varanasi to chandigarh: a day of travel for no good reason.

Monday, March 7:  After a sleepless night from my bad case of guru-itis, I finally give up and get out of bed at 5 a.m., soak in a long bath, and rearrange all the junk in my suitcase to make it more manageable.  We eat the breakfast buffet at the hotel, settle our bill, and sit out by the pool for an hour or two, tickled by the lovely breeze.  The Ramada’s hotel pool is a definite oasis in the middle of the maelstrom of Varanasi, so we enjoy the couple of hours of serenity.  I for one am looking forward to the next leg of our journey.

goodbye to the doorman at the ramada in varanasi

goodbye to the doorman at the ramada in varanasi

Sanjay picks us up at around noon to take us to the airport.  He drives like a freaking maniac, jamming his wrist onto the horn at every opportunity, shattering the otherwise quiet drive for no good reason.  At one point we ask him to please slow down as the car he has brought today has no seat belts.  He grudgingly slows down just a wisp.  Surprisingly, we arrive in one piece at the airport, where we catch our 1:40 flight back to Delhi.  It’s obvious that Sanjay is happy to be rid of us, as we are of him!

Goodbye and good riddance to Sanjay

Goodbye and good riddance to Sanjay

When we arrive at the Delhi airport, we do some shopping at the British Marks & Spencer to kill the 2 hours and 25 minutes we have between our flights.  At 5:25, we finally catch our next flight to Chandigarh, and we arrive there safely and without incident at 6:30 in the evening.

Our new driver, Singh,  is a little late meeting us at the Chandigarh airport.  He lumbers up to us, looking more than a little disheveled, as we walk out of the airport hauling our suitcases behind us.  Singh is an older heavyset man with streaks of red dye in his dark hair and an earring in one ear.  His hair is standing on end.  He wears a sweater vest over an untucked shirt and a pair of frayed pants.  He says, I thought your flight arrived at 7:00.  Sorry for being late.  He has a huge grin on his face. He then proceeds to tell us he just arrived from Delhi, after a 5 hour drive.  He also says he will be our driver for the next 7 days.

We look at each other.  He came all the way from Delhi today? Our plane had arrived in Delhi at 3:00 that very afternoon.

This is when it begins to dawn on us the error of our ways.  At first it is just an inkling that something isn’t right. In the next day, the error becomes magnified 100-fold as our nightmare folds into and over itself in a multitude of ways.

Me with Sanjay at the Varanasi airport

Me with Sanjay at the Varanasi airport

When Jayne and I first began to plan this trip to India, I was in Korea and she was in California.  Because of the time difference and the difficulty of planning such a complicated trip over Skype, we decided in January that we better hurry and start making decisions.  I had a huge map of India at my end, and we both had the cumbersome Lonely Planet India guidebook.  We had each skimmed through the guidebook and decided which places we wanted to go.  The next part was to plot it out on the map and buy our in-country plane and train tickets.  We bought our tickets to arrive in Delhi around March 1 and to leave India from Mumbai on March 22.  We then decided that after spending a few days in Delhi, we would fly to Varanasi, stay there a few days, then fly to Chandigarh via Delhi, where it seemed on the map that the distance was short to our ultimate destination of Rishikesh.  Rishikesh has no airport of its own.  We then planned to go by car from Rishikesh to Corbett Tiger Reserve, drive back to Chandigarh, and fly back to Delhi.  Ha!  Little did we know the folly of our plans.

After booking this part of the trip ourselves, we were getting stressed out and we decided to contact a travel agent in India, Umer Ullah of Discent Travel, recommended to me by another teacher in Korea.  Umer came back with a good plan for a reasonable price, so we went ahead and asked him to book the rest of our trip.  We told him of the plane tickets we had already purchased (Delhi-Varanasi-Delhi-Chandigarh-Delhi) and asked him to work around these tickets.  When planning our itinerary he suggested we should forfeit the flight from Chandigarh back to Delhi as it would take just as long to drive from Rishikesh or Corbett Tiger Reserve back to Chandigarh as it would take to drive directly to Delhi.

