Hindu Immersion 101
Trip Start Jan 24, 2011
22Trip End Mar 09, 2011
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Where I stayed
We survived the SpiceJet flight from Delhi, but barely. It was a 737 configured with the tightest seats ever encountered. To make matters worse, take-off was backed up almost a half hour, and the three ladies in the preceding row insisted on reclining their seats into our faces from the moment they boarded. A 300ml bottle of water and the chance to purchase snacks were the only distractions.
Our pickup was waiting outside the terminal and we bundled into a small, older Tata. It was a long and exhilarating ride from the new airport (completed two months ago, well into farm country) into the old heart of the city. When Disney eventually opens a park in India, they will have to model a ride on street traffic. I am in wonder that anyone would take a new, expensive vehicle out in that jungle.
We finally pulled to the side and unloaded out suitcases. The second adventure trip began. This ancient city has no road access to the original communities along the Ganges River. It must be reached either by boat or through narrow, twisting alleyways. When in good repair, they are paved with stones about a foot square. Rolling luggage for perhaps a kilometer was a challenge. The sun had just set, but there was usually adequate artificial illumination to detect the missing or badly heaved stones, resting animals (dogs, goats and cattle), refuse, fresh and petrified dung, shoppers, bicycles and motor scooters. Without our guide, we would still be wandering the maze.
We found our guest house under "Specialty Lodgings" in Varanasi through TripAdvisor.com They came highly rated by former guests - practically all 5-star reviews. We knew it would be a unique if basic experience, but we decided to go for early Indian immersion by starting at Varanasi - might as well stick with the program.
The Ram Bhawan guesthouse is technically a residence for members of the Kautilya Society. That is an NGO set up a dozen years ago to promote intercultural dialogue. It is managed by an engaging young man named Fausto, whose Italian father and Indian mother established the Society and quartered it in a traditional Indian family villa. We took out 6-month memberships in the Society and were shown our large room, with bathroom on the fourth floor. We had reserved the only en suite facility in the guesthouse. Breakfast, lunch and wifi are included. We are very close to the Ganges,visible from the rooftop patio/coffee shop, and old shopping areas. Membership dues, 3 nights lodging and pick-up fee all came to about 5000 rupees or $120 which we paid up front in cash
For our first meal, we headed for a local restaurant called Phulwari suggested by Fausto, and with the aid of his sketched directions, made it with only minor confusion. We went for the Special Thali and could not finish everything. With two litre bottles of water, the bill came to 260 rupees - about $6, though Debbie was so delighted she tipped heavily.
Our bed took some getting used to. It is large, but the mattress consists of what feels like an inch of felt. My first few hours were steady reminders of my advancing years - the aches in my neck, shoulders and hips kept sleep sessions to about an hour duration. Oddly, about halfway through the night, my body started to adjust, but it never got truly comfortable.
Breakfast was a simple affair, self-serve toast & a delicious jam, bananas, coffee/tea. We went first to see the ghats (steps) along the Ganges. You can walk all along the riverside on these ghats, and encounter a never ending but varied selection of vendors, pilgrims, boats, bathers, mystics, temples, guesthouses and livestock
We were regularly approached by entrepreneurs of all stripe. The simplest were the boatmen. Like rickshaw drivers on the streets, they were pleasant and perfunct in their pitches. Vendors from the stalls and children selling postcards were only slightly more intrusive. Next up the chain were the invariably young men who almost always opened with "Where are you from?" and "What is your name?". From our limited experience, they seem to be employed to bring you to the closers in various enterprises, many of which are outright scams. It can be very difficult to disengage. They will walk with you for quite a while, offering all kinds of information as if your personal tour guide. Much of it is quite interesting, but you dare not show any interest or appreciation. Their polite persistence is hard to rebuff, even when you know where it's leading. The Lonely Planet Guide refers to this as "The Varanasi Shakedown".
This scenario led us to a most unfortunate situation at the principal cremation site, the Manikarnika Ghat. Our leech stayed with us to this tourist mecca until the heavy duty pitchman appeared at out side. Dressed in robes and leaning on a staff, he immediately started reciting all the details of the site and it's ceremonies
It was all quite disturbing, but not at all unusual. Before we had reached the Ghat, we encountered a couple of our generation from Minnesota. We had talked at length about our respective travels and my hopes that our "guide" would quit were for naught. On leaving the Ghat, we passed them and stopped to warn them of the high-pressure they could expect. They seemed confident in their invincibility and soldiered on. We met up with them again and learned they had fared even worse. They thought the situation was about to lead to a call for the local constabulary for resolution. Should I feel guilty at my personal relief in their misfortune?
