Thursday, 27 October 2016

Santokgarh to Varanasi

Leaving Santokgarh was difficult as everyone became rather emotional. We had been welcomed as family, treated as guests, fed and given accommodation and entertained for a week and we felt all we had contributed was our presence, and a few small gifts (though we had been presented with gifts too). Piyush's parents had hired a couple of cooks to help with the influx of visitors.  Their small family of three had swelled to eleven over the wedding period - far too much for them to handle when they're also running an Indian wedding single-handed! Usually the bride's family would have had more responsibilities, but Piyush's family had taken on both sides of the arrangements and activities, they'd also had to hand-hold us through the process so we had some inkling of what was going on and how we could and should participate.  Despite theirs and our best efforts and intentions I'm sure we must have made some errors along the way, however everyone kept smiling and welcoming us, so hopefully we didn't do anything too horrendous!  Overall, we got the feeling that they were very glad of our presence and were truly sad to see us depart. And we were sad too.

A short and very comfortable flight from Chandigarh to Delhi gave us distant views of the Himalayas. We then filled in time at Delhi airport with the rest of the NZ contingent before saying more goodbyes and heading to New Delhi station. It had been fun to travel with others even if only for a day, but for the next two weeks we would be on our own again.

 Despite the usual mayhem at the station we boarded our train which left at the scheduled departure time – the advantage of starting at the first station on the train's journey. Though only 8:30pm the seats were already setup as sleepers which made it difficult to sit upright as there is a lack of headroom on the bottom level. While the egg curry served on board was adequate, it was a challenge eating it with the world’s thinnest and bendiest plastic spoon and mostly liquid curry sauce. As we got ready for bed no one had come to pick up the rubbish from the meals so I went in search of a train attendant. He got us to get all our rubbish (tinfoil containers, paper and plastic bits) and opened the train door, indicting to us to chuck it outside! Normally we would have refused but seeing how earlier I had watched an attendant sweep the rubbish from the floors and straight out the door I presumed that is where it would end up anyway. Also, looking out the train windows showed a long string of rubbish track-side even out in the remotest parts of the country. With no one else around it was clearly from the passing trains.

Sleep is difficult on the trains and new arrivals at stations along the way have no concept of talking quietly, nor of keeping lights turned off. So we were awake well before our 08:30 am arrival, except we soon learned that we were only halfway along the journey! We eventually trundled into Varanasi three hours late after 15 hours on board.

Varanasi is a large city of four million and is especially crowded around the old city near the Ganges where our Guest House was. Getting there proved a challenge for two weary tourists. A rickshaw got us most of the way but the alleyways in the old city are too narrow for vehicles except motorbikes, so we had to walk quite a way wheeling our bags. First we negotiated a very busy street threading our way around all sorts of vehicles, many who were held up by what appeared to be a demonstration march. We managed to weave our way through but heard the next day that 30 or so people in the demonstration had died in a crush sometime afterwards. While the lanes were quieter without all the traffic, there was still a constant stream of motorcycles beeping and trying to get past, which wasn’t easy as the lanes are only a couple of meters wide and apart from the people there are cows lying around, dogs sleeping, monkeys scuttling, and pooh, pooh, pooh everywhere. It is hard enough wheeling a case over broken paths, but avoiding standing in anything nasty made it more difficult. And I won’t even mention the smell.

Luckily our Guest House proved to be a little oasis tucked down a quiet lane - that was after you made it up the steps at the entrance to the lane, ducked through the tunnel under the surrounding buildings, avoided the broken cobbles and potholes, and sneaked your way past the nasty monkeys! Comfortable, clean and with friendly staff. Best of all it was just one minute from the nearest ghat (the riverside steps where all the people congregate for ritual washing, ceremonies are held, and cremations are performed). Our most-welcome discovery was Baba Lassi, a small café specialising in the best ever lassis. A great spot to chill out.

our boatman
On our first morning we were down at the ghat at 6am for a sunrise row along and across the river. We spent an hour and a half being slowly rowed along the ghats on the city side of the Ganges and then across on the other side where masses of bathers were arriving on the mudbanks. In the shallows on either side people are bathing, swimming, performing their personal rituals and even cleaning their teeth! The river itself is a murky gloop containing … well, best not to think about it. We’ve seen rubbish been hosed into the river from the ghats and seen the top half of a body (wrapped in cloth) floating by. It is fantastically interesting and scenic.


washing the laundry in the Ganges

laundry spread out to dry on the banks

hosing silt back into the Ganges
On our second day we hired a guide for a walk along the ghats and through the old city. It was so hot that I soon fried the viewfinder in my camera! That’ll be an expensive repair when I get home. Along the ghats during the daytime there are people hosing down the mud – when the river rises after monsoon time the lower ghats get flooded and a large amount of mud is deposited. Paths are worn into this but eventually large hoses are used to wash it back into the river. Laundry appears to be a big industry here too. Many clothes were being washed by hand in the murky river and then draped over the steps and banks to dry. In the town there is a lot of silk being produced and we saw people at looms in back-street houses.

On our final evening we went down to the nearest ghat, took our places upon a boat moored at the river edge (along with numerous other tourists) and watched an Aarti – a Hindu ceremony being performed. Forty-five minutes of music and singing with five performers, each on his own little stage). They perform this every night and we could see the same being repeated at the next ghat along the river too.

As we leave we’d have to sum it up as a fairly rugged place to visit, the full-on Indian experience with all the sights, sounds and smells possible. Very glad we went and the memories of being in the Ganges at sunrise will last a lifetime, but we don’t feel the need to repeat it.

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