Snap shots from Varanasi

  • The narrow lanes in the old town were filled with all sorts of smells. Some better, some worse. A couple stand out in my memory as unique to Varanasi.
    Apparently the city is famous for its pann, and just about every block had a vendor who inevitably had a beautiful display of the vibrant green leaves on a small counter and would be busy preparing the stuffed delicacy. The smell of the leaves is refreshingly astringent and pervasive but light – a nice contrast to some of the other street smells!
    Also lovely to walk through was an area that had numerous spice shops. Surprising was that the strongest smell in the area was of nutmeg (or maybe something similar?) – I didn’t realize that this was even used in Indian cooking. But it smelled great and made me think of Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. 🙂
  • I just loved the presence of the kites in Varanasi, seeing them soar above the rooftops while their owners remained hidden in the folds of the city, the sound of the paper rippling in the wind. Being able to fly the kite just outside of the burning ghat was such a special thing – simple, pure pleasure. Felt like a kid again – there was really something exhilarating about the tug of the thin string and knowing the tenuous connection I held to this flying bit of paper way up over the water.
  • One night we were on our favorite rooftop restaurant the Dolphin (very average food but the view makes up for it) in the evening. Looking down at the expanse of the Ganges below, we noticed that someone in a small boat had taken it upon themselves to light a whole bunch of the little floating lamps. They must have kept at it for about an hour, and at the end, there was a narrow but bright stream of flickering flames probably a mile long being pulled along by the river’s current.
  • As much as a pervading awareness of the burning ghats was part of my experience in Varanasi, I loved the hundreds of things we saw during our stay that were all about life. During our last full day in the city we saw a number of wedding processions (must have been an auspicious day to get hitched?), which was really fun.
    Each followed more or less the same formation. A cart with a loud, massive generator is at the front of the parade. Thick wires feed backward from the cart to what looks like gaudy, electric chandeliers balanced upside-down people’s heads (see a not-so-great picture at the end of this post)! A marching band in full regalia plays boisterous music. A crowd of guest follows; a handful of these are dancing their hearts out to the music while the rest are just walking. The women are stunning in glittering saris and oversized jewelery including gold nose rings the size of a half-dollar coin. At the end of the procession is the regal-looking groom on a white horse with a child sitting in front of him on the saddle. All in all quite a spectacular sight!
  • I don’t think I need a blog post to help me remember this, but I will include it anyway. The Varanasi sight that still appears in my mind’s eye: A perfectly healthy, young-looking leg sticking from the knee down out of a blazing funeral pyre.
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Digesting Varanasi

Varanasi revisited

Varanasi is quintessential India. Synonymous with the Ganges river, mother Ganga. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world. The home of Lord Shiva. The heart of the Hindu religion. A place of life and death, simultaneously sacred and profane.

It’s all terribly dramatic, and Roman and I both bought into it in our own ways. He’s been very relaxed about our India itinerary, but after everything he’d heard about Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Kashi), he was determined to see it for himself. I’d been told about the intensity of this city too, but was happy that it was on the itinerary for my group trip back in September.

Having 48 hours we only got to sample a smattering of the city – Varanasi-light. Still, those two days were among the most theatrical, colorful and crowded of the three week journey.

The sacred Buddhist site and artifacts outside the city at Sarnath. A dramatic arrival first by cycle-rickshaw through chaotic night markets and then by foot during the narrow, twisting, pitch black alleyways (there must have been a blackout that night, because the same streets did have some lighting upon my return) of the old town to arrive at Dasaswamedh Ghat all lit up by the luminous evening Hindu ceremony on the Ganges River. Up at 4:45 the next morning to witness the sun rising over the sacred waters. Going through the security check to catch a glimpse of the Golden Temple and Silver Mosque. Drinking spicy chai at silk shops from doll-sized ceramic bowls. An afternoon in the company of an articulate but elusive street boy named Deepak, trying not to get lost as we walked around the sun-baked markets and shadowed old town.

