Varanasi on the Ganges River is a place I won’t forget in a hurry. It was our last adventure before heading back to Mumbai for a couple of days, and I think I’m still trying to process the memories of this place!
Having ticked the Taj Mahal off our bucket list, we were about to take our final train ride in India, to Delhi, before catching a flight from there to Varanasi.
The train journey was around four hours long, and Jo and I had a cabin to ourselves, so we were able to stretch out and relax for a bit, something we’d not done all that much of. Both of us were starting to feel mentally drained as it’s difficult to switch off in India, especially as a foreigner visiting for the first time.
The train journey was unbelievably eye-opening. We went through numerous run down towns, and each time I’d put my camera up to the window and shoot continuously as we chugged past, and then look at what images my camera had captured. I unintentionally captured a man squatting and doing his business on the train tracks, which was a bit shocking to see as I flicked through the images! And seeing families live in what I guess you’d describe as a shack, was an intense experience, but again I was reminded how little you need to be happy.
Pulling in at Delhi, we navigated our way through the chaos, and jumped on the train to the airport. The difference between the train station and the airport was night and day. We went from noise, dirt, people everywhere, everything looking rundown, to arriving at Delhi airport which is modern, slick, clean and extremely first world. And I have to admit, Jo and I were so damn happy in that airport. From the air conditioning to the familiar western food, I hate to sound like such a tourist, because I absolutely love experiencing different cultures, but we’d definitely had our fill at this stage. From the lack of showering, to food poisoning, me not being able to eat half the time due to my gluten intolerance, and just feeling like we needed to recharge our batteries. Thank you Delhi airport for that moment of peace and cleanliness!
And thank goodness for that moment at the airport, because Varanasi was about to assault our senses yet again. Arriving in the evening, we jumped in a cab and drove towards our accommodation. Navigating our way to our hostel (side note: consider hostels when you’re in India, we booked a private room each, and they’re often much better quality than a hotel), was an experience. It was dark, there were monkeys swinging off buildings, stray dogs to step over and cows in the alleyway. But we made it, and it was good to finally see a bed. It had been a loooong day!
Jo and I always started our day’s slow and our first day in Varanasi was no exception. We’d make a point of finding a good cafe on Google and we’d sit there for an hour or so drinking cappuccinos and just being in the moment. Our first experience along the Ganges river was catching sight of a snake charmer, which was such a bucket list moment and really quite bizarre as this little snake would pop his head out of the basket each time the man played music.
Most of the action along the river occurs early morning and in the evening, so our first wander was pretty uneventful. We saw some of the ghats, of which there are 88 in total, with steps leading down to the river so people can bathe and pray. Two ghats are used as cremation sites, and we did witness this a little later that day.
Often the best experiences are when you have no plan and as we walked through the dusty alleyways in Varanasi, dodging a herd of water buffalo, we saw an open door leading into an Ashram. Asking if we could come in, the residents welcomed us, letting us watch as they held a ceremony of prayer and allowing us to take photos too.
This was a pretty special experience with the ashram also being home to a school. These little guys were so sweet!
Back down at the river that evening, the place was heaving with people. We stopped to watch the burning of a body, which really does sound weird as I type those words! I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to seeing this, but I guess in many ways, even though it was happening before my own eyes, it still didn’t seem real.
Stray dogs lurked around the cremation area, probably hoping for a snack, if you know what I mean. And yes, we did see a dog with a big piece of charred who knows what in his mouth. There is no sugar coating of anything along The Ganges River, life and death are both very much in your face, or as I experienced the following day, in your mouth, as I must have inhaled some of the ash (ARGH!), and devoured an entire block of chocolate to remove the tasted of whoever I had swallowed a piece of!
The following morning was an extremely early start, I think around 5am from memory. We wanted to take a boat ride along the river to see the early morning bathers and people in prayer at sunrise. Our guide looked all of 16 years old. My only concern the whole time was trying not to get any of the water from the Ganges on me, which would flick up off the oar, as Jo and I would recoil and cringe as it landed on some part of us.
Just to clarify that we weren’t being princesses, the river is the 5th most polluted in the world. Bits of half burnt bodies, whole bodies that have been thrown overboard, open sewers, bathers (both human and animals) and industrial contaminants are floating around. I’m guessing you’d not be that keen to have the Ganges River land on your either ;o) The boat trip was definitely worth it. Watching bathers dunk themselves under water three times in a prayer ritual, early morning cremations and the most interesting of characters wander around looking high on who knows what, it was pretty interesting to say the least!
We were leaving Varanasi that afternoon, and we were ready to head back to Mumbai which seemed tame compared to all we’d experienced. But I wanted to take one last wander along the Ganges, so I left Jo at the hostel and raced down to the riverfront with my camera. It was on this walk that I saw some of the most alarming sights. I thought I was imagining it, but as I swung back for a second glance, I blinked in disbelief as a man strolled around in his little orange loin cloth, with his left arm completed removed from his shoulder socket. WHAT? It was following that moment, that I tasted the burning body in my mouth, and thought, thank you for the unique experiences Varanasi, but I’m ready to head to the airport now!
To Be Continued.