Varanasi is the city where people go to die. It is believed by Hindus that if you pass away here, you receive a “skip past go card” for the rest of your incarnations and get to head straight to moska (or nirvana). And that’s pretty much how you win the game. As you walk through the narrow streets of Godwalia, a warning sound always precedes traffic passing through. Motorbikes honk, cows moo (not really but you can’t miss them), and a sacred chant is sung by groups of four men carrying dead bodies that they rush down the alleyways towards the river where they will hence be cremated. The sight and smell of smoke is omnipresent along the banks of the Ganges.
According to Hindu texts, Varanasi has been around since the beginning of time, which is pretty accurate. In reality, Varanasi is over 3000 years old, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest city in the world. It sits on the Ganges River, considered also to be holy. Taking a bath in the river is said to wash away the sins of past and future lifetimes. (It just might also give you a case of ringworm, but so worth it.) I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s cherished beliefs as I was tempted to take a bath myself, particuarly with continued heat in the mid-nineties. In the evenings at the many “ghats,” or water access points along the river, there are ceremonial rituals called aartis peformed with lots and lots of fire. “Fire fire!!” Tour boats line the shores to watch.
The aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat
I stayed in a place within the narrow streets of Godwalia. I felt like I was in a scene from the movie The Labrynth everytime I tried to find my hotel because not only was it impossible for me to locate it on my own, but everytime I asked someone where it was, they would point me in the opposite direction of the way the person I just asked a minute before told me to go. Plus, in the movie The Labrynth, they have to cross a river of crud at one point, and all of the streets of Varanasi are filled with crud. Cow poop, dog poop, human pee, spit from the paan that guys chew, and garbage, garbage, garbage everywhere!
September 1st 6:30 PM
It’s nice to have a place to stay again. I probably overpaid but I liked the restaurant at the top. The AC doesnt’ work. About $18.50 a night for relative comfort. And a great view of the Ganges River. The internet is spotty.
September 2nd 10:30 PM
A lot of useless walking around Varansi to save a buck or two and to avoid panic attacks on the rickshaws. Probably dumb overall. I put in a good 6-7 hours of walking today. Maybe less, but walked at least 12-15 km, most of it to and from the train station so that I could make sure to reserve a ticket for tomorrow night. After being very patient with the reservation guy, I was able to nab what I think is first class ticket. Not totally sure. Gotta figure out what “TATKAL” is. Sooo many people here. People everywhere. It’s just freakin’ crazy! Too many people.
I don’t know how they really know how many people live in India. I mean, it’s not like they are handing out census forms to the thousands upon millions of homeless people and saying, “Here fill this out. Can’t read? Ok. Just do your best.” I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if there were 4 or 5 billioin people in India. They just keep coming. The streets are packed. The train stations are loaded with non-travelers. And the trains are jammed even though they run at least 20 cars long. The unreserved train cars might as well be called clown cars the way people just keep packing themselves in there. It’s just too much to take sometimes.
Although there have been many, manyy lasting images of poverrty in India, the one that might forever be etched in my mind is when a little naked boy, who was stuffed with his family into basically a large box on the side of a main highway next to many other boxes with families stuffed inside, yelled “Hello!” then proceeded to follow me out into a busy road as the wheels of rickshaw drivers shaved by him and the buzz of motorbikes whizzed all around. And the piles of sludge his naked feet walked through, just so he could show me his hand moving in the direction of his mouth, which meant of course, “A little money for food please.” “Little buddy, get back to safety please.” The poor, crippled, and helpless are everywhere. And merchants, rickshaw drivers, and “guides,” all vie for your attention. “Hello. Where are you going?” has become like a mantra that I not only hear during the day, but at night when I can’t sleep.
My AC doesn’t work tonight. The internet doesn’t work tonight either. Kinda bummed. Especially since I’m supposed to go to Nepal tomorrow and I read earlier that five more people were killed during constitutional reform protests. I would like another update. I have a bad feeling it’s just going to get worse. I wish it weren’t happening.
September 3rd 8:40 PM
Although I wanted to go 10 km north to the small city of Sarneth (the sight of where the Buddha gave his first “sermon” in 528 BC, essentially marking the beginning of Buddhism), I woke up with a horrible sore throat, perhaps because of all the walking through dirt, trash and dust yesterday. I took every last minute to check out before noon to try to recover.
A man who I thought at first was a rickshaw driver talked me out of going to Sarneth in the early afternoon, saying it was too late and too far. But of course his real motivation was to take me to the factory where he worked in the Muslim part of town and where they were making handmade silk fabrics. The owner gave me a tour of the factory, then sat me down in a comfortable room. A rather strange looking but very clever man who knew the ins and outs of American slang pushed a hard sale on me while a prepubescent boy put a pespi in my hand. The salesman was quite funny at times and it was a terrific show. The whole experience was worth something, so I bought a little relic in the end. They might have never let me go had I not.
My “tour guide” for the day also took me to a holy man, who showed me pictures of Goldie Hawn from years back. She, her daugther Kate Hudson, and even Michael Jackson apparently came to him for spiritual guidance (not together). The pictures of the holy man with Goldie Hawn looked real enough, but you can never really tell because I have found that everything is pretty much a spectical in India. Anways, when in Rome…I got my palm read. He was actually pretty accurate about some things, but I would need more convincing.
I encountered a number of fun run-ins with other Indians, who I find to be very outgoing, even those that are not trying to sell you something. I had a nice chat with some law students while at Assi Ghat who wanted to know what I thought about India and asked all sorts of inquisitve questions about the States. They, like other Indians who I came across, were curious what I thought about Pakistan. We talked a lot about arranged marriage. Their impression was that Indian women wanted arranged marriages more than guys did because they didn’t want to let down their parents. They also told me that “honor killings” are still a problem in India; this is where parents kill their own children for betraying them when they marry someone other than who they had picked out for them. Yikes. I am sure this must be rare.
A ghat where pregnant women bathe
One of my impromptu tour guides at and around Assi Ghat. He was fifteen, spoke very good Italian, and was quite bright and well-educated. But his work seems to be starting to take priority over his schooling.
September 4th 8:00 PM
After another struggle through the maze of Godwalia, I found my hotel to pick up my backpack and headed to the train station to catch an overnight to Gorakhpur. I passed the time wating for the train by chatting with three guys from England who were just finishing up a month of travel in India.
I had a bit of an updgrade this time around. AC, six to each barrack instead of eight, a curtain, and a reading light. I fell hard and fast after popping my anti-anxiety medicine that I often take before using most modes of transportation.
I awoke and everyone had vacated the train. We were in Gorakhpur: the last stop for the trainline in India. I had to get a bus from here to the border, which would take three hours. The bus ride was uneventful and dropped us off a few hundred meters before the Nepali border. I crossed with a Swiss-German couple who sat behind me on the bus. Getting a Nepali travel visa was, oh, about a thousand times easier than it was for me to get my Indian visa in Milan.
The Nepali border
I got a taxi ride to the nearest bus station about 4 km north, but when I arrived there they told me that no busses were running to Lumbini, about 22 km west. I had wanted to visit Lumbini because it was the birthplace of the Buddha. The government had shut down the busses on account of the on-going political situation, or so that’s what people seemed to think. I wasn’t interested in taking a taxi to see s possible riot. So I quickly hopped on a bus in the directoin of Suaraha and Chitwan National Park, a bumpy, hot, long and uncomfortable ride on a crowded bus.