Day 73: Varanasi
The alarm shatters the silence of the hotel room at 4:50 a.m. Marnie and I pack our bags and I toss my new blanket around my shoulders in what I hope to be an effortlessly stylish, authentically Indian kind of way. We drag ourselves to the top floor of the building and tiptoe past the workers sleeping in their cots to stow our bags in the restaurant kitchen for the day. Downstairs, we check out at reception and head into the street, dodging dollops of cow dung in the stale darkness on the way to Assi Ghat. Our boat man Gurou, whom we met yesterday and agreed to meet here on the edge of the Ganges River at 5 a.m., has either slept in or found earlier risers with heavier pockets of change. But the sun will rise with or without Gurou, and so we head to the slew of boats on shore, sludging through the muddy riverbed, haggling with the boatmen until we find a little man who will paddle us downriver for an agreeable price.
Marnie and I step into the wooden vessel and sit on the dewy backseat, facing our sailor at the bow. He warbles gaily as he paddles up the imperceptibly flowing Ganges, the glittering stars still competing bravely against the brightening glow to the east. Whoops and yells bounce across the water from the main ghat, where a rowdy crowd bathe, cleansing themselves of Shiva-knows-what sins. They swim in this polluted river, unconcerned for the scorched chestbones of man or charred female hipbones tossed in it daily. Nevermind the decaying bodies, loosened from their rock weights and floating freely; forget the animal carcasses bobbing by. Don’t mind the trash that obscures the shores and poisons the mud; this is Holy Water! This is Mother Ganga, and all that enters her Holy stream shall be blessed. Blessed cracker wrapper, blessed fly-away laundry, blessed cadaver.
Fish flop around us in multitudes–a feeding frenzy feasting like scaly kings. Flocks of seagulls tear away from the rivers surface, disrupted by one of a fleet of rowboats taking tourists for a sunrise cruise. The sky is blue now, and pink clouds give away the sun, though it is barely visible through the smoky haze haloing the city. It rises like a tiny, distant, flaming beet, it’s scarlet juices staining the glittering Ganges.
We reach shore again and warm our fingers on fresh cups of chai as we walk through the mob of bathers drying off in the sun. We head into the dizzying alleyways and sit in a restaurant filled with white people and order eggs and meusli and coffee. After soaking up the yolks with semi-toasted bread, we head back to the ghats to watch the Kite Festival, but it’s taking place at the north end, a long walk away. Still, a group of kids are here flying a single paper kite. They offer me the spool. Within five minutes I’ve snapped the string and the little guy expertly reties the broken ends and demonstrates how to fly it properly. He tugs on the string over and over, the kite rises, flitting back and forth. He hands it back, correcting my technique as it flops through the stagnant air. A girl passing by stops to watch. She says hello. Her name is Emily, and she’s originally from Montreal. She’s spending six months exploring India but hasn’t been home in four years. Her next stop is Udaipur, where she will spend a month volunteering with an orginization to help street animals. Emily waves goodbye and continues her hunt for Nepalese dumplings; we thank the kite-runners and careen up the ghat to the alleys.
I mindlessly reach out my hand to pet a passing cow. He responds by throwing his head back violently, his dagger-horns missing my cheek by the width of the Shantaram novel and scathing my ego slightly deeper. Marnie doubles over as a wave of laughter paralyzes her and I stand in still shock, grateful for the two eyes I escaped with.
Coming to the main drag, a row of leprosy-stricken people sit along a barrier in the middle of the road. A man with a leg ballooned to the size of a baby elephants, fleshy rolls piled up his ankle like a stack of tires, sits chanting beside a woman whose bones threaten to peirce right through her skin and the insufficient clothing she wears. A man picks dirt from his baby’s hair. A distressed soul with deformed legs crawls by, his desperate moans and deathly demeanour reminiscent of the zombie apocalypse fad in Western television. Tiny, starving puppies limp around him. Cows lay in the street and the multitude of impoverished children shove their metal pans against our arms and legs, motioning their hands to their mouths. Feed me, feed me.
Solace is found in a quiet backstreet, where we sit for a moment to decompress from the onslaught of suffering. It’s one of those things that you know exists in the world but seems so distant and surreal that when it protrudes it’s unforgiving head into your face it’s difficult to process.
