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Published: January 19th 2010
Several fellow travellers tried to prepare us for what India would be like. "INDIA
, haven't you heard the saying? I
gain". We were promised though that after the initial shock and bewilderment, we would grow to love the place. So, armed with very low expectations, you'd think that our first encounter wouldn't have come as a surprise.
To start with, we made the beginner’s error of buying a ticket that would bring us from Kathmandu all the way to Varanasi (with an overnight stop in Lumbini to pay respects to Buddha's mama). When we arrived in the dusty dirt bowl of a border town that is Sunauli, we went straight to the travel agent to pick up our tickets for the India leg. What had been billed as a tourist bus (the only safe and reasonably comfortable way to travel in Nepal and we suspected India too) was actually going to be the local government bus - the tourist bus goes every other day. "Don't worry" they told us, "very comfortable and nice”, “express to Varanasi with little nice stops for tea"....hmmmm. Before we had a chance to gather our thoughts and respond we were smilingly
Last lunch at our favourite restaurant
it's a little family place called Madhu Milan - very good and very cheap
shoved out the door. So, we did the immigration thing, walked over the border and tried to find our contact on the other side. Mr. Bubbles or Mr. Bubbly or whatever his name is rode up on his shiny motor bike wearing a leather jacket (in a town where the men are all wearing shawls, this is very flash behaviour). After telling us to stand outside a tea shop for ages like eejits, he came back with another man who told us that our bus wouldn't be leaving for a while and were we aware that we were going to be on the "round the houses" bus which would take 14 hours. For a small fee extra, we could get on the express bus which would take 8 hours and leave imminently. The small fee extra turned out to be another 1000 rupees each (we had already paid way over the odds already). I smelled a rat but really, an extra 6 hours in any of the bone shakers we saw passing us by was just unfathomable. So, we handed over our cash and followed them to the “express” - a sorry ramshackle excuse for a bus. As we took
the ubiquitous roaming cow. we found out that they are actually owned and return to their feeders every evening.
our seats, he went and talked to the conductor and came back asking for another 199 rupees each for our bags. I really kicked up a stink at this stage as I knew we were being had - he looked like he was going to hit me and when Matt stepped in, he actually did push Matt over. At this stage, our very peaceful but very imposing 6’7” friend Greg stood up and stepped between them and things calmed considerably. We were let off the 199 rupees and as we had begun to suspect, we subsequently found out that that was the entire cost of the ride. There was no express service - this was the one and only bus and it took 13 hours. Long story short, if you’re getting a bus in India, buy the ticket yourself from the bus conductor. Things could only get better.
Being the bold and spontaneous travelers that we are, we hadn’t actually booked anywhere to stay in Varanasi. A word of advice, please do book if you’re coming to Varanasi. The main problem with not booking and arriving at night is that a) you can’t actually get a tuk tuk
to take you to the main area as it’s prohibited, b) once you’re there, it’s virtually impossible to know where you are going as there are no street signs and the old town is like a maze. Luckily, after lots of haggling with our tuk tuk driver, he agreed to drive us as far as possible and then walk us to our hotel of choice. It had rained that day and the streets were incredibly slippery. After poor Greg fell over and we shined our torch down to help him up, we realised that the reason for this was that there’s cow dung literally everywhere. Lovely! Of course our driver (well walker now) tried to steer us off course several times - “that hotel I think is actually closed” “Oh and it’s very dirty” “and it’s also very much expensive”. We were prepared for this and just kept reminding him “no delivery, no cashola”. When we arrived we actually got the last two rooms in the place and they would have no space for us on the following evening - New Year’s Eve. Still, it was great to finally get into our rooms and have a (thanks be to God)
Lighting a tea candle to float down the Ganges
Every night you can see these little lantarns lighting up the river
Feeling a million dollars for being clean, fed and rested, we hit the streets of Varanasi early the next day. We managed to find a very basic but very do-able hotel right near the main Ghat - for 100 rupees per night, we got our own little cell, complete with fan, (apparently) clean sheets and a pad-lockable metal door. Not exactly luxury but still, as residents we were invited to attend the free NYE party in their very sociable roof top restaurant that evening. It was great, as soon as we arrived we were handed a very tasty dinner tray (rice, 2 types of curry, veggies, chapatti, raita and a desert) and before long the whole place was up and dancing to the beats of the roving percussion band. I have a video on my iPod - I’ll see if I can upload it. When the clock struck midnight, we all hugged and laughed like old friends and the owners brought out a huge cake with candles which everyone tried to blow out. I've never seen a birthday cake for NYE but what a great way to celebrate the birth of a new decade. From our
All this for about $2
and it tasted amazing
vantage point on the 7th floor we were able to see the random fire works being let off in back yards all across the city and the Ganges was twinkling with thousands of little floating tea lights that had set sail earlier that evening. I have to admit that we faded pretty soon after midnight but it was a thoroughly enjoyable if different NYE.
