Wednesday, November 13:
Arrival in Varanasi; a lazy day of recovery

I awoke around 7am, just as the train had pulled into Lucknow. I asked someone how long it would be until we got to Varanasi. Six hours, they said. So much for the promptness of Indian express trains.

I tried to write in my journal for awhile. Susanne was asleep, dead to the world. I took it as a good sign - at least she wasn't up and around puking her brains out. I too drifted back and forth into sleep for a few hours, but was fully up and running by 10am. Susanne eventually got up, not long after that. She looked exhausted. We were both puzzled by her illness - we had only been in India for a few days, and the so-called Delhi Belly usually takes at least a week to incubate. We chalked up the incident to a combination of her generally weak stomach and bad luck.

I spent the rest of the train ride reading and munching on some sponge cake that had been my only nourishment since Agra (I purchased it at the Mathura train station). We finally pulled into Varanasi Cantonnment Station around 1pm. Susanne was feeling pretty weak, but managed to lug her backpack down to the exit. Getting to a hotel, though, would be trickier than that. We knew that Varanasi's rickshaw-wallahs were notorious for receiving high hotel commissions, and if you ask one of them to take you to a place that wasn't on their commission list, they'd tell you excuses such as "Hotel full," "Muslim problems," or even "Burnt down," and refuse to take you there.

We didn't have a reservation anywhere, but we wanted to stay in the Old Town along the Ganges. The LP guide suggested a few hotels in this area, even though it warned that the accommodations there were much more spartan than those places closer to the train station. But Old Town was where all the action was, and we thought it would be nice to actually have a place to stay with a view of the Ganges down below. So for kicks, just to see if the rickshaw-wallahs would play along, I went up to the first one I saw and said, "Scindia Guest House - how much?" To this, he responded, "Full booked, you should stay at..." We walked away quickly. Our next rick-wallah agreed to take us there, but his autorickshaw wouldn't start. After two or three minutes of him desperately trying to remove the crud off of its spark plug, we climbed out. Susanne was beginning to look really sick, and the cab was so hot, it seemed ludicrous to wait any longer.

Finally, we found a bicycle rickshaw-wallah who offered to take us there for 10 rupees, about 30 cents. We climbed aboard, backpacks on our laps, and started the leisurely ride through the crowded streets of Varanasi's New Town. The roads were filthy and noisy like any other Indian city, but as we got closer to the Old Town, the streets began to thin out. Taxi's couldn't fit through the narrow roads of Gadaulia, the area which separated New and Old Towns. Then, it appeared that even our small bicycle rick wouldn't fit through the twisting alleyways that were up ahead. We must be close to Old Town. Even stranger, the road was eerily silent - at least by Indian standards - apart from the jingling bells of the bicycles.

After a few more minutes, our driver pulled up to an alleyway and said, "Bicycle ends. You walk." Indeed, the alley ahead of us was so thin that you practically had to walk single file just to fit through it.

Once we paid the wallah, a short, bearded man who looked more Armenian than Indian approached us and said, "Where would you like to go today?" Clearly he wanted to take us to a hotel of his choice for a commission, but nevertheless, I replied, "Scindia Guest House. Only Scindia." "No problem, no problem, let's go. You will not be able to find it yourself," he said, as he began to walk and wave his hand for us to follow him. I didn't like the idea of following this guy, but then again, he was right. We had no idea how to get there, and the map of Varanasi in the LP guide would not offer us the detail needed to figure it out on our own. Besides, if he was going to cause problems, there were certainly enough people around in the alleys for us to stir trouble back in his face if necessary. We agreed to give him a chance.

The three of us winded our way down the alleyway from one passage to another. The streets had a truly mediaeval character to them, with paan-wallahs, incense-wallahs, crockery-wallahs, and every other kind of entreprenurial-wallah you can imagine, were crammed into one stall after another. The alleys were never more than four or five feet across, so we had to compete with all the cows, goats, dogs, beggars, and kids that served as obstacles along the path. We walked for five minutes and Susanne was obviously getting tired. The man then said, "First, I show you my hotel, Puja Guest House," to which I retorted, "No, you promised to take us to Scindia. Do not break your promise." "No problem, no problem," he muttered, again motioning us to follow. I was getting a bit concerned since I never figured the walk would take this long. We probably hadn't covered that much distance, but Susanne's illness and my growing impatience were making the walk feel longer and longer.

