Tuesday, August 20, 2019

India: Part 7 - Varanasi

Leaving Amritsar, I was off to Varanasi. I only had 2 nights/1.5 days there, so it would be quick, mostly because I knew I'd be alone and it's an overwhelming city. But Varanasi is the most India of all of India, so it's a must-do. I was really looking forward to seeing the holy Ganges and learning more about rituals there.

I had a 7am flight, connecting through Delhi, that I had booked with Kiwi.com, which means I was on different airlines for each flight (since those were the cheapest flights). My morning flight out of Amritsar was delayed because of fog, and once it got beyond the point that I could make my connection, I had to call Kiwi. I ended up having to purchase some credits on Skype, I think, then I had to call a UK number, but thankfully someone answered quickly. With the Kiwi guarantee, they'll rebook you free or give you a refund. I chose a rebook, but the only rebook option got me into Varanasi in the evening, past the time I had my evening boat tour scheduled. I didn't know my other options at the time, so I figured I'd just wait for that flight and try to reschedule the tour for the next night.

To ease my pain, Kiwi gave me 10 euro credit, so I bought myself an Economist and a chocolate bar.

I finally landed in Delhi a few hours delayed and decided to just try my luck at buying a flight. Air India, who I was supposed to fly, was full on their next flight, but luckily Vistara (budget airline in conjuction with Singapore Air) had some openings on a 1:30pm flight that would get me to Varanasi at least in time for my evening boat tour. It was a strange experience just to walk up to each airline's ticket booth and ask what they had, and just go down the row of airlines til I found something. A last minute ticket for a 1.5 hour flight cost me $60. Worth it. And Vistara was nice and served me lunch. 

Leaving Delhi - such bad air. 

Landed in Varanasi - take a survey. I'd been able to call the guest house where I was staying so they could get in touch with the driver they had sent for me. I think he may have ended up waiting at the airport for a few hours though, since it's a ways out of town. Oh well, I tried.

Made it! View from my room. Hello, Ganges.

I booked this guesthouse since it had good reviews at a decent price and food options. I ended up booking directly with them (via email) instead of on a general hotel website, because the price was a little lower. However, for some reason they wouldn't take a credit card payment (first time that had been a problem at a hotel), and I had to pay the whole thing in cash. Ugh. A lot of ATMs in India don't accept foreign cards, and there is a pretty low limit at each of them, which meant I'd have to find two or three ATMs from which to withdraw the amount. I was kinda pissed that no one mentioned this upfront. It was a hassle. I had to go through all the cash I had on hand, and then search for more.

The owner/man of the house was also a little off-putting to me. Certainly kind, but a little pushy even though he said he didn't want to be. I'd already arranged a tour for the evening and another one the next day, which I let him know, and he kept saying that it's fine, he just wanted to help, but he had the best guides at the best prices. I shrugged it off and stayed with my original plan.

I booked an evening boat ride tour, cause that's what you do in Varanasi, either at sunrise or sunset. And I do recommend having your guide pick you up at your hotel, unless you are staying right next to the meeting point, because this town is full of tiny alleys and streets that make no sense.

My guide showed up right on time, and off we went for a short walking tour before hopping on a boat. I really don't remember much about each of these sites, so photos will have to do. I do remember for this one that people go here to be cleansed, and sometimes leave their clothes behind as a symbol of starting a new life.

To the boats!

And also some horrific photos of me. Remember, I'd been up since about 4am trying to fly here, no nap, no shower, but whatever. I'm in the Ganges.

We sailed down checking out all of the ghats.

There's my guesthouse.

My guide insisted on lots of photos.

Now to the cremation ghat. Cremations happen pretty much all day, and it's okay to take photos from far away, but certainly rude to do it up close from the land. Hindus are almost always cremated at death, so your spirit can be released from your body and be reborn. A few exceptions, holy men, lepers, small children, and I think I heard if you've been bitten by a snake?

If you't can't afford to be cremated, sometimes they just throw your body in the river. I also saw a few cow carcasses in the river too. It's beyond contaminated. But still, it's holy, and so many people bathe and drink from this river.  National Geographic has a good article on the cremation ritual. I've never seen anything like it and probably never will again. It's something to behold.

