A Travellerspoint blog

7.23.10: Varanasi, India

Varanasi: Filth Capital of the World..

Today we woke up at the crack of dawn, 4:30 to be exact, ready for our sunrise boating down the Ganges River.
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A little history lesson is necessary to paint the perfect picture:

Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities in the world today. It is the sacred home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins in the famous Ganges River. The river is considered a sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine. Many people come to Varanasi to die, in the hope that they may receive moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. They believe that the Ganges cleans away sin and purifies the soul. After death the deceased is wrapped in no more than a sheet and after bathing the body one last time, is placed on wood piles, and cremated in public view. It is estimated that over 45,000 corpses are cremated on this river each year.
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Along with cremations, Indians use the river for an abundance of other activities. Devotees come to the river to bathe, meditate, and perform rituals. Babies are baptized in the river because they believe it cleanses the child. Don't let its spiritual qualities fool you; the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
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The Ganges river has been considered one of the dirtiest rivers in the world. The extreme pollution of the 4 mile stretch of ghats is unimaginable. The water there contains 60,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml, 120 times the official limit of 500 fecal coliform/100ml that is not considered safe for bathing.
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Downstream in this soupy toxic dump, people also use the river as their personal toilet, adding their own 'toxic dump' to the water.
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A few feet away people lather themselves from head to toe and bathe in the nastiness.
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Women wash laundry in the river, scrubbing off the body odor in exchange for poop particles.
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Around the clock you will find children cannonballing into the filth, having the time of their lives.
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I have seen people catching fish in the filth as well, although any fish that can survive living in a cesspool is a fish I won't eat.
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Do you even have to ask why I wanted to come here?

The ad practically writes itself..
Wouldn't you love to spend your honeymoon in romantic Varanasi?
You and your new mate can gaze into each other’s eyes while overlooking a whirling cesspool of bacteria.
AND it's a perfect location for your destination wedding!
Say "I do" amongst the burning corpses and fecal matter.
Think of us for your next baptism!
The Ganges: a river of possibility!

We stood outside in the misty morning and waited for Vikki. We waited and waited and our trusty guide was nowhere to be found. After waiting for ten minutes amongst a hoard of salesmen,each pitching us a different boat ride, we finally picked one who spoke the best English and followed him. With so much history, we wanted to make sure to get a guide who could answer our questions.

You want I take you?
How much?
150.
For how long? One hour or two?
Yes one, two hour.
Same price?
Yes, yes, 150
Ok

We agree and walk with him through the fog, down to the docks.
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You want one hour or two
Two please
Two is 250
What? You said it was the same.
No madam. More time, more money.

We agree and follow him onto an old paint-chipped wooden row boat and sit on a rickety plank, stretched across the middle. As I'm pulling out my camera, he pushes the boat away from the dock and hops out, leaving us with an emaciated Hindu man who doesn't speak a word of English.
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"I thought you were taking us?" I yell. He waves. Already pulling away from the dock, it was too late to protest.
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It was a misty cool morning, a nice change of pace from the unbearable humidity of the midday.
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We watched the sun rise over the river as our boat driver used all his strength to row at the pace of a snail.
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He would row with one arm, stop and hack up a lung, then he’d switch arms, stop, and hack up the other lung. I watched everyone else who left at the same time as us was cruising right past us on boats that made ours look like a paper mâché canoe.
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I felt bad for the guy, but I also felt bad that we got stuck with him. I lounged back and watched the river sludge float by contemplating my what mental state I was in when I chose this destination on my itinerary.
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Some people choose to go to Venice where you can cruise through scenic water highways in a traditional gondola while being serenaded by handsome Italian men. Me? I prefer chillin in a wooden row boat older than I am and paddling though murky grey feces while being serenaded by an emaciated Hindi who speaks no English and who's idea of a traditional soundtrack is hocking up phlegm after every stoke of the paddle. I'm living the life.
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The Ganges was quite a scene. It is definitely the center of life in Varanasi.
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I watched from afar as children back flipped into the trash, naked men lathered themselves from head to toe and groups of people lined up to wash clothes and beat them dry on stacked rocks.
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I watched as people brought pails down to the river for collecting water.
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I found out later, they keep some of the "holy" water in their house as well. How these people don't develop deadly diseases or body deformities is beyond me. It's a wonder they're not dropping like flies.
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As I was floating down the disease infested grime, I was inspired to write a poem:

