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Wednesday 17th November - Varanasai
By Claire
Monday, 22nd November 2004 05:45

We arrived in Varanasai at 6am, an hour and a half after Dr Rama had suggested we set our alarm. He told us his brother, who was collecting him from the station, had a guesthouse just over the road, if we wanted to see it, or there was a hotel next door if we prefered. We waited with him on the platform, and his brother and two other people arrived. They chatted for a while and we stood and watched. A Western-looking Buddhist monk asked us if we were alright, as if the thought of two white people in a band of Indians probably meant trouble, which was actually quite nice of him. Then Dr Rama introduced us (I even managed to say 'Namaaste' and do the wai thing properly. We all walked across the station to the car park and to a small Fiat. They motioned to us to put our bags in the boot (one fit, the other went on Mikey's lap) and then five of us squeezed into the car. Dr Rama pointed out the guesthouse that looked like it was in the middle of a rubbish dump. They took us to the hotel next door which didn't look much better, and fortunately they didn't have any rooms available. We said goodbye to the doctor and then tried to take an auto to the station tourist office to make a reservation in one of the hotels in the guidebook. He said the tourist office wouldn't open until 8am, but he knew a nice hotel quite close by. All hotels in Varanasai pay touts to bring tourists in, and then charge the guests for the priviledge, so we were expecting that. The guy wasn't able to take us to any city centre hotels because the roads were too narrow for his auto, so we went to see the one he offered. It was more expensive than he suggested but still less than we were prepared to pay (but I'm sure they'll add a spurious service charge onto that later), and the room looked clean, so we accepted, paid the driver (who touched our knees in thanks) and tipped the lads who brought our bags. They were surprised to get a tip each, and the younger one smiled a lot at us and offered to bring us tea or coffee or anything we wanted. But we just slept for an hour or so.

There was even enough hot water for pleasant showers when we got up, and I felt much better. It was still not even 10am, and we went into town to see what we could see. Varanasai is the most ancient and most holy city in India, and people believe that if you die here you will be absolved of all sin, which means that a lot of sick and old people come here. It also has the Ganges running through it, making it a site for pilgrimages. I only wanted to come here because I saw that there was a bead shop here on the internet, but when I mailed them, they said they'd send a car to take me to their showroom. This suggested to me that they were expecting a massive purchase on my behalf, so I won't be going, but I'd really like to pick up some beads here.

We weren't quite as close to the city as the auto driver had led us to believe. The roads were dreadful and more congested even than Delhi. There were more cows, a lot more pigs and plenty of dogs everywhere, all competing with beggars for the nicest bits from the rubbish heaps in the street. People were wading, barefoot, through the grey sludge in the sewage gutters. The air was almost opaque with dust, smoke and fumes, and the continuous hooting and sounding of bells left me with a permanent ringing in my head. After several wrong turns we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the ghats, the steps at the banks of the river, and we spent a bumpy fifteen minutes wandering through the streets. We made the first mistake of haggling when the driver told us to pay him what we wanted - we offered him what we thought was fair (and generous). We should, of course, have offered him something insultingly low and then reluctantly agreed to increase the price. This way, he got something that would have been the equivalent of eight pounds an hour, something that I wasn't even earning at home! But we learned our lesson.

We weren't actually at the river at all, and in a nearby internet cafe we found we were further away than we had started. We decided to walk it, and the internet cafe man's directions to head due east were easy to follow by keeping the sun on our right. We were pestered by drivers, guides, beggars and market stall holders every step of the way. Children reached out and touched me as they passed, which I hate especially when they're all so filthy. We fought our way through the stinking, heaving crowds, trying, but not succeeding, to mind where we trod, and then found a lovely bit of peace and quiet on a paved road that led straight to the Ganges. There were no vehicles here, and the ancient cobbled streets and little houses along it were like something from a thousand years ago. With telephone wires.

