(starting at 6 am every morning and we never know when it ends...)
Saturday 20 October 2012 - Friday 26 October 2012 33 °C
After a hectic and uncertain van ride to the airport (the taxi was so old and rickety, never thought we would make it!), after paying for a large mango smoothie and getting a regular sized one, after the chaos of the domestic terminal of Delhi's airport with no place to sit for over 1 hour, after a jam-packed flight to Varanasi, after a 1.5 hour taxi ride with a driver that didn't want to drive us all the way to our new place... here were are.
The holy Hindu city of Varanasi. The Ganges (Ganga) River (which is more blue and less brown than I expected it to be). The city with dozens of ghats, these stairs going down the city sides and descending into Ganges.
The place where Hindus come to die, so they can be cremated at the Manikarnika or the Harischendra Ghat, then to have their ashes thrown in the Ganges.
The place were a single bathing in the Ganges removes all the sins of Hindus.
This place that we only see in documentaries on TV, crowded with Sadhus, these Hindu holy men, who gave up all material possession to live the simplest life possible and live of prayers, donations and meditation. I had to find one of these guys to bless the prayer beads I bought in New Delhi...
That city where, at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, there is a 2 hr long ceremony, called Ganga aarti, with music, praying, chanting, smoke, fire and water, and at the end of which hundreds of people light up a tiny candle put together with some orange carnation on a foil plate and they all sent it afloat on the Ganges, with their best wishes for their family & loved ones.
I did that, you know. In the heat of the moment. It just felt right, under a moon crescent, to send a tiny candle floating away on that huge river. The incarnation of hope to my tired Western eyes I guess.
Some of you knowing my pretty atheist ways will be surprised; I already have my answer to them. The lack of belief in a god or another doesn't mean that someone cannot have any form of spiritual life. And sometimes, as I said, in the heat of the moment, some things just feel right.
When I started that trip, I decided to follow my intuition a bit more. You know, the good old “gut feeling”. It served us well in Jaipur, when we entered a shady house that was apparently a tailor's place of work but that just didn't feel right. I looked at Sou and said “I don't feel this place, let's get out of here”. And in New Delhi, with that Kashmiri travel agent that was a bit too persistent for my taste. And yesterday afternoon. (It did failed me once though: the night we decided to both get on a bicycle tuk-tuk. We are definitely more “healthy” - chubby – than the average Indian, because this was way too tight to be comfortable!)
Monday afternoon. After a decent brunch, we decided that, after a few days of getting the Varanasi rhythm, it was time for us to go see the Manikarnika Ghat. The place where they burn bodies of Hindu believers and then send the ashes in the Ganges, in the hope of breaking the cycle of reincarnation.
We asked a policeman for directions. He pointed us in the direction of a man who said “follow me”.
At the beginning, it was pretty much just an overcrowded pedestrian street with way too many motorbikes for a pedestrian zone. Then we started getting into narrow alleys. Then it was getting darker and darker, narrower and narrower, with walls so high we barely could see the sun. In other words: it was getting very creepy! But we still saw a tourist here and there, so we didn't feel completely spooked out.
At some point, we thought we were getting closer after about half an hour of labyrinth alleys and backstreets with holy cows, stray dogs, kids playing and men mumbling prayers in the dark and we couldn't even see them, we got rid of the guide... who, of course, asked us to come see his shop. Which we, again, firmly declined, based on the fact that a police officer told us to follow him, we had no idea (playing the “dumb tourist” card served us a few times, haha!), blah-blah-blah. And you're always more credible when you tell a guy to take a walk when you're surrounded by 3 armed policemen.
After asking these “new” officers for directions to the ghat, we kept on walking. And walking. And asking for directions again, having to say “no” to a guy that wanted to guide us there for 100 rupees, and ending up seeing police officers we saw a few minutes earlier. So we came to the conclusion that we had to be closer to the ghat than the streets after over 1 hour in the scariest place I've ever walked. So with my Swiss army blade open well in hand and hidden in my purse, we kept on walking. And it didn't get any better. We ended up finding the ghat.
And this was so not over.
I don't know what we were expecting from a place where they burn dead people. Maybe something more solemn, more official, a bit of protocol, something official. It was barely less dark, even if we escaped the labyrinth of dark backstreets... probably because of all the smoke from the bodies being cremated, but maybe also because Death was surrounding us.
We realized that there wasn't much to see or feel, after all. And as it was getting closer to the sun going down, we didn't have many options to go back to the comforting sound of the busy main streets of the Old Varanasi. Not enough time to make it out the dark alleys, getting dimmer by the minute with the sun going down. No rickshaws or tuk-tuk could make it here, even less an actual car.
A white cow was getting kind of crazy, running and jumping, not very far from us. Considering the size of the beast and its horns and the relatively cramped place we were stuck in, we felt rather uncomfortable staying there any longer. There was also a couple of kids flying kites from a balcony above us. It didn't make the place less stranger, it made it just weirder.
