Since Shiva was sleeping at the flat the previous night, we decided to give him some privacy and grab a hotel with Antoine and Lisa. We awoke in our luxurious hotel room ready to see some new scenery. The people in New Delhi are wonderful (at least the ones we met), but let’s just say that the city itself could be improved. We spent our last day in New Delhi purchasing some train tickets and doing other odds and ends. Laxmi made another tasty lunch for us and we spent time with her and Shiva. We gave Shiva a $300 donation thanks to our generous friends and family back home who so kindly donated to the organization. Thanks guys! This money is being used to keep the schools open in New Delhi and start new schools in Uttrakhand. It is very much appreciated by so many!
We said our goodbyes, received many invitations to return for family weddings, and headed to the train station to become tourists again and check out the holy city of Varanasi.
John and I both were really excited to visit Varanasi after we watched an awesome documentary on Vimeo by Cale Glendening called Varanasi, India: “Beyond”. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and it felt as though we were stepping back in time. The journey started with a 12 hour overnight train journey from New Delhi to Varanasi. We were in a AC sleeper due to lack of options and it was really comfortable. We had a good night sleep and were well rested for our first day in a new Indian city. We arrived at a train station a bit out of town so the four of us hopped on a local bus to get to the correct location. We negotiated a rickshaw ride the rest of the way, crammed the four of us and our large backpacks in, and set off with hopes of finding a particular guesthouse. Little did we know that the streets of Varanasi are more like tiny alleyways strung together in a fashion that guarantees you will get lost. It took us probably an hour to weave through the narrow streets, dodge cows taking up the whole alley, and maneuver around piles of cow poo in our path to find the guesthouse we were searching for. The guesthouse wasn’t as nice as we hoped, but after searching for as long as we had, we played Rock Paper Scissors with Lisa and Antoine to figure out which couple would get the room with a shower head and which couple would get the one with a steady stream of water like a hose. We won the shower head (boom!) and settled in to our rooms to bathe and recover from the long journey. The guesthouse did have a decent rooftop with a view of the holy Ganges river but we couldn’t stay up there for long during the day due to the immense heat of the sun. It already felt much much hotter than it ever did in New Delhi.
We ventured out a bit later, once the heavy heat began to lift, and made our way to the ghat. We watched a ceremony at sundown which gave thanks to the river Ganga. The audience included Indians, foreigners, and several of the biggest cows I have ever seen. Two of them started fighting/humping in the middle of the crowd, causing everyone to give them room until they were through. Once they settled down, we sat next to the cows among the steps, watching locals pass by while touching various parts of the cow’s body, a religious practice for Hindus. The cows surprisingly didn’t seem to even notice that they were being touched, although a lack of personal space seemed to be the norm in India for all of its inhabitants.
We spent the following day wandering the narrow streets and taking in the extremely rich culture all around us. It was impossible to ignore how many cows were simply everywhere and how many interesting smells were floating around. After almost a month traveling around India, Varanasi wins for the largest number of cows per square meter, hands down. We ate some local dal, bargained for a new shirt for me, and enjoyed chatting with the locals who knew a surprising number of languages. Most of them knew a bit of Spanish because apparently many Spaniards flock to Varanasi during the summer months. We also enjoyed some amazing lassis at Blue Lassi, a famous lassi shop in Varanasi. In this case, the lassis were really thick yogurt mixed with any combination of goodies. We had 3-4 lassis from the Blue Lassi over the course of 3 days in Varanasi. We tried the banana chocolate, mango banana, and mango chocolate. All were as fabulous. The lassis were served in mini terra cotta pots which were discarded after every use. It seemed wasteful, but at least it also seemed more sanitary than most other restaurants around. It was too hot to leave the comfort of the shaded alleys, so we spent most of our time exploring the alleyways of the old city and then headed back to our guesthouse to meet one of the staff members who offered to give us a tour of the ghats around 4pm. He refused to go any earlier for fear of heat stroke (a genuinely valid fear).