It was wonderful and intense and yet I admit I felt a certain relief after we left. Two days in Varanasi and I made it out without seeing anything more shocking than a dead pig floating in the Ganges during our morning boat ride. Allegedly the most moving place in India: been there, done that, and made it out unscathed and – surprised at the relief at this realization – without getting near the burning ghats.

Still, I’m not sure why I felt so very nervous as Roman and I discussed and organized our trip there. Or why I felt waves of skittishness while we were there, even as I was able to take in the city’s beauty. It’s still nothing I can logically identify or understand, but gradually during our days there I was able to just accept it, and eventually relax more and more.

There was lots I loved – the peaceful view of the ghats and river from high atop the Dolphin Restaurant, the squishy coziness of the Brown Bread Bakery (with awesome bread and the best coffee in town, it became our morning ritual. Especially sweet was the little mouse that lived in and among the cushions), and especially the vibrant, colorful life in the labyrinth that is the old town.

But the burning ghats, sites of 24-hour a day cremation and funeral rituals, made my spirit squirm. Conceptually I have no issue with it – I appreciate the beauty and importance of the ritual and I am as at peace with the concept of death as the average person. I didn’t feel massively uncomfortable with seeing the funeral pyres and being passed in the streets by the processions bearing the bodies to the river didn’t faze me at all. But at each visit to the location of the burning ghats, this instinct rose in me after a few minutes: I wanna get out of here now please!!

While I don’t understand what this was about, what I can say after my second visit to Varanasi is: been there, done that, spent a lot more time at the burning ghats than I thought I could handle – and made it out unscathed. In fact, I even found more to love about the city than during my first visit.

Highlights from the second visit

Dev Deepavali

We just happened to arrive in perfect timing for the spectacular Hindu festival Dev Deepavali. This link can tell you more about the religious significance than I can, but what I can say is that it was simply magical. Roman played hardball and negotiated a fantastic price with a boatman so we were able to watch all the action from the Ganges.

We pushed off from shore just before sunset and watched the riverside come alive with music, ceremonies, parties and lights. The ghats were packed with an incomprehensible number of people.

Nearly every ghat on the riverside was alight with thousands upon thousands of small oil lamps. A small stream of paper lanterns were drifting in the sky above the water and everyone was reflecting the lights on the ghats by setting small leaf bowls filled with marigolds and a lit oil candle to float on the water of the Ganges as an offering. Everything was warmth and beauty and a million points of shimmering lights. An absolutely incredible sight to see.

Especially striking to me was the wave of heat and smell of the oil from the lamps when we walked up the ghats after our boat ride and the fact that the biggest party of all – massive speakers blasting incredibly loud, joyful bhangra music and a ghat throbbing with a dancing crowd – was right next to one of the burning ghats.

The old town

During my first visit, we stayed in a nice hotel outside the city center and away from the action. This time, Roman and I were in the midst of the old town, the tangle of streets too narrow for any vehicle bigger than bikes or hand drawn carts. I’m pleased to say that even Roman got lost in these streets, and we had a great time wandering around, trying to find our way and discovering unexpected nooks and crannies along the way.

I loved these explorations so much. There is so much life going on in those narrow streets, so much to see. And still there were unexpected moments of stillness and peace too. Finding an ancient tree growing out of a decrepit rooftop, a shaft of sunshine managing to find a way to pierce the shadowed alleys, walking and chatting with a schoolgirl through quiet lane.

The people

Varanasi seemed to be full of philosophers and of people looking out for us.

Folks were so eager to share the history and meaning behind the traditions. We had many willing teachers on the topic of the burning ghats. “Cremation is education; burning is learning” is something we heard over and over again.

So many of the Indians we met there warned us that there were plenty of unsavory characters in Varanasi; that we had to keep our guard up. But any time we looked the slightest bit lost, people would approach us to give directions. When cows blocked our path in the narrow streets, folks would come to help get them moving. People were happy to help and I found support and company even as I was feeling nervous at the burning ghats.