It’s time to move on. Hailing a bicycle-rickshaw powered by a bony old man, we’re pedalled along the bumpy dirt streets to the monkey temple. The usual security patdown is required and of course, no electronics are allowed inside. Leaving our valuables in a locker at the entrance, we head in. The venue is outdoors but fenced in, with a path leading to the temple where Hindus come to pray to Hanuman, the Monkey God. Macaques are ubiquitous fuzzballs, scampering around and scrapping with their mates. Removing our shoes to enter, we take care to avoid the tiny turds and pee puddles dotting the area. A counter sells treats to feed the monkeys. In front of the temple, people bow their heads in prayer; many buy gifts of flowers and candles for Hanuman. Then they take a card from towering stacks on a tall shelf, and sit cross legged, reading them. Prayer cards? Around the corner, an impressive latticework wall appears to be melting in a drippy bright orange wax. A guy puts his forefinger on it, scrapes off a chunk of tangerine goo and smudges it between the eyes of himself and his friends.
A lady asks us where we come from, then invites us to her art gallery around the corner. She teaches at the local university.
When we make it back to our rickshaw driver, he takes us to the gallery, which is filled with pictures depicting Shiva and Ganesh and the Ganges River. There is a heavy emphasis on us making a purchase, but she graciously lets us leave without too much hassle. At this point, Marnie and I have tired feet and slightly frayed patience.
We ask our driver to take us somewhere with beer. He stops in front of a restaurant and I am nearly mowed down by a motorcycle as I cross the street without looking. Embarrassed, frazzled, we end up at a hotel taproom, entering through a heavy glass door into a dark, gloomy tavern. Its vacancy is broken by a single patron sitting at the bar, two servers in petticoats and a TV blaring with a live news feed of terrorist attacks. We slide into a booth by the wall and are momentarily joined by a couple sweaty bottles of beer. The darkness, the silence, and the cold brews all make for a perfect intermission from an overcrowded, overwhelming day. Our waiters have a good sense of humour and are obviously enlivened by a couple new customers. We chat with them.
“What is your favourite thing about India?” I ask.
“Saris,” the one answers. “A sari on a woman is beautiful.”
I ask what it is he would change about India.
He tells me that the former leader of the state of Bihar, Lalu Yadav, is no good for the relationship between Pakistan and India. I assume that the rich history of Yadav’s scams and corruption in politics play a large part in this.
We get another rickshaw to Bona Cafe, a cozy restaurant in a cute alley where we eat salad and sandwiches and converse with a guy from Argentina. Marnie exercises her Spanish skills while I attempt to decode the cryptic conversation in my head. Then we walk hotel-wards, picking up snacks along the way for the eighteen hour train ride ahead of us. At the hotel, we retrieve our bags, pay our bill and rickshaw over to the station. Our train to Jaipur is there waiting, ready to leave on time at 6:15 p.m. We hunker down on our bunks in the sleeper coach and fall asleep instantly. Shortly after, I’m woken abruptly by a ticket guy asking to see proof of my reservation. I groggily pull up the ticket on my phone and show it to him. We’re in the wrong seats, he says. He points to a single cot. That is for the two of us.
I’m grumpy after being woken mid-slumber. I grab my stuff and toss it on the proper bench and wake my sister. A guy, having overheard the conversation with the ticket inspector, offers us a bed in his seating area that is unoccupied for the next few stops. We thank him profusely, and I fall into a fitful sleep which is interrupted an hour later by a couple of armed cops. They say that my sister and I must change seats. At least, the two they show us are next to each other. But now I’m awake. I spend time writing between rounds of buying hot chai from the men walking up and down the aisles with their metal kettles and paper cup stacks. When I finally fall asleep again, another train worker shakes me into consciousness.
“Where is your ticket?”
Both my arms have fallen asleep. Tingling, I fumble for my phone like a paraplegic. He watches me impatiently.
“What is your seat number?” he barks.
“Fifteen,” I say.
He walks away.
I look at Marnie, who is awake and giggling after watching the interaction. I roll my eyes and lay my head back down on my lumpy backpack.