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Published: February 19th 2020
Due to the lost days in the middle, my eight days in Varanasi had actually begun to feel short. I woke up late that last morning with only one thing on my mind, hiring a boat to take me across and down the Ganges to Ramnagar Fort. That was the only thing left on my list to accomplish in Varanasi. And now miraculously given my recent illness, I was this close to achieving all my pre-trip goals. To navigate and face India one needs to be at full health. That’s because this country demands all the strength and sense of humor you can muster. I now had both back in full force. Let’s do this.
My first thought was to hire a boat from someone on the Mir Ghat which was directly in front of my hotel. As I descended the steps toward the river like clockwork came the call of “Sir, Boat?”. I replied with “Ramnagar?”. He looked confused and said “No, Boat”. This transaction was not going to work and I excused myself from the conversation with a sorry and walked further along the river.
When I arrived at the craziness of the main ghat I fell
into negotiations with another boat guy. And who should come buzzing around, but my trusty shaving touts and their comrades. However, I had my health back so I didn’t mind their manic presence. I exchanged a couple greetings with them, but once they realized I was bargaining for a boat they drifted away.
I had originally wanted to get a simple row boat to paddle me serenely to Ramnagar Fort, but they said it was too far and that I needed to be in a motorboat. Looking down the river into the distance I could not even see the fort. Perhaps they were right. Let the haggling commence. They quoted me a price of 6500 rupees. I said this was way too expensive. They said perhaps I would be happier in a regular commuter boat crammed to the brim with locals. I said how about 1000 rupees. Not possible. I said thank you you’re right maybe it is too far. I will walk down the river closer to the fort and get a boat from there. They asked me what is my “last price”. I said 2000 rupees was as far as I could go. The guy said “Ok.
2500 rupees. Done.” and made a grand sweeping gesture with his arms. I was so far down the haggling path at that point that I agreed because I didn’t want to go through this routine again with someone else, although 2000 rupees really had been my final price.
To reach the boat we had to hop precariously across many other boats. The boat was a giant long wooden boat with a motor attached. I had seen boats like this crammed with 30-40 locals, but here it was just big ole me and two guys. Unbeknownst to me for the price I had hired not only a boat driver, but the guy who I had bargained with would now act as a guide. His name was Aarush and he actually turned out to be really nice. He was studying French at a university in Varanasi and he worked on the boat part time. He pointed many things out as we cruised down the Ganges. He explained about the importance of Shiva. He said that most Indian people were cremated and had their ashes scattered in the Ganges. However, there were a few special cases that could not be burned. They
were children, pregnant women, people who had a pox, and those who had been bitten by snakes. So pretty much the pure and those who had been infected with a toxin. Those people instead would be weighted down with stones and sunk to the bottom of the river. Aarush said that sometimes a dead body would wriggle free and pop to the surface. I began to eye the river suspiciously.
The boat glided under the large bridge of which Ramnagar Fort lay just beyond. It turned out that Ramnagar was more than just a fort, but an entirely separate city of 100,000 people. It felt much more rural than Varanasi and my appearance was definitely met with more surprise here. I was glad I had Aarush with me, because if I had just been dropped off on the shore by myself I would not have been quite sure about where to go next. I could see the fort towering above me, but where was the entrance? Luckily, I didn’t have to figure it out as I happily followed Aarush.
He pointed out a large gathering of people all dressed up around and on a large decorated boat docked
on the riverside. Apparently, some people enjoyed hiring a boat and have a wedding party under the shadow of Ramnagar Fort. We clamored up the riverbank. As we walked toward the entrance to the fort, which was in the city itself we passed a line of Ramnagar school children. Boy were they excited to see me.
Once inside the fort’s courtyard, Aarush told that I needed to buy a ticket to go inside the main building. However, there would be no need to buy one for him as he would wait as he had seen the fort many times. He would hang out in the courtyard and play with his smartphone. There was practically no queue for tickets and were about third in line. Unfortunately, there was a small problem. The ticket seller had disappeared. As we waited the line grew longer and longer. When there were perhaps forty people on line someone came out and said that the ticket seller had gone to lunch. Huh? How about you selling us some tickets until he gets back. No. Not possible.