We spent the next three days exploring the absolutely fascinating town that is old Varanasi. I’ve tried explaining it in emails and I’m still not sure I can do it justice. It’s probably the most exotic place I’ve ever been to - and I mean that in a strange, exciting, weird, shocking, beautiful, spiritual way. Set on the banks of the holy river Ganges, Varanasi is one of the most sacred pilgrimage spot for Hindus. All along the Ghats (long stretches of steps leading down to the water), we were able to witness the many spiritual practices including Sadhus (holy men) practicing yoga on the river bank, locals taking their daily dip in the holy water and pilgrims from all over the country coming to pay their respects with flowers and gifts. Oh and
cricket...the other practice of worship all over India (Matt is a happy man). The Hindus also believe that if you die and are cremated here that your soul will be released from the eternal cycle of births and deaths and so end the suffering endured on this human plane. Our hotel was very close to the main burning Ghat which is called Manikarnika. Walking towards the river on our first morning, we came across a procession chanting and carrying a body swathed in saffron coloured satin towards the water. As we watched, the body was taken to the river to be washed and then placed on a specially prepared funeral pyre to be cremated. It was a little bit gruesome but fascinating and oddly comforting. Death is such a private and taboo topic in our society and here it is treated as a normal, everyday occasion to be witnessed by everyone and even celebrated. We met a young man there who told us that he and his family had brought their granny there that morning. He was very happy to answer our questions and explained that she had lived to the ripe old age of 94 and that they were
Cell block Shanti
our not so elegant room in Varanasi
delighted to be able to bring her here.
On our third day there, we bumped into a French couple we had met on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. The 4 of us decided to take a guided walking tour with a guy that works in the Assi Brothers book store. Without having to worry about how to get home, we were able to fully focus on and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells that make up this rabbit warren of a city. The narrow streets are lined with colourful shops selling beautiful silk, brocades, sparkly trinkets and flowers for the temples as well as food stalls selling everything from fragrant, spicy samosas to sweet treats made of cream and sugar. We had to keep our wits about us to avoid stepping in the cow pats, stepping on the puppy piles and stepping in the way of the numerous wandering holy cows. Our guide took us to his favourite Chai stall. The proprietor was a grumpy dude with a shock of henna died hair. He's obviously one of the best in town though as a crowd of almost 15 people gathered around his little patch of street while he
performed the ritual of turning his vats of milk, tea leaves, ginger, garlic (!), pepper, sugar and cardomen into his famous Chai Brew. We sipped our delicious drinks in silent reverie and handed over our 5 rupees each whilst trying to ignore that our cups were then washed in a puddle, ready for the next customers.
Varanasi really is an assault on the senses. On the one hand, it's absolutely filthy. There's rubbish everywhere and the stink is something you have to smell to believe - cow pats, urine and rotting vegetables combine to really offend your olfactory system. However, there's an indescribable beauty about the place and the sense of peace (especially in the early mornings) and spirituality overrides the nasty bits and we were left with a sense that we had really experienced a truly unique and special place. Although we'd had a bit of a rocky start, we decided that INDIA for us would not mean "never doing it again" Some recommendations: Staying
*Shanti Hotel. This is where we stayed for the most of our time. It's very much a budget place - bargain basement prices but pretty clean, luke warm
showers and a fun place to meet other travellers. Actually, on that note, if you're coming to India and looking for a light read, pick up a copy of "Are you experienced?". It's a funny, satirical look at the people who travel in India and you'll meet pretty much all of the characters in the roof top restaurant. We fall into the "30 something year olds who've obviously f&^$%!d(MISSING) up their lives" category according to the 19 year old gap year protagonist!
*Ganga Fuji Home. We didn't actually stay there as it was fully booked but it's really bright and clean, has free Wi-Fi and costs about 400 - 600 IRS per night. Eating
*Madhur Milan - very busy local place that serves northern and southern Indian cuisine. It’s not posh but very tasty food and incredibly cheap
*Ganga Fuji restaurant. It's on the main shopping street and is more expensive and quite touristy but it's worth it for the description of the dishes as given by the owner and the nightly live traditional music
*Brown Bread Bakery. It's run by a not for profit organisation and if you're looking for a break from Dhosas and
Masala tea, they do great baguettes and real coffee. Doing
- It's definitely worth doing a walking tour. We paid 300 rupees between the 4 of us for a 2 hour tour. As I mentioned, the Asi Brothers book store were really helpful and both the lads there have great English
- A boat ride along the river is also well worth it. You'll be bombarded with offers any time you go near the water (Hello! Boat?) but it should cost about 50 rupees each per hour.
- The Ganga Aarti ceremony starts at 7pm every evening at the Dasaswamedh Ghat - it's a colourful and lively show of music, dance and fire to pay tribute (puja) to the Mother Ganges. Actually it's a good idea to see it from a boat if you can as they face the water
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