An unbridled mess

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
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Trip End May 23, 2008


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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
GMT +5:30hrs

'older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together'
- Mark Twain, commenting on Varanasi

India - Quick Facts
Before I get to Varanasi proper, how about a few quick facts about India (bear with me). It is the 7th largest country in the world and, with a population of 1.1 billion it is the 2nd most populous country after China (1.3 billion - we sort of shudder when we think that the Chinese and Indians collectively make up over 40% of the worlds population). 82% of those 1.1 billion are Hindus, living their lives according to a religion we are finding weirder and weirder by the day. Take the caste systems for example; it dictates that people live their lives according a strange system of social hierarchy that dictates stuff like where a person lives and what their occupation is (if you're unlucky enough to be born into a low caste then you're screwed; there is nothing you can do in life that will improve your situation or prospects... nothing). The country gained its independence from the Brits in 1947, mainly thanks to two things; the Brits realising how lost a cause the place was (they had been getting grief from independence-pushing Indians for years) and the non-violent, people-rousing acts of civil disobedience orchestrated by one Mahatma Gandhi (going back a bit further, the Moguls, descendants of Genghis Khan, were here from 1526 to 1761... I am only telling you this because they are responsible for building of some of India's most impressive and famous buildings - among them the Red Fort & Jami Mashed in Old Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra - buildings we will be visiting over the coming weeks). The small but disgruntled, and Hindu loathing, Muslim population took the occasion of Indian independence from the Brits to push for their own state/country. With everyone agreeing that is was probably a good idea to keep the Muslims and Hindus apart, India was partitioned and Muslim Pakistan was formed (the northern Indian, and predominately Muslim, state of Kashmir, boarding both Pakistan and India, is the fulcrum of present day tensions between the two nuclear powers, mainly because Pakistan considers it the "unfinished business of partition"). Today it is widely regarded that the government of India, suffering from decades of political instability, is rotten to the core with corruption and the country is struggling to cope with the growing gap between the haves (its growing privileged elite) the and have-nots (its hundreds of millions of chronically poor). It is a sad irony that a country with the capability of launching satellites, nuclear weapons and manned-space programmes isn't capable of providing clean drinking water, adequate nutrition and basic education to the majority of the population, something that is so evident walking the streets of this oh-so unique country.

Varanasi
Right, on to Varanasi, the Hindu holy city by the sacred river Ganges. This place is the centre of the Hindu world (it was said to have been founded by the Hindu God Shiva) and one of the oldest cities on earth, having a religious history stretching back to the 6th century BC. It is classed as the holiest of Hindu tirthas - "crossing places" - that, they say, allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, and pilgrims come here to bathe in the river believing doing so will bring purity to the living (cleansing of the soul) and salvation to the dead. Whether it does indeed cleanse their souls or not, we doubt it cleanses much else - the river, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, is scummy with rubbish, effluent, heavy metals, chemicals and human body parts (honest). It is a cesspit of nastiness and to see people washing and swimming in it, all in the name of religion, makes us nice clean, freshwater-advocating Irish boys shudder.

"How much would I have to give you to jump in there Lad?" is a question I posed to Pat a few days ago as we watched unknown 'objects' floating past us and mosquitoes buzzing around us.

I think Pat was too shocked to answer. To be honest I think he has been in a mild state of shock since we got here, even though I forewarned him what it was like. He's having difficulty with the unbridled mess of the place, the pungent smell of urine, the feces (animal and human) one must mind not to step in, the mosquitoes, the heat, the pollution and the masses. Oh, and the touts... how can I forget the touts?

"Hellooooo!... boat?"
"Hellooooo!... change money?"
"Hellooooo!... rickshaw?"
"Hellooooo!... silk?"
"Hellooooo!... postcards?"

We've had those lines shouted at us incessantly for days. Another one is,

"Hello Sir... hashish?... best quality," spoken in hushed tones and tended not to be shouted from afar like the other propositions.

