Varanasi… One of the holiest cities in India and one of the oldest in the world. It's the place to be born, to live and especially to die in, since (according to Hindu beliefs) doing so will liberate you from the circle of endless rebirths. We just had to see it!
We arrived by night train from Khajuraho and settled in Elvis Guest House by the ghats, the concrete steps leading in to the river Ganga. Our cozy little guest house seemed bigger than it actually was, since it was packed full all the time. The handful of rooms they had went for 350 rupees per night, or at least that's what we paid after booking through Hostelworld.com. The bed was one of the hardest we've slept on, but apparently our room was the only one that hadn't had its mattresses changed recently. The other ones supposedly would have been comfier. Also, we were a little skeptical about the squat toilet at first, but we managed just fine with it. We peeked in to an air conditioned room next to us when it wasn't occupied and at least that one had a western toilet, so the other ones might too… They also had a roof top restaurant with plenty of options to choose from and at reasonable prices. Quality was good enough, service was kind of slow, but that didn't matter that much since there were always others eating as well. There was even a Finnish guy staying there! Among the surprisingly many Spanish… Anyway, we ended up eating most of our meals there because it turned out that Varanasi isn't filled to the brim with restaurants as nearly all the other places in India have been. Sure, there are the small momo stands and such, but eating from the street doesn't seem like such a good idea.
So, what to do in the holiest of cities? We didn't end up doing all that much over our five night stay. We walked the ghats and saw the people worshipping, bathing, washing their clothes, burning their deceased, and also peeing and defecating. Seriously, I somehow get the peeing even though it grosses me out (the men here do it where ever they please, you can't walk a kilometer without seeing someone's member), but the s***ting in public was a bit of an overkill. Walking through the ghats familiarizes you with the different smells of each area, in some you can smell the soap, in others the smoke, and in some (or all), the organic byproducts of gastrointestinal systems. At first we thought those came just from the cows, the dogs and the goats. We were wrong. It's interesting that a culture that has very high standards for personal hygiene and cleanliness approves of such utter neglect of the surrounding environment. There are trashcans, but all the trash is none the less thrown openly to the ground. There are public urinals, but they are hardly ever used and when they are, many of them seem to just direct the flow into the nearest ditch, where it pools up. The chewable thing that makes you excrete loads of red saliva is as popular as painting the streets with something that looks disturbingly lot like blood. You can spit where ever you want to, even through the second story window without looking what's beneath.
As you can see, I find the dirtiness more appalling than the public cremation of bodies. Yes, we saw them, yes, we passed them from only meters away, yes, we inhaled the smoke that smelled like something was cooking. We watched a funeral pyre devour a person's flesh as the loved ones left behind cried out. We watched them carry the corpses through the streets, pile them amongst the wood, take selfies with them… It was completely natural, for them and for us too. We've both seen our fair share of dead people (we're medical students), and I've handled the ash remains of dozens of cremated bodies working in a grave yard as a teenager (weird, I know…). But more than that, the people around you set the mood, which is far from indifferent, but in the lack of a better term, almost clinical. It's a part of life, here more so than in most places. We cremate our dead just as they do, only we do it behind closed doors in specific facilities. Doing it out in the open isn't really that different. Then again, there are those that can't afford to be cremated (I don't know the cost, but they sell the firewood according to weight and the spot must have a rent or something too?) and are just thrown in to the holy river. According to our faithful Footprint travel guide, there are roughly 45 000 such cases each year. That makes quite a few per day that supposedly float by unnoticed or as we once saw, very much noticed. A police boat came to collect one that had come to shore by the ghats, as at least a hundred people watched.
