Bonkers Introduction to an Ancient City


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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi
February 17th 2019
Published: October 7th 2019
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The fact that I was stuck in a middle seat did not bother me, because my Air India flight could not have been any nicer. The seats were a good size, the sari-clad stewardesses were kind, and although it was only a two-hour flight they served us a decent lunch. America might think of itself as first world, but our domestic air service is strictly bottom of the barrel. It wasn’t until we landed that a little bit of India broke out.

The passengers began pushing and shoving to get off of the plane almost from the moment it touched down. But once they got down to the pavement outside all they did was stand around and take selfies. After which they ambled slowly toward the airport terminal. Back home if someone pushed his way off the plane, they would hurry to get to baggage first or make a connection. Here though they appear to push their way off simply to do it.

My hotel was located in the old city of Varanasi alongside the River Ganges. It was impossible to reach by vehicle. The only way to get to it was to be driven as close as possible
Mumbai AirportMumbai AirportMumbai Airport

Hindu pilgrim trying to check his seven foot long silver staff.
and then pick my way through a rabbit warren of ancient pedestrian lanes. With that in mind, I wisely made arrangements with the hotel for someone to pick me up at the airport and lead me there. I was glad I did.

The driver was waiting right out front and thus I spotted him without difficulty. The driver was an older gentleman in his sixties or seventies. He had wispy white hair and wore a humble sweater vest. We hopped into his small car and we were off. The area around the airport was countryside and it felt quite tranquil compared to modern Mumbai. The driver was very happy that the Prime Minister of India, Nerendra Modi, was arriving in Varanasi in two days. He said that Modi was a very good man and all the Indian people loved him.

Slowly, the pastural scenes gave way to a more crushing urban area as we entered Varanasi city proper. Varanasi seemed more like the India I had remembered from my first trip, dusty and chaotic. The space around our car kept getting tighter and tighter. Eventually, we were the only car. Everything else was a scooter, cart, cow, or pedestrian. And all of us were getting funneled into an ever-narrowing alley. I thought there was no way that he could be thinking about continuing to drive all the way to the river.

Outside the car window to the left I could see a long claustrophobic line of pilgrims as we inched by. The driver said that they were all queuing up to go to the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Sometimes people would wait ten hours or more just for the chance to get inside and make their offerings. Now that is devotion! Just when progress looked to be all but impossible and with great effort from our car horn we wisely turned off into a courtyard.

Beyond the courtyard was a garage, which we entered. I was told by the driver to get out of the car and wait for his return. With this he zoomed up a ramp and I was left on my own in an almost completely dark garage with nothing but all my worldly possessions to keep me company. After a wait that was probably far shorter than I was perceiving, he returned and said we would have to walk the rest of the way on foot. He offered to carry my bag, but being far larger and younger than he was there was no way I was going to let that happen. He seemed relieved and we proceeded to plunge into the very bowels of Old Varanasi.

There were so many people. Everyone just pressing against one another and me, but I just went with it. Head above the crowd. One foot in front of the other. You know you are in a tightly congested area when there are literal pedestrian traffic jams. At one point I reached back to see what was going on with my small canvas backpack, and what I felt was someone’s fingers fondling and examining the contents of my bag. I didn’t have space to turn around and confront him. And what good would that have done anyway? So, I simply grabbed my backpack and put it in the same hand that was carrying my luggage out in front of me.

It was steaming hot. I was disoriented, but determined. “Keep going Tommy!”, I thought to myself. I focused on keeping track of the little old driver meandering in and out of the crush of people and followed along. I was very relieved when we finally reached the entrance to the hotel. I gratefully thanked him and ducked into the hotel reception.

The guy at reception was a bit difficult and didn’t seem interested in checking me in. It wasn’t just me though. During my long wait the clerk got into a disagreement with two Indian customers. He was trying to cancel their reservation midway through their stay. I almost burst out laughing when one of the Indian men asked what is this Seinfeld? “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.” The clerk offered them a closet sized bedroom in the basement with one small bed for the two of them. The desk clerk kept saying to them, “You know the prime minister is arriving in two days!” I don’t know what the final outcome was because during this I finally received my key.

