Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Into Varanasi

The Chinese couple I'd met up with in Agra hadn't booked ahead a place to stay in Varanasi; Vera tried to call a few out of the Lonely Planet, but the only one that had an availability was also ridiculously expensive.  So, they (Vera and Wang) decided to go with me to my hostel, and just see if there were any openings there.  Once we got out of the train station, we made our way to the prepaid rickshaw/taxi stand, and after waiting around a bit for the guy to come back from wherever he'd wandered off to, we paid an amazingly cheap 95 rupees for a motor rickshaw.  We and our backpacks were crammed in, and off we went into the chaos.  It took quite a while--nearly forty minutes winding through really ridiculous crowds and traffic; nothing looked like a city worth traveling to yet.  And, I think our driver hit every pot hole possible.  Several times I nearly squawked when he ran up onto the curb to get around a slightly slower moving vehicle in front of us.  We took the rickshaw as far as possible; he let us off at one of the little alleys leading into the old city.

In the oldest part of town (and old means old here...Varanasi's history goes back nearly four thousand years), there are few roads, just little winding alleys that twist in every direction.  Vera was wishing we had a guide; I don't think she thought we'd ever find the place.  I led the way, and we wound through little alleys, working our way closer and closer to the river, for twenty minutes at least.  Now and then I'd ask a shopkeeper which way to Munshi Ghat, which I new my hostel was supposed to be near, to stay on course. We passed so many different hostels and guest houses that I was beginning to be afraid we'd never find it; the shopkeepers didn't seem to have ever heard of it.  But finally, I turned a corner, and there it was.

The view from my window
Unfortunately, they didn't have any extra rooms from Vera and Wang, so they headed out to try and some of the myriad places we'd passed.  I haven't run into them again, so I hope they had good luck.  I was showed to a room, only then to have some confusion while checking in; apparently, they aren't so good at checking their online bookings, and it turned out they didn't have space for me after all, but they could get me a place in the hostel across the alley for the same price.  I asked to see the room at the other place first, just to make sure they weren't trying to dump me off somewhere crappy.  As it turned out, the new hostel room was way better than the one I'd reserved in the first place, so I complained a bit more and then finally accepted somewhat gracefully.

Looking down the ghats along the river
The new room is on the fourth floor (slight drawback there, but I guess I need to keep my stair-climbing muscles in shape, since I've got to return to my fifth-floor apartment in a couple of weeks), has its own (clean! unusual around here...) bathroom, and even a tiny little balcony.  Best of all, the view out the window looks out over the Ganges River.  The only real downside is that the bed is pretty hard, although still not quite as bad as the ones in China.

After settling in and resting for a bit, I went out for a walk along the ghats.  The ghats are the steps along the riverside; every hundred feet or so is a different ghat with a different name; the one around the corner from my hostel is the Munsi Ghat, right around in the middle.  I walked along the riverfront, passing by cows, sheep, goats, dogs, ducks, people, and the excrement of all of the above, boats, touts, foreigners of every type, priests with long beards, dreadlocks, and loin cloths guarding tiny closet-like temples, a public cremation, etc.  It sounds like a madhouse, but really, I was surprised it wasn't much worse.  I was prepared for Varanasi to be beyond crazy, but it really hasn't been bad at all.  This is supposed to be the place with the worst salesmen, boat touts, and rickshaw drivers, but I've actually been hassled less than usual so far, and everyone's been quite polite.  Let's hope it lasts.

At the Pizzeria 
My destination was the last of the major ghats, the Assi ghat.  It was supposed to be a nice area around sunset, and there was a pizzeria there than Lonely Planet promised was wonderful. The location of the pizzeria was nice; one a balcony framed by trees, overlooking the water, but the pizza was disappointing.  I ordered one with onion (way too much), pineapple, and capsicum (which is what they insist on calling bell peppers here); you would think those things would add flavor, but it was the most bland and tasteless pizza I've ever had.  I only managed to eat half.  The place is also famous for their apple pie, but after seeing how the pizza turned out I didn't bother to try it.

I was just a little nervous about walking back along the ghats after dark, but it turns out that they're fairly well lit, although the big light poles like you would find in a Walmart parking lot don't really add much to the ambiance.  Also, I almost immediately fell in with a Canadian guy; his two friends were busy talking with each other, so he and I talked as we walked almost all the way back to my ghat. I was going to head up the stairs, but then I saw a crowd and colors and light around the curve of the river.  I wandered just a couple of ghats down to find that the ganga aarti, the river worship ceremony held at sunset every night, was in full swing at Dasaswamedh Ghat.

 The main spectacle was two groups of young men, each dressed in identical red and gold robes, going through the ritual movements with various fire-censors and other articles.  Quite a crowd was seated on the pavement behind them, and the water was crowded with boats full of people who had pulled up to watch.  As this post is already getting quite long, I'll leave it to the pictures for the full description.  I spent a while watching from various angles.  The things I was most impressed with was that, even in the press of people, they'd actually left a passageway free to make your way through and past the event.  That kind of courtesy is almost unheard of in my travels... Anyhow, it was a pleasant and colorful way to end my first day in Varanasi.

The Ganga Aarti ceremony


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