The first stop on the tour was a burning site where Hindus bring their loved ones to be cremated over a fire and scattered into the Ganges. Since this is one of biggest cremation sites in the India (and maybe the world), it’s hard to escape the sense of death that comes with a visit to the city. For example, the Blue Lassi shop is next to a route people take to bring their loved ones to the cremation site. While you are sitting there enjoying a treat, you will often see a group of people walk by playing drums, chanting, and carrying a body on a platform, wrapped in cloth. The final destination is the ghat where a fire is lit using a flame that has been continuously burning for hundreds of years. The body is then placed on the fire and the family and friends of the deceased watch as the corpse is overtaken in flames and then it’s remains are offered to the holy Ganga. We stayed at the cremation site long enough to understand the process, but not long enough to be viewed as spectators. We were also accepted because we were accompanied by a local Indian man, rather aimlessly wandering into the site on our own. While we stood there, we could see the flames engulf the head and feet of a body while ash and the smell of burning flesh floated down around us. It was hard to watch and difficult to imagine how we would feel if it was our friend or family member laying there. Although there is always some sadness associated with these ceremonies, we could tell the people at the ghat on this day had a great deal of pride. It is an incredible honor for Hindus to be cremated in Varanasi and have their souls transported to the afterlife by the waters of the Ganga. This process was fulfilling a lifelong dream for the person who lay before us.
As we were leaving the site, we saw two young white women who were posted up on the stairs, watching the scene. An Indian man was running up to one of the girls, shouting. I quickly realized she was sitting on the steps, in a long skirt, but the bottom part was hanging low and the top part was high, so her underwear was completely exposed. It was really an embarrassing sight, especially to be seen at such a holy ceremony in India. I quietly walked up to the girl to explain why the man was in such a tizzy and she rectified the situation quickly. Our guide asked me to tell her that they should probably move on because the men can get really agitated by onlookers during these ceremonies and often get quite aggressive towards foreigners. After I gave her the advice (which she ignored) we then followed our guide to see one of the oldest mosques in Varanasi. We had to pass back through the burning site to continue on our tour about 20 minutes later and the two girls were still sitting there. I couldn’t believe how thick headed some people could be. Even if they didn’t know any better at first, we had told them they needed to move on. If someone told me that, I would have been out of there as fast as I could. We left the site and kept walking down the ghat as the girls remained planted on the steps seemingly gawking at such a special and personal day for all those around them.
As we walked along the river through the various ghats, we came to a location where we saw a small boat heading out into the Ganges from shore with about a dozen people and a small object wrapped in cloth. Our guide informed us that the boat carried the body of a child. If a child passes away, the body is not cremated. Instead, it is taken out to the middle of the Ganges and placed into the river. Well, on this occasion, it was more of a drop. We watched for a few minutes as the boat drifted away from shore and as soon as it reached the center of the river, the body was pushed from the edge of the boat directly into the river followed by a large splash. I expected them to get to the location and place the body gently into the water in a ceremonial way but I guess either method gets the job done all the same. Cows are also given to the Ganga after their death in this way rather than through cremation. If you are like me, maybe you are now imagining what the bottom of the Ganges would look like without water. I know it is morbid, but one cannot help but wonder these things when standing in a city consumed with death. It probably also comes as no surprise to you that the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. So, you can imagine our horror as we continued our walk down the ghat and encountered numerous locals washing their clothes, bathing, and swimming in the Ganges. We understand this is a holy river, but…wait, is that man filling his mouth with the river water, swishing it around, and spitting it back out? Yep. Yes, he it. Considering we hadn’t even been brushing our teeth with tap water for the past six months, this was too much to handle.
Once we finished touring the ghats, we ventured back into the dusty streets where our guide took us to a delicious local chai shop and then walked a bit further to a cloth shop. We were able to see how they make the intricate patterns in many of the carpets and wall hangings seen around the city. We had an opportunity to purchase some of their work at good prices, but good prices to a backpacker is still too much. All of their work was very beautiful, so we hope to return one day with a little extra cash and do some shopping. Our last stop was a restaurant our guide recommended, where we each had a tasty paneer masala curry. It was a great way to end off the day. The walk through the ghats was enlightening and special. Varanasi has so much history and an incredible amount to see that you could just sit on the steps for hours, watching the world go by around you, and never get bored.
We woke up the next morning to see the sunrise over the Ganges. Most people go out on a boat to watch, but we were very happy we decided to walk along the river instead. It was a bit windy, making the boating experience look quite uncomfortable, plus we had a great view near all the dogs chilling out and the locals washing their clothes at the Raja ghat.
The four of us headed back into town to get some breakfast. TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet were both extremely helpful tools when looking for a sanitary place to eat in India. We read about a place called the Brown Bread Bakery and headed off to find it. To our surprise, we encountered 3 or 4 signs directing us to completely different brown bread bakeries. Luckily, we had seen a picture of the real sign online and were able to seek it out. This wasn’t the first time we would come across businesses trying to reap the benefits of the successes of others and it was an important early lesson.
After breakfast, we wandered the narrow alleyways once again and said goodbye to Varanasi as we crammed ourselves back into a rickshaw to catch our night train to Agra, the home of the magical Taj Mahal!