Always so little time to write. So to begin I suppose in Delhi. Crazy Delhi. We had the worst accommodation hunt I've yet experienced, arriving as a group from various flights. We got to Paharaganj (the cheap hotel area near New Delhi train station) after dark, at about 8:30. After looking around for rooms a little ourselves we found everything full or much a higher price than we had been told to expect. So we went with a young man on a cycle rikshaw who assured us that he had a room "like this" (we were handed a card with a generic western room hotel pictured) for Rs.400 (very good compared to what we had been hearing). If we would only step on to his cycle rikshaw then all would be well and a hot shower and food would soon be in the offing (for the most reasonable of prices).
We went. Massive, massive judement error. We were stuck on this cycle Rikshaw for the best part of three hours, he gently coaxing us on and off. It soon became clear that everywhere was full to the rafters. We turned down a room for Rs.700 and went to eat leaving the exhausted beanie wearing tout commissionless. We discussed, and decided to go back and take the room. It had been taken. It was now nearing midnight, and the shop fronts were all closed. I was very glad me and Lucy were with Eran (a young Isreali guy who had also been in the Andamans) as the streets were suddenly empty. The streetlights, the buses and cars of the busy bridge traffic were the only light. The horns and the buzz of the sleeping hotels' neon were our dome in this huge unknown vibrating city. But of course, eventually, we found rooms and food and showers and tv and a warm bed, not to mention we were given towels! A real luxury. All I will say of the preceeding search, is that a hotel tout was nearly a serious casualty of my empty stomach, and that I learned that cows can turn up in utterly bizarre places.
Delhi the next day proved to be about as interesting and stunning as a capital can be. We quickly found a new room for Rs.600, We had actually payed Rs.1500 at 1am the previous night. It was also soon evident that a gigantic convention of some sort was taking place. People wandered around in Party hats and flags, Communist symbols were everywhere. We spoke to some people and found out that 25lakh (25,000) people from all over India had come into Delhi for said gathering. Everyone had arrived yesterday evening. Everything had been booked solid for months. Last nights insanity was explained. It's something I think you just have to watch out for in India. Sometimes, for whatever reason, there are just many many people in one place.
Everywhere was busy. People people people. We took a cycle Rikshaw to the Red Fort. The streets were packed as we slowly wound through the different shopping districts. First we seemed to be in the construction district, pulleys, chains, metal bars and bath and shower fittings filled the shops. Then, seemlessly, every shop was selling paper. Fronts were daubed with slogans such as "Fancy Notebook Sold", beautiful paper bags swung from a window high above us, wedding invitations were stacked in the glass shop fronts and huge rolls of industrial rough paper/cardboard muddled out of the doors. The Red Fort was huge and rather boring. From the Red Fort we took the metro to the white marble central circular shopping centre. The Metro was fantastic. It worked on small blue plastic tokens, bought from a counter. On the way into the station you swiped your counter like an oyster card. On the way out you had to deposit them in the turnstiles.I was disapointed. I had hoped I would be able to keep mine. The path from the main road to the station entrance was long. Along it could be bought fruit, vegetables, shirts, toys, sunglasses, washing powder and jewellery. Everything was there, the sustinent and practical nestling comfortably with the frivolous and idle. The queues for the counters were suprisingly orderly by Indian standards. Only a few stray spherical Grandmothers refused to stand in line. Down the magically clean stairs we were ushered through seperate sex security checks. Everywhere in India at large train stations, airports and metro stations you are oblidged to stand in a queue so tight that two or three people are metal detected at once, then be swept down by a bored looking guard. The station was empty but the train packed. Although the line of women at security had seemed long enough, I could see only men in the actual train. On our way out a guard with his gun casually rested pointing at the crowds gave us directions.
The evening was spent in the beautiful but expensive shopping centre. We could find nowhere to eat even remotely within our price range. In the end we just ate street cooked bready omlet and got a Rikshaw home.
The following day I spent shopping for earrings, and using the internet. In the evening we went to see a very strange movie (in Hindi) about an Indian woman who marries and kills 7 husbands. The best thing about this trip to the cinema was that the chairs almost fully reclined. We saw the 9:30 showing so the place was empty apart from some Indian men who shouted/cheared along. They stopped the movie mid way to fiddle about with the colour levels. I still here the song from the Russian wedding playing on the radio in the streets. Strange. I want to go and see a full Bollywood movie earlier in the day when I'm back in Delhi.
And so onto Varanasi. Filthy, beautiful, spiritual and commercial, all of India can be seen in this city. It's as if someone decided to take all of India's defining features, good or bad, and bundle them together on the side of the Ganges.
Me and the German girl who had been on the bunk opposite to me on the train took a cycle Rikshaw from the station. For forty minutes we moved through the huge city not seeing any other Westerners at all. We crawled in stationary traffic up to a roundabout. Several policemen with whistles where hitting motorbikes and cars with sticks in an attempt to get the traffic moving. We stopped, payed and none too politely told the hotel tout who had latched on to us that he should go away.
The Old City is a intricate web of jumbled alleys and back streets that suddenly spill out onto the immortal expanse of the Ghats of the Ganges. The Ghats are a vast plain of interlocking steps and pavement that descend into the Ganges. They span maybe 2Km along the water. During day the washing is done in the river and dried on the long stretches of hot stone. As you walk along you are regailed with crys of "hello madame boat? very good price" and children with large eyes try and sell you flowers and postcard. At dusk boys play cricket, occassionally losing balls into the water. The sky is full of dartinf swallows and far flown kites, both dancing in the breeze above the city and the river. As dark falls candles released from boats float twinkling down the water and moths cluster around the street lights. Late at night the dogs run the show. The packs that sleep in the sun all day wake up and become a cacophany of barking that draws through the night.
The alleys are full of every kind of shop. Resteraunts, perfume, bead, silk and music shops all cluster together along tiny alleys coated in cow dung. The dazzling colours of the fabrics and the wares hovered above the filthy ground. Which acting as a toilet for cows and humans, and as a rubbish heap for the whole city. Everyone I knew was ill in Varanasi. I actually saw comparitively little of the city as I was ill for maybe 5 days with a bad stomach and an allergic reaction to tomato soup. For two days or so my face was huge red and puffy. Any activity lasting more than an hour returned me, exhausted, to bed.
My guesthouse had a large balcony that overlooked the Ghats. Different Ghats have different religious significance. Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi then your soul is released from the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. To be cremated by the side of the Ganges does something good as well, although I'm not sure exactly what. There are two main burning Ghats where bodies and cremated a day every day. The alleys leading up to these Ghats are filled with shops selling firewood. The wood is the most expensive part of a cremation. The type and quantity of wood used in the cremation are both indications of the wealth of the deceased. There is a special skill to laying the minimum amount of wood so that a body will fully burn. The smoke from the fires mixes with city's pollution, together their haze washes the sky.
Better, and desperate to be somewhere clean I left Varanasi on a morning train. I arrived in Rishikesh at 4:30am and after a freezing Rikshaw ride from Haridwar station. As the day began the sun came slowly into the Valley, it was spring and the air was clean.