Varanasi: India on Another Level

Surprise! We are in Nepal now.

We have just over a month left until we fly back to Canada and I can’t believe how fast it has gone. Some part of me wants to be somewhat nostalgic in this post and the other part of me feels too motion sick from this Nepalese bus to even consider such a thing. 

We had almost a week more in Auroville before our flight to Varanasi (only half-assed backpackers take flights instead of a 36 hour train….and I am one of those). Dustin arrived back from Chennai and we had to rent a moped to get around Auroville because after dark it is pretty much like going for a hike in a dense forest at midnight…actually, it is exactly like that.

In 2 days we ran out of gas 3 times.

Three. Times. Once Ravi rescued us and the other two times we were too embarassed to call him and Dustin hitch hiked with random Aurovillians to get water bottles filled with gas. I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible while sitting on a bike on the side of an empty stretch of road. I did this by playing solitaire. That doesn’t seem like a suspicious road-side activity, does it?

We had visited Pondicherry itself only briefly a couple times, mostly in the evenings, so Dustin and I hopped on our $2/day rental moped and headed into the French Quarter for an afternoon. I had read in the guide book not to expect anything lovely or romantic about Pondicherry because it is still crazy south India but the guide book is a liar because the French Quarter is really lovely and the Promenade that lines the coast is suprisingly clean and picturesque. Our last evenings in Auroville were spent playing card games, drinking beer and learning how to cook our favourite Indian dishes at Ravi’s.

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my new boyfriends

Auroville was a definite highlight of the trip and it’s hard to believe that we spent two weeks there in total because it absolutely flew by. We could not be more thankful for the hospitality we received from Ravi and the amount of Western food available in Auroville (I love you, grilled cheese!).

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riding "Indian" on a bike. my parents love this photo.

Ravi dropped us off at the Pondicherry bus station so we could catch a bus to Chennai for our flight. I despise Indian busses. I don’t generally consider myself to be a at-risk-of-car-sickness person but Indian busses bring out the absolute worst in my gastro-intestinal limits. I spent probably more than half the bus with my head down, completing breathing exercises to keep my mind off my mouth being flooded with the pre-vomit saliva (I KNOW EVERYONE WANTED TO READ THAT DETAIL). The Chennai airport was actually quite nice and not nearly the hassle we received at the Madurai airport, for which I was thankful. From there we flew to my nemesis city (Delhi) for a couple hours before catching a connecting flight to Varanasi. Nothing to note about our trip except that apparently the Delhi airport has won some awards which I scoffed at until I realized that it’s probably nicer than the Calgary airport and that makes no sense in my brain. Nothing about this country really make sense. We also considered doing a shot of tequila at the bar in the Delhi airport for no other reason than boredom.

We arrived into Varanasi in the late evening and immediately were plunged back into the touristy India where people will try for any opportunity to scam you for your money. It started as soon as we got in the Taxi (which we were already vastly overpaying for) and the taxi driver turned around to say, “50 rupees for parking.” I was really fast to respond because I was just not in the mood for this little slime ball and said, “No. We don’t pay that.” He tried monetarily to make me feel like I was in the wrong but quickly gave up. Don’t mess with me. I will fight you.

Varanasi is the holy city for Hindus due to, what they believe is, the holy river that runs along the city (The Ganges). They believe it is the holiest spot for cremation and many Hindus bring their loved ones to the cremation ghats (stairs) to have a cremation ceremony performed. I read in the Lonely Planet book that, “Varanasi takes no prisoners.” And I had read horrendous things of people seeing dogs fighting over human body parts and bloated dead cows floating down the river. I was prepared for the shock. It took all of 3 minutes before Dustin and I saw our first body, wrapped in white cloth, being paraded through the streets towards the cremation ghats. Since then, I probably saw 6000000 more. In fact, if you ate in one of the restaurants in the old city, you would watch several funeral processions move through the streets with the bodies on stretchers, draped in decorative cloth before your food even arrived. Really appetizing.

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the best lassi (yogurt drink) in India

Varanasi is probably the dirtiest Indian city we have been to. Which is a terrifying statement. The old city is a network of maze-like narrow alleys which concentrates the people, animals, garbage and fecal matter anywhere you try to step. Before the trip, research had told me not to wear sandals in India because of all the figurative and literal shit on the streets, but I have worn flip-flops in every city without problem. Until Varanasi. It was another level.

