Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Haifa, waiting for 6 PM, to leave for the train station. The lobby fan blows around hot, hot air and there is little relief from the summer. I stayed at this same hotel some five years earlier with Daniel and Sarah. I haven’t found much change in Varanasi since I was last here, maybe prices are higher, there are more people, more pollution, the Ganga still looks the same, the burning ghats, but it is different.
The train that Len and I took was rather eventful as we decided to board even though we were on a wait list, e-ticket, which clearly stated don’t get on the train if this is your circumstance. We didn’t read this until a rather nasty conductor said that you must pay the fare plus a 250 rupee penalty each, unless you go to sleeper class. We tried sleeper class, but there wasn’t even a place to stand, let alone a place to sit or sleep. I walked through trying to follow Len and was stuck numerous times, with my back pack. We walked past the kitchen which felt like hell and given the number of people and the circumstances I thought this must be it.
Finally, after much argument, we paid the fare plus the penalty, but given the number of people on the train this didn’t even entitle us to a berth. We could only sit in between the cars where one of the “peon’s” offered to give Len a blanket for 500 rupees, sheer corruption. One man seeing my plight said take my blanket and pillow, which I did and found myself a place under a seat, between cars on the floor. I was so tired that I laid down on one side but was woken up numerous times given that I was sleeping in front of a door. This went on throughout the night and needless to say I was quite tired when I finally awoke for good around 6 AM. There was also the matter of the air conditioner which kept our area quite cold. I was somewhat more fortunate than Len as she tried to sleep sitting up all night.
From the train we took a rickshaw and I recognized and as we approached the exterior of the Haifa Hotel I recognized it immediately. There is also quite a story leading up to making reservations this time as there was a false e-mail address attached to the hotel. In making our reservations I received one confirmation e-mail and one stating that I must send some money via Western Union to the Secretary of the Hotel residing in the UK. Fortunately I didn’t send any funds. However, when I wrote to the supposed Secretary and told him that he was a liar, he wrote back stating that, “this was an insult” and that he would cancel my reservation. He also told me that there was no Western Union at the Hotel which, of course, was all a lie. I’m trying to find out who this guy is, so let’s see if anything further comes.
Once we checked in, we went directly to sleep which was not difficult given the previous evening on the train. When we awoke we went directly to the Vaatika Café, which as I had remembered from 2006, served incredible apple pie and brick oven pizza. It was so very good and given the amount of Indian food that I eat, was a welcomed reprieve. I had remembered one of the waiters, and of course, Anil was still there. Many westerners, as well as Indians, frequent the Café, none-the-less, it was just as wonderful as I had remembered.
Varanasi is one of the seven holy cities in India, that all Hindus want to visit. The Ganges is filled with boats, people bathing, washing their clothes, brushing their teeth, fishing, cremated bodies, etc. From the ghats one can see a time of true grandeur, when really wealthy individuals spent the money to build these. Now they are somewhat crumbling as, like many things in India, maintenance is not part of the equation. One of the truely amazing sites are the burning ghats, where people bring the bodies of their loved ones and place them upon funeral pyres. One can watch this from an observation area. The bodies are wrapped in shrouds, washed in the Ganges, placed on the pyre and then lit. Last time that I was here I watched with my daughter and remember asking her if this was strange? Her reply was no. This time I could clearly see the bodies but the flames were so consuming that I couldn’t tell the difference between the wood, the fire and the body.
The one body that I could truly make out because the shroud was taken off, was very lifeless, nothing more than a very wiry doll. The men of the family lifted this “doll” onto the wood and then covered it with more wood. We left before the flame was lit, but later on during the evening saw the flames of this particular pyre.
I didn’t see many tears among the people, mainly men, watching their loved ones turning into powder. Indians must be sad when a loved one dies, but I’m not sure that they show the same kind of grief that I’ve seen from Americans. Indians want to be cremated in Varanasi and maybe if a loved one makes it here things are more accepted. I’m not entirely sure but as the owner of Vaatika told us, if you die in Varanasi you don’t have to be reincarnated, and many people don’t want this, due to the suffering of life.
Our first day completed and totally exhausted we had some falafel at the restaurant next to our hotel, watched some television and immediately fell asleep.