With Debbie's encouragement, I not only had my first professional shave, but a very public one at that, on the ghats. Following the shave, he surprised me with a head massage, then neck, shoulders, upper back, arms all the way down to popping each finger joint
We returned in time for lunch. Again, it was simple fare, but delicious. Hot pots filled with vegetarian casseroles of uncertain ingredients, a yogurt dish and crisp flatbread. Luckily for Debbie, one of the pots had no onions. This allergy is proving to be quite a problem here. Onions are much loved in their cuisine. We had heard that the crop was greatly reduced this year leading to importing and very high prices. Our hopes that this would lead to less use have yet to be realized.
For the afternoon we ventured back to the alleyways and local streets, and only succumbed to two pitches to see silk shops. Both were disappointments - the fabric was fine, but the colours and patterns not what Debbie sought. It's really unfortunate that retail trade is so intense here. We are immediately bombarded with sales pitches the instant we slow and glance at an item. The effort to disengage is too great to risk exploration.
Even fruitless shopping is exhausting
Great plans, but we hadn't realized that no one would be up to lock the front door behind us. Security is serious here. We did not want to expose the guesthouse to robbery, so returned to our room to work on the computer and await breakfast. Perhaps we can make arrangements to safely do the dawn tour tomorrow, our last day here.
After breakfast, we decided we had to attempt the en suite shower. Many of you may never have experienced this common utilitarian approach to three piece bathrooms. The budget shower in many countries is just a shower head in the bathroom and a drain in the floor. The whole floor and most of the bathroom gets a bath with you. Wise to remove the toilet paper (ours - none provided), to another room. This is worse than the bathtubs in Europe devoid of a shower curtain. We planned our shower after breakfast, before leaving for the day, and incorporated our sock & underwear washing, in hopes of efficiency and a relatively dry environment on our return.
Our goal this afternoon was Ramnagar Fort and Museum, about 5 km upriver (south) of here. We started out walking to the southern end of the ghats, then planned on an auto rickshaw to the pontoon bridge, walking or boating across to the Fort, then perhaps a boat ride back.
The ghat stroll went well, a warm sun and few hassles. It was much quieter here, and we saw more cattle and different activities, like large scale laundry and hand-made dung patties. Seeing the latter laid out in rows to dry in the sun brought parliament to mind.
We negotiated a good price due to a bidding war between two hungry drivers. The victorious young cabie, Prashant, not only took us to the bridge, but across this long, crowded structure and a considerable distance on the opposite bank to the entrance gate. Obviously he hoped for additional business. We discussed a return to either our starting point, or all the way back. He offered the full return plus a two hour personally guided tour of principal temples at the south end of the city. Sounded like a good idea at a fair price.
The fort was worthwhile
The next two halls featured mostly weaponry from many locales over three centuries. It included all manner of personal firearms, knives, swords, archery, armor and even a WWI Vickers machine gun, Other pavilions displayed ivory, fabrics, timepieces, furnishings - a host of historical household items. The shame was there was nothing but sparse natural light available, and though most of the wares were in glass cases, they badly needed cleaning. This often reduced visibility to the point of obscurity. Regrettably, photography inside was forbidden. Outside, facing the river, the former glory of the structure was evident in the intricate stonework.
Note: In April, back in Canada, we watched "The Amazing Race" - Unfinished Business" featuring Varanasi, and this fort was the "Pit Stop" for that leg of the Race
It was early afternoon when we returned to our new guide. After touring the city's university and resident temple, the monkey temple, and seeing a few others in passing, we were ready to eat. We were dropped off close to Phulwari, the restaurant we used on our first night here. This time we went international, sampling Chinese Egg Noodles, Moussaka and Pizza with Turkish Coffee. A short and now familiar walk along the ghats took us home.
We had wanted to catch the evening devotions at a nearby ghat, but were misinformed on the timing and arrived at 7 pm, about a half hour into the festivities. It was superb! I will attempt to upload a video at a later date. The music, performance and spirit of the crowd really caught us up. The ceremony climaxed with offerings of flowers, floating candles and some unknown liquids offered into the river, This felt like the highlight of Varanasi, and went hassle-free.