It's all part of the westerner in Varanasi experience, one that ends for us in a few hours. We've been here now since Sunday evening. It's now 1pm on Wednesday and we're sitting in the rooftop restaurant of the Puja guest house, looking out over the Ganges (it looks clean from up here) waiting to leave for the train station to get the 5:35pm train to Delhi, one that has two sleeping berths reserved in our names (we hope). We'll get to Delhi in the morning and start to run the gauntlet of Delhi touts which won't, we predict, be difficult as we're sort of indifferent to touts by now, even notoriously persistent Indian ones. Our path has been pretty much set since we left Beijing in mid-February but after a few days in Delhi we'll have decisions to make. Stay in India (Goa maybe) or leave for say Oman? Even Egypt? Goa looks the likeliest option right now. Patricia is longing for a bit of beach time, something she reminds me of every few hours as she looks disconsolately out over Varanasi from the comforts of our guest house rooftop restaurant. And I thought I had rid myself of a Princess.

Day 217 & 219 Observations (March 17th to 19th 2008)

Royal Challenge
I hate to say it but Paddies Day was a washout, in a dry way.
With beers not easily available in Varanasi we, two Irish boys on St. Patrick's Day, found ourselves asking around where one could find beer (we supplemented our queries with explanations of St. Paddies day and what it meant for us but to Hindu Indians we may as well have been talking about quantum physics). Thankfully it's not quite prohibition here just yet and thus the place isn't totally dry. Beer is available, but only if you''re prepared to walk, as we were, to the Indian equivalent of an off-license (a room opening onto the street with a few fridges of bottled beer). Not wanting to be weighted down by beer bottles as we navigated the chaotic, hot, dusty streets of Varanasi on the way back to our guest house, we settled on the manageable quantity of three bottles of 'Royal Challenge' each. Even though our beers were, we though, well hidden inside a box, albeit a beer box, we still felt like alcoholics as we walked, getting accosted as we went by joking Indians to share our precious cargo with them.

"Not a chance Guys... it's Paddies Day and these babies are ours!"

We savored our beers in our room while saluting our patron saint. Paddies Day in Varanasi. Not recommended.

Resistance is futile
We each bought 'travellers' style shirts a few days ago. You know, them linen style, loose fitting, hippy type shirts? It was out of necessity really, Pat having lost... sorry, left behind some of our favourite tops in Kathmandu (I really should cut him some slack on that one). Fear not, we won't be braiding our hair anytime soon, nor will we be buying trousers to complement the shirts. That, even for us, is a step too near being one of the western 'weirdos' we saw too much of in Kathmandu (but thankfully not here).

All hope is gone
Pat reckons the human race is screwed. He said living in Ireland makes one feel good about mans chances (chances for what I've no idea). But that was before he saw China and India, which, admittedly, has been only Varanasi so far, and now he's not so hopeful.

"Look at these people and how they live," he says.

"Dave, we're going backwards as a race!"

A okay
No food poisoning yet. But it's coming.

Manageable
Our bags are manageable once again. We mailed stuff home this morning. 8.5kgs of clothes and books. It feels good to be able to lift our bags again. We were told it'll take 3 months for the package we sent to get to Ireland, if at all. It'd be nice if it did but not the end of the world if it didn't.

UPDATE, JUNE 26TH 2008:
Oh we of little faith. The package arrived today a mere 99 days after we said goodbye to it. The box was impeccably wrapped in a layer of plastic which itself was wrapped by a stitched pillow case. Hell of a job. I wish I could put into words my surprise at the fact that it arrived at all but, as Yann Martel said in the novel Life of Pi, language founders in such seas.

Easy like Sunday morning
Admittedly we haven''t done much here in Varanasi. We've walked up and down the river a few times, taking in the sights on the Ghats (stairways leading down to a landing on the water), including the cremation Ghats. We've dodged touts, tried to dodge mosquitoes (there are too many of them to have any chance of succeeding, regardless of what repellent is applied) and basically stayed out of the sun. It's hot here, very hot and we're trying to get used to it. We've happily whiled away the steamy afternoons reading and gazing out at the Ganges from the rooftop restaurant of the Puja guest house, ordering cold mineral water and the odd milkshake every now and then. Yes, we've taken it easy and we've actually felt, for the last 2 days at least, like we're on holidays, quite an accomplishment in any Indian city. We're quite proud of ourselves. We doubt it'll be like that in Delhi. After all, they'll have beer there.

Btw, check out all the pictures from this entry here, only some of which are weaved into the entry itself.
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Where I stayed
Puja Guesthouse

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