Varanasi

Once again, we departed at 7:00 am to get on the road to Varanasi.

An odd thing about northern India is that the roads are very bad, and major roadways routinely pass through small towns with narrow streets. In one of these towns, things got interesting to say the least.

As we were taking a turn our truck hit a girl slightly. How this happened, I have no idea because we were travelling at no more than 5 kmph and we were actually being directed by a traffic officer to make the turn. You have to understand that traffic in India is insane so avoiding our truck at that speed would have been a relative breeze.

Our driver stopped as soon as he could get out of traffic and was very professional. Nonetheless a mob formed pretty quickly, claiming that our truck had fractured the girl’s foot. Two things stood out here: i) they were only demanding money, and ii) at one point a man tried to make off with our driver’s wallet. At this point our driver, got back in the truck and we closed up all the windows to await the arrival of the police.

The mob wasn’t particularly frightening. There was a core group of about five people who were clearly trying to extort cash, but the rest were just curious on-lookers who were actually smiling and taking pictures for much of the time.

Once the police arrived on scene, they escorted our truck to a nearby police station. At that point they contacted the hospital where the girl had been taken and determined that our truck had hit her arm, not her foot, and that she had certainly not broken anything. The police were really quite kind, they brought us multiple bottles of cold water as we waited and ultimately let us go on our way without any fines or further issues. However, the whole ordeal took about two hours and some reporters showed up along the way so who knows what ended up getting reported in the local media at the end of the day.

After that, the roads were still a mess but we made some solid progress. If you are curious about what a Dragoman bus looks like on a bumpy Indian road, here’s your chance to find out:

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We arrived in Varanasi in the late afternoon, staying at the Surya Hotel in the Canton area to the north of the old city. If you visit Varanasi, I would strongly suggest that you stay in the Canton area. The old city is interesting, but extremely noisy, dirty and claustrophobic. It is very refreshing to come back to a quieter part of the city at the end of a hectic day. This hotel in particular is in a 200 year old colonial building and its restaurant is actually one of the better ones in the city. Here’s what the hotel looks like illuminated at night:

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After settling in and showering, we took a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) to a nearby hotel that is known for its great restaurant. A word of caution, the city looks deceptively small in a map, probably because the blocks are huge. What looked like a 5 minute walk turned out to be a solid 10 minute tuk tuk ride. Here’s a picture of the ride over:

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And a video for the full experience:

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The hotel housing the restaurant is the Hotel Pradeep. I have no idea what the restaurant is called, but it used to be the Eden restaurant. What I can unequivocally say about the restaurant is that the two curries that we ordered have by far been the best curries that I have ever tasted in my life. One was a paneer (fried fresh Indian cheese resembling the consistency of tofu) curry, and the second was a black lentil curry. Here’s a photo of the food and my dinning companion/roommate for the night:

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With two beers a piece and plenty of naan, it came out to $20 CDN total. Not a bad deal at all for a killer meal.

We called it night soon after as we had a very early morning the next day.

The following day was a 5:00 am departure to check out the ghats in the old town for sunrise. A word about Varanasi at this point. The city is one of the seven holiest cities in the country, where people come to cleanse themselves of their sins by bathing in the waters of the Ganges, and where they come to cremate their deceased. Looking back at my pictures, it is a fascinating place to visit, but it is such a full frontal assault on all of your senses that the city can be difficult to appreciate when you’re on the ground–all the more so because the people are incredibly aggressive in trying to squeeze a buck out of tourists. However, at 5:00 am there is no denying that this place is absolutely amazing:

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We ultimately got on a boat to check out the ghats because it is definitely the most efficient way to see them. There is no consistent walk-way between ghats so if you see the ghats on foot you need to pop into the old city from ghat to ghat and those streets can be difficult to navigate (I know because we essentially went from ghat to ghat in the afternoon, landside). Here is a shot of myself and the views from the boat:

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As I mentioned above, many locals come to the Ganges in Varanasi to cremate their relatives. There is one ghat in particular that is used for the funeral pyres, and that is referred to as the burning ghat. It operates 24 hours a day and costs about 600 Rupes ($12 CDN) for the basic service. For obvious reasons, pictures of the funeral pyres are frowned upon so this is the best picture that I could take of the ghat. You can see all the wood stacked up for the cremations:

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Some pictures of the boat ride back to our starting ghat:

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One of the things that I love about India is how they often allow some serious greenery to flourish on their old buildings:

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This is the only ghat where I saw women bathing. As you can see, they wear their full saris when they bathe:

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So that you can get a sense of what the streets of the old city look like:

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I took some pictures on the tuk tuk ride back to our hotel for breakfast:

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After breakfast at the hotel, we went to a bit of an odd choice of a monument by the trip planers. The place was rather impressive in so far as it was a full hand-carved reconstruction of the Himalayas, and it was apparently inaugurated by Ghandi. It was just an odd choice because the monument is so new in a city full of so much history. Here’s the place and the fellow who took us around:

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At first, the fellow seemed really cute because he appeared to be really excited about showing us around the monument. Alas, by the end it became clear that his enthusiasm was just a money-grab. Even after being tipped a significant amount by our tour leader he individually badgered us for more tips. This has been a bit of a recurring theme in India so far, in the more touristy cities. Similar to when I was in Cuba, 95% of the time that someone approaches you in conversation, money is on their mind. Which is a pity because it causes me to be rude and dismisive to the other 5% that just want to chat. That being said, given my swarthiness, I get harassed far less than the rest of the folk in my group.

After the monument we toured a silk factory, which is really more like a silk-textile producing neighbourhood controlled by a single company. In this row of houses, entire families live in the same home where they make a variety of silk products. At one point, a teacher in our group asked about the schooling of the children, and the guide misunderstood and essentially explained that the kids are trained at a young age in silk fabric production, so that the skill gets passed on down the generations. As such, I imagine that most of the people born into this neighbourhood are born into the silk business and die in the silk business, as that is all they know.

