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Irene's Adventures

India - Varanasi

INDIA | Monday, 13 September 2010 | Views [696]

If you have the ability to zoom in on the pictures I post, do so, as there is usually a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.  Varanasi is a sensory overload.  Unfortunately, I can only offer you the visual, but while selecting the photos I see things I never noticed while taking the shot.  A day in India has more happening than a month back home – no exaggeration.


The ride from the train to old Varanasi told me that this place was really going to challenge me.  There were cows, cows, cows, dogs, dogs, dogs, garbage, garbage, garbage, and PEOPLE!  Oh my God, the people! I know I’ve described traffic as a school of fish darting in and out; this place would make fish jealous – or glad they are not human.

crowded lane

Varanasi is the holiest of holy cities in India, situated on the holiest of holy rivers, the sacred Ganga.  As such, there are sadhus and Babas every few meters.  Initially, one does a double take when you see these old men with their raggy mostly orange robes, long beards, dread locks bunched up and paint across their foreheads.  But after a few days, they become part of the landscape and hardly note worthy.  They have the most piercing eyes, though.  When they look at you, it is as though they can see right into your soul.  We spoke briefly to one Baba and he was actually quite funny.

Irene & Sadhu  Sadhu 

I left you in the last blog telling you about getting a room.  Bearing in mind we had taken the night train, and had slept quite well, it was still unmercifully hot and the tuktuk could only manoeuvre so far up the narrow maze-like lanes of the old city, so we were left to walk the rest. 

narrow lane with cart

We found a lovely little shop, the Monalisha (probably was supposed to be the Mona Lisa, but the spelling of English words is almost comical here in India – do yoga, be bappy), and ordered a chai, taking a moment to sit and gather ourselves.  While in the shop we asked some fellow travellers where they were staying.  Len went to scout a few places out, while Michaela and I guarded the bags.  He came back a few minutes later.  The one hotel that he went to had a dead cow in front of the door.  Apparently the cow had been lying there, dying, for the past 3 days and finally succumbed that morning.  Alrighty then..... Let’s move on.....  Next...

The shop owner overheard us (they hear every little thing, as we would soon discover) and said that he had a guest house just up the lane.  Off we go. 

You really get a bad feeling when the guy showing you the room is wearing only a towel around his waist.  The room was on the third floor.  The stairs were narrow and steep, about 50 centimetres wide with the rise about mid-shin; the rise also being about 20 cm wide, so there is no way you can plant an entire foot; you either go up on the ball of your foot or place your foot at an angle to the step.  The room was stifling hot and the straw mattress looked like something my Grandfather threw away in 1946. 

There was a young fellow that was following along (they have a tendancy to do that) who said that his cousin had a place not far away.  Veddy nice.  Ok.  Off we go.  This place was great.  It is the family home that was built 200 years ago.  Side note: Varanasi was levelled by some invading marauder about 200 years ago, and was basically rebuilt shortly thereafter.  They remodelled the main floor to put in 4 guest rooms, brand new.  I was customer #4!  500 rupees per night – expensive by Indian rates, but considering the newness, it was a deal.

It looks as though Varanasi was a very nice city, once upon a time.  You can see the splendour in many buildings, mostly in the fine stone lattice work.  However, other buildings have attached themselves to the original buildings.  The only way I can describe it is like barnacles.  Multitudes of little shops, residences, mysterious abodes have attached themselves to the point that the original structure is nearly totally obscured.  All these barnacles have also made any semblance of a road or street non-existent.  It is an absolute maze of crooked narrow lanes, mostly about a meter and a half wide.  They are covered with ½ meter cement blocks that are semi- flat.  Corners are missing, random size bricks are inserted or heaps of dirt. 


There are cows wandering around in these lanes, sometimes small herds of them.  Even though they stand to the side, (more than I can say for the humans) they are a big animal and can pretty much fill the walking space.  There is the accompanying cow shit to watch out for.  Thankfully, the cows are quite placid and don’t give you a second thought.  Having grown up on a farm, I was always leery of one kicking me as I past.  I think it is because they are born and raised in a noisy city and the noise and people have become ‘natural’ to them.


There are as many dogs as cows.  None seem healthy.  They lie about, mostly on ledges and are not really in the way.  The goats tend to stick close to the shops and munch on rubbish.

The rubbish..... well, there is a LOT of it.  Everyone simply throws things on the ground.  They sweep it up into piles on a daily basis, and the garbage man comes along with his cart, scrapes it up with a tin scoop and off he goes.  We’ve seen on the main roads where they sprinkle a white powder, but not in the lanes.


As I mentioned, they overhear everything.  Michaela and I were discussing how to tell real silk from the plastic silk (polyester).  Immediately some vendor goes, “plastic? You want plastic?”  It is like that with everything you talk about.  They can supply it.  “Anything possible” except when you really want something, then it is “not possible”.  It could be the heat or their overall blasé attitude, but for the most part they seem to be half asleep (or totally asleep) in their miniscule shops.  When you walk by, they sort of come alive and say “hello?” in a tone like you do when the telephone line has gone dead and you are wondering if the guy on the other end is still there.  Hello???  It is comical. They will also say “what you want” in a tone that sounds like being caught by some mean old man in his garden patch. 


