Once our bowels were back in order, we made the short hop to Varanasi, or Benares as a lot of people still call it. Varanasi is allegedly the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world. It is chaotic and flanks the grimy, but oh-so-sacred Ganges river.
By some fluke of non-planning our route into the city along the lawless roads was easy, and presented us immediately at our guest house. Confused by this apparent ease, we were even more surprised to find our accommodation for the next two weeks was in a lovely room with a lovely host, Santosh. That’s when Santosh explained that we had post waiting for us. What? Our recent study of the Indian postal system had converted us to a new faith. So much did we now believe in that system, that we had ordered the clutch lever parts again only a few days beforehand. Our two week stay had been booked to give the parcel some time to arrive. The standard, boring registered post from the UK had taken only 6 days. Customs hadn’t even sniffed inside as it flew past. Suck on that, FedEx.
After unloading into our room, we headed out to experience the real entropic Varanasi traffic. We were glad to only have to interact with it on foot, but this did make us the lowest prority users. Lower even than cows. In fact one tuk-tuk did glance off my rucksack as I crossed a stream of traffic. His wingman stared triumphantly backwards at me. I just flipped him the double bird in response. I guess cows don’t cross the road, they just live there. They certainly don’t need their middle fingers as often as I did.
Whilst we were out walking around, the heavens opened and the half-tarmac, half-mud roads became very dirty places to be. Mix that in with a bit of cow/pig/dog/chicken/goat/horse shit and you’ve got a regular patho-party at your feet. We returned to our dead-end road to find it was flooded. There was no other way back to the guest house, so we wandered around for a couple more hours hoping the water would flow away somewhere. It didn’t. So eventually we just had to wade through this unknown lake. Our SES time in Adelaide came, er, flooding back to us with the phrase “all flood water is contaminated”! Yes it is.
The banks of the Ganges are lined with steps, or ghats, through most of the city. Depending on water height, you either see a lot or not very many steps. The ghats have different uses, religions and associations. The burning ghats are where bodies are cremated, then the ash is swept into the river. The cremations happen side-by-side and non-stop all day. The cremation costs are directly proportional to the mass of wood used to burn you. And like all things in life, one can choose expensive or cheap, when it comes to wood for that final bonfire. Taking pictures of the burning is considered disrespectful, but apparently having the shit bugged out of you by touts and liars whilst watching is ok.
We travelled out of town to visit the ruins at Sarnath which was green and peaceful, and a nice change to the brashness of the old city. Nickiy did some clothes shopping to attempt to blend in with the local fashions and I was allowed to buy a new book to read. Nickiy also found time to learn how to cook some local food in which my role was chief tester. Best of all, after 1200km of being held together with a zip tie, we finally replaced the clutch lever clamp.
To round off our time with Santosh, he took us and his Italian guests on a dawn boat trip on the Ganges. This was by far the best way to see the scores of ghats along the river edge as well as the early morning pooja at Assi Ghat. We could look on, zoo-like, at all the variety on the steps without having to watch where we put our feet or dodge the touts. We could even watch the locals doing their sun salutations, bathing, swimming and drinking the holy grey water. Yikes!
Rested and snazzily dressed we left Santosh and continued west in search of an even bigger tourist attraction. But it was a long way away so we had to stop at some random towns along the way. The sort of towns where groups of children chase you through parks and national monuments just to stare. Yep, Allahabad and Kanpur, you know what I’m talking about.