Tuesday, 26 August 2008

down by the river

Arriving at midday I had already decided on a hotel and was thus able to ignore the touts. Whilst having “the fag” outside the train station a head strong bull found its way to the bin blocked by my bags and me. Needless to say, I got out of his way! The rickshaw ride was long, not because of the distance (which was about a mile) but more to do with the traffic levels and the conditions of what passed for a road.

At the hotel I got me an A/C room for less than a tenner, which is expensive in India. I could have slummed for £2.25 a night but why would I do that here. The location is in the middle of town about a kilometre away from the holy Ganges River. I didn’t feel like staying in the old part of town as there ain’t no bars there. You can take the man out of the pub but not for too long!

Before a long siesta I went for a little bimble around the neighbourhood. For the 1st time in months no one tried to sell me drugs. I did get “followed” by a few cycle rickshaw drivers every hundred yards or so. You can cross over the road to escape them but then one coming in the other direction takes over. They are good natured if somewhat determined. Going healthy for a change (this is a lie because everyone knows that fags are packed full of vitamins and minerals which is why I smoke so many everyday) I ended up buying some oranges…all the way from the USA. This did strike me as odd and somewhat expensive!

So now it’s the evening and yep I am in a bar but it does serve food so you call it a restaurant if you like. After the shock of paying R200 for a beer in Gaya, I was happy to be here because Varanasi is in another state so it’s only R80.


Today I had a cunning plan:

• Get rickshaw to the gnats: this was easy to do

• Walk along the river bank from gnat to gnat: for this I would need scuba gear. As it is towards the end of the monsoon season the river is in full flood and therefore all the lower steps which run for several kilometres along the bank are underwater.

• Get completely lost: how easy was that!

So two out of three ain’t bad!

Jumping out of the cycle rickshaw at one of the more popular gnats I made my way down the steps towards the water’s edge. I didn’t get all the way as a middle aged man grabbed my arm and started to massage it. Now as a decent massage was on my list of things to do today I laid myself down on his cloth covered massage table for the next 50 minutes or so whilst he and his young apprentice went to work. Probing, pulling, squeezing and popping all took place. When he came to “click” my neck I thought….um…NO! I was lying on my stomach with half my arse on display to the world (as he prepared to work on my lower back) and it was with some reassurance that when I heard the words “nice arse” it wasn’t sarcastic and by the sound of the voice it was a kiwi chick, so that was fine with me.

In Varanasi old town the widest lane don’t accommodate an auto rickshaw, which is why they are banished from the area. The lanes and alleyways twist and turn and within minutes I wasn’t able to tell which way the river lay…fantastic. The buildings (numbering many maharaja palaces on the waterfront) are all close together and tend to be 3 levels high. So that makes line of sight navigation difficult. Another problem of walking around this place are the cows. Sometimes they chew the cud standing across the lane blocking it, or if it’s a wide lane you have an 18 inch gap to squeeze pass. It’s always the cows behind to have to pass and they know how to kick like a mule, and then there are the street dogs…

Despite the risks I spent hours walking around the place. A non goal orientated walk is what a bimble is and this bimble was a biggy. I didn’t bother carrying a map because I had no plan of going anywhere specific. Approaching lunchtime I spied a sign for the “brown bread company” café. It’s a gringo hangout but on the plus side they sold cheeses. Yes that’s right cheeses, i.e. more than one type. Upstairs in the café, legs crossed on the daybed my eyes were feasting on the menu. Cheddar, Edam, Gouda, local chesses made by people who know what they are doing, cheese with bits of onion, garlic or basil in them. I was amazed at my self control and limited myself to only 3 cheeses. What are the chances I’ll be back here tomorrow…100% if I can find it again.

After the long overdue cheese fix it was back to getting lost. Minutes later, mission accomplished. Sheltering from the rain with 50 Hindu men was interesting. They were all “freshly washed” in the holy Ganges River and felt moved by the experience. Shouting chants with hands in the air they were too busy to stare at the lone white guy…nice! Heading downstream following the river for once I came near the main burning gnat. In case you didn’t know the best place for a Hindu to die is here and afterwards for their body to be cremated and the ashes cast into the river. Personally I can’t understand why tourists come here to look. I mean if a bunch of Indians had turned up at my gram’s funeral I wouldn’t have been best pleased. Besides, it might put me off ever having a barbeque again.

By now my sense of direction had gone completely and I ended up at the northern bridge, which was a surprise for me as I had thought I was heading south! Turns out it was for the good because I got some great views from the middle of the bridge. Coming off the bridge I ended up in the Muslim quarter where behind half opened doors looms clacked in time with each other. By now seven hours of walking had passed and it was time to get back to the hotel and chill out. Just my luck to get the only map illiterate rickshaw driver in town.

My 1st full day here was definitely interesting. Although I did get severely castigated by a local family who I chatted to for 30 minutes for not being able to speak any Hindu.


Sitting in the Café Cheese for lunch again I came to the decision of where I am going to from Varanasi. It’s Kathmandu! I could spend 20 hours or so on a “luxury bus” or for ten times the amount of money I can fly. I think you’ll be able to guess which option I’m going for.

So, after four months in India I feel that if I stayed any longer I would start to get frustrated by the place. That said after a couple of months in Nepal I can always come back into India for a while. I’ve still yet to see the Taj Mahal or ride on a camel in the desert.

Before lunch I went on a boat trip up and down the River Ganges. Most people and brochures recommend waking up early and getting on the water as the eastern sun rises over the horizon to bathe Varanasi n the golden mythical light of dawn. I on the other hand decided that 10am was the best time of the day. The main reasons were:

• I wasn’t getting out of bed that early
• The sky is overcast in the mornings right now
• If I want a picture of Varanasi at dawn I can easily find one on the internet
• I’ve got imaging software that can replicate the effect if I really wanted to, which I don’t

That all said, this time of year isn’t the best for a boat ride. The fast flowing river makes the poor boatmen work hard on the oars when going upstream and they manage to find underwater obstacles to get stuck on as they hug the bank trying to row in the slightly slower moving waters. Also as most of the steps are underwater you only get to see half of it. After about 10 minutes of rowing upstream the can of coke I was drinking from was empty. I placed it next to my bag for disposal at a later date. Within seconds it was picked up and tossed overboard. “Holy water” was the reply to my bemused look.

As I was watching the coke can sink out of sight into the murky brown water a person floated past, face down in the water. It was alright as the person, who was wrapped in white cloth, was dead before they hit the water. I guess that some families can’t afford a cremation.

And lastly…how the hell did I wake up this morning with a cold!!!


It was my last full day in India so I thought I would go and do some shopping for nik naks and the like. Waking up in the early morning with a deep need to hug the toilet bowl put paid to that. I managed to get to the travel agent to book a flight to Kathmandu for the following day and the rest of the time was spent lying on bed, coughing, sneezing and generally feeling weak. I Think I have bird flu!

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