BootsnAll Travel Network

The heart of India: Varanasi.

I wasn’t exactly inspired to leave Nepal and head back into India. My time in Nepal was like going on vacation from a big city and chilling out in some quiet little hill station. Crossing the Terai and being blasted in the face by the post monsoon humidity and the eye burning, lung irritating dust, just further emphasized my dread.

The only conciliation was that the next destination in route was the holiest of the holies for the Hindus, Varanasi. Prior images are of a dirty, smelly, polluted town with a veritable sewer of a river where people are stacked ten deep to bathe in the corpse filled waters. I am actually a bit disturbed as I re-read that last descriptive sentence, but really studying it, I really can’t dispute it. The average tourist I would probably have to say would acknowledge the same. I think our media does what it does best and goes for shock value and of course the average human being soaks it up like a Coke on a hot summer day. I would actually have to take a shot at books, that’s right those things people use when the tv is not working. Without the shock value, writing about the Ganges would be pretty tame as “pilgrims coming down to the holy city of Shiva to wash away a lifetime of sins and to cremate their loved ones” just doesn’t carry as much weight as my prior description. Arriving post monsoon I was predicting post apocalypse with a town underwater, Africa jungle heat, mosquitoes carrying off the young, and bodies stagnating after ghat stairs being inundated. Happily or at least relieved, it wasn’t much like that.

After a brutal ten hour drive as there wasn’t one hotel in that whole stretch, I arrived in Varanasi just after dark. One thing I highly recommend for those doing the self drive is to not arrive anywhere, especially a big city in India, at night. The afternoon rush is absolutely a crush of insanity. Adding to that having no clue where you are at and lucking on someone who speaks English with enough clarity to give directions improbable, it was a fairly stressful hour of forehead slapping before I pulled into a hotel that was recommended in the guidebook. It is hard to describe the drop in stress level when you are finally checked into a hotel and are standing under a cold shower knowing that the one thing left for the day was to eat and sleep. It was a really impactful welcome back to India.

I ended up getting a hotel in the less congested area of Lahurabir as the ghat area is lined with pedestrian only alleyways where the Schwinn just wasn’t going to make it. It was only a two kilometer walk to the main area of ghats, but with the catacombs of paths and non-symmetrical streets, my first experience was three hours of wandering aimlessly through action packed streets before I finally stumbled onto the main entry point at Dasawamedh. The main action in Varanasi are the 80 or so ghats (the long string of bathing steps leading down to the water on the western banks of the Ganges) which extend for about five kilometers. The ghats are used for daily chores of bathing, washing clothes, cooling off your pet water buffalo, fishing, or just socializing. Spiritually, since it is a holy city/river, many pilgrims come to the ghats to bathe in the holy water and wash away a lifetime of sins, offering puja (respect- or offering of prayers), and to cremate loved ones in one of the most auspicious places on earth. For tourists, it is one of the holiest places where you can see first hand the real life happenings of a truly holy place.

Generally, I spent my time just doing what the locals do, hanging out at the various ghats watching the world unfold. I did make a trek out of it and walked the entirety in two days splitting up the the five kilometers in half. During most of the year the ghat steps are clean and clear full circuit, but being post monsoon, many places were still flooded and were only crossable by wading. I am assuming that most people would draw the line at actually touching the “holy” water as it is rated as septic (no dissolved oxyen exists) and samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml with a safe bathing figure being 500. Adding to that the remains of the cremated and some not cremated being added to the Mother river, and you have a lot of foreigners who took a pass. The two walks it took to cross the entirety was a great way of seeing and feeling the experience. Being thigh deep in silty mud next to the burning ghats was probably a bit much, but otherwise, it was just walking along another river much like the hundreds that I have had to cross on this trip. Sure, the clump of hair that got stuck to my sandals was new, but hey it could have been just some old lady cleaning out her hair brush.

Supposedly one of the best ways to visit the ghats is to take a pre-dawn boat ride to watch the ghat world awaken. Being that pre-dawn is around 5:30am, I did the second best thing and hired a boat in the sunset hours and took a cruise up and down the ghats to see it from a different perspective. At night time there was a daily puja with singers, dancers, and fire offerings which drew huge crowds to the rivers banks. It would have been nice to have taken a room along the ghat side hotels, but I had the Schwinn, so oh well.

My time in Varanasi turned out to be pretty enriching. It was perfect for getting re-acclimatized to India life. It was day three when my entire system caught up and I felt normal again. I guess it was the same when I just got off the plane nice months ago.

Some other refreshing experiences: Thalis, the standard Indian fare were actually a big treat as Nepal’s Dal bhat is really scaled down on the flavors. Having a eight course meal was sensational, and I was surprised at how much I missed curd with my meal. I ended up resolving my logistical issues with getting to the ghats by using the extensive cycle rickshaws. It was only ten rupees and I got to just kick back while my cycle guy handled all the stresses of road travel. Looking at it from the perspective of the back seat, I am amazed that I drive through those messes on a daily basis. Sodas are 300ml versus 250ml in Nepal. Now to some that may seem insignificant, but 300ml is minimum necessary to complete a meal (that’s a scientific fact- sort of.) Also, for the same price, you get a full 2-litres versus 1.5-litres when you go big. What a rip-off that was in Nepal. And finally, there are fuel stations everywhere and one huge stress has been dropped because of that. I am back to having full freedom on riding around. India life just isn’t so bad.

What’s ahead? Well, I vetoed the Eastern route to Calcutta. It’s time to get moving on around the world. Heading back to Delhi I thought was going to be a hassle as there was only one sizeable town with the possibility of accommodations which left two more nights on uncertainty. Checking the guide book I found a pleasant alternative view which would take me a bit south to check out a couple more sights and then back up to Delhi. So instead of a ball busting three day ride I can cruise it with some nice intermittent tourist stops along the way. Hell, I could stretch it out a couple of weeks.

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