This morning was little disconcerting. I wondered, as we waited for our free hotel pick-up to arrive, whether we had taken a step to far to the wild side. Varanasi (or Vara-nasty as it is refered to in some quarters) is awash with touts of the worst kind trying to take you dodgy hovels and collect their commission. We were prepared for this, but still white faces generate a real feeding frenzy, and it can be a little uncomfortable when you are aware that there is a criminal element in this area that looking to not just fleece you, but rob you.
Immediately it is clear that Varanasi is much dirtier than Delhi, which is saying something. Eventually the friendly face of our pick up arrives, carrying a little scrap of paper with “Mr Bowman” written on it. He walks us over to 2 auto rickshaws, Charlotte and Maisie in one and Ali and I in the other. I am slightly worried when the young boy sat in the front of ours turns out to be the driver and not just waiting for dad to get in. As soon as we go to leave the station car park he loses the other rickshaw in the melee. We then proceed to experience what can only be described as extreme rickshaw driving. He drives through the traffic like Ali playing on a Playstation racing game!
Still, we do actually arrive in one piece. How? I may never quite work that out! Arrive meant arrive at the point where the rickshaws could go no further. We then had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel, 2 minutes we are told. Every turn down the dark and dirty alleyways seems to take us further into some scary maze. I am really beginning to wonder if this is too ‘real’ for us, let alone the kids. Just as I am about to lose hope of getting to the hotel, and feeling in my shoulders, we turn a corner to look out over the Ganges glistening in the morning sunlight. From that moment it all seems worth it, the river banks are alive with the day to day comings and goings of Varanasi. “What was I worrying about?”
Respect to Ali and Maisie, after battling trough a very crowded New Delhi train station at dusk with rucksacks that almost weigh the same as we do, I am relieved to get on the Shiv Ganga express train to Varanasi.
We are sat next to a nice couple who explain to us that we will be able to buy whatever snacks we want and that blankets and pillows will appear later. Sure enough within 2 minutes of us sitting down a man appears asking if we want Chai and there is chocolate and crisps to keep us going for a bit.
Maisie and I go and find the toilet, she makes me laugh when she uses the squat toilets like a pro local and announces to the carriage that “these squat toilets are ok aren�t they mom” (what planet is she on, I would barely describe them as ok and that is at the start of our journey but still they do the trick and when in Rome etc) I just thank god I packed wet wipes, alcohol gel for their hands and they had virtually all vaccinations known to man!
After a game of scrabble and a meal of cold curry, we were served last as in third class sleeper, we settle down for the night. I am only slightly disturbed when I see a mouse run over the end of my bunk, I must be toughening up a bit and after the rats in Delhi these mice seem quite cute.
I awake at 6.30 Maisie is leaning over the bunk whispering that she needs the loo, the poor thing has woken up with a streaming cold and a good going dose of the shits.
Still it makes her laugh when she realises that her squat toilet empties straight onto the track and I am relieved that she can find humour in anything as she does kook a bit pale.
Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India, I have read that it is the spiritual centre of the Hindu’s universe and Hindu’s come to wash away their sins in the Great Mother (Ganges River), Varanasi is also a city of the dead, to die here and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges on one of the burning ghats is very good and releases Hindu’s from the cycle of rebirth.
Several hours later and we have arrived at the Scindhia Guest House, we have some banana porridge and chocolate pancakes for breakfast. After a bit of excitement when Maisie got locked in the loo for 15 minutes we go for a walk on the famous ghats.
It is absolutely boiling here, much hotter than Delhi and I think we will need a few days to get used to the heat so we make our way back.
Alister has been trying to teach me to play the guitar on and off for the last year and although I’m no good and haven’t really got the patience to practice enough, I am hoping to learn simple stuff whilst we are away (Just enough to get me by when I have had a few beers) and we spend a few hours sat in a tiny room with the fan whirring away listening to Ali playing.
At 5.30 we go on a boat trip up the Ganges, there is a festival on one of the ghats and we are going to watch. Firstly though we stop at Manikarnika ghat this is the most auspicious ghat to be cremated on and we count 15 fires, the logs are piled all around and there are 3 bodies on the steps waiting.
Tiny candles on little baskets of reeds and flowers are being floated up the river and it looks beautiful, I’m not sure what the significance of these are but as I float mine I make a wish anyway and cross my fingers just in case.
We didn’t take any photographs out of respect but watching the funeral pyres in the dark from a small rowing boat on the river was really indescribable and something I will never forget.