Jan. 31 - Morning
Got out a little late for sunrise this morning, but after strolling the ghat for a few minutes, decided to engage a young boatmen for an hour at 100 rupees. It was actually better for photos with the stronger light, and we were shooting the west bank. The morning bathers amaze me - this is about as polluted as a major river can get, yet the locals not only immerse themselves, but often make a point of drinking it. Once again, there was a strict prohibition on photographing anything at the burning ghat. Our boatman said the police could take us away if we were caught taking pictures in the area.
Not sure how the rest of the day will go, but we'd like to load up on rupees before boarding, and will try to arrange a guide for assistance to and through the train station. These transportation hubs are notorious for more scams.
Final Notes on Varanasi
Headed out to try the ATM that accepted Visa and managed to take a wrong turn. Fausto mentioned two other ATM's that, due to my misdirection, were now close enough to check out. Turned out, neither even took Visa, let alone the elusive “Plus” system needed for a bank withdrawal Returning to the original ATM and made sure that the card was swiped rather than swallowed into the bowels of the machine.
When the screen came up, it seemed that I was making an account withdrawal rather than a cash advance from my credit card. I took out 10,000 rupees. Checking my credit card statement online next day, I discovered how expensive this source of funds was. Instead of an exchange rate of 44 rupees to the Canadian dollar, Visa used about 39, and charged a $5 transaction fee. If that isn't bad enough, there is no way I can avoid a month's interest on the advance too! I will redouble my efforts to find a machine that accepts my debit card.
The guesthouse arranged an auto rickshaw for our transfer to the train station, and a guide through the alleyways to a pickup point. We waited at the side of a very busy street for ages until the ride appeared. To our surprise, the guide left, meaning we would not have any assistance finding our train in the station, and time had now become critical.
The station was a madhouse and the train was due in 20 minutes. The information counter was jammed and we knew there was no time to use it, so we started asking strangers. Finally someone said the train to Agra used Platform 4, and we hauled our bags up and over the tracks to there. There was no train there and no one there seemed to be going to Agra. A young boy said it was switched to Platform 9.
We were in no mood for a new scam, so decided Debbie would head back to the main terminal area with one of the walkie-talkies we brought while I waited up on the platform bridge with the bags. Good move. A female gets a lot more attention here (not always a good thing, but in this case, just what we needed).
One of the strangers we had spoken with had chased after Debbie. He caught her in the terminal and charged into the mob at the information counter we had given up on. In frantic Hindi he bullied his way to the front and found out Platform 9 was indeed correct. With only minutes to spare we boarded our coach - the highest class available, and collapsed in our reserved berth. This would be our home for the next 13 hours.
We met a couple of young Englishmen also going to Agra, and the four of us were told by the conductor that the train had been changed. It would no longer be stopping in Agra. We could get off halfway there and change to another train, or go 30 km past Agra and make our way back at our expense. Oh yes, an additional fee would be charged for the extra 30 km. All this would be dealt with early in the morning when another conductor took over from him. This seemed ridiculous, and we all stared plotting our strategy as a group.
Should have mentioned this before, but each night spent on the Varanasi guesthouse bed became more tolerable until, after three nights, the upper train berth was actually tolerable. The constant air conditioning noise was a constant annoyance, but I did manage to sleep in stretches of one to two hours. Sometime in the night our compartment received the other two occupants – unrelated male and female.
Seems that most times I awoke overnight, the train was either stopped dead, of moving at a crawl. No wonder it takes so long to cover what we consider short distances back home. Sometime early in the morning, the Englishmen heard that we were stopping in Agra as originally scheduled. Never found out what all the crap was about.
Debbie's Varanasi Update
As mentioned in my previous blog our guest house provided a pick-up from Varanasi Airport. What I didn't mention was the state the car was in. I don't think it would qualify for Rent-a-Wreck back home.
I don't know what make it was but it was in a pretty sad state. The front seats had been covered with sheets as there didn't seem to be much original fabric left. Our 2 bags barely fit into the hatch back. Dave had to go inside the car and hold are bags back so he could close the hatch.
At first the drive through the countryside was civilized. It then abruptly ended as we reached the city limits. The pace now was at lightening speed. Tuk-tuks thrust their way in between large trucks, cycle rickshaws and pedestrians. They all were jockeying for position. It seemed that if you honked the most they respected your request to further your vehicle. During the chaotic drive Dave was shooting a video of the whole thing. I was worried that his camera would fly out from his hands and be crushed. I was proud of myself I didn't utter a sound of fear, of course I was in a state of shock for the entire trip.
We finally arrived at our intended destination only to find out that the car couldn't reach the Guest House as it was down a narrow lane way.
