Sunday, March 20, 2011

Holiest City in India

That title might be wrong but it's pretty close to the truth.  Varanasi is located at the confluence of the Ganges and Assi rivers which for some reason I'm not quite sure about makes it one of the holiest places to go.  Apparently a dip in the water can remove all sin and it's one of the most preferred places to be cremated in all of India  From what I've heard, water from the River Ganga is a crucial part of Hindu last rites no matter where you are.  So the banks are crowded with religious tourists, foreign onlookers, religious ascetics and lots and lots of Hindu ceremonies.

The downside to all this is that it's also one of the dirtiest rivers on the planet with a bacteria count that's out of this world.  I dipped my finger in it just to say I did but wasn't nearly brave enough to attempt bathing there.  Now some people think it's so dirty because of the cremation sites on the river and the fact that some bodies (those of children, pregnant women, sadhus and snake bite victims) are put into the waters without being burnt first.  I even saw a dead body floating down the river while eating lunch one day.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the 200 million people living upstream from Varanasi are dumping untold amounts of mostly untreated sewage into the water.  And if you think that's bad you should consider that Bangladesh is even further downstream and relies on the Ganges as an important water source.  Yeah, South Asia for all it's beauty and cultural diversity has PLENTY of problems.

My own trip actually began better than expected.  Lots of people had warned me about the touts, hash sellers and boatmen all hassling you at once your entire stay there.  Maybe it was losing my cool in Agra and getting it back, or maybe it was just mentally preparing myself for it due to warnings, but overall it wasn't that bad.  At the train station I was able to easily book onward travel (20 hour train to Haridwar, woohoo) and find a rickshaw driver to take me to a guesthouse someone had recommended.  Finding that place full I agreed to have the rickshaw driver show me another place and after a brief bit of haggling got a room with a balcony for 250.  That first night I wandered up the river to see the Aarti worshiping the river Ganga as a goddess.  On the way I was suckered into getting a massage on the ghats (the steps leading down to the river) by an old guy.  About halfway through a second guy joins in so there I am in the middle of the crowded ghats getting an admittedly great massage by two old men.  When they started being pushy about price (wanting something like 600 each) it became much less relaxing and after 5 or 10 minutes of protesting they finally stopped.  I ended up giving them 2 or 3 hundred because despite trying to con me they did do a good job.  Then I watched the ceremony which was filled with lots of chanting and clanging bells.  Lots and lots of bells.

I spent a lot of time wandering the streets over the next few days and, like in many Indian cities, that's one of the best parts.  Cows, goats, beggars, rickshaws, stray dogs and pedestrians all crowded onto narrow alleys.  I saw kids who couldn't afford kites flying plastic bags on strings.  People working to make patties out of cow shit to use for burning.  Public cremations at the burning ghats were an eerily calm sight.  Monkeys (which are revered due to Hanuman being Rama's helper) were about and there was a dead one on the sidewalk laid out on a sheet with some coins around it.  I'm just wondering if that monkey died of natural causes or was helped along since he seemed to be a money maker.

On the second day I set out to see Benaras Hindu University (BHU) since I heard it was a nice walk.  The first strike against it was the young man who as I walked in struck up a conversation.  Considering I wasn't in an overtly tourist area I figured he might be genuine so we chatted for awhile.  Then comes the talk of showing me the temples for a fee.  Then after that was declined he mentioned having cheap sundries in his backpack that he could sell me.  And having failed all that he began talking about how hungry he was and how he needed money.  Maybe I'm a cold-hearted bastard but you get this treatment all the time in India and when it comes from a young guy with two arms and two legs it just doesn't move me.  The second strike was the litter everywhere and the acceptance of it by the students and faculty.  The third strike was the park in the middle which has the potential to be beautiful, having nice trees, sculptures and ponds, if it wasn't for the garbage, broken irrigation flooding what little green grass there was and inch or two of sludge on the pond's surface.  All wasn't lots though, there was a nice temple compound there and I did have a pleasant chat with a French major as I was leaving the campus.

Later that day I ran into Jay and Sacha who were on the camel trek with me.  We chatted for a bit and arranged a time to go see sunrise on the Ganges together.  It definitely worked for me as it meant I'd be paying a third of what I would otherwise and have some company to boot.  I was pretty bleary eyed waking up before dawn the next day but we managed to find each other and had a nice boat trip with a polite and informative boatman.  After getting breakfast together and swapping stories we once more parted ways and I resumed my wanderings.

It's a fascinating city just to walk around, especially in the area along the ghats (the steps leading down to the river).  Everything seems to happen there from wedding ceremonies to cricket games to the burning of the dead.  The touts do get a little annoying with boatmen offering rides every few steps.  The drug dealers, some as young as 7 or 8, also get old so I began saying "Drugs are bad!" really loudly anytime they approached me.  Jay got a kick out of that since I was the one offering people (legal) bhang cookies on our camel trek.

So no pictures tonight as there's a problem uploading them on this connection.  I should also say that my experience of an easy time in Varanasi may not be typical.  Jay and Sacha were kicked out of their rickshaw from the train station halfway to their destination.  And since it was a prepaid rickshaw they couldn't do much about it.  Ahh India, so welcoming to tourists sometimes ;)

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