After a long sleeper bus ride I arrived in Varanasi just after 6am to a thrall of tuk-wits trying to rob the hell out of anyone resembling a tourist. After checking what ridiculous prices the buffoons were asking, I basically walked off halfway through one of the fools sentence much to his surprise. This of course didn’t follow his plan and I walked away hearing his price drop considerably but I was happy to walk.
My route took me through some urban areas that some may have thought best to avoid. I try not to take such an attitude as India has poverty almost everywhere and I’m quite well educated in using my instincts to ‘smell’ the scent of potential threat or trouble.
My choice proved good as I came across a local chai stand consisting of a dirty tarp pulled over a very basic brick kiln but more importantly there were quite a few locals whom I could meet and converse — well, at least try anyway! Three chai’s later, a few laughs thrown in and a more awake me, I moved on toward my hostel — another 20 mins walk away. It was a nice walk, happily enjoying the greetings from people and children as I walked by — some with a look of ‘what’s he doing in these parts?’ on their faces, but in a good way.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a young girl struggling with her bicycle; her chain had come off both rings and she was struggling to get it back on due to the chain guard — so often found on such old classic bicycles. Anyway, I explained I’d help, flipped the bike upside down, did my thing and she was off on her way with a smile! Aren’t I good! 😉
Eventually I made it to my hostel, packed down and headed out to investigate the rabbit warren of alleyways next to the Ganga river, aka the Ganges! You may or may not know but due to the Ganga river, Varanasi is a highly spiritual place for Hindu where it’s believed that one can wash away one’s sins and start again or more importantly come to die, be set free through fire and the soul released through body elements ‘washed’ in to the river itself! I’m sure there’s more to it but this is a blog, not a tome so I’ll leave it at that.
At the hostel I met Clare, a very English rose researching the connection between spiritual health and herbs grown in the upper mountains — yes I know what you’re thinking but her research didn’t involve getting stoned! 😄. There was also Elena from St. Petersburg, searching for inner peace if got that right(?) and Martin a really boring bloke who kept going on and on about bikes!
OK, OK… Martin if you’re reading this, that was especially for you! 😄 Sorry mate but couldn’t help myself! On a serious note, I got on with Martin really well and we shared some seriously good time laughing to the point of tears.
Martin had also toured parts of the world by bicycle but unlike me, he didn’t travel alone, so we shared some cool stories and quite a few similarities, especially humour giving us both some really funny moments. I look forward to keeping in touch with this guy! Good times.
ABOVE: 1. Rooftop meal at the hostel … with Martin. 2. Stray dogs were everywhere in Varanasi, more so than I’d seen elsewhere. 3. The gang at Bunny’s Cafe: Rohit the owner who learnt to cook via YouTube, Masaka an awesome guest who virtually lived there and yes that’s Martin! Did I tell you about Martin … and bikes!
I decided to take an evening boat tour of the river which involved bearing witness to the spiritual shows that take place every evening. It was a very moving affair and the only way I can describe it is that it reminded me almost of the show scene from the move Apocalypse Now! where many boats gathered on the river to see the show. Maybe that could be misconstrued but that’s how I saw it, without the violence and instead intrigue and curiosity.
Varanasi is a great place to visit just to witness the unusual aspects of belief that people hold and how that skews every day life for so many. Each of us hold our own beliefs and for different reasons but seeing this place and the extremes some go in the name of faith really brought to question my own values and where I stand in my own world of self — none of what I saw holding any strength whatsoever… A simple example is that people ‘believe’ that living on only one side of a river brings you ‘much luck’, leaving the other side devoid of people apart from toilet use … What the f*ck?!
There are lists of little aspects of Varanasi of which I could write endlessly so to save boring you all — and even myself — here is my experience in pictures:
ABOVE: 1. Boat tour along the Ganges. 2. Me, Clare and Elena. 3. Hanuman Ghat temple. 4. The chai bunch on my first arrival. 5. A glimpse into one of many tailor shops.
ABOVE: 1. Funeral pyre wood stacks that ran 24/7! 2. One of hundreds of temples lost among buildings. 3. The local pack of strays who lived outside our hostel and were so friendly, the little guy jumping for attention.
ABOVE: 1. Cows were everywhere but here they almost blocked the alleys. 2. Street chai wallah — this guy was a nice fella. 3. An early bike build at one of the street shops — did I tell you about Martin and his bike!
ABOVE: 1. Bangali Tola, one of many similar style building along the riverside. 2. I know the river is terribly polluted so I just dipped my feet for a while. 3. Boats everywhere.
Ok… Since I first landed in India, I’ve really enjoyed stopping for chai tea at the various wallah stands by the roadside. And being the good sort, I’ve paid the 10 rupee quote without question. This was until I stopped in one particular ‘shop/cafe’ when a local overheard me requesting a chai and — I assume from their demeanour — the store owners were mocking me in Hindi. When the local guy left, he walked by me purposefully and told me:
‘Chai five rupees, no more. Chai five rupees only OK!’
I thanked the gentleman and noticed the faces of the staff had changed from smiles and smugness to frowns. I obviously enjoyed feigning an innocent statement of:
‘Five rupees, yes!’
I then paid and left.
The reason I tell you this tale is that I then approached all wallahs with this:
‘Chai? 5 rupees!’
Of which they knew immediately the game had changed. 😉
Approximately 10Km North East of the city sits Sarnath, a place of Buddhist importance as it was the place Buddha first taught the Dharma. Obviously it’s an important place and there is the rather large Dhamek Stupa from 500AD which I think may hold some of the ashes of Buddha but don’t quote me on that.
ABOVE: 1. Standing Buddha statue which I approximate at 50 feet. 2. Stupa wall inscriptions. 3. Bodhi Tree bell at the Dharmpal Monument. 4. ‘That’ Stupa.
Anyway, Clare and Elena want to go visit and I’m free that day but the guys need to go to the bus station to buy tickets. So I arrange to meet them at the station and we can all head onward to the Stupa but that’s not how it goes…
I have a strange way of sometimes going into autopilot and completely omitting my original intention. Let me explain; sometimes I’ll think to myself ‘I’ll pop in to see a friend and find myself driving to work. This is due to their home being part of my commute and only after I’ve missed their turn by however long does my brain suddenly jolt into reality and I turn back. This happened at the station!
Due to heading through an overcrowded and extremely busy part of town, I ordered and Uber taxi, jumped in, daydreamed and appeared at the station. After 15 minutes of trying to find the girls via WhatsApp messages but also the station is rather large with multiple buildings, we meet, and have a chai while I order an Uber.
This is where brain fell over!
I order an Uber and when it asks where to go I automatically enter the hostel address. We all get in, the driver drives with me laughing inside at the fact that he’s listed in app as ‘great for conversation’ yet doesn’t say a word the entire trip — obviously as he only speaks Hindi but I found it funny.
It takes a long time to get back and the route is quite obvious after 10 minutes. My brain is still on twatfarm mode so we get all exit the cab with me leading the way back to the hostel which then involves another 10 min walk through the market. I get back then suggest food as I’m hungry and we all go to eat.
Only at the restaurant do I suddenly realise what I’ve done and I can’t believe that no-one said anything!
To cut the tale short, the other two just assumed that it was lunchtime anyway (???!!!) and it might be a good idea — taking us 5 miles backward?! — so I offer to pay for both rides out and back to only find that by the time we get to the temples etc that everything is closing! Nooooooooooo!
At least there were two temples open and we got to see the Stupa but through a fence 12 feet away. Enlightenment was obviously off the cards that day for sure.
Next stop: the longest bus journey of my career as a human…