We made it to Varanasi safe and sound and can now say our first India train experience was a success! However, If taking the trains in India were what I was most nervous about doing, visiting Varanasi had a very similar effect.
I did a lot of research on Varanasi. Some people love it, most people hate it! Similar to Agra, the suggestion is to see it and leave. "Do not let it be the first city you visit in India, or you’ll never return!" If you took all the overwhelming elements of India and bundled them into a tiny city situated on the holiest, and also one of the most polluted waters in the world, you would have Varanasi.
A part of me wished I had never read so much about it because I think all these preconceived expectations I had weighed a lot on my first impression which was not love at first sight.
Brian and I were headed for failure from the second we stepped off that train. After desperately searching, still half asleep, we couldn’t find the driver we had arranged to pick us up. We finally decided to take a tuk-tuk that spent thirty minutes driving around searching for our hotel, which in the end, he couldn't find. He took us to the wrong place and ended up dropping us off on the side of the road. We must have looked pathetic. There we were, in the middle of a busy intersection with our matching red and blue luggage, completely clueless (not to mention sleep deprived and famished).
We finally got a hold of our guesthouse, The Ganges Inn, and someone met us on foot to lead us back to our place. We had to hold our rolling luggage over our heads because there was so much trash and cow sh*t on the cobblestone roads (read: dirt and gravel) that it was impossible (not to mention disgusting) to roll them. I really thought we were walking through a never-ending maze. We were twisting and turning and ducking and climbing for what seemed like a lifetime before we finally found this tiny door down a dark alleyway. We would have never found this place on our own.
I had booked us a river facing room since our hotel was right by the Ganges. I figured it was worth the extra 200 ($3) rupees, plus it was Diwali, and I wanted to make sure we had a nice view. After seeing our room, not only did we not have a river view, we didn’t even have a window! When I went back down to inquire, they told me that none of the rooms have a view, and it must have been a mistake. What a disappointment. Oh, and the roof deck and restaurant they advertised... also false! Neither exist. I mean, there is a roof, and stairs that lead to it, but it's just where they dry their clothes and it offers a partial view of the city.
We had booked four nights and five full days despite everyone telling us to spend one night. (PS. flight and train times in India are really strange, they depart between midnight and 3am leaving you hopeless unless you book an extra night in a hotel just so you have a home base before your 3am flight, which we never did). Since the hotel didn’t have anything that hotels.com claimed it did, they said they would let us keep our room on the fifth day until we left for our train at no additional cost. The hotel really did go above and beyond to try and accommodate for the misunderstanding.
In the end, we both fell in love with Varanasi. We found our goto restaurants and daily chai stalls and met some great people along the way. We spent all day walking the narrow cobblestone streets, learning how to make chai at Vishnu’s Tea Emporium, ate delicious dosas and uttapams at Dosa Cafe, had the best thali at Keshari Restaurant, and ended our night at Bana Lassi every single day for the most delicious lassi you will ever taste (I know, I know, I said the same thing about Lassi Walla, but these lassis are different! I swear!).
We celebrated Diwali, one of the biggest festivals in India, with locals and tourists as we watched a magnificent display of fireworks from the rooftop of our neighboring guesthouse (Shiva Guesthouse). It was unreal. It felt like we were in a war zone (not that I’ve ever been in one). Fireworks of all kinds were going off in all directions, some straight up in the sky and some heading straight towards you. It turns out that Indians spend $800,000,000 on fireworks every year. WHAT?! Is that not the craziest thing you have ever heard? (not to mention over 4,000 tons in waste and irreversible damage in air pollution resulting in over 1800 schools in Delhi closing due to air quality this year). Brian and I had to start wearing earplugs because the fireworks would go off right next to you on the streets without warning. I don’t even want to know the number of injuries and deaths that occur every year. Everything was done pretty haphazardly, but we were really lucky to experience Diwali in Varanasi.
When we weren’t avoiding being blown up by rockets of fire, we would stroll along the Ganges watching the city bath in one of the 87 ghats while dodging the constant vendors offering you boat rides. We walked until we reached one of the reasons that Varanasi has become so famous for tourism, the human cremations on the Ganges. The smell of human flesh and the site of burning bodies right before our eyes is something we will not soon forget. I don't even have words to describe the feeling of seeing the ash from burning bodies flickering in the air and trickling down in the river. If you didn't know any better, you may mistake them for snowflakes.
We were told by a group of men that we could take a picture as long as we stood behind a specific area where many people were taking photographs. As soon as Brian did, a very angry Indian man came running towards us claiming we had broken an Indian rule and have made a very very big mistake. Brian nearly soiled himself as we apologized profusely and quickly walked away. Not a single word was exchanged when we left, partially in shame, as we let the whole situation sink in. I finally couldn't take the guilt anymore, and I returned and explained everything that happened and why we took the picture. In the end, the man told me it was okay, and it was just a misunderstanding. Hopefully I earned a couple karma points back after losing all of them.
We watched the enchanting Ganga Aarti Puja ceremony, an uplifting, devotional ceremony using fire as an offering to the Mother Ganga, which amazingly takes place every single night (regardless of the weather) in the three holy cities of India: Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi.
One evening we finally took a boat ride after negotiating on the price for twenty minutes to catch the sunset (note: don’t pay more than 200 rupees for a one hour private boat ride) and left Varanasi with a voodoo curse on Brian (see below). Drifting out into the Ganges and looking back at the chaos of this remarkable city instilled a sense of (much needed) peace and calmness...at least for the hour we were out there.
When it came time to leave this holy city, we weren’t ready, especially because a 39 hour train ride was awaiting us. But, like all good things, they come to an end. So we stocked up on snacks and said farewell as we headed out to our next adventure, 39 hours on a train to Chennai. We were finally heading to southern India!
The Holy Men of Varanasi
So yeah... Brian is cursed... officially. A holy man totally put a hoax on him.
See, I had read that if you want to take a picture of the holy men in Varanasi, always ask first and usually they will say yes and just ask for some money (yeah I know, not very authentic or holy for that matter). One morning, we saw this man sitting up on top of a platform playing a flute. There were tons of people around him, so we didn’t feel like we were intruding by going up to ask for a picture. He pointed to Brian’s shoes, so we figured he wanted him to take them off and so he did. Brian handed him 20 rupees (the going rate for pictures) and was getting ready to take the money shot when this guy, out of nowhere, took our offering and proceeded to wipe his ass with it before shoving it back into Brian’s hands. We were shocked! Brian waved his hands to push the money away, and we quickly walked in the opposite direction. Well, we should have stopped there, but we didn’t. The scenery was just so pretty, and this holy man just happened to be in the picture. So, we put on our zoom lens and decided to take a picture of the whole area from afar. Big mistake. This guy caught a glimpse of what Brian was doing, stood up on his giant rock, and started screaming at us! We couldn’t understand any of it but kept hearing the words, Mother Chode over and over again (note: we have learned that this is not a nice word). EVERYONE was staring at us. It was both terrifying and embarrassing at the same time. When I say Brian and I ran away, we literally ran away, as fast as we could. We didn’t return to the waterfront for the rest of the day. Lesson learned!