My room was right adjacent to the patio with the restaurant on it, but this was fine with me. The view from the patio out across the river Ganges to the flood plane was shockingly impressive. I could tell I was going to spend a lot of time here. But first things first. I was thirsty. I stood in front of the cold drink cases until a man came along to ask if I needed anything. I said I’d like a bottle of cola and a bottle of water to take to my room. He said that it wasn’t possible and that the hotel and restaurant were separate. Huh? From there it descended into an Abbot and Costello routine. Finally, the man said ahh you want to take the bottles to your room. Yes! As he was handing me the bottles I said “I thought you wanted me to drink them here with you.” At which point he laughed and smiled. Cross cultural communication sorted.

I was very tired, but since I had done my research my hotel was conveniently less than a five minute walk to Varanasi’s nightly Arti ceremony. I decided to duck down there for fifteen or so minutes just to get a flavor of it before dinner. The Arti is basically a Hindu ceremony involving the waving of lighted lamps while chants and prayers are sung.

As soon as I descended the steps, ghats, down to the river level I was hit with the hurly burly of a great many people. The way became more and more crowded as I walked toward the main ghat where the biggest ceremony was to be held. I was caught in a traffic jam of people, when I heard two voices behind me saying that they liked my shirt. I was wearing a Zlatan Ibrahimovic shirt so I thought maybe they were being genuine. So a conversation was struck up.

There were two of them in their early twenties. They then began telling me about all the places in Varanasi they could show me and would I perchance like to buy a postcard. These must be the touts that the guidebooks warned me about. One of them seemed really personable though and said that he gave people shaves and that he would really like the chance to shave my head. Maybe tomorrow I told him. Then out of nowhere another guy comes up and grabs my hand and starts massaging my hand aggressively. No, I would not like a hand massage. After a while I said I was going to walk a bit further, but that I would find them tomorrow for a shave. “What you don’t like Indian people?” one of them said. This made me mad because I had just been talking to them for what felt like a long time.

The area around the Arti ceremony was nuts. People everywhere. It felt like a couple thousand people at least. And they do this here every night! Color everywhere. Chanting. Arm waving. There were naked holy men all around the periphery. There was one old holy man in particular who stood on a platform in the center of the crowds, seemingly directing the ecstasy of the crowds. And of course it was selfie central. Mind blown!

I only stayed for a short time. I would soak it all in on future nights. On my way back I paused on a platform overlooking the Arti, but out of the fray. As I was leaning against a railing a guy who looked almost exactly like the comic Aziz came to lean next to me. He was really friendly with an open smile. However, he only spoke Hindi. But this didn’t stop him in the slightest. He burbled on and on, occasionally stopping to ask me a question and sometimes showing me what looked like stock market quotes from a local newspaper. Real pleasent guy though. However, after ten minutes of him talking Hindi and me talking English I decided it was the time to quit for the night and go back for dinner than off to bed.

---Bedtime Journal Entry: “It’s not always easy being in new place for the first time, especially at night. You’re not really sure who everyone is, what the rhythms are, and what each bend in the wall represents. I look forward to being here for the full eight days and seeing if I can make sense of this place. Because at the moment it is simply bonkers.”

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9th October 2019

Bonkers Introduction to an ancient City
Sounds as if you survived arrival Tommy with your bags intact...sounds like entre in Varanasi could be a revelation...we'll see!
10th October 2019

Varanasi
Yes. Let the ups and downs begin.
12th October 2019

Soaking up an ancient city
Your story about getting off the plane was funny. Indeed the airlines in the U.S. have so much to learn about customer service. A great cultural experience. Thanks for sharing.
12th October 2019

Thank you
Yes. I could of done a whole blog on the Mumbai Airport alone!

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