Lily looks a little pale, and says she has a bad headache. We find out later that Varanasi has her spooked. The grit, decay and proximity of death makes for a haunting experience. Varanasi is not a fun place as a tourist. Add the touts and the smog and the pollution and you might ask why anyone goes here at all.
What Varanasi does have is impact. I think it’s a place we will never forget, even though I can’t point to any one thing that was memorable. But you feel it – an ancient energy, the cycle of birth and decay, the layers of countless generations.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. Archaeological evidence shows habitation in the 20th century BC!. It is the holiest city in Hinduism and the place Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism nearby at Sarnath. It was home to countless intellectuals and artists and religious figures as far back as history remembers.
Hindu’s believe dying in Varanasi results in instant salvation, and that the waters of the Ganges are spiritually purifying. Many Hindus come here to die, and the population is significantly older as a result. Aside from the thousands of temples in the city, only a few of which are remarkable, the city’s main feature are the ‘Ghats’ or steps to the waterline of the river that run about a mile along the oldest part of the city. Each section is named and used for different things.
The two most renowned, and the ones Lily is spooked by are the crematory Ghats, at which families pay for deceased loved ones to be burned with firewood (or there is an electric one that’s very factory like, but cheaper) next to the Ganges. One can see the fires at each end of Varanasi ghats.
Our day started ages ago in Delhi. We over-nighted in the Vivanta by Taj near the Delhi airport (the place where Emma couldn’t remember the word for ‘Chair’ and called them ‘sit-downs’.) This is the first trip with the amazing new T-mobile plan that gives you 2g free in many countries so the girls also have phone access everywhere. Needless to say it looks like this a lot, but it’s really good because we can text for free.
The plane here was efficient and on time, much to my surprise. I wanted to just book the riverboats from the hotel, but the Travel ‘desk’ gave me a really long bulk package that we didn’t really need and it seemed expensive. (It was.) I just did it on my own.
We are waiting for our boat to come. I’ve paid about $17 for a 90 minute row up and down the coastline. It’s sunset and the sky over the temples and forts that sit atop the steps of the Ghats is turning a red orange like I only see when there is a lot of smog. It’s kind of erie.
Our guide rows quietly, telling us a few things here and there – this Ghat was made by this king etc… It’s not the kind of stuff one wants to retain unless a student of this history. Mostly we are just taking it all in.
The river is very low. We are here right before monsoon season and at the lowest point. The river doesn’t even go all the way tot he other shore – half of it’s silty and sandy bottom is exposed.
The water is an olive green unlike any other water I’ve seen, ever. Contrary to it’s spiritual healing properties, it’s physical properties are toxic. As we get in the boat, I see a dead dog floating at the shore. Raw sewage is dumped nearby and worst, heavy metals from industrial plants a little farther upstream. Interestingly, there is a debate whether boiled or chemically treated water maintains it’s special properties.
A young boy rows up to us at high speed in the most hilarious of boats. It looks like a styrofoam refrigerator box with oars. I don’t know how it even stays together much less floats. He is selling candles on paper plates with rose leaves that people obviously use to make a tribute to the dead, which in our case seems like a worth idea. I overpay him wildly because ‘he doesn’t have change’ and we light up the little candles.
We’re not much in the mood to do this and our hastily formed remembrances show it. I ask them each to remember something about Trish, which they do. Emma says “I loved how she would watch shitty reality TV shows. I like to do that too.” Lily adds “She was clumsy. It made me laugh when she would stumble all the time.” Mine was “Her knee slap. When she would laugh, she would slap her knee.” The candles drift out and I’m not sure it was a moving event, you can’t force these things.
Lily is looking even worse so we cut our even journey a little short, but it’s enough. We had been told about a nightly event on the water, and indeed there was one. But it was more of a music performance with bright lights. We can miss it. I am glad we didn’t miss the sunset over the river bringing darkness over the people as has happened here for 15 or more centuries.
Varanasi is mostly a vegetarian city (or at least the restaurants are) and of course the bread is amazing almost everywhere. Lily likes Chapati. Emma and I prefer Naan. It’s not as good as Delhi, but better than 90% of the meals we’ve eaten on the road.
Then sleep. Weird jet lag sleep.