Although the streets were full of filth, the water of the Ganges was horrendous. Dustin and I walked the entire length of the Ghats (steps leading down to the water) from one end to the other in order to really take in everything that made this place what it was.  At the top of the ghats, there were the biggest cremation ghats and farther down would be bathing ghats, people doing their laundry, sewage pipes opening up into the water, people playing cricket, people playing music and pretty much everything you could even conjure up in your imagination. All the bodies are dipped into the water before they are cremated and some poorer families cannot afford the price of the cremation (more specifically, the wood) and simply weigh down the bodies of their loved ones with rocks and release them into the water. Completely sanitary, and absolutely fascinating. Watching the cremations, while intensely interesting, also felt invasive to watch as members of the family break down into hysterics while the body of their loved one is set onto the wooden funeral pyre.

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Dustin had wanted to take a dip in the Ganges to say he had done it but slowly, after the course of our time there, he got more and more hesitant. I didn’t wear my glasses once in Varanasi which did me favors by literally blurring out anything I might not want too close of a look at. One of those times was when I saw a mysterious shape floating in the water, a couple feet from the stairs. Curious,  I asked Dustin what it was. Trying to protect me from the truth (or something annoying like that), he refused to tell me what it was. Unfortunately for both us, his refusal to answer my question only intensified my curiosity and I took a few steps closer…

It was a dead dog.

A floating, bloated, body of a dead dog.

There is a possibility I will trust my boyfriend when he refuses to answer my questions from now on. But more likely I will just refrain from asking questions while looking at the dirtiest water on this planet.

Early in the morning on our last day, Dustin and I opted for a sunrise boat tour on the Ganges. Beyond all the filth and the craziness that Varanasi has to offer, there is a certain enchanting quality to the city. The peaceful sunrise on the river, overlooking the city as it awoke from its slumber, showed the captivating beauty that is in Varanasi beyond the shit covered streets and thousands of dead bodies you see a day.

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sunrise on the Ganges

During the boat ride, Dustin dipped his hands into the water to which I probably (as a reflex) made an unpleasant face and forbid him to touch me with those hands ever again. The boat man laughed and pulled a small cup OUT OF NOWHERE and scooped up some of the water. He offered the cup to me and said, “look, it’s clean”. I stared at him. I stared at the green water in the cup. I tried to smile as politely as possible and nod as if to say, Yes. Normally putting water in paper cup and looking at it shows the exact quantities of fecal matter present and definitely makes me feel better about my boyfriend sticking his hands in there.

On our last evening,  Dustin and I were sitting down in the ghats just people watching when he got called over by a couple men throwing little balls of dough into the water (there was some confusion as to whether it was for the birds or the fish and I was confused to whether fish could survive in such dirty water). Regardless, he was handed a ball of dough to participate in the evening activity and I was left out (obviously) so I just watched the various people come to do daily activities in the water. I knew people drank the water of the Ganges because they sell plastic jugs on the banks for people to fill and take with them but I prefer to live in denial.

Until this moment.

A young man came down to the river,  just below where I had planted myself on the steps and filled up a cup with the greenish water of the Ganga river. I watched in horror as he downed the whole cup and dipped it in for a second glass. Before I had even recovered from the sight, he carried on his way and an elderly gentleman replaced him in the same spot. He stripped off into nothing but a small tarzan-like cloth and lowered himself into the water. I watched as he filled his hands several times with the water and slurp it all down.

My gag reflex was triggered instantly and I searched for something to disguise my convulsions. Dustin was still throwing little dough balls for the mutant fish and missed out on this entire sight. Which meant I began glancing around for someone to share in this very filthy moment with, but there was only people who clearly thought nothing of drinking the very same water that had flown from an area where bodies were burning. An Indian’s immune system is the true hero. Sometimes I get sick from even taking out the garbage.

Two days was enough for Varanasi but it’s a definite must-see for India. It is the India I had expected the whole time.

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From there, we had a night bus to Nepal and while waiting for its departure, we sat in the lobby of our guest house and watched the movie Descent 2 with the hotel manager for no apparent reason other than the fact that it was in English. Completely weird evening.

The bus to Nepal was terrible and uncomfortable and the man across the aisle from us kept playing the movies or the music on his phone without plugging in the headphones that were wrapped around his neck. All night.

Finally we arrived. The full story of Nepal will have to wait for a later post. Thanks for reeeeeeading!

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on the back of a cycle - rickshaw in Varanasi

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