Wednesday, March 7, 2012


We took an overnight train to Varanasi from Calcutta. Varanasi (aka Benaras) is the oldest city in India and among the oldest cities in the world. It is also one of the holiest cities in India, both for Hindus and Buddhists. You've probably, knowingly or unknowingly, encountered the sights of Varanasi before. It is situated on the Ganges and is known for its burning ghats; pilgrims come from all over to burn the bodies of loved ones on the shore. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it proved to be one of the most fascinating destinations yet.  I will always carry the experience with me.

After landing at the train station, we had an annoying encounter with two rickshaw wallahs who independently accosted us to avail of their rickshaw services. Both encounters ended in yelling at them to go away. Defiantly, we went to the prepaid rickshaw stand (where the man behind the counter asked me if I had a pen and I made a scene - "Isn't it your job to have a pen?" - and refused on principle to dig through my bag) and ending up being assigned the two rickshaw wallahs we were trying to avoid. Annoying because they were in cahoots; doubly annoying because rickshaws only need one driver. We were mad, but what to do... Anyways, we eventually found out why both were needed. One drove us as far into the old city as possible and the other proved to be our walking guide (we quickly figured this out as he would consistently turn around and declare "walking, walking", lest we forget his purpose). The old city was incredible - narrow, winding streets that could easily disorient any newcomer. We were led to the guesthouse we had booked a few hours prior and it turned out to be awesome. Right on the ghats, a room with a balcony, good food in the restaurant, and only 400/- per night ($8).

We spent our day and a half exploring the ghats, which continued downshore from our guest house for a couple miles. If not for the constant stream of "boat?", "boatride, ma'am?", "you like boat?" coming from the locals, it might be a peaceful destination. And if it weren't horribly filthy. The standards for hygiene are washed away by the holy, sacred Ganga which is believed to purify everything. Believers turn a blind eye (and numb nose) to the horrid smells and remarkably polluted water. We tried not to think about how everything we were using - bed sheets, towels, cloth napkins - was washed in this water. I was not tempted to even dip a toe in the river. Since visiting, I've heard stories from other travelers who did take the plunge and ended up with mysterious illnesses and life-long ear infections. I'm totally content with taking my Ganga plunge much farther upstream in Rishikesh, where the water is at least mildly transparent.

Walking through the ghats, I had a deep sense of the solemnity and holiness of the place. I wasn't horrified by seeing burning bodies, I wasn't disgusted at the thought of inhaling their ashes. Instead, I felt honored to catch a glimpse into such a tradition. I was particularly fascinated with the lumber and the men who make their living cutting and weighing the wood for the pyres. I actually liked having to weave my way through the stacks each time we left our guest house.

I don't claim that everyone would enjoy a trip to Varanasi, but I still recommend it wholeheartedly as a destination.

Which one of these things is not like the other?
Hint: it's extraterrestrial!
Photo Cred: Kate
Not a lot of options for rearranging the furniture.
Photo Cred: Kate
Wood for pyres.

Holy Ganga laundry.

Ain't this the cutest school bus you've ever seen?!

Downtown was bustling.

Working on my Adventure book.
Photo Cred: Kate

Evening aarti.

Sunrise: the sky and water become one.

Drying saris in front of our guesthouse.

Boatman. He really liked us, especially when we sang
to him in Hindi.

Burning ghat.

Burning ghat.

Photo Cred: Kate

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