Venice + Detroit = Varanasi
Trip Start Jul 01, 2004
89Trip End Jan 03, 2005
The city looks a bit like I would imagine 15th century Venice may have looked. It has maze-like narrow streets leading to ghats where boatmen in gondolas offer rides. It doesn't have canals in lieu of roads, but it does have cows, monkeys and dogs running and shitting amok throughout the streets.
It also has a bit of modern Detroit built in. All of the downtown hostels have a 10pm curfew after which they lock the gates and post guards. The hotels claim it isn't safe to wander through the streets past that time
As a distinguishing feature, a few of the ghats are used to cremate bodies, so 24 hours a day you can see plumes of smoke rising off the Ganges.
One of the travellers I met told a story of having been given a tour of one of the burning ghats that led to an adjacent hospice. Once there they were surrounded by a group of men who demanded money - this after seeing and hearing about all of the bodies being burnt, and the ones that wouldn't burn having stones attached and being tossed into the river. Needless to say, this type of extortion scheme works quite well - as it would in downtown Detroit. They got the business - Varanasi style. The conversation convinced me to abandon the "tour" early the next day in order to avoid the unpleasant ending.
I have become accustomed to my lungs not feeling healthy due to general air pollution in India. In Varanasi I got the added bonus of knowing part of what I was coughing up was people's freshly cremated ashes. That helped make Varanasi's air pollution extra special.
On the good side of the ledger - the 5:30 am sunrise boat cruise was beautiful, and I was able to meet lots of other travelers.
I am not planning a return trip to Varanasi.