So we decided to try to find a boat. Which is not very hard when you're on the banks of the Ganges. The challenge is to pay a decent price for it. Good luck with that. And these boatmen knew too well, by the look on our faces and the fact that we were the only tourists to be seen at the ghat, that we just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
Note about price negotiations in India :
-Stick to your price
-If you don't have what you want, walk away. Chances are, they will change their mind and offer you a better price, or maybe even match your price.
The boatman that came to us said he wanted to charge us 800 rupees to make it to the main ghat, Dasaswamedh. No way, 400 I replied. And I want to see your boat first (because boat safety ain't exactly a priority here, on the Ganges). He refused. We walked away, he followed us, I stick to my price. Another no.
Then a kid from a balcony above us screamed “Help, please!” and showed me his kite down below, not far from where I was standing. The rope was caught in the brake handles of a bicycle. I gently untwisted the thread and sent it flying above my head, and got a big smile from happy kids above. I guess my good deed made my chance turn because...
.. after about 10 minutes, we got our price. 400 rupees. The funniest thing is that, the day before, Sou told me she didn't want to ride a boat on the Ganges, that she didn't feel comfortable with that. And look at us now, this boat is pretty much our only way out.
We got on the boat and, just before the boatman – boatkid would be more appropriate, I wonder if he was 16 ! - started rowing us away from the burning dead bodies, the smoke and all the Death around, a Sadhu (a Hindy holy men) stared at me, waved his hand goodbye and smile. I answered with a peace sign and a smile. Felt a bit better to finally leave this place, and to float away with a locally respected man's smile directed at us.
We reached the main ghat about 10 minutes later, on the smoothest rowing ride I've had. The Ganges is a very calm river, barely no current. Knowing that the rain season finished about 3-4 weeks ago and that the river is at his highest level of the year, I guess we were lucky.
We got off at Dasaswamedh Ghat, paid our boatkid and were, again, greeted by kids trying to sell us some stuff. This time, it was these little candles and carnations that you send on the Ganges. It was Sou's turn to catch the moment, so she bought one and sent it away...
Just as we started walking up the stairs of the ghat to have dinner at the restaurant at the top of it, I turn around. And I see this sadhu, all smiling, dressed in orange and white, with some colors painted on his face.
Since we arrived here, I told Sou I want to find a sadhu to bless the prayer beads I bought in Delhi. Every time I saw one, I don't know why, I never felt it. Sou kept on telling me “You will know it's the right one when it feels right”. I've been carrying the necklaces in my purse at all time since we arrived in Varanasi, just in case I meet “the right one”.
This one felt right. So I waved at him, went all “Namaste” and joined hands, and approached him. I showed him the necklaces, explained to him that I would appreciate if he could give these his blessing before I bring it all home. He didn't seem to understand, but his smile was so sincere that I couldn't help but try to explain myself more. A bunch of boys came to our rescue, translated from English to Hindi to the holy man. So the sadhu turned from me, faced the Ganges, mumbled something, raised the necklaces to his forehead, then turned back to me and gave them back. That's how I got blessed necklaces...
Then we went for dinner. Then back to our room after a very nice bicycle rickshaw ride (this time, we each had our own ride!). All along, seeing the people around, the traffic and all the pretty lights that were put up for the Durga Puja festival, currently going on, I felt like waving at everybody and smiling like a carnival queen. Sou didn't share my lovely experience, her driver even told her to calm down, that it would be OK. Hahahaha!
What. A. Day.
Oh wait... we planned to wake up at 5 AM to go see the sunrise at the Assi Ghat, a 5 min walk from our guesthouse. We did it.
And went back to bed.
And I guess we were lucky, because the guy from the chai shop in front of our room didn't blast his speakers, playing 15 seconds of a song, then changing to a new one, then changing again every 15 seconds.
It was beautiful though. Yet not much of a sunrise, as we were facing the West. And there ain't not much of a sunset either, as there is always so much smoke and pollution around here that we didn't get to see the sun that much at the end of the day. Assi Ghat, right next to where we live, is one of the most important one of the city, and there is action there all day long... and by “action” you should understand “people trying to sell you something”.
Up to now, Varanasi has been our most chaotic city. Yet, probably the most charming at the same time.
I think this whole place is all about paradoxes. People are begging for food and money, but the holy cows – and a lot of goats too! - roaming the streets wears necklaces and are far from skinny. We are being constantly asked to take a rickshaw, or buy this, or give money to that. Everybody seems to be passing the broom from their porch to the sidewalks, yet, there are garbage and mountains of litters everywhere.
Me and my white face, we were a star all along in India, but especially here. Sou even admitted that, when I wasn't there, she wasn't getting as much unsolicited attention compared to when I was there. I guess “pale face” here means “walking ATM”. Sad.
Hopefully it'll get better in the next city: Darjeeling.
(But before we know that, we have to ride the train for 14 hours...)