The holy city and the poison river

This turned out to be one of those posts where I moan and complain about things..I promise the next one will be about natural beauty and the kindness of others! 🙂

Before leaving Khajuraho for Varanasi I had to pop by the ATM, and I was stalked the whole way from the hotel there and back by one very persistent shop owner. We had seen him earlier in the day near the hotel, complaining to us that no-one wanted to look in his shop. I like shopping as much as the next guy at the best of times (it’s right between “being stuck in traffic” and “vomiting” on my list of favourite pastimes) but in India you get an offer for “you want see my shop” for every three steps that you take. And my interest in small tacky souvenirs has been on a downhill trend for years. Anyhow, he followed me the whole way there and back, at first trying to talk me into his shop and by the end he’d practically converted into being my private therapist, trying to cure me of my “denial” of wanting to buy hash from him. “I have 18 year experience in this, I can see on people what makes them happy, but I think you are hiding yourself…”. Usually it’s great to be everywhere in the off-season, though the touts-per-tourist ratio does of course go up when there are less tourists..

We left Khajuraho the next day, by jeep taxi to Satna to catch the Varanasi train. A nice Indian university professor we shared the train carriage with bought us chai in clay cups and gave us sandwiches. I was talking about what a great idea it was to use clay cups instead of the single-use plastic or paper cups that you see everyone throw out the windows on the trains here..until I realized that the clay cups are also only used once and people throw them out the window.

The Babua Pandey ghat in Varanasi.

The Babua Pandey ghat in Varanasi.

Varanasi is the holiest of cities, one of the oldest living cities in the world and it’s been part of the Hindu religious tradition for 2500 years. It’s where people come to die, where people come to burn the dead – or if not burning them to tip them into the river. The holy Ganges floats here, and people come from all over to purify their body and soul by swimming in it…though the guidebook does warn that it’s neither the effluent, chemicals of body parts that will really get you if you do the same – it’s the heavy metals dumped by the factories upstream! Of course the first person you meet in the holiest of cities is going to be a bit of a douche – an aggressive tuktuk driver followed us the whole way from the train through all of the station and out on the streets – pausing a bit ahead of us and looking back waiting for another ambush every time we stopped or waited to watch a holy man get off the train and greet his followers. I believe it’s always better for you to find the taxi than the other way around (in Soviet Russia taxi takes you). We flagged a different tuktuk driver out on the street, but the stalker tout still tried to talk to him before we could set off – Edel cut that short. We had a hostel recommended by the guidebook picked out, “Vishnu Rest House”, though 4 copy-cats like “Vishnu Guest House”, “The Real Vishnu Rest House” etc. have popped up and pay commission for tuktuk drivers to bring people to them instead. This means you can’t actually tell the driver where you’re going..which complicates things. Edel had phoned the place in advance and they had recommended somewhere nearby we could ask to be dropped instead, without mentioning the name of the guesthouse and ending up at one of the fake ones… We did finally manage to get to the correct place, navigating the narrow labyrinthine alleys of Varanasi in the dark (power is cut more often than not here), walking the final stretch. The place turned out to be a bit rundown and dirty however, probably living off old glory, though the location was good overlooking the riverside ghats that Varanasi is famous for.

Narrow Varanasi alley.

Narrow Varanasi alley.

We slept away most of the first day – it was too hot to do anything, though pretty miserable in the room also as the power to fire up the odd water/pump/hay/fan cooling contraption was missing for most of the day. I had a quick shower every 20 minutes just to keep from overheating. The second day we took a boat trip up and down the Ganges in the morning to see all the ghats – places along the river where people swim, pray, perform rituals, wash clothes, wash themselves, burn bodies. The boat driver, Lalo, was very nice and told us he was from the fisherman caste. There was no tourist-boat business back when the horrible discriminating caste system was designed, so the fisher-caste has now been expanded to include tourists. Apart from watching normal life go by (..and end) on the ghats we saw some of the reasons not to swim in the river float by; a goat’s head, another dead goat in a sack, a stray dog by the riverside eating a bloated cadaver of something (..hopefully not human). We went back once more on the river in the evening; Lalo took us to watch a puja, religious ceremony, performed on one of the ghats. Little children were running and jumping between all the boats, selling burning flower offerings for 10 rupees to give to the river.

Boat on the Ganges.

Boat on the Ganges.

We stayed 4 nights in Varanasi, but only had one more adventure worth mention – the post office (I wanted to post backups of my photos and other things home). We had tried to find a small post office close to where we stayed first, but a shop owner had sent us in the wrong direction and refused to tell us the real location since we didn’t want to look in his shop.. We took a bicycle rickshaw to the GPO instead – I always feel a bit bad taking these as it’s usually a really old man sweating away at the pedals, but at the same time they’re some of the poorest people and do need the business. They’re also in general more honest than the motor tuktuk drivers and don’t quote five times the price or change the fare along the way. Out of guilt we usually pay double anyway though..the old man had to hop off and push the bike for some of the uphill parts in town. To post a parsel in the GPO you first need to go to a stall somewhere on the street outside of the post office, where someone will wrap it in an old cereal or similar cardboard box, then sew a cloth around it before finally sealing all the stitches with hot wax. A gentleman inside the office had guided us out on the street to find the right place and to find all the correct counters inside – turned out he wasn’t even actually working at the post office but was just helping us out (well, he did have a stall at a market nearby that he wanted us to look at, but we gave him a tip instead and he was happy). On the way back to the hostel with the bicycle rickshaw we saw a shop owner kicking a homeless cripple in the back on the road..looked like the poor man might had been trying to steal a packet of nuts.

Leave a Reply