On Tuesday morning I awoke to stomach issues. They have never been quite far away since living in India, it’s just part of what we all deal with. Regardless I had a good bagel at the Brown Bread Bakery and we went off to Sarnath which is a community where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was way too hot and we shouldn’t have been out in the sun, but we braved the 10 KM through roads that needed to be totally remade. Due to the traffic it took quite a bit of time. We had to pay 100 rupees each to get into what was once a monastery. Typically I argue for Indian prices, which in this case was 5 rupees, but the heat and my stomach just left me with little energy. Fortunately there was a beautiful a/c museum, with really, nice clean bathrooms that provided some relief. (Let me just state here that the bathrooms do make a difference). The symbol of India, the original three lions statue, was in this museum as it had been near the monastery. This was one of the best museums that I’ve been in India, very clean, well captioned and clean. One would expect this kind of thing in a large city, but in India one needs to expect the unexpected.
The rickshaw driver, who had now become our personal driver, got us back to the Haifa where we had some more middle eastern food and then went to sleep. The heat can really knock one out and this is exactly what happened as we awoke more than 3+ hours later as it was getting dark. I slept in that middle state between sleeping and waking, not quite being able to awake but knowing that I was dreaming. Maybe it was just being in Varanasi.
We finally awoke and took a bicycle rickshaw to the main ghat where there was a huge pooja taking place. Varanasi in many ways reminds me of old Delhi, narrow streets, way too many people, too much traffic, no rules. We had to walk part of the way to the ghat as the rickshaw left us off in a very congested area. Once we made it to the ghat it was covered with people. The Ganges was also filled with boats. There were six or so priests, performing a ceremony with some fire.
It is always a site for me to witness these religious events which are so very plentiful in India. We stayed and watched for a time and then walked to see the next ceremony, the multitude of people. Since it was too far to walk we took a boat to Tulsi Ghat where Vaatika Café is. This must have taken a good half an hour to 45 minutes and fortunately the boat was placed next to the banks so that we didn’t have to touch the water when we boarded. Yes, it is holy but I look only at the fecal coliform counts which are at 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water. Water safe for bathing should be 500 or less. Yes, people were swimming and dunking themselves and fishing. I must say that it didn’t seem to bother anyone.
I laid down on the boat and actually saw some stars, which are something that I don’t see very often in Delhi. The night air was warm but this proved to be quite a treat. We ate again at Vaatika, Len had ravioli and I had a banana honey pancake, again a treat, as my stomach was now cooperating.
Our final day in Varanasi, as I slept Len went to Vaatika for breakfast. I decided to have corn flakes and fresh fruit, which is my typical breakfast, in the Haifa restaurant. After this we went shopping at the Agrawal Toy Emporium, a place that I had purchased a carved mirror from in 2006. We talked with the owner who showed us an article noting that his grandfather had started the store some 85 years ago. I saw the mirror that I had purchased and bought some more as well as some other items. It was a treat as the store is air conditioned.
After this we went to the Vaatika for lunch and enjoyed spaghetti with tomato sauce and a mushroom pizza and of course apple pie for dessert. I gave my card to Anil and the owner Gopil came and talked to us for some time. He started the restaurant in 1993 and has always lived in Varanassi. He has six brothers, one of whom is a priest. It was a nice conversation and I hope to meet up with Gopil and Anil, the waiter that I remembered again before I leave India.
It is 5:30 PM almost time to leave for the train station. Our personal rickshaw driver has been waiting all day for this. His little helper Rakesh, who accompanied us yesterday had also been waiting for us, trying to sell us postcards. I ended up buying him some cookies as he found us today when we were walking around.
The rickshaw driver wanted to charge us way too much so we found another guy for about half the price. The train back to Delhi was wonderful as Len and I each had our own berth. There were a number of children sitting across from us kind of loud and I asked them to quiet down and then started talking to them. We ended up playing cards with them, taught them War and Go Fish. They were all just lovely ranging in age from about 6 to 13. Very well mannered, with beautiful smiles. In the morning when we woke up they were waiting to play again. We made it back successfully to the Delhi oven.
Varanasi certainly didn’t have the same feeling for me as when I first visited India in February 2006, when everything was so new and I was a wide eyed tourist. The weather was also much cooler at that time. Living in India for two plus years has given me a very different perspective. I see the congestion, pollution, the mass of humanity with not much to do to occupy their days, the poverty. India continues to be a country on the verge of progressing but also staying the way that it has been. The advances continue, more people have money, but I really wonder how far this country will move forward. It is just the mass of humanity that makes me state this.
Varanasi is a treasure and like most places I just come to love the people and how I’m generally treated by those willing to talk. One still gets the typical tourist stuff, the over charging, the continual buy this, just come and look, it sometimes gets on my nerves, but most of the time I can just say no thanks. It all continues to be part of Incredible India, the land of everything.