It is really hard to read these people.  They have no facial expressions, other than blank.  It is really hard to describe.  Add to that the head bobble and the MMMMM sound, and you suppose they have acknowledged you, but what does it mean?  We were told that many have seldom, or never, seen a white person and are genuinely curious.  The teenagers no longer go to school as there is no curriculum past grade 6 and if they can’t find work, they hover, as teenagers worldwide do.  Foreign tourists are a great pastime.  The teenage boys are very juvenile.  They behave like 8 year olds, posing like poster models or good-naturedly shoving each other about and giggling. The girls seem to be out of sight or selling trinkets on the street.  There is also a skewed balance between men and women in India.  The men and boys perch like crows on every conceivable ledge.  One is left to wonder what goes through their minds all day, perching motionless and staring blankly, when not gawking at us.

crows perched


Of course there is still the standard “take my picture” or take a picture of their kid.  We haven’t figured it out, but the nearest we can conclude is that they really believe in reincarnation and in getting their picture taken is kind of like putting in an order for their next life – in a western world.  I think some of the old people have seen this camera thing, but have never seen a photo of themself.  They giggle and point to the digital display.  It is quite quaint and innocent.

We went to the night Puja, a holy ritual performed by the river.  6 Brahman do elaborate waving of incense, butter lamps and conch shells, while constantly ringing a bell that resembles an old school bell.  All around there are other men beating drums, clanging gongs, ringing other larger bells (church bell size) and none of it to any particular rhythm creating a huge racket.  The Puja Brahman, on the other hand, had lovely music and were very synchronized.   People can purchase lovely flower garlands and little leaf bowls with flowers and a lit candle to place on the river, as well.  Considering the Ganga is extremely high due to the rains, there is no shore.   With the steps leading into the river being submerged, and with dozens of boats filled with spectators / worshipers crowding in as close as they can, the offerings seemed to lose much of its lustre.


We took a walk to the burning ghats.  You know you are there when you come to mountains of wood stacked up, not the lumber kind, but logs.  They usually burn on the shore, but since there is no shore, they are burning on a roof top – I’m not sure how that is adding stability to the building, even with it being a stone structure.  We saw a couple of shrouded bodies waiting in queue (my sick attempt at a joke as they never queue when alive) and a lot of smoke and heat haze from the roof top.  I took one picture and a fellow was on me instantly, yelling that no pictures were allowed (for small fee, allowed) and right in my face about it.  I quickly deleted it and showed him the camera (lying) that I never took a picture, see for yourself.  Before you knew it there was a crowd.  I stood my ground, I was beginning to lose my composure with this sawed off little runt yelling not 6 inches from my face.  As we were leaving, another fellow says “for small donation, we make compromise”.  Geez!!!  Again, it was all about the money.  I think the first guy would have taken money as well, but I never gave him the chance to suggest it. 

burning ghats

We got up at sunrise one morning and took a boat ride on the Ganga.  It was pleasantly cool.  We got to see a lot of people bathing in the river, doing Puja, and a different view of the city then ended at the burning ghat.  There were other boats there, with people standing in the boats to get better pictures.  Up on the actual burning platform, tourists were walking right through the burning bodies.  I guess the burning is not quite as sacred as the money grubbing little man had wanted me to believe.  At the end of the day, I’m not sure I wanted to see a body burning, not that I’m squeamish, but I’ve seen burning animals and it’s not a pretty sight or smell.  I can’t imagine a human body being any different.

bathing at the ghats  praying in the river

The one thing we saw on the street, that blew us away, was a street dentist.  Unbelievable!  He was fitting an old man with false teeth, that he made right there.  He’d fit them in the old guy’s mouth, then reform them with his hands (shudder), trim a bit with scissors, and plop them back in the old guy’s mouth.  1500 rupees for upper and lowers.  BUT the best was when he gave a woman an injection in her mouth then 2 minutes later pulled her tooth!!!  Wild!!  He would tell them to go to the pharmacy and get the syringe, or whatever other kind of medication, then he’d do the work.  You can buy antibiotics right over the counter here. He had quite the crowd of westerners standing in disbelief – now was our turn to gawk.  At the same time, he had quite a few locals squatting down waiting to get dentistry work done.

curb side dentist 

The big advertisement item is MACHO men’s innerwear.  There are billboards all over the place.  It is really comical; romanticizing this hottest new consumer item.  Maybe it is, considering the innerwear they currently use.

Macho inner wear  men's underwear

Electricity is very sporadic.  Some places have generators or a battery for emergency light.  The problem is that people just tie into the power line, kind of like stealing cable TV. It really puts a strain on the system, as the fire in the transformer testifies.  Walking through the lanes can be a tricky business when the power goes out.  Some shops have a battery, so they throw a bit of light into the lane.  Some have a candle, which is practically useless except for the vendor to see.  We always carried small flashlights but even that tended to cast harsh shadows and was not always reliable in dodging hidden ‘treasures’ on the path.

Len & Michaela spent a lot of time scouting out fabrics, scarves, table runners, table clothes and bed spreads from a couple of suppliers and one weaving factory.  The guide book had all kinds of things to see, but considering the heat- 40c - and the state of my stomach (I got a bit of Dehi belly and was room bound with my 10 cm spider in the bathroom for a day) all we really did was explore our little corner of Varanasi and experience life.

big spider in my room

This blog was written AFTER the next one.  The next one goes into more detail, and puts us on the train to Bodhgaya.




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