24 January 2016

Holy Holy Varanasi

I had wanted to see Varanasi as I’ve always heard what a holy city it was. I only had three days, but I actually wished I had more. There were so many neat alleyways to explore and walking around the ghats was so fascinating and I stayed at a great hostel. But that’s traveling. You spend too much time stuck in transit and not enough time doing rad things.

After a day of pure hell in several airports and two different airlines, I arrived in Varansi. My first cab driver gave me a weird vibe, so I didn’t even get in his cab; I found another cab and arrived in Varansi after a long drive.

My hostel, Stops Hostel, was great. I almost didn’t book because I hate when hostels charge single people double occupancy price for a double person room, but I’m glad I did. Free breakfast, chai time, lots of activities, different chill-out areas, yoga. It was great.

Shortly after I arrived, I ended up going out to dinner with a random English girl. We ate chana masala and mixed veggies with lots of chapati. A group of women and men came in, and they began smiling and bowing at us. We ended up taking photos with them (An Indian thing is to take photos with a Westerner - I get stopped all the time and get asked to pose for photos with Indian people.) and finished our meal. I was so exhausted after my long day that I just went and organized my bag and then went to sleep.

In the morning, I went to do yoga with Siddharth on the roof. It was me and another woman, and it was pretty tough. It was also freezing on the roof at seven a.m. As monkeys ran by, we balanced on one leg and breathed. It was also a wonderful way to start the day.

During the hostel breakfast (omelette, eggs, cereal, toast, biscuits, chai), I met some other travelers and made plans with them to walk along the ghats.

The ghats are the stairs that lead down to the Ganges. The Ganges is a holy river where many things happen. When I arrived in Varanasi, I told my mom, “I’m in Varanasi. Google “Varansi AND Ganges.”” My mom wrote back, “Sewage and bathing and cremation came up - I’m not sure how that all goes together.” It does and so much more.

Along the Ganges, people are doing laundry, drinking the water, cremating bodies, taking boat rides, bathing, going for a holy plunge...It’s chaotic and insane. Boatmen try to get you to take a boat ride; people try to sell you beads; cows are everywhere, and so are their lovely piles of poop. There are tons of dogs and puppies sleeping in the sun and eating garbage. Holy men pray; tourists take photos; laundry is drying. It is such an insane and interesting place.

There are two main cremation sites; if you die and are cremated in Varansi, you will reach nirvana. Only men can be at the cremation sites because it is thought that women cry more and no one can cry; if someone cries, the soul cannot be released and will remain. The body is wrapped in white, and then a glorious orange and gold covered shawl is draped over the body until the last moment. The bodies are burned on the beach at a various levels in a building behind, or a crematorium on the Gaganes. (It costs about 15,000 rupees to be cremated on the Ganges in Varanasi.)

Women or men can be cremated, but there are 7 or 8 categories that cannot: pregnant women; babies; transgender people; people with leprosy; people with chicken pox; animals; and I can’t remember if there are any others. These individuals (there are about 200 a day) have a rock tied to their bodies and the bodies are dumped in the middle of the river. Think about it: 200 bodies a day are dumped into the river. 200.

And yet, down the river, people are drinking the water, bathing in it, swimming in it, doing laundry in it…

I went on a boat tour and when our guide told us that the laundry was done excellently, one guy at my hostel freaked out when he thought the laundry he had sent out was done in the river. Kind of gross...but to many, it is very holy.

In Varanasi, I walked along the Ganges; got lost in the maze of alleys that led to the ghats; ate a Blue Lassi (amazing, best lassi ever!); ate at Brown Bread Bakery (the real one, not the fake one 50 meters away - yep, there is a fake one!); ate street samosas (2 for 10 rupees); hung out at my hostel; drank lots of chai; got lost; have fun.

The last morning, I was the only one doing yoga so Siddharth’s assistant picked me up and drove me by motorbike through the maze of alleys. We did yoga along the Ganga, just Siddharth and I watched the sunrise over the Ganga and monkeys run around. I drank a rose lassi and thought about how lucky I was to be here - but also how hard India can be, and how much I miss home.

Next stop - Mumbai!

No comments: