Varanasi, holiest of the Hindu cities, sits along the banks of the wide, muddy, extremely polluted and absolutely revered river Ganges. It’s reckoned to be the world’s oldest living city, having been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and is a very auspicious place to die for a Hindu, as they believe it releases them from the potentially endless cycle of death and rebirth. Even if one doesn’t die in the city itself, it’s still the most sought after place to be cremated and have one’s ashes scattered into the Ganges.
All along the city’s riverside are a series of concrete or stone steps, called ghats, leading down to the water. A few of these are known as burning ghats, and are where the open air cremations take place nearly 24/7 to keep up with the demand. Maybe only in India would this be seen as a tourist attraction, but soon after we’d arrived we found ourselves being lead by a street tout towards the main burning ghat. Once there we were pressured and guilted into leaving an exorbitant donation which we suspected (and later confirmed) the “guide” simply pocketed. The sight of the cremations was surreal and disconcerting; everything was in full view and the legs sticking out of the burning piles of wood made for an image we didn’t soon forget. Our hotel was nearby and at the rooftop restaurant we occasionally caught a whiff of smoke, which, given the source, was also a bit disconcerting.
Thankfully, Varanasi is not a renowned stop on the traveler’s circuit only because of its burning ghats. It’s a spectacular place filled with unique
people and places to see. The long line of ghats are the main attraction. They all are or at least appear to be very old, and there are all kinds of temples and exotic architecture to inspect, scampering monkeys to hide your bananas from, chai wallahs to sell you tea, photo ops, religious spectacles to be confused by… you get the idea, not a boring place. You can walk along the ghats for hours, watching the pilgrims and water buffalo bathing in the filthy Ganges and the ever-interesting spectacle of Indian’s day to day lives unfolding around you. People come to the ghats just to hang out, like the town squares of Mexico or the Starbucks (sad that’s the most apt hangout I can think of) of the US, and when they find out you’re American, they like to mention Goldie Hawn.
“Ah, America… you know Goldie Hawn?” We heard it over and over again. Varanasi has a well deserved reputation as a tough city, where a visiting tourist will be pestered mercilessly by touts trying to sell her something or lead him somewhere. Sitting on the ghats watching the colors of the sky and the brown of the river, enjoying the hustle and bustle around us, inevitably an Indian would sit down next to us: “Which country” is the usual opening line. We’d tell him (by the way, “America” is the correct answer to to that query from an Indian. “U.S.” will generally draw a blank stare unless you’ve fallen in with a more cosmopolitan crowd, or if you are asked by another traveler who would give you a weird look if you said America. And in Latin America the answer of America is offensive to the locals because it’s viewed as an appropriation of a shared continent. It’s the reason we stutter when asked where we’re from) and almost every time that inexplicable reference to the bumbling blond beauty of the 1980’s. It was maddeningly mysterious and we couldn’t find an explanation for several days. And to share some of that sense of mystery, you, gentle reader, will have to wait several paragraphs.
So Varanasi, to my mind, is made up of three sections. There are the ghats, which are the main reason the city is famous with westerners. There is the
modern (a very relative term, in this case) city, which encompasses most of the place and population, is much like any other average Indian city, and holds not much of interest to most travelers. And thirdly there is the Old City, where most travelers stay and the main purpose of which is to confuse a visitor’s sense of direction to to point of near nervous breakdown. To explain, let me paraphrase a story later told to us by a Canadian couple we met in Nepal. They arrived at the bus station around 6am and decided to save a bit of cash by walking. They shook off the rickshaw drivers and started hiking, and eventually sweated there way to the edge of Old Town, from where their guidebook said the hotel they were looking for was only another 10 or 15 minute walk. And walk it had to be, because there are no cars or rickshaws in Old Town Varanasi. No, it’s not some ordinance the Chamber of Commerce dreamt up to promote a pedestrian friendly shopping district. Get real, this is India not Boulder! No, the walls are simply too close together. Old town is a hideously confusing maze of narrow, twisting alleyways that follow no discernible principle of organization or logic. The alleys continue seemingly forever, sometimes so narrow that two people can’t walk side by side without bumping shoulders, and sometimes nearly dark even during midday. The whole place is full of trash, sewage, rats, very aggressive touts, crowds of people, shady looking tea stalls and who knows what else. It’s very atmospheric. There are lots of signs for various hotels and restaurants but they’re almost impossible to follow, and the best directions you can generally expect from the often contemptuous locals are a vague nod in one direction or another; it’s the kind of place where you can get lost for hours, think you’ve finally almost found your destination, and then realize you’re right back where you started.
So, this already tired and hot Canadian couple stepped into this rabbit hole of misdirection. I’ll spare you the ensuing details, except for the time frame. Remember, they left the bus station at 6am, after the usual horrible and exhausting 10 hour trip. They reached the edge of Old Town about an hour later, already exhausted. They found their hotel at Noon. Noon! That’s 6 hours of walking in the brutal heat, with backpacks on. In India a backpack is not just a burden of weight, it’s also like wearing a big, fat bull’s-eye. A backpack makes you a target for every tout in sight, if only because they know you can’t run away as fast, and you’re pestered incessantly while wearing one. I can’t say enough about the sense of zen peace that comes over the average backpacker in India when she finally finds a room and sheds that damn backpack. So, these Canadians finally, exhausted and near collapse, after an incredible six hour ordeal, found the hotel they were looking for. It was full.
Stories like these of Old Town Varanasi are not at all unusual. Denae never
got her bearings there, but after five days of getting lost finding our way back to our hotel from the ghats I finally made a breakthrough. From a certain chai wallahs stand on the main road, enter the warren through an alleyway full of shops selling anything imaginable. Continue straight for a quarter mile, then right at the big temple. Then it’s just a simple matter of right, right, left, soft right at the trash pile, left, right and if you see the tethered white goat the hotel is right around the corner. I wondered what all the confusion had been about.
You’re probably wondering what horror story we suffered through upon arrival in Varanasi. I hate to disappoint, but in a moment of weakness we simply caved to one of the bus station rickshaw touts. He offered us a ride for 70 rupees ($1.50 usd) which was so close to reasonable I didn’t even haggle. He then proceeded to lead us to the newest and nicest rickshaw we’ve seen on the trip, let alone ridden in. The thing purred like a kitten and even had a suspension that sent us gliding over the potholes, without hurting my spine even a little bit! And at the edge of Old Town he parked the ‘shaw, and proceeded to lead us on foot right to the hotel, the same one the Canadians tried so hard to find. At the time we were a little grumpy about this, because it meant he was angling for a commission from the hotel for bringing us there, which drives up the price for us. But as we zigged and zagged through endless identical looking twists and turns, we decided not to complain. It took us 25 minutes from the bus station to the hotel, which charged us only about $3.50 usd a night. And there was a vacancy. Later, as I told our version of the tale to the Canadians, I tried to smile as sweetly as possible. I was worried they might attack me.
So back to Goldie Hawn. Towards the end of our stay in town we were sitting at a ghat when one of the endless series of street kids tried to sell us something, and when we refused he tried to soften us up by asking us where we were from. “Ohhhh, Goldie Hawn!” We’d had enough, and asked the kid what was up. He offered us an answer, but we’d need to visit his uncle’s silk shop to find it. So off we went, following the kid into one of the many shops, and he ran into the back yelling in Hindi for his uncle. It turned out that Goldie had come to Varanasi several times, and each time visited Babu, the proprietor of the silk shop. He brought out a photo album filled with pictures of himself together with Goldie and her kids (no Kurt Russell, I was sad to see) and copies of letters she’d sent him. It was surreal. Babu assured us that Ms. Hawn bought a great many silks whenever she came. He showed us some of his wares, and Denae inquired about one of the scarves. The price was 800 rupees, too extravagant for us (our room was 150 rupees a night) but the only one we were interested in. Sorry Babu, we said, we’re not all rich actresses from the 80’s. How much you pay, he asked, and we told him not more than 200. He scoffed, we left, and one of the kids ran after us with the scarf. 200 rupees lighter in the wallet, we left with a souvenir.