I had gone there with Roman but didn’t feel comfortable staying as long as he wanted to. A lovely, chilled out young guy named Deepu kept me company just outside the burning ghats while Roman took in the sights. He told me lots about the funeral ceremony and Varanasi in general, and about his German girlfriend and his dreams to move to Jamaica and we laughed and smiled together in the sunlight and were eventually joined by some lovely old men who were there to bathe and who enthusiastically explained the ceremony to me all over again. After they all left, a tough little boy about ten years old came up to me and let me fly his kite while spitting out streams of brown chewing tobacco juice and getting into scrapes with his friends and other kids on the ghats. It was so sweet to receive all that unconditional company and it really did me good.

Around the burning ghats

As challenging as it was for me to be at the cremation ghats, I was still in awe of all the life that happened directly in the face of the ceremonies of death. Just next of the ghats, people carried on the business of living in earnest. Pilgrims bathed. Children played. Laundry was washed. Food was prepared, sold, eaten. Widows with their shaved heads moved through the old town’s alleyways, gossiping and shopping with apparent relish. Even directly at the ghats, mourners were talking on cell phones, people were playing cards, cows and dogs were wandering among the pyres on the constant lookout for food. I am sure there must have been people there who were sad for their departed loved ones, but we sure didn’t see them. There was one funeral procession we happened upon that was preceded by musicians playing celebratory music. Roman had been told when the departed person is past a certain age, the funeral becomes a happy celebration for a long life, well lived. Seems like a great idea to me.

Pics from Varanasi: Part two

Morning activities along the Ganges river

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Waking on the water

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Washing sheets in the Ganges, just upstream from one of the cremation ghats

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The vibrant alleyways of the old town

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Tasty treats at the Brown Bread Bakery

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Soldiers outside the Golden Temple

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Cooking roti on hot coals

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Grains for sale

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Vegetable market

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Small Hanuman shrine

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Boys in a window

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Discarded marigolds and ceramic bowls on the side of a building

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Amazing lamps carried on people’s heads in a wedding procession

Pics from Varanasi: Part one

Plenty to write about – Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi, not to mention Diwali in Delhi, but I am feeling lazy so it will all have to wait for now. In the mean time though, here are some pictures from our first full day in Varanasi. 🙂

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Stone cow in the Nepali temple

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Impressively basic but effective scaffolding

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Women eating in front of the Ganges

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Hello water buffalo

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Kids flying a kite from their balcony

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There had been a kite competition in Varanasi earlier in the week. It’s hard to tell in this photo but there were so many kites being flown Saturday night. All the specks in the sky in this picture are kites save the largest – that was a pigeon. 🙂

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We just happened to arrive in time for Dev Deepavali (more on that in a later post). Such lucky timing! All the ghats along the Ganges were filled with thousands upon thousands of earthenware lamps like these. We took a boat ride on the river to see all the ghats lit up and to watch the ceremonies from the water. Magical.

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A woman selling flower lanterns – people light them and set them into the water to float down the Ganges as part of the celebration

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Full moon rising over the river

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People gathering at the main ghat for one of many ceremonies held along the waterside.

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Lighting lanterns on one of the ghats

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Oil lamps and fairy lights illuminating the waterside

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Woman performing a small ceremony at the water’s edge

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It’s not a great photo, but hopefully it gives a sense of the scene. This was just at one ghat. Aside from the box of fairy lights in the upper left hand of the photo, all the little points of light in the photograph are from the small clay oil lamps. And nearly all the ghats were lit up like this. Must have been hundreds of thousands of lamps lit that night.

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Another ghat lit up with lamps, with a firework rising up into the sky

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Boats in front of a ghat

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Cremation at the burning ghat continued even during the festivities. The bright lights at the right of the photo at the water’s edge are funeral pyres.