The tour continued on to more ghats.

And then we stopped for a temple break.

Then we walked back through the cremation ghat. I recommend a mask if you don't want to breathe in too much smoke.

Another temple - we waited for a ceremony.

Back to the boat for the main ceremony.

I was supposed to light my candle and place it into the river. No way on earth was I even going to let the tip of my pinky touch that water. I dropped it from a couple inches above, the candle went out and my guide had me do it again.

Now for the Ganga Aarti ceremony. It happens every day around sunset for 45 minutes or so. Hindu priests use lamps and conch shells and incense with chants for the holy river.  Many, many boats crowd into the area to watch from afar.

After the ceremony my guide walked me back to the hotel, where I ordered some dinner. I think everything here was vegetarian. Which is fine and usually delicious, I'm just hungry an hour later.

Decent night's sleep, then breakfast on the balcony in the morning. The wire is to keep the monkeys out. They're all around the rooftops and they are mean.

Got ready for the day, and my old trusty little blowdryer still does the job.

This day I scheduled a tour with Roobaroo Walks, which I highly recommend. I had researched them before arriving, and attempted to book a tour. Their booking method can be hit or miss for a solo traveler (and maybe they've changed it now?) - basically you tell them which tours you'd like to do, they add it to their public calendar, and as more people join that day, the price goes down. If no one else joins, you have to pay for a minimum of two people. Most days, plenty of people want to take the tours. For some reason on my dates, no one else had signed up. They reached out to me the day before (and here is where a local phone number comes in handy) and gave me the option to pay for two, or to get refunded.

I chose the refund option because it was a bit pricey just for me. And I knew this the night before, so I had asked the prior night's guide if he was busy the next day and could take me. He agreed, so I was just going to do that. However, late that night, Roobaroo texted and said that two people had signed up last minute for the morning historical walk, and I could join that for the lower rate. Hooray! I made up a reason to cancel on the first guy (I felt so bad) and then I joined up with Sudarshan and two other tourists for a walk.

Off we go, and I don't remember the names of these places either....

Busy Varanasi

We made a stop at the flower market. You gotta have flowers for all the ceremonies here. 

There's me!

And there's Kim Kardashian?

We walked through small alleys - there are storefronts with basically futons in them. You chill here while the shopkeeper shows you stuff - I think this was mostly fabrics and things, as it was wedding season in India.

This place is the old home of a famous author (Bhartendu Bhawan is the place name), and I think some of the family still lives here, and they rent rooms to other artists or use them as a hotel. It's a lovely property, hidden in the streets of Varanasi.

Time for lassi! This is one of the best in India, so they say.

Served in little clay pots that you can throw on the ground afterwards...

This is another dish called malayiyyo - it's a foamy milk thing with cardamom and pistachios, unique to Varanasi, and I think only served in the winter time. Very interesting dish to try. Is foamy milk okay to sit outside all day?

Calm bull....eeeek.

I don't remember what this guy was making, but it was interesting for some reason.

I think this is the Alamgir Mosque, built in the 17th century.

Air and water - so grimey.

This is Sudarshan, and he's an excellent guide. If you check their website or social media, you might even see this photo of me....

I was standing on some concrete like this below, taking that photo above, and some guys started making noise at me, yelling 'temple!' so I needed to take my shoes off and stand in that. Eventually you just get used to being barefoot and having dirty feet in India.

I sat on these steps for awhile to watch the world go by. However, at some point too many people kept trying to talk to me or ask me to buy things, or put flowers on me and ask for money so... I went home soon after. One 'priestly' guy gave me a blessing and some flowers, and then he charged me for that, so yeah.

Frolicking cows.

Back in my room, checking out these pilgrims below who came to bathe in the Ganga.

I decided to venture out for dinner and not eat at the hotel again. This place had decent reviews, which also said they take credit cards. Remember how I'm out of cash from the hotel? Yeah, after I ate, I had to pay in cash here too. But the food was pretty good. Lots of Chinese food in India, so I had some noodles.

Go big, or go home. Get dessert.

Varanasi is loud. I was ready to go. Two days is enough for me.

Off to another early flight the next day, headed back to Delhi for my Intrepid Tour. Ciao, Varanasi!

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