We arrived in Varanasi around midnight. As usual, the train station was jam-packed with men, women, and children huddled together and/or sleeping on the concrete floor. Brendan and I keep wondering about this. Do all these people have very early trains to catch, and decided to just set up camp here overnight so as not to miss them? Have their trains just been delayed indefinitely? Or do they just sleep here all the time?
Varanasi has a bad reputation for tout scams and rickshaw drivers who try desperately to get you to stay at one of their hotels for commission money. This happens all over India, but it's particularly effective in a city like Varanasi which, being extremely old, is a jumbled maze of narrow alleyways and almost impossible for tourists to navigate on their own right away. The touts here know this. If you've already reserved a hotel somewhere, they'll tell you it's been flooded, or out of business, or that the building just burned down... anything so that you'll give in and let them take you somewhere else. Every guidebook on India warns travelers about these guys, so I have no idea who's keeping them in business. It's the most annoying thing in the world. You can scream at them to leave you alone, that you'll never go anywhere with them, that you hate them, that you hate their mothers... no matter what, they'll keep at you until you physically ride off with someone else.
We weren't about to spend all night being taxied around by a bunch of swindlers, so we'd made prior arrangements with Shanti Guesthouse to be picked up straight from the train station. Twenty minutes after we telephoned to announce our arrival, some kid actually showed up and rescued us from the small army of touts that had surrounded us like sharks. As we followed him on foot through the dark tunnels of the Old City (the paths are so narrow that rickshaws won't fit), it became obvious that we'd never, ever have found it ourselves. The guesthouse was a little shabbier than what we'd expected, but it was cheap, and we were safe.
Where do I start with Varanasi? It's just so very weird. For Hindus, the city is special because it sits along the banks of the holy Ganges River, which starts way up in the Himalayas. In Varanasi, people incorporate the river into all sorts of activities via a series of ghats (concrete stairs that lead down to the water). They bathe, they wash their clothes , they have wedding celebrations , they dry out cow patties , they meditate , they dump the deceased...
Yes, dead people. In the river.
Apparently (and I'm really just getting a loose grasp on Hinduism here myself, so bear with me), if you die in Varanasi, you achieve some sort of enlightenment you wouldn't get by dying anywhere else. Devotees come from all over India to check out in style here, mostly by public cremation that involves dipping the wrapped body in the Ganges first. I did see a body floating in the river at one point, so maybe not everyone can afford the cremation part of the deal. There's certainly a lot of wood and manpower involved.
I know this all sounds ridiculous, but it's true. Brendan and I sat and watched bodies turning to ash over campfires with our own eyes. It's quite a production. You almost feel like you're on a big-budget movie set, watching hundreds of costumed extras carrying piles of wood around, arranging the bodies, and stoking the fires. Except that it's actually happening. The only thing I couldn't do was take any pictures, as it's understandably taboo and would have been extremely offensive to anyone who caught me. You can check out a couple of campfire hints here and here .
Strolling along the ghats or taking a river cruise is a great way to spend an hour or two in Varanasi, but the constant offers for boat rides and begging children will take their toll on you, and it's important to be able to escape to your guesthouse when you need some downtime. Our room at the Shanti Guesthouse was a small, windowless affair, but the rooftop terrace was lovely and even had internet access, so we spent at least a few hours up there every day. Most of our fellow guests were Israelis celebrating Hanukkah away from home, and there would be much singing and candle lighting at their dinner tables. I was prepared to join in for the Dradle Song, but nobody ever sang that one. Bummer.
Next destination: Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I'm beside myself.
Thanks for all the support, everyone!