The people in line were getting restless and a palpable discontentment began filtering into the air. I passed
the time by making some jokes to Aarush. Maybe, the guy was in trouble and had gotten stuck somewhere. Maybe he was eating a really BIG lunch. Maybe the reason there were iron bars on the ticket window was that people were always lunging at the ticket seller to throttle him out of anger.
We must have been there for about twenty minutes when the ticket seller finally returned. All of a sudden the line surged forward, women tried to cut in line, and there was much jostling and shoving. I got right into it, jostling and shoving with the best of them. I made good use of my height and long arms as I snaked my hand with the 200 rupees entrance fee over people’s head and right to the narrow communication hole. Money taken, ticket given, and I was on my way.
The inside of the fort was musty and had been set up with all sorts of random exhibits. There were old cars, wagons, and tons of vintage weapons. It was all kind of lying around in a state of neglect. Almost like here is a bunch of old stuff we had lying around. There
was an impressive amount of it and I enjoyed it for all its shoddy informality.
I kept moving through the old hallways and staircases before finally arriving at a rooftop area. Off to one corner there was an open air temple on the top of some steps. A man in the flowing robes of a religious beckoned for me to join him inside. Sure why not? I climbed up the steps, removed my shoes, and stepped inside.
The temple’s interior was shiny white with three stone lingums at its center. We were the only two people inside the small temple. The religious man explained what each lingum represented: Varanasi, Shiva, and something forgotten. He taught me a chant to recite, which I did over and over. He then gave me a blessing dot on my forehead. He told me to put my hand on the lingum and chant the rehearsed chant only this time adding my name, Tommy No Papers, into it. Heaven only knows what kind of oath I was uttering.
Then came the predictable spiel about how this temple was funded by donations from the public. I gave him a few rupees. He said, “But
sir, there are three lingums.” Maybe I was supposed to give a donation for each lingum. I smiled and left.
I made my way down to the courtyard to rendezvous with Aarush. As the two of us were leaving I was stopped by two pretty girls and their mother. They wanted me to take a selfie with them, which I gladly did. One of them next requested one with Mom. The mom shook her head and demurred. But I broke out a huge smile and an exaggerated double peace sign pose slightly behind her. The girls let out yelps of delight and even the mom broke out in a warm smile. With that I raced to catch up with Aarush, who had already moved on down the road.
We stopped two pick up lassi from a local shop that was renowned for having the best lassi in town. Aarush bought three and brought them back to the boat. At first I said I wasn’t going to have any because of my stomach. However, curiosity got the best of me when I saw how authentic they were in their little clay pots. It was delicious. Afterwards, as I washed
the yogurt off I let my hand trail through the waters of the Ganges. I was finally connecting with the holy river.
On the boat ride back, there was an actual chill in the air. It was the first time that I could recall actually being cold in India. I did not want to have the monetary transaction hanging over the rest of the journey. So, I paid the guys early and even included a nice tip due to the fantastic time I was having. It was gratifying the happy cheers when Aarush was telling the boat guy about the tip. As the boat cruised along we were running parallel to a festive drum procession on the ghats. I was feeling Varanasi by that point as the vivid colors of the city were popping against the steely grey skies.
After a freshen up at the hotel I went back to the ghat where I had met that beautiful college student days before. However, this time I was not met with the same level of interest. It seemed to be a different crowd, kind of a Sunday party crowd. There was a large remnant of a wedding party with
people dressed up to the nines. It felt like quite the scene with live Indian music wafting in from a nearby ghat. The steps as social gathering point. I just relaxed and took it all in.
As darkness fell I wandered back over to partake in one last fire ceremony. I passed a bent over old man and a beautiful girl with long shimmering black hair, both with their hands together in hopeful connection to the divine. At the Aarti I tried to absorb it all. All the fire ceremonies I had attended blended into one. I breathed in and became one with the melodic music, the feel of the crowds, the smell of incense, and the prayerful devotion. Just commit it to a sensory memory that I would be able to draw back on many years from now or perhaps a feeling that becomes a permanent part of me. Unthought of, but deeply felt. I had lived Varanasi. I had survived. Life was moving on.
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