Floating down the Ganges,
A well-known holy site.
Indians trek to Varanasi,
As they're about to see the light.
It's a straight shot to heaven,
Or so I've been told.
I'd rather burn in hell
Than Wade amongst the mold.
The filth, the grime, the excrement,
Swimming children and boats for rent
Women bring the laundry
And here they wash their clothes for free.
People bathe, both old and young,
They cannonball into the dung .
Better than a spa mud bath,
You can exfoliate using trash.
Bodies burning, smoke and fire,
So you're spirit will go higher.
Being sanitary is quite a feat,
Come see Varanasi, what a treat!
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All jokes aside, It was a beautiful boat ride, especially while the sun was rising, and I'm really glad I got the opportunity to experience it.

The rest of the day we walked around the town and did some souvenir shopping until we could not stand the heat anymore. It was more humid in Varanasi than anywhere else we have been. The small streets, overflowing with people and cows don't help either.
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In southern India where the proper dress code is more lax, I was able to wear tank tops without feeling like a spectacle however, as you move to the northern regions, they are stricter on what is acceptable. Women dressing in beach attire is not. This isn't something you will get a ticket for or anything like that, but I like to be respectful and I certainly don't want to invite any unwanted attention, so I cover up. It doesn't help that it is sweltering outside and I would love nothing more than to strip off my clothes and dive into the ocean. I can't wear sunglasses because a pool of sweat accumulates under the lens and stings my eyes. It's the kind of heat that makes you want to steal something just because you know that the cop car has AC. We could only take an hour of shopping before we were gasping for air-conditioning. We went back and chilled.

I was enjoying my rest in the room, watching the boobtube, when the phone started ringing. I was tempted to let it ring, but the thought of hearing ring after ring for god knows how long, seemed a worse fate than actually picking it up.

"Hello madam, you have a phone call."

I already knew who it was. I'm in Varanasi, India for Christ’s sake! Who needs to get a hold of me here? I have no job, no appointments, and no commitments. Not even my mother knows where I'm at! Who else who it be except that damn Guru! I politely told the receptionist, "Please hold all my calls and in the future you can tell anyone who is trying to get in touch with me that I am permanently unavailable." Problem solved.. I hope.

At 6:30 it was time for yoga. I was really looking forward to getting some quality yoga time in, while I was in India, but I've been on the move so often that it's been hard fitting it into my schedule. I took one class in Mumbai and I've been on the prowl for yoga studios ever since, so I was anxious to start my workout!

I had been to the yoga studio before, when I scheduled my class, and it's fully padded flooring along with an abundance of fans was very appealing. I was a little concerned when I arrived on time and was guided into a different room, half the size with only one fan (which is no match for the sticky humidity). The instructor, named Bharti, was very knowledgeable of all types of yoga and had a straight-shooting, no frills attitude. I didn't mind her lack of fragility, I was looking for a workout and I had a feeling I was in for it. She informed me that there was a massage in session in the room where she normally held yoga, so we would be exercising in the less appealing option. She worked me to the bone! This was a whole different spin on "hot yoga" and my whole body was dripping sweat. Half way through the one hour session, I was exhausted, but I couldn't slack off because I was the only student. Her eyes were fixed on my every posture and I had no wiggle room for resting. I got exactly what I needed, and although I was dog tired when I was through, I felt great! A+ for the Yoga Training Center in Varanasi, India!

