In search of the Ganges - Day one in crazy Varanas
Upon arrival at Varanasi's main train station it was immediately apparent to me that my stay here would be one of excitement and fear.
I had heard all the stories and read a few warnings in my guide book about travelers going missing in the chaos of this town but, after already traveling for 3 months in the splendor that is India, I felt I was ready to dive deep into the unknown. India is a challenge to travel in but I had found that commonsense was enough to keep me out of any 'danger'. The anticipation and excitement I was feeling was paramount as the train pulled up along side the platform. As I took my first step off the train I was immediately surrounded by beggars, some having the most horrifying deformities one could possibly imagine. The noise was almost defining. There were people everywhere selling everything from padlocks to plastic radios, underwear to cups of Indian tea known as chai and of course, there were cows and monkeys roaming around freely amongst the madness with nobody seeming to notice anything unusual on this warm Tuesday morning.
I had met a Japanese girl on the train the night before and I could see in her eyes the pure shock of what she was witnessing. I found myself smiling as I reassured her that everything was ok, this unbelievable sight was in fact a business as usual type day in India. The pair of us walked out the station and we were engulfed by a hoard of rabid rickshaw Walla's trying to pouch our business. I had grown used to these boys by now but, as I had been warned before the Varanasi rickshaw Walla is a different breed from his counterparts around the rest of the country. Here in Varanasi, they will tell you outright blatant lies to make you change your plans and go with them. If you are not careful, before you know it, you will be rushed off to a guesthouse at the other end of town and find you have to pay two or three times the price for your room as well as a hefty rickshaw charge.
"We want to go to the old town" I said. "I want to stay at the Vishnu guesthouse". This we met by a reply of laughter. "Impossible. It has been destroyed by a fire." Came a reply. I knew this was a blatant lie. "That's funny because I made a phone call yesterday and the guesthouse is definitely open." I said. The pack of men paused to think of their comeback.
"The fire was yesterday Sir. If you come with me I can show you a beautiful guesthouse where everything you need can be taken care of." said another Walla. I had no intention of staying at the Vishnu guesthouse. I wanted to stay at the Shanti guesthouse but if I could at least coax one of them to take me to the banks of the Ganges I could find my own way from there.
"Really I said. In that case please take me to the Ganges I will find my own guesthouse." Again the group began laughing. "You'll be robbed" said one, "You'll be murdered." cried another. At this stage another Walla had appeared and pushed his way to the front of the pack.
"Sir, I can take you to the Ganges, my brother has a beautiful guesthouse for you, very cheap." One thing I was surprised to find in India is that travelers don't seem to play the Walla's at their own game. By agreeing to go with this guy he would take me to where I wanted to go. When I arrived at the Ganges I could simply walk away from him and not go anywhere near his 'brothers' guesthouse. Also, by agreeing to go to his 'brothers' guesthouse he dropped the price of the rickshaw fair to 50RPS. As we climbed into the rickshaw that had certainly not seen an M.O.T certificate for some years the pack of Walla's left behind continued to scream abuse and warnings of death and disease.
The approach to the old town was quite amazing. The town was just waking up as the sun began to rise. There were people everywhere. All along the road were small stalls selling everything imaginable alongside people taking a dump while rats and cats and stray dogs fought amongst themselves for any food they could find. The road was in desperate need of repair and all the houses and shops had paintings or murals of Shiva, Ganesh and many other India gods. As we drew closer to the old town I couldn't help notice the smell. It was vulgar. For those that don't know, India smells of human excrement most of the time. I don't mean to sound derogatory but it does. The amount of cows and monkeys was also something I remember noticing. Sure I had seen them everywhere in India but not the amount I was seeing on that morning. The flies, the heat, the smell the beggars, the crumbling buildings and mass of people had me on the edge of my rusty seat!
The rickshaw eventually came to a halt after a 40 minute drive through chaos. The old town of Varanasi is a complete maze of small ally ways. So small in fact that no vehicles can go there. As we climbed out of the rickshaw a small man with a beard came rushing up to help me with my bag. We quickly lifted our rucksacks and started walking down the stairs into the old town. This was met by shouts of disapproval.
"Sir where are you going. You will be killed if you go that way." We continued to walk away from them, I held Meeka, the Japanese girls hand and started walking quickly. She was still punched drunk by this experience. As I got to the bottom of the stair and turned right, I could still hear the men screaming abuse at us as we entered the labyrinth of streets. A massive bull standing in front of us instantly halted our progress. It was so large that its body covered the whole area of the lane. We paused for thought but before we knew it a man walk past us and began slapping the creature on the behind to get it to start moving forward. Although the sun had now risen it was quite dark. The amount of flies was incredible. We walked on through the maze. Piles of cow shit, flies, rubbish and creatures met every turn, it was incredible. In one lane, we came across another cow that had died. The stench literally made me wrench there and then. Due to the long train journey I had not eaten anything for some time and so nothing actually came out when I began to throw up. This place was like a dream. I had only been in the old town for about 15 minutes but we were completely lost. Every lane looked the same and everywhere you turned, sights that I can hardly describe met us. The walls had small doors from which a man would appear and try and tempt us in. Sadu's sat at the side smoking chillum, mothers washed their young, cows did the toilet! We started to walk down hill in the belief that this would eventually lead us to the Ganges.
We continued through the maze stopping from time to time to admire the markets and street vendors as they began to set up shop for the day ahead. From time to time I would catch the eye of some guy who looked seriously dodgy in some form or the other. "Come and look in my shop Sir I have many cheapness for you." As we continued walking he would change his tome to "Some hash, opium a special time for you sir." God it was hot. I remember thinking that was I was in some kind of dream and that this place had to be a fiction story of some kind. I had seen more poverty, more disease, more dirt and filth and had felt seriously worried at some points in the past 20 odd minutes more than in the whole time I was in India.
We finally walked down a huge set of stairs towards a brighter light at the end. As we arrived on the last step I looked ahead of me and there she was. I had seen many important and beautiful rivers before I arrived there that morning. I simply stood with my mouth open as I looked on in awe at the mighty Ganges. The river was full of people doing the washing, cleaning them selves and their buffalo, brushing their teeth and doing the toilet. The holy Ganges. It was so wide and the sun bounced an incredible shine of it's waters. I walk down towards the water and sat down with Meeka. Both of us said nothing for what seemed like an eternity. I realized then that I had finally reached one of my goals by arriving at this mass of water.
As I looked round to my left I could see the river carve itself downstream and I looked at the shape of the town as it hugged the banks of he river. I still had to find the Shanti guesthouse and remember I had only just arrived in the old town. There was to be many more memories lying in wait among the streets.
I took a deep breath and continued walking.
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Published on 11/20/04