I left Calcutta with my heart brimming with gratitude for the experience but my mind was haunted by everything I’d seen and I knew that I would need some time to process it all and it was in this frame of mind that I arrived in Varanasi. Apart from a few fast facts about Varanasi I knew nothing about this place. I had my ‘Rough Guide to India’* and read the Varanasi-chapter once I was settled into my guesthouse overlooking the river Ganga. It was Friday and I decided to stay the weekend, at least. There was a definite holiday-feel to this ‘oldest living city in the World’ and as the sun set over the majestic river I felt the huge contrast between this place and Calcutta. In India you never fully escape the poor and the begging and Varanasi was no different but it was less intense here. It was there tough, just hidden better.
The sound of a sitar and singing far off and the dusk-light across the river made me feel calmer and melancholy. I loved Varanasi immediately but my mind struggled to change gears from Calcutta to Varanasi just like that and I would not have been able to embrace Varanasi fully if it had not been for my 3 new friends.
I met Matthew (from USA), Steev (also USA) and Michael/‘Mee-gal’ (from Israel) on the roof of my guesthouse. We had diverse personalities and very little in common but somehow got on like a house on fire. Thanks to them I eventually eased into the lazed Varanasi-mood.
Varanasi is known as ‘the city of lights’ and the river Ganga (3 times its normal size thanks to the Monsoon and cleaner than usual) flowed right past our guesthouse and great (great!) Indian music was forever playing somewhere. Matthew was taking Sitar lessons and knew all the spots to see live music. Steev knew all the best local places to eat and Michael, well, Michael was our Kramer. One night while we sat on the rooftop, Michael tried to convince us that he was actually from the planet ‘Hoba’ and continued to explain, in exaggerated detail, how things worked on ‘Hoba’, (it had an all-female government and there was no conflict in Hoba, only cornflakes). Michael told his Hoba-story with the thickest Hebrew accent I’ve ever heard which made it impossible to believe that he was from anywhere but Jerusalem. It was hilarious and we laughed like lunatics while Matthew tried to play his tiny little guitar like a sitar.
One night they knocked on my door and invited me to dinner. ‘We’re gonna have some Ganga fish, you wanna come?’ said Matthew. I looked at them thinking they had lost their minds and said ‘fish from the river Ganga, are you kidding? Absolutely!’
As much as I enjoyed Varanasi strange things happened (more than usual). Not everything is worth blogging about but I do feel that I need to mention that I saw a human body burn for 3 hours. At the burning ghat, also right next to my guesthouse, the burning of the dead takes place 24 hours a day. In Hinduism, Varanasi is believed to be the best possible place to die because anyone who dies here receives immediate illumination. Watching that body burn, right there in an open, public place with dogs barking and people talking would have freaked me out if there weren’t at least 6 other foreigners standing next to me seeing the same thing. According to the guidebooks, it’s a must-see. Truthfully, I could have gone without seeing it but ended up staying for the entire 3-hour ceremony (that’s how long it takes for a body to burn) and woke up the next morning with the worst case of sinus, I’ve ever had. For the first time on this trip I opened my medicine bag, took 2 sinutabs and then slept for 20 hours dreaming vividly about burning bodies and Ganga fish. It might have been my imagination but Varanasi had some kind of dark magic flowing through the narrow streets and it was as eerie a city as it was beautiful.
The next day an incident in one of those dark streets made me also now fear cows. Unlike the diseased and starving cows in other parts of India, the cows in Varanasi are well fed, huge and graze around at their leisure in the narrow labyrinth streets. Well fed cows make for large piles of dung that looked like they were left there by elephants rather than cows and I, of course, kept stepping in and slipping on it at every turn. I found cows in India to be placid and harmless so I foolishly thought Varanasi cows would be the same. One day I was walking unsuspectingly past one of them in a very narrow street when the large, moody, holy bull suddenly jerked his head round at me and rammed me into the wall. It frightened me more than it hurt me (just a small bruise above my right elbow) but afterwards my knees would grow a little weak whenever I saw a cow obstructing my path.
Michael, Matthew and Steev thought it was hilarious and even some locals chuckled when they’d see me, frozen, a few feet from a cow. What is the clinical term for an unholy fear of cows?
*In Calcutta I swopped my ‘Lonely Planet’ for the ‘Rough Guide’ to get a second opinion, so to speak.