As I was heading out of yoga, sticky, sweaty and smiling and as I rounded the corner I was ambushed by Vikki.

Hello madam
Hey Vikki
Madam, I am sorry about this morning.
Ya, what happened to you? I thought you were going to meet us out front at five?
Yes, I am sorry but I wake up and I get sick. I throw up, you know, and I feel very weak.

Even though the kid looked like he was healthy enough to run a marathon, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and played into his little story. I didn't care either way, I still went on the boat trip so there were no hard feelings.

Oh I'm sorry that you don’t feel well, Vikki. You should rest.
Well I wake up and I throw up, but I go to Guru Baba and he heal me.

I knew exactly where this was going. He went on and on about the Guru and his powers and that I need to go see him,yadda, yadda, on and on. I wasn't born yesterday but I liked the kid, so I nicely explained it to him. "Honestly, I cannot afford his services right now. I only went to see him out of curiosity and although I appreciate his explanations of the process, it is not something that is financially feasible right now."
"You go, you talk to him and tell him. He will make you very good price"
"Vikki, I can't afford anything, not a dime."
"You tell him and he help you, you pay later."

By now, he has followed me all the way back to my hotel.

"Vikki, I have two more months left on the road. I am living out of a backpack. I'm wondering about how I can afford my next meal, not if I was a horse in some past life."
"Ok you go and tell him because actually, he is mad."
"He is mad? At what?"
"Well he know that you go see the other Guru and-"
"How does he know that? Did you tell him that Vikki?"
"No,no he say he see you, it is very small place."

Now I was upset. I knew there was no way the Guru could have seen me because the other place was tucked in such a hole in the wall, it was barely accessible. Not like I gave a rat’s-ass if he did see me. I’m not his to claim and I didn’t owe him anything! Not to mention the fact that he came to my hotel uninvited, called multiple times, and is now having Vikki relay his anger to me. Some Guru! And Vikki must think I’m stupid to come and tell me that he was deathly ill this morning and now he’s magically healed. This kid was feeding me a BS buffet and I was full! I played the naive tourist for long enough and I was tired of this eighteen year old tout trying to hustle me. You can't hustle a hustler and I was tired of pretending like I didn't see through his charade.

I'm sorry that your "Guru" is mad at me but I don't owe him anything and frankly I'm not going to waste my time going to say this to his face. Since you obviously work for him you can tell him that stalking tourists is bad for business and sending an errand boy to tell me that he's "mad at me" doesn't make me want to seek him out for anything, ever. And telling me that you're sick and the guru healed you just makes me discredit you as much as him. And although I appreciated and enjoyed you showing us around yesterday, the fact that you keep pushing this Guru issue, even though I have repeatedly told you that I am not interested, on top of the fact that you obviously think you can take advantage of me, makes me want nothing more to do with you. Thank you for your service but I will be hiring a different guide.

He apologized and I felt a little bad for unleashing my wrath but I've found that touts and salesmen in India do not take no for an answer until you get mean. I can say "no thank you" a million times, till I'm blue In the face and all they hear is "keep trying, I may become interested eventually". I am a rational person and I have tried many methods to deter the unyielding salesmen. I've tried ignoring them, speaking Spanish, speaking made-up gibberish, being polite, just saying "no", nothing works. I've never had to be so abrasive with so many people in such short periods of time. It's exhausting. One time a man followed me for three blocks trying to sell me henna and I tried every tactic I could think of, I even told him I was allergic, and he was unstoppable. I finally stopped, whirled around and said, "I said no! When people say 'no', they mean NO"! To which his response was, "I give you very good price." I really have enjoyed my experience in India, but it can really kill a good mood when you’re forced to be a bitch all the time.

I went up to the room and relaxed after an intense workout. I was satisfied that I was finally able to wiggle free of Vikki and I had a good night’s sleep free of unwanted guests and incessant phone calls!

Posted by emichele 05:44 Archived in India

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