Actually it was numerous lane ways! We tried to keep up with our guide, navigating our rolling bags around cow, monkey and dog shit as well as dodging motor scooters. So far so good until I had to dodge a scooter and there was no place to step except in some cow shit. At least it was somewhat firm. Well my new beige Clark's got christened. They say it is good luck in Varanasi to step in cow dung - what else would they say!
Ram Bhawan is the residency of the Kautilya Society and is located at Munshi Ghat. The society offers accommodations to people studying different aspects of Varanasi. We have met guests studying Sanskrit, Hindi, Music and dance so far. The society also accepts non-students who are interested in engaging conversation with individuals from around the world. The people that we have met staying here are wonderful. The owners son and daughter who are half Italian (on the the father's side) and Indian (on the mother's side) are very stunning. It is a beautiful combination.
Our first night we didn't venture too far as it was dark and it was like being in a labyrinth. We did manage to find the recommended restaurant that Fausto sent us to. We immersed our taste buds in India cuisine by having an Indian Thali which consisted of spicy lentils, several types of curry both vegetarian and meat, chapati and rice The restaurants' owner provided us with a complimentary Tim Bit saturated with honey and rosewater. All the food was extremely tasty and very filling. Our bill with beverage and tip was approximately $10.00 CDN. Dave though I tipped too much, however. It was our first day in India and I didn't want any bad Karma.
As you have already read Dave's version of Varanasi I will skip a lot and only tell the things that seemed more interesting. One thing most people here use the old name of Benares and not Varanasi.
We met a lot of people at the Indian consulate in Mississauga and when asked where they were from the used the British names and not the new ones. People from Mumbai still said they were from Bombay and so on.
As mentioned our experience at the burning ghat was not pleasant, but we knew what was happening.
I had read travel blogs for two years about the various scams at the burning ghat. What Dave failed to mention that after his soul was damned he got real angry and told the con artist that he should be ashamed of himself and if any one should be damned it was he who dared to utter these words in such a holy place. I saw steam coming out of Dave's ears. He was so mad and looked so crazy that it frightened me. Have any of you ever seen Dave angry? No, neither have I! He later said to me that it was all an act, sure fooled me!
After leaving the burning ghat we strolled casually past the other ghats which are used for bathing.
People approached us but they were not aggressive and were quite pleasant. One thing you notice while walking along the boardwalk is the numerous sleeping dogs and the cows eating, shitting and bathing. The animals seem totally oblivious to our moves. The dogs ears don' t even move, I think they are deaf from all the street traffic.
Dave's shave was hilarious! The barber lathered him up as the locals gathered around for the entertainment that was about to start. After stretching his neck and scraping his face with a straight blade not one but twice, the barber then doused his face with detol. When I looked at what he was using it looked like toilet bowl disinfectant. Then he proceeded to massage Dave all over starting at the scalp and working his way down. I thought a below the belt massage was coming as both the barber and Dave were both smiling exuberantly. Dave doubled that barbers price and they were now best friends. On following days we past the same barber who encouraged Dave to come again.
I think the notoriety of the previous day discouraged him. People saw him and would gesture about the shave, all while giggling.
The evening Puja ceremony was very spiritual and moving. In my opinion it was the highlight of Benares!! The morning boat ride was also good. As for the fort, I was bored out of my mind.
Old cars not in good shape, dirty display cases housing several hundred knives and guns didn't ring my bell.
The merchants of Benares were too aggressive for my liking and the traffic was insane to go to the old city centre to shop. The merchants in the back alleyways were pleasant and did not hassle us at all.
As for my onion allergy I don't know what Dave was talking about. Each restaurant has prepared my dishes with out any onions. They are eager to please and do not mind taking the time to adjust the dish for me. No problem at all!
My last comment on Banares is about the train station. As mentioned an 8 year old boy told us that our train had changed platforms but we thought it might be another scam. Turns out he was just being helpful. After receiving the right information from the train attendant I proceeded to run up a large ramp and over 4 platforms to reach Dave all whilst making a beep beep noise like an auto rickshaw.
People understood this sound and jumped to the various sides to let the crazy lady by. They all seemed amused with my beeps and understood I was in a hurry. You may remember I said the more a rickshaw leans on his horn the more they listen, well they did. We made it to platform #9 with 10 minutes to spare. I was a bit frazzled thinking that we were going to miss the train. Trains in India are booked months in advance and it is difficult to hop on the next train going to where you want. The last minute tourist quota of approximately 10 seats is often wait listed with 20 or more.