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Fire ceremony at one of the ghats

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Lamps and spectators on the stairs leading to the river

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Boats on the river in front of the main ceremony

Ok so I am a wimp, and other travel notes

This is a more technical post, just notes following up on the last post and on travel gear and things like that. Updates on where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to to come later…

Off roading

The trip from Agra to Varanasi was uneventful; running late by over two hours it was simply long. So after 15 hours on the train we were looking forward to arrive at the hotel.

Teerth Guest House is the name of our first non-Lonely Planet hotel. The staff has been friendly and helpful; even with the crazy delay there was someone waiting at the station to meet us (with a chicken scratched piece of paper with my name on it, charmingly held upside down 🙂 ).

We are staying in the heart of the old town, which is a maze of narrow alleyways, so the rickshaw could only take us so far and we had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Thank goodness the place provides pick up service or it would probably have taken us five times as long to find the hotel as it’s really hidden away at the dead end of one of the smaller alleys.

At 550 rupees a night, it is on the cheaper end of what we’ve been paying. And it shows. The room is a good size and the floors are relatively clean, but the walls and linens are particularly shabby and dirty. This isn’t too bad (hurrah for sleeping bag liners and my pillow cases from home! 😉 ), but we were bowled over by the smell (I am telling myself it smells like spoiled strawberry milk; I’d rather not think about alternative explanations) and the first squat toilet we’ve encountered in a hotel.

We borrowed air freshener from the (overly chatty) manager and that’s helped somewhat, and I’m sure it will be fine for the short time we are staying here, but even Roman mentioned at dinner that he could handle the smell or the toilet, but after such a long journey, adjusting to both was just a bit much. 🙂

The location is good though, and maybe we’ll find other redeeming features over the next few days. And in the mean time, I am doing a decent job cultivating amused compassion for the (wimpy) diva in me who is arching her eyebrow in distaste at the questionable stains on the wall and the bugs that keep landing and ants that keep crawling on the bed. 🙂

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The room at Teerth

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Squat toilet!

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This towel will never be white again

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This guy and his friend love hanging out on the beds

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Air Wick to the rescue! 😀

Transportation booking

For anyone considering traveling in India, I wanted to mention the website Cleartrip (thanks for the tip Kay!). We’ve been using it to book all our trains and flights within India. It’s very easy and convenient and has some nifty features like SMS notification and automatically syncing flight/train info onto our calendars. We had to change some plans today and cancelling the flight we had booked on the site was easy as pie; we even were able to get back most of the cost of the flight. The site also has hotel booking, but the selection is limited and I’ve found the prices are better when I’ve gone direct to the hotel site. But for air and train transport in India, it really is super. http://www.cleartrip.com

Gear check up

11 weeks into the journey, here are some reflections on some of what I’m carrying with me.

As mentioned above, the silk sleeping bag liner is an absolute Godsend. For cleanliness but also for warmth – Teerth for example provides no blankets what so ever so it’s doubly good to have them.

The Osprey packs have been mostly great but I’m disappointed that the zipper tabs on mine have come off less than two months in. It’s probably a reflection of my heavier packing that Roman’s pack hasn’t had the same happen to it, but I don’t think my load is unreasonable… (Roman may disagree 😉 )

I have mixed feelings on my Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) clothes. The underwear sizing is much smaller than the clothing sizing, so the expensive high-tech underwear I got is all on the tight side. The tech wick shirts are fine, but they feel too big for me – between the large cut and the plastic-y look, they just don’t feel like me so I find that I don’t wear them much. The EMS Compass Pants are great though – comfortable, light, versatile. Love ‘em.

Love my Merrill shoes as well – they have been totally comfortable from day one, no breaking in necessary. An update on footwear – Roman brought me a pair of light, simple flip flops from home and I am loving this extra luxury. They are my ‘inside shoes’, to be worn only when my feet are clean (I have given up ages ago on the notion that my other sandals are at all clean – they have been through way too much) and only in places where there is no dust, mud, cow poo, etc. to walk through. It’s a little thing but I love having “clean” shoes. 🙂

Another new luxury that we have bought here in India is a small set of Phillips speakers. They are travel size but have really decent sound and it’s just great being able to play our music at the hotels – really enhances the ambience of any place we are.

