Friday, January 4, 2013

Indian border to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Nepalis (among others) claim a saying regarding their apparent similarities to India, "same, same.... but different". From the Indian point of view I think it should be something like "same, same.... but more so!"

Crossing the border into India went smooth enough (considering the hassle it was to get the Indian visa in Kathmandu), and securing a shared jeep to Gorakhpur was easy. We waited while our driver, with his red chalky mouth and whiny grating voice harassed people walking by, trying to squeeze a couple more passengers in the jeep. We only had 14 people in a jeep that comfortably sat 10, and, in the US, would legally carry 6. We agreed to pay more than we had hoped, with the repeated assurance that the price included our bags. We squeezed in a couple more passengers and were on our way. Once we stopped at a gas station the driver and his assistant proceeded to shake down the other passengers, pointing at bags, demanding more money. One Nepali man didn't want to pay full fare for his kid, since the driver had forcibly removed the child from his seat and the kid had shared the driver's seat. I think the kid actually enjoyed himself since he got to play with the steering wheel when the driver was not paying attention. A couple of heated discussions later (where a Nepali man was informed that this is India and this is how it worked) we were on our way. There were a few more stops for food and chewing tobacco, and then were were at the Gorakhpur train station, in the dark and fog. We got our bags, and left the driver holding the other passenger's bags hostage for more money. For once over paying benefitted us.

Gorakhpur is a major entry point to the Indian rail system for travellers coming overland from Nepal. Our other option was a 10hr bus ride to Varanasi, which, I know I'm way premature in saying this, but I'm over that kind of bus ride. People at the station did not seem accustomed to having many foreigners pass through and we were stared at intently everywhere we went. We had booked first class on the last train of the night, which was to our surprise half the price of AC3 on any earlier trains. Our lesson on over-paying from earlier that night came too late, but really, we should have known the price was too good to be true. North India (we later found out) was in the early days of a fog bank that would eventually delay trains up to 30hrs. I'm not sure if other people were on wait lists, or waiting for delayed trains, but by the time our train was due every horizontal surface of the freezing cold, dirty, foggy station was covered with whole families bedded down for the night. Our 11:30 train was only delayed 2hrs (Happy New Year!) but when it arrived they needed to add the "first class" car to the train, essentially just for Matt and I. Indian railways is the largest employer in the world, but no employee was to be seen that night. A soldier patrolling the platform and another passenger ushered us into the car, made sure we found a compartment that locked, and then warned us to lock the door behind then. We did. We huddled together in our prison-like cell, freezing under our inadequate sheet, but made it to Varanasi only 6hrs late. 

Some of the ghats and boats on the Ganges.

The fires warming up on one of the burning ghats, looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. 
Eventually the sun burned its way through the fog.

Bathing by a temple.
Laundry day (everyday is laundry day really). 
The ghats  many epochs of architecture, all 

Roofs are for flying kites, laundry, cooking, and drying cow pies. 
The nightly Brahmin river blessing ceremony (or puja) at Dasaswamedh Ghat. 

The Lonely Planet issues repeated warnings to "brace yourself" and "persevere" in Varanasi. Maybe we were lucky that the tout-rich tourist area of Kathmandu had numbed us to the constant offers of rides or products. We actually found that on the ghats the boat men were not that persistent, and it only took a couple of no's for them to leave us alone. 

Away from the river, Varanasi is hectic, bordering on chaotic. The guesthouse we stayed in was tucked into tight alleyways, where we had to dodge motorbikes, children, cows, water buffalo, not to mention cow and water buffalo droppings. We made use of a guide from the hotel for a crash-course in 
Hinduism and a tour through some of the temples non-hindus can visit. The tour naturally ended at a silk shop where we got to "see the weaving and then see some finished product", with no requirements to buy, of course! 

Wandering the ghats (which are the steps down to the Ganges river, each built at a different time and having a different personality) was fascinating. The mixture of the mundane (doing laundry, bathing) and the remarkable (ceremonies, human cremations) that plays out along the river is spectacular. 

We took the ubiquitous pre-dawn boat ride on the ganges. The phrase "oh, the humanity" came to mind. Not related to any disaster, but rather in the realization that so many people's lives are tied to this river in vastly different ways, yet in an essential way to each of them. 

- Bree