16.04.2011 - 16.04.2011 40 °C
We arrived into Varanasi at 8am, dusty and disheveled. I had one foot on the platform and already a man was urging us to follow him. He promised us a free Auto rickshaw ride (the equivalent of the Thai tuk tuk) to take us to his commission paying hostel of choice. Our new Israeli friend Schmool (spelling?) was suspicious and had every right to be considering he had only been travelling 3 weeks. We agreed to follow, but insisted that if the hostel was not clean, then we would leave without paying. We waited a while for Schmool to stash his large backpack in the train station luggage storage and then made our way to our ‘taxi.’
“WELCOME TO INDIA! Driving is like computer game….NO RULES!!” were the last words I heard before we went careering out of the car park with a double dose of whiplash. Thank god our back packs obstructed the view slightly because he wasn’t kidding! I felt like we were criminals on the run, like real life Grand Theft Auto. “Don’t Worry Mam, I Do this 25 Years!” he assured me as he headed into the path of an oncoming bus. “How many accidents?” enquired Schmool “Just one” He replied. Well it was certainly blowing off the cobwebs, and there was no doubt it was making me ‘feel alive’ and also glad to be alive when we arrived at the hostel. No wonder Varanasi is famous for its cremations down by the Ganges!
My instant reaction…well, one shouldn’t judge the book by its cover now should they? I looked back to see tuned up noses from the guys. Schmool didn’t even venture inside. “It’s worth a look, we can always leave” I assured Ste. We made the climb to the reception on the roof terrace and were greeted with a cup of Chai tea. The room was certainly no palace and I was a little concerned about not having air conditioning in the heat, but It had a balcony and was fairly airy for its matchbox size and so we took it for 300 rupees (4.50 pounds.) After a breakfast of banana and curds, we moved in and took a nap for most of the afternoon. Schmool even ended up taking a room too.
We woke early evening and headed to the roof terrace in time to witness a spectacular sunset over Varanasi. The sky glowed a wonderful dusky purple and orange hue which gradually faded into night.
We grabbed dinner and thought that was it for the night, until the manager recommended an evening boat ride on the Ganges to see a fire ceremony. We knew we could get it cheaper dealing directly with the boatman, but our hotel would send a guide with us to show us the way down the dark alleys at night.
The streets were barely wider than arms length and obstructed by numerous lethargic bovines. We emerged though a narrow passage onto the riverfront, where a boatman was already waiting. It was dark but men were still gathering in their masses to bathe at the water’s edge. The smokey smell of the burning wood of cremation pyres filled the air and caused a lingering haze across the water. I placed one foot extremely carefully in front of the other while boarding our rickety little boat; I didn’t fancy going for a dip in water that contains over 1.5 million faecal bacteria per litre!! (500 is the safe bathing limit.) The water didn’t have any sort of smell as I had expected, but maybe the smoke was just masking it.
Aboard our tiny vessel we were afforded great views back to the shore; especially of Assi Ghat where they were performing the cremations. We slowly bobbed our way along, passing clusters of floating candles on the way. It was all very atmospheric and a beautiful experience. We stopped alongside a mass of other boats to watch the ceremony which involved a great deal of fire and a great deal of chanting. Small girls hopped aboard our boat trying to overcharge us for floating candles “They are not for my Family but for all of yours, to keep them safe.” They were very astute business women… for a couple of 6 year olds and we were soon placing our 50 rupee candles down into the dark water. My rule of not putting a single toe into the Ganges didn’t last long, as I misjudged the distance and plunged my entire hand into the water. A nice dose of Typhoid for me!
The ceremony ended and the boats dispersed back to the shore. We made arrangements to do a sunrise boat trip the following morning, providing we could find an ATM. Our boatman took us to a cash point but it was all out. He didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered and trusted us to pay up in the morning, but he did want us to meet him away from the hostel so they didn’t take a commission….clever clever. Back at the hostel we joined Schmool on the roof terrace to tuck into the beauty photographed below