Knowing this, we wonder why he has sent a driver all the way from Delhi to pick us up in Chandigarh.  If in fact it takes as long to drive from Rishikesh to Chandigarh as from Rishikesh to Delhi, why didn’t Umer tell us to forfeit the flight from Delhi to Chandigarh as well, and have the driver pick us up in Delhi and drive us directly to Rishikesh??  We are more than a little baffled by this, but ultimately we realize we had asked Umer to work around our already purchased plane tickets.  Still.  He already advised us to forfeit the tickets back to Delhi from Chandigarh.  He might as well have advised us to forfeit the ones from Delhi to Chandigarh today too.  Ultimately it would have saved us the horrendous day that we encounter tomorrow, Tuesday, the day from hell.

Singh drives us very slowly in the dark to a lake in Chandigarh called Sukhna Lake.  It is a beautiful 3 km long manmade lake, created in 1958, that lies in the foothills of Shivalik range.  It was made by damming the Sukhna Choe, which is a seasonal stream flowing down from the Shivalik hills.  We can’t see much of it sadly because it’s dark, but we talk a nice walk along the promenade anyway.  We can see some lights far in the distant mountains.  Later Singh tells us the lights we see are from the hill station of Shimla, which is another tourist destination in India but not on OUR itinerary.

Chandigarh is an anomaly in India. It is entirely different from every single town we encounter on our journey.  It looks like a small town in America.  It is the first planned city in India and is apparently known internationally for its architecture and urban planning.   The city was designed by American architect-planner Albert Mayer, Polish architect Matthew Nowiki and the French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier (born Swiss).  It has the highest per capita income in the country and is considered India’s cleanest city.  It also tops the List of Indian states and territories by Human Development Index.  It feels like we have escaped into a different country entirely during our one evening here.

Our shabby room at Hotel Shivalikview

Our shabby room at Hotel Shivalikview

We ask Singh about himself and he says he is married with two children, ages 19 and 21.  So he’s about our age.  We ask him where he will sleep in the 7 days that he will be our driver.  He says sometimes he sleeps in the car, sometimes in special rooms provided by the hotels for drivers to sleep and shower.

It appears poor Singh has some night vision problems because he drives us ever so slowly to our hotel in Chandigarh, the Hotel Shivalikview, which is less than stellar.  We do find that we get a complimentary dinner there, so at least there’s something good about it.  But the room is run down (apparently the hotel is under renovation) and really a letdown after the lovely Ramada.  We eat our complimentary dinner and both get on the internet to check emails.  On Facebook, my friend Neeraj from northern Virginia gets on the chat and tells me he would love to have his brother Rajesh, who lives in Chandigarh, come to meet me in the morning.  He’s excited that I’m visiting his hometown of Chandigarh.  I say, sure I’d be happy to meet Rajesh, but I say we’re leaving by 7:45 a.m., so he should come before that time.

We go to sleep, and never in our wildest dreams do we imagine the insane day that we will encounter tomorrow.

Advertisements

sunrise boat ride on the ganges, a swindler guru, and cozying up to the cows

Sunday, March 6:  Sunrise on the Ganges.  We head into Varanasi proper and, in the dark, make our way down the maze of alleys called galis to the ghats, the long expanse of steps leading into the water on the western bank of the Ganges. The word “ghat” means step, and the ghats in Varanasi are named after maharajahs. There are 80 ghats that border the river.  Hindu pilgrims flock to the ghats to either wash away their sins in the sacred Ganges or to cremate their dead.  Varanasi is considered a holy and favorable place to die and thus is the center of the Hindu universe;  a person who dies here is believed to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death.

on the ghats heading to our sunrise boatride

on the ghats heading to our sunrise boatride

Our boat guide is Ajay and for once, we’ve met an Indian that speaks near-perfect English.  We can actually understand most of what he says.  We slide into his rickety rowboat, and a young boy rows us out into the river.  The ghats and the buildings on land glow like warm terra-cotta in the streetlights and the pre-dawn light, and people are out in droves bathing in the Ganges.  It’s peaceful and gorgeous, with this orange glow, with the sound of oars slapping the surface of the river, the quiet boats full of orange-robed monks, photo-snapping Asian tourists, and other fellow nomads.  On the ghats, pilgrims offer puja, meaning offerings or prayers, to the rising sun.

