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Published: December 16th 2011
HOLY BEJEEZUS THIS PLACE IS RIDICULOUS. Varanasi is an entangled mess of never ending alleyways, sadhus in bright orange clothing, burning corpses, red faced monkeys, people with missing limbs, galloping cows, half naked people bathing in the river, street dogs with matted hair and a sea of sparkling saris. It is quite the experience.
And man, is spirituality ever for sale. Sure - you can visit a temple, take a picture of a sadhu (holy man), have a priest bless you, buy a statue of one of the 30 million Hindu deities – all for a price. What price, you ask? Every last bit rupee they can get out of you. You are nothing but a walking dollar sign here, or shall I say, walking rupee.
Our Varanasi adventure started off on the wrong foot, quite literally. To reach our hotel we had to walk for about 10 minutes through a maze of alleyways that thread between the main road and the ghats (rows of stairs) which lead down to the holy Ganges River. The alleyways are crammed full of large bulls, chai wallahs (tea salesmen), temples, motorcycles, stray dogs and stores
selling saris, Hindu statues, crystals, spices, bangles and a hodge podge of other things. In addition to dodging all of the people and vehicles you also have to jump over large piles of cow dung, trash, and steaming puddles of goo. At the same time you are expected to descend steep, uneven stairways that are smeared with trash and poop. Given all of this, what happened next is not really surprising. As we were coming down a set of stairs Travis landed wrong and rolled his ankle rather badly. The momentum from the steps and the extra weight of his large pack didn’t help. He was able to hobble the rest of the way to the hotel but his ankle was swollen and blue. This was a bad start to a city whose main attraction are the ghats (steep staircases).
We spent the next day at the hospital which was an experience in and of itself. To get to the hospital we had to walk back through the maze of alleyways where he had hurt himself originally to get to the main road. From the main road we had to flag down a rickshaw and haggle over a price.
Then the rickshaw then had to navigate the chaotic streets to get us to the hospital, which proved to be even more dangerous than walking through the alleyways. I am amazed we were not injured further on the way to the hospital. This road is unparalleled in its madness. The traffic is worse than Mexico City, worse than Kathmandu, worse than any any road I have ever seen. What makes it so crazy is that instead of just having to navigate around cars you have to navigate through a multitude of different vehicles - motorcycles, bicycles, running cows (huge, galloping bulls!), people, cars, auto rickshaws, trishaws and horse drawn carriages. This makes for a huge, complicated mess because everyone is travelling at a different speed. We made it to the hospital only hitting one thing (a parked bicycle). I was clinging on to the bar and praying to any all Gods I could think of as we drove.
Once at the hospital we got in right away to get x-rays done even though there were at least fifty or so people sitting around waiting. The scene was pretty dismal. People did not look healthy. I felt like with every
breath we were breathing in some new disease. We were ushered into the V.I.P. waiting room while we waited for the x-rays to be done. After a short wait we consulted with a doctor who gave us the good news that Travis’ ankle was not broken. We paid our bill ($40 for two x-rays and consult) and were on our way. On the way back our rickshaw driver stopped to buy chai, stopped to buy some kind of white powder (hmmmm…) and hit a motorcycle. We made it back safely.
Death and disease are very much on display here. The ghat nearest to our hotel is the Manikanika ghat, or the main burning ghat. Several times a day we pass a funeral procession with people singing and carrying a body swathed in white cloth and marigolds. Hindus believe that Varanasi is a very auspicious place to die (dying here grants you moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth) so they often bring their loved ones here to expire. Once they have passed, they burn the bodies on wooden funeral pyres next to the river. At any given time of the day there are bodies being lit
on fire in plain sight. We have to pass by this ghat every time we leave the hotel. Disease and disabilities are also a common sight. I have seen at least a handful of people with missing limbs, several animals that need to be put down, and even a guy who was missing half of his face. I had never seen anything like it before. The left side of his face was perfectly normal and the right side, as if there was a line drawn straight down the center, was nothing but loose skin that hung down several feet below his face. Just as common as these sights, however, are wedding celebrations. Varanasi is considered one of the holiest places in all of India. Due to this pilgrims come from all over the country to wash away their sins in the Ganges River and many come to get married on it’s auspicious banks. Every single day Indian brides wearing dark red and gold lined saris walk along the ghats surrounded by their joyous family members who are dancing and clapping. Sometimes they pull us into their photographs, which I am all to happy to be a part of as it
makes me feel somewhat atoned for all of the pictures I have taken of people on this trip simply because I thought they looked interesting or exotic. I find it interesting that this city, which is considered to be so holy, has such dark undertones.
The touts in Varanasi as about as bad as they get. Every time we step outside we are assaulted in some way. Every few steps someone asks us if we need a boat, want to buy a postcard, cigarettes, or possibly opium. No matter how hard we try to ignore them some of them we can’t shake until its too late. For example, one man dressed in the orange cloth of a priest walked up to us and started smearing red tikka on our foreheads. Before we could protest the red chalky substance was rubbed in thoroughly between our eyes and his palm was open asking for money. Rather than causing a scene we coughed up the requisite few rupees. A few steps later a man walked up to us and put his hand out to shake Travis’ hand. Having learned that it is best to avoid handshakes as they usually come with alterior
motives Travis instead folded his hands together in the namaste gesture. The old man looked offended by this so Travis obliged and thrust his hand forward. Bad decision. Without pause the man took hold of his hand and began massaging it profusely. He lodged Travis’ arm between his head and shoulder and began working his way up towards Travis’ shoulders. His eyes were full of intensity. It was only when the old man took off Travis’ glasses and began lobbing his head back and forth between his palms that Travis finally snapped out of it. He tried to escape his grip but he wasn’t about to ease his grip until we deposited something in his extended palm. Apparently thirty rupees (about 60 cents) was the going rate for escape that day.
On the way home we got lost in the maze of alleyways for almost an hour. From the main road we walked towards what we thought was the Ganges (and therefore our hotel). We threaded our way through the narrow alleys for what seemed like hours only to end up back on the main road. We tried again. Once again we headed in the direction of the river
but they alleys were never ending – they just went on and on, twisting and turning with no end in sight. Very quickly we lost our sense of direction – having no idea which direction was the main road vs. the river. Even if we found the river we didn’t know if we needed to turn left or right. It felt like we would never find our way out. I began to sweat. Finally, a man offered to show us the way back saying that he lived nearby. This freaked me out as well since our guide book warned us to not follow anyone anywhere no matter what the circumstances. It was worth a shot though – we couldn’t get any more lost. Fortunately, the man was telling the truth and he lead us to the river and pointed out our hotel from there. The whole thing was a bit traumatizing.
Despite all of this – the filth, the morbidity, the ubiquitous touts we have had some very positive experiences. We met several interesting travelers, ate delicious food and enjoyed a very peaceful boat ride down the Ganges. We also spent several afternoons watching the chaos of the
city unfold from the safety of rooftop cafes. From here the city looked almost peaceful. You could see all of the pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, monkeys jumping from rooftop to rooftop and dozens of little boys flying kites from their private terraces. While Varanasi is certainly no place to buy a vacation home it is an experience – an intense one at that - and one I’m glad I had.
For more pictures of our travels see Travis’s photo site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tfhejarvisproject
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