good idea but I guess if it’s your ticket to Nirvana you overlook these details. Above water level things where pretty beautiful though and we watched the daily ritual that takes place, involving incense waving, music and candles.
The next morning we were out on the river by 5.30am to watch the sunrise from a leaky rowing boat. The local kids were shrewd negotiators, but I eventually settled on a price for a floating flower / candle offering which I put in the water and watched float away, hoping that it would bring me my promised 15 Rupees worth of luck and good karma. It was very serene out on the water (except for the excess of tourists and cameras) and the boat provided a great vantage point to spy on the morning bathing rituals at the ghats (which seemed to involve lots of soapy old men in baggy Y fronts, ducking beneath the surface and spitting out their special brown Ganges mouthwash).
We jumped off the boat early and took a walk back through the streets in search of caffeine and breakfast. There is a trend for ‘German Bakeries’ and ‘English Wine Shops’ in India, which seems like a strange choice, but the bakeries do provide a good selection of cakes, breads and croissants (roughly three times the weight and density of the French equivalent) and the local one gave us a mean breakfast of yoghurt, eggs, fruit and coffee. I’m yet to try the ‘English’ wine shop yet. I’m not sure if they serve ‘English’ or ‘Indian’ wine, but I can’t imagine either of these choices will win any prizes. We did find a liquor store that sold bottles of vodka though, which (when poured secretly under the table) livened up the lime sodas at dinnertime no-end. I was surprised to find that Varanasi isn’t a ‘dry’ town… so we took up the opportunity to have a pre-ashram blowout for the evening.
On the last day I went up to the ‘burning ghats’ for the curious experience of watching the cloth-wrapped corpses being washed in the river then placed onto funeral pyres and burned. It was fascinating, oddly voyeuristic but also comforting to see death being dealt with in an open and natural way. The houses that line the ghats are apparently full of the old and sick, waiting to die in the best possible place for the optimum post-death outcome.
Varanasi was a wonderful experience, full of weird and happy memories, but I’m starting to feel ready for an escape from the noise and chaos to the more tranquil north. Next week’s ashram visit will arrive just in time. First back to Delhi to pick up my luggage and catch the train to Haridwar.