More thoughts on/reviews of gear later…

A note on accommodation

I haven’t written much on accommodation in a while. At this point I have adjusted from the cushy-ness of the hotels we stayed in during the group trip. We’ve been sticking with the higher end of the budget suggestions in Lonely Planet (LP). Typically we are paying between 800 and 1,000 rupees per night (USD 17.50 – 22).

(On a side note, I don’t know if this is typical, but at most places we have been, the rates have been higher than listed in the LP. We have the most recent edition, and it’s possible that it’s slightly out of date. But Shashi, my friend’s mother, had mentioned while we were staying at her house that significant increases in gas prices over the past year(s) has had knock on effects on all aspects of life in India. Most cabs and auto rickshaws we have taken don’t use a meter but quote a price to us. We had thought that this was just one way of taking advantage of tourists to negotiate a high fare, but Shashi said that the price of gas had gone up again recently and most of the drivers’ meters probably had not yet been adjusted to reflect higher costs. I wonder if the same is true of LP and hotel rates.)

At this price, we are getting double rooms with private bath that are a decent size and level of cleanliness (note: this is very different from clean). I am not the most squeamish or picky, but we knew that we are too old to go ultra cheap – even before starting on the trip I felt did not need to experience a youth hostel at this point in my life. And, having sampled a range of mid to high range budget options, I only feel more certain about this now! 😉 Especially as we are pretty lazy travelers and like our sleep (Roman especially ;-)) and down time. I don’t need the Ritz but a certain amount of comfort is essential.

I can handle slightly grungy rooms and bathrooms, the presence of non-threatening bugs, permanently stained linens, dark rooms with harsh flourescent lighting… And even the least attractive places we’ve been have redeeming features that balance out any grunge – lovely views, a chilled out atmosphere or cozy restaurants with good food. But I don’t know if I’m hardcore enough for anything dirtier. I suppose I have a bit of diva in me after all. Roman promises if/when we get to South America, hot showers will be few and far between – this is another luxury I’m a bit addicted to but I have time yet to see if I can wean myself!

Tomorrow we go off the grid though. One hotel we had picked out from Lonely Planet for Varanasi seemed to have a disconnected number and the next was completely booked. They suggested an affiliate hotel in the old town but away from the ghats. The photos on the website make it look pretty clinical, but the price is right (R550 a night) and maybe it’s more atmospheric in real life? It’s our first non-LP hotel, so let’s see what happens – keep your fingers crossed! 🙂

Photo impressions from the group trip: Part 1/5 (Dubai to Varanasi)

I made a pit stop on the way to India to see a friend in Dubai.

A view of the Arabian Gulf

View of the Dubai skyline from the car. The Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building - is mind boggling as it dwarfs everything around it.

Crossing over into India

The first day in Delhi was gentle and rainy in the morning, sunny and beautiful in the afternoon. Soft stones under our toes at the beautiful Friday Mosque

At the Friday Mosque

Reflections in the stone at the Friday Mosque

Hand carved stone at the 12th century Qutab Minar

The Qutab Minar

Nap time

Detail of the entrance to the Humayun Mausoleum

Night train to Varanasi was a total adventure!

On the night train at dawn

Cute enough to convince me to buy ice cream for him - and four of his friends

Varanasi was hot, chaotic, mystical. Our first sight of the Ganges was at night, from a boat, watching a Hindi ceremony. We came back the next day for a view at dawn.

Smoke from the cremation pyres

View from the rickshaw, Varanasi

Deepak and his buddy jumped on a rickshaw to keep up with us

Monkey in Varanasi

Monkey in Varanasi warning me not to take any more pictures of him

Deepak and his friend