So... India. And Varanasi, of all places. How do I capture a week there? I intended to call this entry 'City of Filth, City of Light', before realising that there's too much for one post. I'm therefore attempting a two-part entry. This half will be on the City of Filth... the difficult, the indigestible, the Varanasi tourists tend to skate over.
A shock, coming from Lumbini to Varanasi! From the serene chanting of monks around a pipal tree to one of the most intense places on Earth. And the journey itself, from Gorakhpur, proved challenging. We had an overnight train journey booked, and grabbed a quick meal from a place opposite the station, before beginning a brutal introduction to Indian railways (we've had a much better experience since). Everywhere we had to step around sleeping people; apprehensively we watched a train arrive. As it pulled in fights broke out to get into the packed carriages; skinny figures climbed frantically out of windows to avoid being crushed. This was Unreserved Sleeper Class. Our own train, meanwhile, was three hours late arriving at the platform and seven and a half hours late arriving at Varanasi... Rich's paneer curry turned out to be a bad idea. I wandered round the carriages and in the morning saw a man shaving, with cream and all, in front of a sink. Apparently he had a job interview. He appeared unperturbed by the ridiculousness of the situation, in which there'd been no communication from the driver or anyone official about what was happening. In London, the driver breaks into worried apology if you sit at a stop for more than a minute; in India time -- and space -- are different.
Kathmandu's Thamel prepared me somewhat for the madness of the driving - not merely in terms of pedestrians in the road, but also the endless jostling for position by the vehicles, the reckless meandering of vast cows across the street, the striving of auto-rickshaws against their skinny human counterparts (I have a strong impression of thin, too thin, snappable brown ankles and lined, beaten faces... such weariness). Thamel even gave me a sniff of the dust, the constant flying dirt that has crept into both of us and made us cough. Thamel even prepared me a little for Varanasi Old City/Godaulia: the ramshackle stalls and shops, the slender alleyways crammed with people and cows and yet more people roaring through on motorcycles to continuous horn-blasts, and of course the touts... "Anklet, madam? For the leg!" "Boat? Boat?" "Rickshaw, rickshaw?" "Where are you going? Can I help you?"
... But I was not prepared to find, in Benares, the sacred City of Light, such filth so continually proliferated. On the way to almost anywhere the traveller encounters a stinking pile of refuse - containers, carrier bags, used sanitary pads, everything - that seems to melt a little more each time passed. Flies haunt the air, cowpats the ground. The general attitude to waste disposal was exemplified in something Rich witnessed from an evening boat ride on the Ganges (timed to coincide with the last day of Diwali and the mass flocking of people to the riverside to perform puja). He'd seen a man pouring water with great ceremony from a plastic cup, which he immediately discarded into the same holy river he'd offered to.
This woman at least kept hold of her cup.
The people are as extreme as their setting. In Nepal, one did not get overly stared at. Here, whilst there are Western tourists everywhere, they are so tiny a proportion compared to the locals that the latter stare with hard black intensity. This appears to be an Indian thing, not specifically a Varanasi thing, as we met the height of this at Gorakhpur train station, where the stares were such that I kept suspecting some public outrage just behind us. The stares are largely hard, or blank, or a trigger to touting. You in turn see sights both intriguing and shocking. Thin children wash clothes at night under street water taps. Dreadlocked, orange-robed sadhus sit on the ghat steps, and on one street the beggars line one side with their bowls. One day I saw a man with mainly missing limbs crawling across a road using just his elbows. On another day, on a nightmarish walk in the heat down a main road, we found a young man stretched out on the ground, dusty, on his back, eyes closed, in a completely inappropriate place, within a foot of the wheels of passing rickshaws - without any sign as to whether he was asleep or alive at all.
The Yogi Lodge, where we stayed, turned out to be another representative of the tricksiness of Varanasi, another test for the wits and patience. For one thing, Yogi Lodge is popular - and so there are clones all over the city, called things like 'Old Yogi Lodge', 'New Yogi Lodge', 'Real Yogi Lodge', and so on, all claiming to be the one recommended by Lonely Planet and all paying commission to supposedly helpful rickshaw drivers. We had to trust a guy who led us to what we think WAS the real Yogi Lodge, but who knows? At this version we were driven to distraction by a resident tout called Ravi, who pounced on us whenever we tried to leave, asking us where we were going, did we need help getting to wherever, what tours did we want to do, etc. One day I said I would be just 'wandering around, doing some shopping', and he wanted to escort us to 'the best places to buy silk'. Another day I announced I would be going to a yoga class, and he insisted on taking me to a specific Yoga Centre, and couldn't comprehend me ever wanting to try anywhere else. This reached the point of us nearly moving hostels as neither of us had 'crossed the world to learn evasion tactics'. Even remembering the guy sends my blood pressure up.