Then out of the blue, the alleys opened up and ahead of me, I could see the water of the Ganges. We had reached one of the ghats, the ceremonial stone steps that lead down into the water, which allow people to perform their bathing rituals and pujas. This particular ghat wasn't very crowded - perhaps eight or nine Hindus were bathing and chanting. But at last, I thought, I had made it to the Ganges, the sacred river of India and one of the most famous bodies of water in the world. Even though we still hadn't reached our hotel, our proximity to the river allowed me to get my bearings on the map, so if we needed to, we could figure out the way to our hotel if something went wrong.

We started up a dusty, debris covered hill, and we could see the words "Scindia Guest House" on a white brick multistory building above us. The top floor must have been 150 feet over the Ganges - a tough walk up, but undoubtedly worth it for the view, I figured. Indeed, the steep climb exhausted me and damn near killed Susanne, who had to drop her pack and sit in the hallway of the hotel while I examined the room.

To call the room that was shown to me 'spartan' would be generous - it was about 10 feet square, twin bed made out of a slab of wood, half-painted walls, toilet without toilet seat (at least it had a bowl), and moths fluttering around the one working light. Asking price: three bucks a night. We'll take it.

Susanne was really ready to crash as this point, so I decided to hike around and find some bread for her to eat. I had no map of the Old City - I'm not sure if even one exists - so I tried to backtrack along the route from whence we came. It was late afternoon, but because Varanasi's alleyways were so long and thin, very little sunlight was getting through to the pavement below. Cows were everywhere, which made life somewhat difficult, as I tried to climb around then on the common occasions I found them blocking the entire path (and of course, the cow patties they left in their wake were an endless obstacle in their own right). I found a cafe at some crowded guest house near the center of Old Town. I ordered a naan to take back for Susanne, and a pakora for myself. A few minutes later, I was handed a plate with a piece of naan sliced into a dozen thin pieces (not very handy for carrying) and a plate of eight pakoras. Whatever. I ended up eating about half of the pakoras and a couple of Teems to boot.

It was getting even darker outside so I returned to the hotel. The sun was just about to set, so after checking in on Susanne and getting her the naan and something to drink, I climbed up to the rooftop terrace to check out the view. The panorama of the Ganges was spectacular, barren and sandy on one side, and crowded with ghats and temples on the other. Directly in front of me, about 100 feet down river, were the cremation ghats, whose funeral pyres billowed smoke upwards in an endless puff. Sitting on the roof was a Korean man whose name I never got and an American from New York named John who had met the Korean guy the week before in Agra and had been travelling together since. John was a TOEFL instructor who had taken off a few months from work to see India. They had been in Varanasi for six nights, so they were very helpful in offering some suggestions on how we should budget our time during our brief three-day stay.

Once it was completely dark outside, I decide to wander down to the cremation ghat. I figured I would get lost if I tried to go anywhere further afield, so the cremation ghats seemed like an interesting and convenient choice. As I left the rooftop, I could see that the number of cremations had increased, for the plumes of smoke were getting thicker. I could hear metal bells hammering away repetitively in a ceremony that sounded a lot like Indonesian gamelan music, but without a distinct melody.

While I walked, I noticed that I was the only westerner around. There were many people about, hanging out and talking, smoking hash, chewing paan, even playing chess. No one seemed to take notice of me as I passed along through the piles of fresh timber that were stockpiled just behind the ghat. I climbed up to an octagonal tower, where the only other occupant was a large brahma bull that appeared to not mind my company as long as I allowed it to chew its cud in peace. From the edge of the tower, I could look directly down at the main cremation ghat, about 20 feet below. A dozen or so pyres were burning at any given time, some with corpses still wrapped in silk over piles of fresh wood, others not more than a pile of cinders. Other corpses were in between these phases, and you could clearly see and smell the bodies burning away. Arms and legs, torsos and heads carbonizing in the moonlight, with the sounds of pops and squirts breaking the steady crackle of the fires. It was like a group protesters were burning effigies, but I knew better. These were real people that were probably alive just a few hours earlier.

I could only stand about 15 or 20 minutes on my perch above the pyres. The smoke and ash were blowing my way and the sulfuric clouds became unbearable after awhile, so I returned to the hotel to get ready for bed. Susanne was fast asleep, so I treaded as quietly as possible. Tomorrow would be another early morning for us, as we planned to take a boat out on the Ganges before dawn to watch the sunrise. I then looked down at my clothes and realized I needed to step outside for a moment. I gave my shirt a shake. A rain of ash fell to the ground.

Next Entry: Varanasi on the Ganges

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