Thursday, October 27, 2011

Varanasi (I am a scaredy cat)

I had the craziest day today.  I wanted to catch up with Orchha and Khajuraho before moving on to Varanasi - both Orchha and Khajuraho are lovely, lovely places - but I need to write this down before I forget it, because I think I just about ran the gamut of human emotions today.

I woke up at dawn to take a boat ride on the Ganges, up and down the ghats.  That's the number one tourist activity here.  Take a look at the photos and you can see why.

Everything about this city batters at the senses.  There are some scenes, like the ones above, that are peaceful and surreal.  Others, like the one at the top, that hint at the city's battered grandeur.  And then there's the chaos...

And the filth...

And yes, that is a boy with a kite in the foreground.  Because the image wasn't heartbreaking enough without a boy and a kite, was it?

Also, please imagine brushing your teeth with that water.  Because that happens.  You're welcome.

You know what else I saw?  A dead baby.  Varanasi is all about death.  Apparently the belief is that people who die here ascend straight to the Hindu equivalent of heaven, so people come here to die.  Most of the people who die here are cremated on the ghats.  But some - including children, pregnant women, lepers, holy men, and people who die from snakebite - are wrapped in their shrouds and given to the river whole.  Today I saw a family rowing a shrouded little baby out into the river.

We rowed past the burning ghats as well, where the bodies are burnt.  What struck me, drifting by and later on foot, wasn't the pyres.  It was the gigantic piles of wood.  Huge piles of wood, several stories high, surround the steps where the bodies are burnt on all sides and in stacks down the street.  Because there are today's bodies, and tomorrow's, and the day after tomorrow's...and they'll all need wood to burn.

So after my sunrise boat excursion, I did a few more touristy things.  I went to the train station to book some onward tickets.  I went to a cafe/shop to buy some gifts.  And then I decided I'd finish off the day by walking the ghats from end to end, or, at least, as far as I could go before my feet started hurting.  I did that too, and it was nice, more battering of the senses.  Here's another photo from the walk:

Kind of more of the same, right?  Boats, misty city, people bathing, but this time with cows!  Speaking of the cows, they were kind of uppity today.  That was the first odd thing.  I've seen so many cows over the past month and they're always so placid.  They stand around nosing through the trash or chomping on weeds, maybe lying in the middle of the road.  Up until today, the cows I saw were mostly stationary.  Sometimes they ambled.  I didn't hear one moo until today, when all the cows woke up and started acting lively: trotting, grunting, and, in one case, charging.  These things have horns!  They are gigantic!  It's scary when a cow trots your way.

So I get to the end of the ghats and I decided I'd walk back to my hotel a different way, via the streets.  But the streets are narrow and winding and I lost my sense of direction pretty quickly.  That's when the dogs attacked.

I have been repeatedly amazed by how sweet-natured the street dogs here are.  They're more polite than most of the dogs I see in the states who have owners and some training.  It's gotten to the point where I don't notice the street dogs, or, when I do, I just feel sort of happy and sympathetic towards them.  But rabies is common in India and when I turned down an alley and three dogs started barking and chasing me, I remembered the lay of the land right quick.  I was backing away and using my purse as a barrier and seeing my life flash in front of my eyes when some random stranger stepped in to call the dogs off.  (Just to be clear: none of them touched me, not even a little bit, or else this would be a very different story).

I was light-headed for about half an hour after that.  Rabies is terrifying and I was terrified.  So I was sort of getting lost and the sun was heading towards the western horizon and I was light-headed with terror.  I tried asking a few people which way to the ghats, thinking at least I'd get my sense of direction back if I could find the river, but I just wound deeper into this warren of streets.  The women and children vanished as it got darker.  Instead, these aggressive young men zoomed up and down the little alleyways on motorbikes, hooting and hollering and going way, way too fast.  One biker clipped my camera, another jeered when I had to leap to get out of his way and barely saved my toes from a crushing.

Finally I emptied out on an actual, car-carrying asphalt road.  I was tired and kind of miserable so I nabbed the first rickshaw I saw.  It was a cycle rickshaw, which was already bad news - perching behind a guy on a bicycle while he plays chicken with a bunch of cars is not fun.  But, really, I wanted to go back to tourist land.  I wanted hotels and restaurants and cheap jewelry stores and chai shops.

Instead, the rickshaw driver drove me right into the middle of a parade.  With people in fuzzy red hats and a band and lots of angry cops who all yelled at him and made him turn around.  So the poor driver is trying to turn around while half-a-dozen people shout at him and then someone let off a really, really loud firecracker.  I screamed and clapped my hands over my ears, the rickshaw driver took off, and we careened into a horde of those testosterone-crazed motorcyclists that I'd been dodging on foot for the past hour, all of them wearing identical orange turbans.  Hundreds of them.

At that point I just ducked and covered my face.  I didn't want to know what would happen next.

But all that happened is that the rickshaw driver plowed his way through amidst much catcalling.  The first few roads he tried were all blocked, thanks to the parade, and jammed up with confused drivers, and periodically trails of those orange-turbaned motorcyclists would force their way through, all of them howling.  Once we got onto free-flowing roads there were long long lines of people all waiting for...something...going on for ten or twelve blocks, and police cars all over.

Eventually the rickshaw driver dropped me back in tourist land and then, because I was a terrified puddle of spineless goo, bulled me into paying him WAY too much (by which I mean, I paid him $2 when I should have paid him $0.50).  I found a nice, quiet place to have dinner and that was that.

Let's see how long it takes me before I decide to wander off an explore a new city on foot again, hmm?  Might be a while.


Melinda said...

the photos are totally awesome - i think that would be the biggest draw for me. the rickshaw concept scares me in NYC, i can't even imagine it in a crowded indian city. i admire your bravery even attempting these things.

erin said...

Yeah, there are LOTS of photo ops. I actually shared that dawn boat with another woman who had an almost identical camera but with a much stronger zoom, and she got some insane photos on the same trip, I was jealous.

As for the rickshaws...they'd be worse in NYC. The thing about India is that for the most part everyone drives really, really slowly. Like, 20 miles an hour slowly. The roads are awful, there are cows in the street, and no lanes ever. That's one reason why these motorcyclists were so scary...they were going much faster than people usually go even on the main streets.