It's me Paul this time. I think it's better to write a few days after being somewhere, distance lends a certain completeness. ( Judy I know you like the relationship stuff ) We are getting on fine together as good travelling companions, but with a few what is the meaning of life conversations as well!
I'm writing this next to a beautiful lake, in the Himalaya with tantalising white glimpses of the highest peaks in the world. Thinking about Varanasi and our time spent there. After giving up trying to get a train, only one a day and booked weeks in advance, we cheated and flew. Obviously now the Indian middle class mode of transport. Brand new Airbus, one of dozens continually taking off and landing going literally everywhere in India. Western priced planes with western priced fuel and no shortage of business. India is indeed a land of twin economies.
Met at airport by our driver. This totally takes the hassle out of arriving at new places. Now Indian roads are scary places. Like most Indian phenomena, not designed for Western sensibilities. Dangerous and with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Don't believe any advert for a second hand car with only one careful owner in India. If you could choose a driver you would do so on the basis of age. Being old and still alive is a reassuring thing. Ours was young, with a young mate at his side and not only was he mad like the rest but he was fast and mad, and I'm sure closer to death than his older colleagues. Wo. There was no vehicle or place where he would not overtake, I was forced in the end not to watch, a bit like closing your eyes at the dentist. The roads became increasingly narrow and busier until gridlock set in. He finally abandoned the car and grabbed our bags and we hurried off through narrow lanes where only feet and small mopeds ventured. It was quieter, getting dark. Glimpses of everything and anything. Total diorientation.
Finally a dark passage, a few loiterers, slight unease and rush into a doorway. We had found the Shiva Ganges Guest House. Presided over by a small elderly Brahmin lord. He was Mr fixit extraordinaire. “It is a pleasure to serve your every need sir. It is my duty to see you want for nothing” with a slight rocking of his head. This was his mantra, repeated many times, and actually true insofar as he literally could fix anything. We had an AC top floor immaculately clean huge room overlooking the whole of life that is the Ganges. Very expensive for India, but worth every penny. The acolytes brought food and even a surreptitious beer, heaven or nirvana, who cares.
Varananasi is like everywhere else in India, impossibly busy, noisy, hassly. But then it has the river, the holy Ganges. So it is India with masses more. From what I could see literally all of life was on display. Not many westerners, this is India, Asia's jewel as they proudly describe it. The only thing missing is public overt signs of sexual activity and I did not actually spot a child being born. Everything else that humans can get up to is certainly not hidden. Men and women are equally on display and equally confident and affection is obvious but not overt.
Here is a little alley scene, when we got a bit lost trying to find a good breakfast the next day. It was a busy thoroughfare only about six feet wide. I was standing next to a mobile phone shop diving out of the path of a motorbike. A man next to me was speaking loudly on his mobile. People were squeezing by a group of squatting orange saree clad ladies moaning and wailing next to a body in a bright orange shroud on a bamboo stretcher garlanded with marigolds. A cow was nonchalantly nibbling at the marigold's, a bovine delicacy it seems. I could go further but I hope you get the drift.
Orange shrouded bodies were often spotted held aloft by enthusiastic speedy groups of men. Heading to the burning Ghats. Twenty four seven, several bodies are busily being consumed by flames, or being prepared by Brahmins according to rites. The women had their turn at mourning in the alleys. Now on the steps leading down to the Ghats. Male mourners congregate next to huge stockpiles of wood. All set to a backdrop of blackened sooty greasy buildings full of the organised ones who upon realising death was near would head to these buildings to die.
We saw all of this from a boat just offshore. It looked quite an organised production line. A typical mix of the spiritual and business. Lots of officials and priests to be panid. Everyone satisfied that no dirty babies, pregnant women, snake bite victims or lepers slipped through the net. Three or four hours of burning does it for the average human, depending on size. As various dead animals slipped by our boat, we saw the ashes being swept up and thrown into the Ganges. Only to be dived on by several very happy looking and suitably blacked sievers. It is bad Karma to strip a body of any jewels or other precious materials. The sievers had a pretty gruesome job but I suspect a well rewarded one, no wonder they looked so happy!
Just a flavour there of Varanasi. Westners walk around with a guarded appearance, Indians do not. The food was pretty good especially the Lassis.
We decided four days was really all we could take. Much as I would have loved to go to Bodhgaya with the famous Buddhist tree, we needed some peace. Transport is really difficult so we hired a car and driver for the 9 hour trip to Nepal. Arriving at the suitably scruffy but orientally romantic border just before dark. What a difference a border makes! More on that next time…