Finishing the tour in Delhi we all went our separate ways with Karyn moving to Nairobi for 6 months, 6 others returning to their respective homes and Jo and I coincidentally both heading to Varanasi to the same hostel/hotel!
Landing in Varanasi neither Jo nor I could believe how calm and orderly the airport seemed, there was no pushing or shoving and so much free space and air conditioning it almost seemed like we had left India. Due to poor planning of our own we each had a separate transfer to our hostel in Varanasi. Driving towards the city was a relatively calm experience – minimal swerving and quite wide roads. An overwhelming sense of calm washed over me – This was short lived. Suddenly the wide and relatively empty roads transformed into narrow streets packed with rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, buses, cows and trucks. Tooting and swerving ensued. Stopping 1km away from my hostel I was greeted by a bag boy and a guide who were going to show me through the winding alleys to the hostel. The narrow lanes that allowed a maximum of two people abreast were intense and overwhelming – something which was not helped by the 45 degree day. Pushing and shoving our way through my guide told me that we were entering the heart of Varanasi, an area where only pedestrians and bikes were allowed (and of course cows). Touts were all desperate to walk alongside me and sell me anything from knick knacks to tours of the city to boat rides down the Ganga – putting my glasses on and keeping my gaze down they quickly realised I was not interested in what they were selling.
Despite spending three weeks in India already, nothing had prepared me for this. Varanasi is a world in and of itself. As a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus and backing on to the holy water of the river Ganga the area is emotionally charged and even during the off season is heaving with pedestrian traffic.
Jo and I were both relieved to reach the safety of the hostel!
After some mild persuasion I convinced Jo that we should go down for a wander to the ghat and see what evenings by the Ganga were like. No words can explain what it was like down by the water, aside from being constantly harassed by touts those there for holy purposes were completely focussed on watching the ceremony, praying and lighting candles where appropriate. Surviving about 45 minutes down by the water Jo and I then sauntered back to the hostel – relieved to be able to sit at the rooftop restaurant and watch the madness from a height.
Awaking at 2am in the night I very quickly realised that something inside me was not right! Jo and I had planned to take an early morning boat ride and I was determined to be fine for that… Getting up at 4:30 I decided that I would take a gamble and go on this boat ride. After an hour and a bit on the boat I gave in – the game I was playing was too high risk for my liking so I was delivered back to the hostel where I spent nearly the whole rest of the day. (I did at least get to witness a very nice sunrise over the Ganga!)
My day was spent sleeping and going to the bathroom. On one of my trips to the bathroom I found a mouse in there – I really couldn’t catch a break. Leaving the mouse alone I closed the bathroom door and hoped it wouldn’t feel the need to venture into my bedroom. A few hours later I came up with a cunning plan – I tip toed into the bathroom, picked up my rubbish bin and magically trapped the mouse under it (the mouse was very slow moving – I am not sure it was well). I was then confronted with the issue of what to do with a trapped mouse in my bathroom, scared that if I told the hostel they would just release it and it would come back I decided to leave it trapped and just hope for the best. (The mouse was very still when I left this morning… I think it was a dead mouse at this point)
Jo returned in the afternoon and came to check on me. Feeling a bit better, and determined not to completely miss out on Varanasi I convinced myself to venture out of the hostel again. Heading to a shop called Blue Lassi, Jo and I indulged in some of the best goddamn lassi in India – handmade buy a guy who looked like he’d just run away from a local ashram. The lassi was filled with chunks of mango pulp and was all round delicious (how long it would stay in my body remained something of a mystery).
Feeling empowered by my adventure out of the hostel doors I decided that with an anti-nausea pill on board I would be able to go on an evening boat ride to witness the cremations at the burning ghat and also the ceremony worshipping the Ganga at another ghat. There was something quite overwhelming about witnessing human cremations on the side of the Ganga – it was so far removed from anything we would do at home I actually found it difficult to process. You could literally feel the emotion from people charging off into the atmosphere. I felt like something of an imposter to be watching it, as a person who does not readily identify themselves as religious and with a very limited understanding of what was going on, it felt like I had invited myself into one of the most emotional days of any persons life and they had no control over me being there. From the burning ghat we were rowed down towards the ceremony that takes place every night in Varanasi, it was a ceremony of worship/giving thanks to the holy river Ganga. Feeling much more comfortable here I was amazed at the bells, drums and chanting that was occurring. Again a palpable energy was rushing out onto the water in a way that words cannot explain!
After 1.5 hours on the water I was utterly exhausted and we returned to the hostel. Jo gave me her vegemite and I indulged in a $0.40 meal of vegemite toast for dinner, then absolutely exhausted went to bed for a night with surprisingly few trips to the bathroom.
Waking up at 8:00am I felt refreshed and like a human once more. Jo and I went in search of yet another Lonely Planet recommendation – Brown Bread Bakery – a German Bakery just down from our hostel. Negotiating the very confusing alleyways, where armed security told us to line up to walk down an alley, we finally reached where we thought was Brown Bread Bakery. A rather dingy looking cafe with two small tables, woven mats covering the wall and a shirtless waiter, Jo and I couldn’t believe this was the place. Reading the menu it all sounded delicious and had rather a large spiel about their efforts to empower women and give back to the community. Figuring we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover we each ordered muesli and chai. While waiting for our food Jo suggested she might go and look for a couple of little trinkets for her daughter. Our shirtless waiter told her not to as this was a tourist area and she would be ripped off – how kind he was to tell us this. After waiting for about 15 minutes the waiter suggested we go down the road to their rooftop restaurant and order our food from there… This seemed odd but we went with it!
Climbing the 5 flights of stairs to the rooftop we found a much larger and nicer looking cafe. When we explained our story to the new waiter and said we had already ordered food he laughed and said we had been sitting at a fake cafe! We couldn’t believe our luck… The fact that our imposter felt the need to come clean and send us to the real place!!! Ordering an array of delicious food that had absolutely no hint of curry I happily devoured fresh fruit, muesli and juice (sneaking a cinnamon scroll to go). We ate with a lovely English girl who is trying to get out of property management and into equine behavioural therapy – she knew of many NZ riders, including Alice – amazing how quickly you can find common ground with a complete stranger!
While disappointed to be leaving Varanasi having seen so little of the place I was pleased to be feeling once more like a human being and to escape the endless narrow passages that were constantly filled with people. Onwards to Mumbai for 2 nights! Then to the relief of McLeodganj where the temperature appears to peak at 30 degrees everyday!