According to Lonleyplanet.com:
“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”
Perhaps I should have read that quote beforehand, as I underestimated just how crazy this place would be. So far, my impressions of India are that I’ve enjoyed it more watching documentaries, than actually being here.
I wanted a jolt to the senses, some chaos and unique sights, Varanasi delivered and then some.
Walking down the old streets was a trip back in time, something most people only see in the movies.
- Barnyard animals roaming narrow alleys, standing in poop, eating from piles of trash.
- Ficus tree roots growing into devotional temples carved into walls.
- Crumbling pillars with fading Hindu artwork.
- Piles of ash with dogs laying in them. Dead or alive?
- An exotic scent of animal waste, spices, humanity and trash fires.
- Real poverty. People who will never own a phone, wardrobe or even shelter.
The most positive part of my time in Varanasi was the home-stay I found on airbnb.com. It was an oasis from the chaos. The building was a home, which had many rooms for rent, run by two Grandmothers. In the center of the house was a courtyard, open to the sky. My room was clean and comfortable with Wi-Fi and hot water (much needed after living in a hut in Goa for 1 month with no A/C or hot water.)
The best part was the food. The chef, Kashi has been with this family for 13 years and prepared really fantastic Indian food. I’d sit at the table with many Indian women wearing Sari’s and one other Indian fellow, older than myself. We shared some communications in English and had enjoyable conversations.
The infamous holiday festival where a storm of colorful powders is unleashed into a tsunami of celebration. During my first day here, HOLI was underway. My host warned me there are many drunks outside and I should watch my back and not carry much cash. I found out later he came to my room to escort me outside, but I wasn’t there. I had decided to venture alone out into the chaos, which proved to be a mistake.
I went several blocks away from my room, walking down the street, sticking out like a sore thumb, as I was the only white face around.
I decided to crouch against a wall at a busy intersection to observe some colors and the overall vibe. About all businesses were closed for this holiday, so it was the best vantage point I could think of. I left my wallet at the room, and had a small amount of cash stashed in hidden pants pockets and my boot.
Within a few minutes people started coming over to me saying “Happy Holi”, shaking my hand, where you from, etc. A couple of kids squirted me with water and some powder. At first it was fun, but it didn’t stop, more and more people would come, new crowds, etc. Many of them were drunk. I could see a couple of orange robed Sadhu’s observing things unfold maybe 100 feet away.
And then one guy pushed things too far…
One of the things I’ve noticed here in India is the lack of respect for personal space. People get way too close to you in all situations. I took this into account during the following situation, whereas in the U.S. I would have already backed a person off me either verbally or physically.
This guy offers me whiskey, which I declined. He gets closer. I was crouching down against a wall, he was standing up. He puts his knee up onto the ledge I was sitting on, then pokes me in the privates asking if I want a girlfriend. With that I abruptly stood up, and he attempted to lift my beaded necklace right off my neck, I try to pull it back down and push his hand away and it breaks, so I threw it to the ground and start to walk away. He then grabs my arm and tries to pull me back. I push him away, and then put both my hands up with “don’t touch me. “
Usually in a case like this, (and especially since he was smaller than me), I would have knocked him to the ground. In this case, seeing how people travel in packs and are drunk, I’d likely have 5-10 others gang up on me, which I wanted to avoid. I felt walking away was the best action to take, alone in a 3rd world country.
This tainted my view of things here, as the attention I was receiving was unwanted and overwhelming. I should have gone out with a guide.
A good day
I went with Mayur, the manager and guide from the home-stay on a walking tour of the old streets in Varanasi. This was truly a step back in time to say the least. The age of this city is unknown and estimated to be many thousands of years old.
To quote Mark Twain:
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
From old school craftspeople doing their thing, people sleeping on carts, animals feeding on trash, dead bodies being carried through the streets on gurneys it’s a bit surreal.
We walked down to the Ganges.
We visited a Nepalese temple crafted from teak wood.
We went to an Islamic mosque. (Those large black things are active BEEHIVES!)
Stopping by the 70 year old Blue Lassi shop along the way. I had an Apple Lassi. Yum.
We took a boat ride on the Ganges to see the ancient funeral pyres and Arati.
After dinner, I went to an Indian classical music concert at a local Ashram/school. I brought a nice German couple I met at dinner with me. I really enjoy this type of music with tablas, sitars, flutes and it was nice to experience it up close and personal.
Another bad day
Sunday night after lunch I got sick. Really sick. Violently ill for many hours that night in every way possible at the same time, I’ll spare you the gory details. While this is happening, there is a parade outside. Explosions going off, shouting, cows mooing, monkeys chattering, dog packs barking their fool heads off, loud music, you name it.
Worse than a bad trip.
I only drank filtered water from the home-stay filter, which I then put into my Lifestraw to Go bottle. I’ve eaten every single meal at the home-stay, which is very clean, except for the lassi (this may be what made me sick) and one meal at a local restaurant.
The next day, the home-stay brought me all meals to my bedroom, including some antibiotics and rehydration salts from the local chemist. I really wanted to avoid the hospital in this place.
It’s now Tuesday as I write and feel mostly better, eating very plainly (toast and fruit). I am heading to Rishikesh on Thursday morning and hope to be in good health for the plane rides.
On a positive note, during my week in Varanasi I had good walking tour, and made progress on a client project, as the Wi-Fi was good. I would have liked to venture out more, but felt uncomfortable doing so in this place, it’s just too crazy. Not to mention dodging rickshaws, cars, bikes, scooters and throngs of people just isn’t my thing.
I remind myself on a daily basis, my reason for coming to Asia was to break away from the 9-5 via my freelance work on eCommerce Warriors while living cheaply for a while before returning to the U.S.
Secondly, to do some sightseeing.
It’s not a vacation, and I don’t plan to be nomadic forever. It’s towards a specific purpose.
At the end of this month, I’ll be starting a 3-month stay in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. I hope it’s as good as I’ve been hearing.