Visiting Varanasi — the spiritual heart of India — on the banks of the River Ganges, was a long-standing dream of mine. The city had always fascinated me, maybe even scared me a little. I had read that few people visited Varanasi without falling ill. I had heard about the proximity to death, the funeral pyres, the floating bodies, the poverty and constant hassle from touts and beggars. I was also aware that there was beauty amongst the squalor. River ceremonies, vibrant colors, faithful pilgrims and floating candles.
A Memorable Bus Trip From The Nepalese Border
My partner and I spent five months backpacking around India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. We carried only day packs, took local buses and ate street food. After a ten-hour bone-shaking journey from the Nepalese border on a ramshackle bus, we arrived at the sprawling Varanasi bus station. As is somewhat routine on Indian bus journeys, we broke down on route and passengers abandoned their seats to assist.
We were weary but happy to have finally made it. Approached by the owner of a rather snazzy tuk-tuk, we jumped aboard and off we went, anticipating the air-conditioned comfort of our pre-booked guest house by the River Ganges. The temperature was one hundred and fourteen degrees and we were already regretting our decision to travel in the extreme pre-monsoon heat.
A River Ganges Horror Story
Our driver explained to us that the hotels next to the River Ganges use polluted river water in their tanks. Apparently, an Australian woman had taken a shower and inadvertently swallowed some water. Her body became bloated beyond recognition and she sadly died. Was this a true story? Or was it a ploy by the driver to take us to a hotel that happened not to be by the river, and from which he would perhaps receive some commission?
Abruptly, the tuk-tuk drew to a halt. The driver told us we would have to walk the rest of the way as the alleyways were too narrow for the vehicle to pass through. He waved his arm in an indeterminate direction and sped off, leaving us glancing round in confusion.
Lost In The Labyrinth
We wandered down a random alleyway, full of activity and lined with tiny shops. Asking several shopkeepers, ‘Which way to the Ganges?’ resulted in blank stares or shrugs. We also tried the word “Ganga,” knowing that we couldn’t be more than a short walk from the revered river, but having no idea which direction that might be. We were hopelessly lost in Varanasi’s bewildering labyrinth.
After an hour or so, our determination to locate our accommodation unassisted had diminished. We decided to take a bicycle rickshaw. Surely, a rickshaw driver would know where the River Ganges was? Apparently not. After insisting he knew where we wanted to go, followed by five minutes of riding around in circles we jumped out — no closer to the elusive Ganges than when we had arrived. If ever we needed help from Ganesh, the elephant God and remover of obstacles, it was at that moment!
Chasing A Corpse
By this time, we were exhausted and dehydrated. We bought some water and as we stood in despair outside the shop, we spotted a group of men carrying a dead body draped with an ornate cover. The men chanted as they made their way through the chaotic streets. If we followed the body, surely it would lead us to the riverside where it would be cremated. We would then be able to find our guesthouse!
We followed the chanting mourners. Considering that they were carrying a body, they moved swiftly. We were forced to run, our backpacks weighing us down, perspiration pouring from us. The alleyways became denser. There were intriguing glimpses into mysterious buildings and strange temples. Sadhus, beggars, pilgrims, and cows wandered through the maze of lanes. A myriad of smells wafted through the thick air — incense, sewage, spices, and garbage. At last, through the gaps in the buildings, we saw the River Ganges.
Sunset Over The River Ganges
At the burning ghat, steps led down to the area where the cremations took place. “No photographs!” a man shouted at us. The last thing in the world that either of us wanted to do was to take a photograph! In fact, out of respect, we would never consider taking a picture of a funeral pyre anyway. “All we want to do is find our guesthouse,” I explained. The man said he would take us. We followed him along the river. He told us he was a Brahmin, a priest of the highest caste. By now, the sun was setting, and glowing candles were floating across the river — offerings to Mother Ganga.
The End Of A Long Journey
Greatly relieved, we spotted our guest house. I gave the priest a hundred rupees, which I considered to be generous. He demanded six hundred. His shouts for more rupees were ringing in our ears as we walked up the steps towards the guest house. Never had we been so pleased to be handed the key to a room.
Our first few hours in Varanasi had been exasperating, but exhilarating and we had survived! A good night’s sleep by the River Ganges was all we needed. Tomorrow we would be ready to take on another day in Varanasi.
Author’s Favourite Travel Gear
First-Aid Only Pocket Kit: This small first aid kit fits snugly into my backpack. With over 200 pieces, it has everything I could need for basic medical situations that may arise while on the road.
Rokono Bass+ Mini Speaker: I use this compact mini-speaker to enhance the sound of my kindle and iPod. It’s easy to pack and the quality is excellent.
Ray-Ban Aviator Sunglasses: Wherever I go, my aviator sunglasses go. Both stylish and practical, they are worth every penny!