Some pictures from the factory:

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Electric silk looms cannot handle pure silk, only blends. Here is what the looms sound like:

Pure silk has to be worked by manual looms that are only used by the the top-skilled workers. The little spools of thread you see on the side are the different colours that are worked into the patterns by hand:

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These days, they use cardboard cut-outs cards that resemble old computer punch cards to do the various designs for the silk tapestries and other products. This is a good way to ensure that the design is not lost, as the old system entailed artisans memorizing the designs and then passing them on to subsequent generations. The modern system does come with a downside however: they can only employ a maximum of 15 colours when they use the cards. Here is a fellow punching out cards manually:

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Below is a silk tapestry that was created before the punch-card days, back in the 1930’s. This piece took 5 years to make and because the younger generations are too lazy to memorize patterns ever since the card system was implemented, once the weavers who last memorized the pattern for this tapestry are gone, it is unlikely to be replicated:

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I ventured to do the math on a piece when they told us the exact hours that were required to make a particular piece and sale price. Assuming that they sold the piece for no profit at all, which is obviously not the case, the hourly rate was still only 20 cents an hour.

After visiting the silk factory we had tuk tuks at our disposal for that rest of the day, and we took ours down to the old part of the city. You can get a sense of the hectic city here:

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Our first destination in the old city was the Blue Lassi which is a little hole-in-the wall lassi joint right next to the Golden Temple. They make every conceivable flavour of lassi and I settled on a saffron almond lassi:

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After you finish eating the lassi, you are encouraged to break the bowl down a chute at the front of the restaurant. It was absolutely delicious but one of my group members may have gotten pretty sick from it so proceed with caution. The place does look a bit sketch, I couldn’t even see any faucets with running water in the place. This is literally half the place. The guy you can kind of see sitting at the window is the fellow who makes the lassies by the side of the road:

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The cafe is on one of the narrow streets that is a pathway to the burning ghat. Because of that, in the 20 minutes that we were sitting in the shop, three dead bodies were brought down alley past the lassi joint, covered in a sheet, decorated with marigolds and other flowers. The tradition is to carry the body from the home where the person died, chanting “God, his name is true” in Hindi the whole way down. If I saw that many bodies in that brief stay, I would imagine that the owners of the Blue Lassi must see dozens of bodies on a daily basis. And that’s one of the things I love about India, people are far more connected to the reality of death.

After the lassi, we walked south along the old city, heading to the monkey temple. The town is quite the labyrinth, so we decided to stay right next to the river to keep our bearings, which meant that we popped into a lot of ghats along the way. Here’s a picture of me next to a goat on my walk down:

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After a good 2.5 hours we finally made it down to the monkey temple. We weren’t allowed to take our cameras inside so this is the best picture I could get of the temple.

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Inside, they have a huge pastry shop where you can purchase offerings for the temple. I guess the occassional monkey grabs some of the offerings so you see some monkeys munching on cookies along the way. Here’s a picture of a monkey on top of the fence that is used to prevent humans, not monkeys from crossing over:

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To get back to our hotel at the top end of the town, we hired a tuk tuk driver. For some reason I got it in my head that 150 Rupees was the fair price to pay for the ride. However, our prospective driver was insiting on 200 Rupees, at which point I walked away and he chased me down, agreeing to my price. However, once we we in the tuk tuk, and time passed by, we realised that we made a pretty massive mistake about the length of the ride. So when we arrived at the hotel some 40 minutes later, we felt that 150 Rupees was totally inappropriate. As such, we gave him something like 220 Rupees. I have never seen someone more baffled before. He just kept looking at the money, and he must have reached the conclusion that I was some crazy jerk who just likes to bargain for the fun of it.

All in all, Varanasi was gorgeous, but it really takes a lot of out you to walk down the streets in the old city. If you go, I recommend that you book-end the trip with some serious downtime.

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2 thoughts on “Varanasi

  1. Ya extrañaba tus narraciones. Nos tienes emocionados como en una película por episodios. Ya queremos ver el siguiente. Nos encantan tus consejos de viaje. Ya estamos planeado uno.
    Creo que los indus o indios, no se como los llames, tienen un sentido de la muerte como los mexicanos, solo que nosotros la vemos de diferente manera. Para ellos es toda seriedad y posiblemente mas importante que la vida, para nosotros es una diversión un poco sarcástica. Como que no le tenemos miedo y que no nos escaparemos de ella, así que gozamos de la vida.
    Se ve que no es fácil moverse en esa ciudad, creo que tiene como millón y medio de habitantes, pero me imagino que los habitantes ambulatorios serán muchísimos. Que bueno que tus fotos no tienen olores, pero me los imagino.
    Se me antojaron los curris y el lassi. No te garantizo de comerlos así como así.
    Entendí algo como que lanzan lo platos por un tobogan. Acá en Oaxaca en la plaza vas a comer buñuelos con melado (miel de piloncillo o caña de azúcar) y rompes el plato en el piso. Igual que en Segovia rompen el plato con el que parten el lechón. En fin costumbres similares.
    Me encantaría ver los telares de ceda y mas el proceso de como logran hacer los carretes de hilo de tan delicado filamento. Luego el teñido y eso de hilar con tarjetas me pareció interesantísimo. A mi me toco usar computadoras de tarjetas perforadas en 1974. A ver si pasan a la cinta magnética (es broma). Me encantaria ver como van intercalando los hilos de cada tarjeta, no creo que sea nada sencillo.

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  2. I love your pictures in this entry; you have really managed to capture the depth of your human subjects. Also: you and the goat. ‘Nuff said.

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