The ghats were gorgeous, and the Ganges, full of sewage, body parts and radioactive effluent, looked a lot cleaner than I was expecting, and didn't smell bad. Red brick steps led right into the river all the way along the banks, interspersed with small temples. People were bathing, some were offering boat trips, children were trying to sell things to us. Mikey was grabbed by a man and subjected to a forceful massage and a demand for payment. Mikey's so good-natured that he finds it hard to show that he's angry, which makes him a popular target for everyone. I just shout and tell them to go away: Mikey's reluctance to be impolite is his downfall. Once he'd escaped we went for a little wander. There was a man washing his water buffalo, and every step of the way we were accompanied by people who started telling us about the area in the hope that we'd pay them. Monkeys squabbled in the temples above our heads. Just round the corner was a big fire. The man on the path asked us to hide our cameras. There were funerals going on, bodies being burned. We had a bit of a look and we were encouraged to go and watch, but the piles of white-robed bodies on beds of sticks, and the huge pyres was enough. It would have been interesting to get closer, but the man with us seemed to be threatening that we'd have to pay him if we stood here any longer. We left.

It was past lunchtime, and we found a place in the guidebook that sounded safe to eat. I didn't like the idea of anything that had come into too much contact with the Ganges water, which was bad enough, but the guidebook told us that there was a common scam both here and in Agra, where restaurants would poison guests and a fake doctor would keep them sick with drugs while he claimed money from the victims' insurance company. This place was recommended, though.

The tiny alleys leading away from the river were lovely, even if they were full of cow pats and old men squatting in the gutters adding to the excrement. Most of them were narrow enough to touch both walls at once, and the buildings on both sides overhung the streets so much that it was dark and much cooler here and sometimes you couldn't see the sky at all. It looked a bit like the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem. But with cows. We took all sorts of twists and turns, following the signs painted on the sandstone walls and found the restaurant, which wasn't anything like we expected. It was in a dark basement in a dark cafe, and an old man in a white robe sat on a stage by the door and shouted at himself. But the food was excellent, which is all we wanted.

After lunch we decided to leave the river and head for something called the Golden Temple. It was supposed to be quite close to the restaurant but the alleys were so windy that we got lost quite soon. Everywhere we went, someone tried to walk with us and offer directions in exchange for money, and sometimes we would get demands if we walked along the road someone suggested. It made finding the place very hard, because in order to avoid all the helpful people and the beggars, we had to go in completely the wrong direction. But we did see some lovely old colonial buildings along the way, and plenty of ancient balconies and columns and lattice-work windows. And cows sitting on walls. There were shops lining the alleys too, all with big fronts open onto the street, just about four feet above it. The floors were all covered entirely in mattresses with white cotton sheets over them, and people lounging on them. It looked wonderfully comfortable!

Varanasai is famous for its silks and its saris, but we couldn't get close enough to any of the shops to have a look at anything - if we even glanced in the direction of a shop someone would come out and shove things into our hands to get us to buy them, and it was very hard to escape. So we just kept walking round the bikes and the rickshaws and the cows and the crowds until we reached the main road. A soldier, a stereotypical colonial-style elderly gentleman with a bushy white moustache, very upright posture and a cane, walked along side me and asked what my mother country was. I replied and took the opportunity to ask directions without being sold anything. He pointed down a lane we'd already tried, but we had another go.

There were lots and lots of soldiers down here, with guns and bayonets. There was an airport-style metal detector taking up the whole width of the tiny street and the army guys were blocking the way. The temple was through there, but we couldn't go in with cameras, and short of leaving them on the street, we weren't going to be able to see it. So we retraced our steps and fought our way back through Varanasai traffic to our hotel, and arrived completely caked in grime and dust. Mikey went over the road to make some hotel reservations while I checked my email and then joined him. The man at the phone shop was so lovely and friendly and told us how to get to the other station that we needed when we left town. We might ask him to organise something reliable for us! I had a headache so I had a nap, and then the reception desk woke me up by phoning to ask if we wanted dinner.

We went into the hotel's garden, a wonderful lawn with a 20-foot tall white-washed wall all round it, covered in ivy, and fairy lights for Diwali.We sat at grubby plastic picnic tables and chose from the huge menu. I wasn't very hungry but still managed to order too much. The room was swarming with invisible mosquitoes when we returned, and Mikey made a little collection of corpses for a while. The Indian electricity voltage is too low for our mozzie-plugs to work, and the ceiling was too high to reach for our nets, so we spent the whole night being eaten alive and slapping at our unseen attackers.

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