Moving on. Some of the actual sites we saw included the university campus, a large area south from the ghats with parks and a lot less traffic than in the rest of the city. They have yoga and tantric faculties here. We would have liked to see the medical faculty from the inside, but didn't dare to enter. It would be interesting to see the hospitals also, only not as a patient. We talked to a guy from the Netherlands who had been to one in India that was OK. Another one in Nepal had had stray dogs running around the one large patient room… We also walked to Bharat Mata Mandir, or the Mother India Temple, from the ghats because we were told that it's amazing. It wasn't. It's a concrete building that has a marble map of India on the floor. At least it was free. Maybe it was just our mood though, walking there wasn't one of our greatest ideas. There are no sidewalks and the traffic is crazy. The rule of the road is that the smaller one always gives way and the pedestrians are always the smallest. Even when a moped comes at you on the wrong side of the road, they expect you to step aside. They won't hit you (hard) if you don't though, as I discovered. Sometimes I didn't feel like pressing myself to the wall so I let a few moped drivers give me a nudge. I'm guessing it hurt them more… After that we were done with the suicidal walking around and took a rickshaw for 200 rupees to Sarnath, where the Buddha preached for the first time after attaining enlightenment. The spot is marked by a stupa that has partly fallen apart and surrounded by a nice park with archeological diggings going around. The cost to see the place was 100 rupees per foreigner, 5 per Indian. The museum on the other side of the street was only 5 rupees for foreigners also. We weren't allowed to take our camera, cellphones or backpack inside the museum, but we also couldn't leave our water bottle in the provided safety deposit box. So we walked around with the water that I'm guessing could do more damage than the phones could.
What else? We enjoyed Varanasi more than most of the other cities we've been to in India so far, only Rishikesh has been better. One of the main reasons for that might be that as overpopulated and polluted it is, it's still somewhat peaceful there. As you walk the ghats, you're constantly approached by people trying to get you to take a boat ride, but most of them settle for a simple "No thank you". You can even pick a spot to sit around and read, although, if you hear a dripping noise closing in from behind you, you might want to move (they really do piss everywhere!). They have their fair share of persistent beggar kids, the annoying touts and the hash dealers, but I guess those can't be avoided. We still haven't given any money to beggars, especially to the children running after us yelling "Money, money, money, money…". They do it only to foreigners, what does that tell you? We did take a boat ride as offered though. We had gotten up before 6 a.m. to see the sermon at Assi ghat, which was nice, similar to the sunset sermonizes, but not as crowded, possibly not quite worth getting up that early though. Walking back the sun was starting to rise so we took a one hour boat trip. We'd been told it should cost 250 rupees for two people, but we only got down to 300. We started from 700 though. Turns out, they drop you at the same place you left from, with no option of just a one way trip. We had a young guy row for us, he took us from Assi ghat to the smaller burning ghat south of the main ghat before turning back. Against the current he grunted of the strain on the way back, never once seeming to be out of breath, as a guy three times his age passed us with four people on board. Purely for show, we judged. He asked for a tip at the end, but didn't get any, it's a trick they try to play. We enjoyed the boat ride none the less, the sunrise was quite beautiful and it was interesting to see the ghats from the water.
And that was it for Varanasi. After having spent five nights we took our leave by train. We had the lower and middle beds in three tier AC, which meant that the guy who had the upper one was also sitting with us on the lowest. There was enough room for all of us and we got to store our backpacks on the upper bed, but it would have been nicer to sit just by the two of us. After about four and a half hours we arrived in Gaya and negotiated a rickshaw to take us further to Bodhgaya, where the Buddha reached enlightenment, for 100 rupees. Little did we know that the driver would go find more passengers, and we ended up sharing the rickshaw with three Buddhist monks. Luckily the thing had a larger trunk than most and there was only one uphill on the way. The monks were dropped where they wanted to go and immediately a guy jumped next to our driver and we were off again, to end up in front of a specific hotel, owned by the stranger. He asked for 700 rupees per room, we asked the driver to take us back to the city center. Once there we were surrounded by a mob of aggressive hotel touts, who we ignored as we asked a friendly looking couple of travelers where we should look for a hotel. With their directions we shook off the touts and found a nice dirt road and a hotel next to a construction site. They asked 500 rupees for a double room, we haggled it down to 400.
And once again, we're up to speed. We'll spend two nights here, after which we'll move on to Calcutta. From there we'll fly to Thailand, where hopefully we'll find some peace and quiet. Those have been on short supply of late. Maybe we'll find ourselves a nice secluded beach on an island without vehicles or 24 hour electricity. India has been quite exhausting…