I want to start off this post with my hopes that everyone in Texas is doing ok in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. I talked to Arlen this morning and he had a good laugh at my expense at my most recent phone message which went something to the effect of, "Sorry I haven't been in touch lately. But I am boarding a 30+ hour train ride in a few minutes and just wanted to let you know that I am ok and that you won't hear from me for a while. I'm sure you heard about the bombings in Delhi and while I am in a 'yellow terror zone' here in Varanasi, everything is okay and please tell everyone not to worry."
What I considered to be big news here probably didn't even hit the news there. And the biggest news, of a massive hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, barely registered here. As far as I know everyone is okay.
So, how to summarize the last few days? I left Rishikesh for Varanasi on a very long train ride of about 11 hours or something (or so I thought at the time). I arrived in Varanasi, used the phone to call the guest house of my choice since it's in the middle of the Old City, inaccessible by any kind of rickshaw, the city is rife with touts, and it's nearly impossible to find. I was told to wait 20 minutes and someone would come get me for 60 ruppees. (Expensive but I kew it was worth it!) In 10 minutes someone came with my name and country on a piece of paper (as instructed) and walked me to a auto rickshaw with another driver. Then the driver asks me where to go. Huh. Then 5 guys around me try to give me business cards of different guest houses. They don't seem to want to take me to my lodge. I know for a fact that the place I chose, Yogi Lodge, doesn't take commissions, one of only 3 places in town that doesn't. I decide to leave them thinking I'll get a pre-paid auto rickshaw. They tell me it'll be 50 ruppees (still too much) and don't seem to be in a rush. So I decide I'd be better off going out to the main road to find another rickshaw. I find one and negotiate a price of 40 ruppees but unfortunately a hassler who had been following me around jumped in the rickshaw also and I can't get rid of him. I know this is trouble but there's nothing I can do. So we set off for Yogi Lodge. After some time on the insane streets, we arrive at Yogi Lodge but I refuse to pay my driver. I check it out. It takes a few minutes of demanding to see the rooms and the business card when I realize it's a fake "Yogi Lodge" masquerading as the real place. I demand to be taken to the right lodge. The driver and hassler act surprised, "Oh, the Lodge by the Ganga. You should have said so." But after another long drive in the heat, it's the same story, again, when we arrive at a fake "Yogi Lodge." At this point the driver and the hassler can't believe what a raving bitch I am and can't wait to get rid of me. They know they won't get any commission at the place I am heading. They demand extra money because they took me to 2 different places. In the end, I short them on ruppees after yelling at them (they are simultaneously disgusted with me and the fact they couldn't cheat me and also maybe shocked by my Hindi curse words) and set off on foot, in the incredibly searing sun and humid air. After about 20 minutes of wandering through narrow alleys crammed with women, men, children, soldiers, motorcycles, cows, cow shit, piles of garbage, and open sewers, and with the help of some hopeful Indian boys of about 16, I find the lodge.
Turns out that the man who came and got me was listening in to me on the phone, knew to write down my name and country, and pretended to be from the Lodge. The actual man from the Lodge came and looked for me at the station for 30 minutes to no avail. They were very impressed that I had managed to actually find the place.
Varanasi is the type of place that is nearly impossible to describe. For those of you who don't know, it's probably the most holy city in India, situated on the Ganga (Ganges). People come from everywhere to die here as those that do go directly to heaven, bypassing all the endless troubles of reincarnation. It has over 100 ghats, which are steps leading to the river. Most of these are used for bathing. In the morning (5 a.m!) I went with 3 other tourists at my lodge for an early boat ride along the ghats. Men, women, and children bathing, cremations happening, bodies being ferried to and fro. It's a hectic place but with some strange sense of peace overriding everything. Later in the day I checked out the cremation area. There were multiple fires going on, all lit by a sacred source of fire that has been burning continuously for thousands of years. I was able to walk right up to the cremations and watch them happening, and the heat and ashes and strangeness of the fires together with the humidity and sun was overwhelming. Every day at the cremation ghats hundreds of bodies are burned, for 24 hours a day, with all the work done by the Untouchables. Everywhere you look bodies are being wrapped in white cotton (young people) or festooned in silver (old women) or gold (old men) foils (like something similar to Christmas tree decorations). In addition to the regular chaos in the streets you have to be on the lookout for parades of men carrying dead bodies around. Not all people who die are cremated. Sadhus, pregnant women, those with smallpox or leprosy, and children under a certain age, are already considered holy, and are tied to rocks and dropped in the river. Those who die unnatural deaths, from poison, accidents, murder, or suicide must be bured at another cremation site, which is considered less holy.
My hotel was hotter than hell, small, very very cheap but clean (relatively speaking). I met some great friends while there and we had a lot of fun. At one point we were wandering around and got caught up in the worst traffic jam I've ever seen. We were in an alleyway about 4 feet wide and a man carrying about 15 large bags of ride balanced on a bicycle nearly lost his load in the open sewer. With a 20 square foot area we must have had ...let's see about 50 people, 3 bicycles, the load of rice, several large metal bowls filled with curd (yogurt) balanced on peoples heads and 2 motorbikes. My fried Rachel said, "All we need now is a cow!" And guess what.... sure enough a large grumpy cow comes barrelling through when no one was able to move before somehow everyone magically gets out of the way. Sadly, I am right next to her and very nearly get trampled when even she decides there's no way to get through the mess and manages to turn herself around....fortuantely everyone was looking out for me and I was saved.
Varanasi is a very very filthy place and I tried to be extra cautious about food. Many places near the ghats wash their dishes in the Ganga. I watched many people just drinking the water straight from the river. Whoa. While there I also saw a woman administering oral polio vaccine to little infants in the alleyways. What a relief.
My lodge was very close to the Golden Temple and also a very important mosque. There were armed soldiers everywhere protecting this area. They liked to watch me walk back and forth in the alleys, hot, sticky, and often lost. Turns out that about a month previously, a live bomb was planted near the temple. The bomb squad was unavailable and something needed to be done quickly. A regular army soldier volunteered to take the bomb apart. Everyone who knew him was surprised because he was not considered a very brave or capable soldier. Turns out he had drank so much bhang lassi (a very potent drink consisting of yogurt and marijuana) that day that he was so wasted he had no sense of danger at all. Good news is that it worked.
Well I'm in Mumbai now after a 32 hour train ride. It was ridiculous. Only a few more days until my India adventure is over.