The province of high blood pressure is not Ravi's alone. One morning we took a boat-ride on the Ganges. More on that later, but it's worth describing the frustration framing the event because it's a good example of how stressful INDIA in general can be. We had difficulty making our rendezvous with the boatman, who, we'd been assured, would be waiting for us at the Brown Bread Bakery, a multi-storey yet cosy restaurant that produces delicious bread and helps fund a charity school. Liking the place and the purpose, we'd booked the trip through the BBB. Our hostel door was locked, and two older Indians bustled around upstairs whilst we darted around below, crying "namaste" hopelessly into the gloom. In the context of the dark, early rising and the previous night's dithering over whether or not to change hostels, the whole thing seemed like part of a diabolic plan to prevent lodgers doing anything except through Ravi. Eventually I shouted with such anger that the upstairs men were disturbed, and they told us to wake up a guy sleeping downstairs, who had been so prone under a blanket before that I'd taken him for furniture. We finally exited, and reached the BBB as part of an increasingly dense stream of Hindus heading to the Ganges, but the BBB itself was dark and locked. Again we were reduced to shouting "namaste" and eventually had to make an expensive phone-call to the BBB owner. He sounded perplexed as to our distress and told us to wait for the boatman, and indicated we'd been told wrongly where to meet him.
After some minutes, a ridiculously small male child arrived, gesturing at us to follow. We had no way of telling whether this was our 'man' or not; we followed him down the labyrinthine streets to the river, which already bustled with morning pilgrims, boats, bathers, child sellers offering candles, etc. Our boy leapt across some boats and, rather comically given his skinny limbs, began to manoeuvre one free of the others. For a few seconds I was quite unsure about what to think of the charitable BBB man, wondering whether his 'school' entailed many rowing lessons. To my relief, an elderly yet wiry guy popped up - but he didn't speak any English, only smiled benignly, and again we had no idea if the boy just touted for him or if this was what we'd already paid for. We rang Mr BBB, who flakily and irrelevantly explained that we'd have the coffee we'd ordered when we got back to land. In the end only the intervention of someone else, a guy who wanted to see our receipt, ensured that we got on our way. Ignoring the ride for now, and the smiles of the multicoloured crowds even as the sullen smoke of the pyres ascended with the sun, this first hour set the stage for one of our darkest mornings in India. Back at the BBB we discovered extra levels of bizarreness: how apparently somebody had been at the BBB in the morning but, as the building was locked from the OUTSIDE, could do nothing, how someone else had been sharing our boat and had gone off with our boatman, etc.
The big things in Varanasi are the river and the ghats (steps leading down to the river), on which, as one traveller put it, 'you can see the whole of life and death'. Like 'life and death' both are intense, and potentially uncomfortable. Varanasi is where good Hindus go to die, and few travellers arrive without some awareness of the significance of the Ganges. On our first evening we ventured into the maze of streets with the idea of walking down to it; on our way we encountered a group of four white-robed figures bearing a pallet on their shoulders, chanting, and setting a fast pace as they progressed through Godaulia. From some background reading I knew the huddle of robes on the pallet hid a dead body, and that the family members carrying it would be taking it to one of the two 'burning ghats' - areas of public cremation, after which the remaining body parts would be given to the river, supposedly allowing the soul freedom from rebirth. We followed the men as they would be going in the direction of the river... and all at once found ourselves at the main burning ghat, on a ledge overlooking fires I tried not to look at too closely. In lingering there we caught the attention of a guy who, after much vocal, uncomfortable admiration of our respect, provided some gruesome and weird details about the cremations. It took so many kilos of wood to burn a body, so many hours. A woman's pelvis would often need to be burned over and over, and even then leftovers would need to be given to the river. The same with a man's torso. Lepers could not be burnt there, nor the victims of snake-bites, who would be set afloat on the river in the hope that healers would take them ashore and revive them. Everyone knew him at the burning ghats; we could come closer with him. Come here, come here. And so close, too close! We stood on a platform with no other Westerners in sight, silent Hindus around us as their relatives burnt on the ground at our feet - and one of the dead feet poked out, its toes still untouched by the heat. We stepped away hurriedly, and our man came with us. It takes so many kilos of wood to burn a body, it is so expensive. There are dying people living near the burning ghat, waiting to die, but they don't have the money. We are wise, kind people, would we like to come with him and visit one of the women living nearby, to donate? It would be very good karma to give a donation.
Varanasi's main burning ghat.
We gave him a hundred rupees and escaped; later we heard that this is a common scam around the ghats. Tourists may give a lot out of shock and discomfort; the money would be the tout's, and find its way to a liquor store and not a pyre. I remember the guilt, the sick feeling the encounter gave me. The guilt of having the morbid fascination to be there in the first place, and the peripheral knowledge that both the guilt and the fascination tap a bedrock of anger that the desperation here is such that death and spirituality can be prostituted - and also, below that, a sense of being perhaps uncomprehending in applying such a Western division between religion and money. Why shouldn't flying souls muddy their toes with the effort, here, of staying alive? Varanasi is too complex for straightforward opinions; instead you must peel through them like layers of an onion. In this instance the taste I'm left with is of the bitterness of ghoulish poverty.
Religion, silk-selling, crowding.
Hard to digest, indeed! And not just spiritually. We signed up for an Indian cooking class. This mainly involved watching a woman and her daughter create delicious alu gobhi (potato and cauliflower) curry, alu paratha (spicy potato mash in chapatti-esque bread) and masala chai (Indian spiced tea). I sat, wondering at the immense difference in generations on display - the older woman with little English, and the daughter with a university education and a kind of coy dismay at my ignorance of spices. Sweat touched me, something writhed in my stomach. I could eat only a few amazing mouthfuls, before making a desperate exit. I stumbled through the streets, pausing to gape at a public religious ceremony (brahmins, incense), stomach roiling. My next day would be a non-day, a day of vomiting and gut-wrenching pain.
Having begun the process of swallowing, I'll work on the less difficult side of Varanasi digestion (the nutrition?) in the next post.