18.04.2011 - 18.04.2011 41 °C
Wow, the heat really is stifling, to the point of being debilitating here in Varanasi.
It was 7pm on the roof terrace and even at this time it would be possible to cook an egg on the burning concrete floor. The heat was intense and there was no escaping it, I felt like I was trapped in a sauna. I browsed the hostel menu, but my appetite had vanished over these last few days of Indian summer. It was difficult to concentrate my mind on anything other than the temperature and I was starting to get insanely frustrated “We are moving to an aircon room tomorrow and I don’t care how much it is!” I insisted. Even a few hours of cooling down a day could probably lift my mood tenfold; it was the inability to even be able to dash into an aircon café or a chilly mall that was the problem. We are exposed to the heat 24/7.
My wish came true. To our surprise there was an aircon room available right here and we could move our things that very moment. Yes, the aircon was more of a dinosaur ‘air cooler’ than an ‘aircon’ and there certainly was no cranking it down to 16 degrees, but the few degrees difference it did make was heavenly. Unfortunately at this moment there is a monsoon lightning storm raging outside and so the electricity is more intermittent than usual and when it goes, so does our precious aircon. Oh! There it goes right now.
Back to this morning: I peeled my damp body off our church Pugh mattress at around 8.30am; we needed to make it out before the sun did. We agreed that breakfast would be at ‘The Brown Bread Bakery ‘ which is not only a restaurant that serves up a whole plethora of cheeses and breads, but a charity organisation as well! We left the labyrinth of winding back streets and headed straight for the main road, hoping to more easily navigate ourselves to the Ganges and Assi Ghat from there. The people and cows of Varanasi were already out in force, lining the edges of the roads. Snacks sizzled in vats of oil, rickshaws kicked up dust as they trundled across potholes, goats rummaged through mountains of rubbish, while I was watching my every step to avoid the messes these animal city dwellers had left behind! Touts tried to point us in the wrong direction, but with a huge overhead sign ‘Assi Ghat’ for assurance, we remained steadfast and veered off the main street and arrived at the Ganges.
There on the shore was a huge tree surrounded by small phallic statues, between these phallic statues there was a goat which was feasting on the colourful floral offerings scattered about the statues; it seems there is never a dull sight in India.
The river front was unusually quiet and absent from the sorts of hustle and bustle we had seen on our previous two boat tours. We braved the heat and soldiered on, snaking our way though the clothing and bed linen that lay drying on the grubby stairs of the Ghats. People were dotted along the water line, performing ceremonies, washing clothes and bathing. India (so far) is pretty much how I imagined it to be, a country of contrasts. As I walked along I was blinded by the beauty one moment and repulsed by the stench of excrement and sewage the next. Everything here appears to come in extremes.
It was not long before we were joined by a polite fellow (obviously a tout,) who joined us on our stroll. At this moment we were just approaching the Harishchandra Ghat where I could see the smoke rising from the funeral pyres – this is one of the two areas where they “burn the bodies” in Varanasi. Harishchandra is actually smaller and secondary in importance to the Manikarnika Ghat, but it one of the oldest Ghats in Varanasi. Every piece of wood composing the pyre is individually weighed to work out of the costing of the cremation. There are even different qualities of wood to choose from – Sandalwood is the most expensive. I had previously seen the burning from the safe distance of our boat, but now we were going to walk within inches! I could see two fires directly on the shore, but was shocked as we drew closer and I saw a freshly lit fire atop a huge concrete slab, right next to the path. I looked a moment too long and caught sight of the man’s face protruding from the flaming wood. I didn’t look back though, as I didn’t really want to have a detailed image scarred into my mind. Usually the bodies are wrapped in white linen, but I guess by this time the cloth must have burnt away.
However, I didn’t have much time to contemplate mortality and suchlike with this nattering tout by my side. He spoke about the cremation as you would speak about what you ate for lunch! He must have been completely desensitised over the years, especially bearing in mind that they are burning bodies 24 hours a day down by the Ganges! Or maybe he is just content in knowing that when his time comes, he too will be cremated in this auspicious place down by the sacred Ganges.
We left death and the tout behind us and continued our stroll. By now the heat was building and I was finding it difficult to function. It was unbearable without so much as a whisper of a breeze. We met another couple of unusual types along the way; a group of men who insisted on asking my “husband” if it was okay to take a photo with me and also informed me that my name sounds like the word for black in Hindi! Hmmm maybe it is significant….black, like my black heart! There was also a small boy, who demanded I take his photo then scurried off into the Ganges for a bath. This was followed by another small boy who demanded I take a photo of him and then pay up! The cheeky little…!
I was at breaking point; I was going to get heat stroke if we didn’t find cover soon. I was starting to hate everyone and everything, especially the man who was insisting I needed a haircut (which is undeniably true) while Ste was trying to purchase water. For a second it was a possibility, if there had been aircon…but no…his ‘hairdressers’ was just a chair in the street under direct sun. “How are these people functioning?” I cried. Even a dip in the Ganges was starting to look tempting by this point. Maybe I could throw caution to the wind and…no! I needed to get out of there.
Every next person that stood in my way of finding ‘Brown Bread Bakery’ was met with a vicious snap “No! I’m too hot!” No one seemed to know where the damn place was. Touts circled likes hawks in these narrow old town streets and asking directions was futile as the only direction they would be pointing us in was to their silk shop. I eventually collapsed onto a step in the shade, there were people sleeping in tiny concrete alcoves on the sides of the buildings. So it wasn’t just me being affected by the heat!
We were there seconds before we were collared “Where you from?” “What are your names” “How long you in Varanasi” “I have a shop…you come look?” He then didn’t seem to want to take no for an answer, even an explanation of our quest to find breakfast wasn’t good enough and he invited us to his house for tea. We refused and refused some more, leaving with a promise to pop round after eating.
To cut a very long story short, brown bread bakery was closed. The German owner had fallen out with his Indian collegue two days prior, for stealing from the money saved to support local charities. The original building was still in operation, but it was operating illegally under the charity organisations name! The German owner had purchased a new building directly opposite but it was not due to open until that evening! We honestly had no idea who to believe and so we just sat on the steps outside. We rambled around for a while longer and decided to giveup when Ste put his naked foot directly in a huge Cow turd... we settled for another eatery listed in Lonely Planet to avert further disaster, where I had mashed potato with onion and yak cheese which was decidedly average. I would have like to have opted for a curry, but there was no way I was going to inflict further damage to my fragile belly.
With the unrelenting heat we had to give in for the day and grab a rickshaw back down to Assi Ghat. On stepping out into the main streets I realised how much of a difference the narrow streets made to the temperature – it was Searing on the main roads. I felt substantial guilt sitting back and relaxing in our rickshaw as our driver pedaled us through the torrid streets, with only a loose fabric turban to shield his skin from the direct sun. The heat, the dust, the nomadic animals, the saris, the rickshaw, the colour, the dodgy belly, the Ganges…we had undoubtedly arrived in India.