Ajay, our boat guide

Ajay, our boat guide

boat on the Ganges

boat on the Ganges

We start at Dasaswamedh Ghat, the liveliest and most colorful ghat, with its flotilla of boats and its two pink towers painted with gaudy Hindu gods.   Along the shore we watch people washing clothes in the Ganges, students doing yoga and meditation and studying Sanskrit, women selling flowers, and people just hanging out.

Ghat

Dasaswamedh Ghat

the Ghats

the Ghats

Ajay tells us about the laundry businesses, people who get paid to actually wash clothes in the filthy Ganges.  It’s a rather disgusting thought. It is said the river is filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even human and animal remains.  These carry major health risks for those who bathe in or drink the dirty water.  However, the river seems to self-purify, possibly due to its relatively high oxygen levels, thus preventing large-scale disease breakouts like cholera or dysentery.

people bathing in the Ganges

people bathing in the Ganges

on the Ganges

on the Ganges

the ghats

the ghats

the ghats

the ghats

People are cremated along the river, either by traditional burning on piles of sandalwood, which is most expensive, or mango wood. If people can’t afford sandalwood, they can buy packets of sandalwood dust to sprinkle on the fire.  In recent years, there are is also electronic burning in oven-like crematoriums, which reduces the amount of wood used. Ajay tells us that every Hindu is cremated at death except for: (1) children under the age of 15; (2) pregnant women; (3) people with leprosy; (4) people who die from snake bites; and (5) priests.  These deceased are thrown directly into the River Ganges.

Jayne on the Ganges

Jayne on the Ganges

Jayne and me: sunrise boatride on the Ganges

Jayne and me: sunrise boatride on the Ganges

We row silently along in the boat and it’s awe-inspiring to watch the sacred rituals in this holy place.  This experience ranks up there with my balloon ride over Cappadocia in Turkey this past summer.  Amazing.  Ajay gives us little candles set on a flower petal bed, tells us to light the candle and place it into the river.  I cup my hands around the candle to shield the flame from the breeze,  light it and make a wish.  Always, my wishes pertain to love, but I dare not reveal more.  I don’t want to jinx my wish.  We watch as our candle-wishes float away on the current, diminishing on the horizon to nothingness.

i light my candle and send it down the river with love wishes

i light my candle and send it down the river with love wishes

On the way back to shore, Ajay casually tells us about a famous guru he knows who told the fortune of a famous actress named “Goal Lyan,” or some such name which we can’t understand for the life of us.  We keep guessing different names, until finally Ajay calls his brother and puts us on the phone with him.  He says the actress was Goldie Hawn!  Then he tells us that there are a lot of gurus, but this one he knows is really good, so if we’d like to have our stars read and our futures told, he’s the one to see.  We must look like a couple of suckers to Ajay, and in fact we turn out to be just such!

boats with orange-robed monks

boats with orange-robed monks

the sun rises over the ghats

the sun rises over the ghats

the holy Ganges in Varanasi

the holy Ganges in Varanasi

other folks on the river

other folks on the river

Our boat pulls up after an hour to Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat.  Day and night, hundreds of pyres are tended by the Dom, the untouchable caste which has handled cremation for centuries. The pyres are lit with an eternal flame believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. We see some smoking ashes and burning pieces of wood, but we don’t see any huge piles of firewood actually burning a dead body.  All the bodies left here have already turned to ash and have been swept into the river.  Everywhere is the stench of cows and general garbage and debris, but I can’t really smell burning flesh, which is good.  I’ve always heard it’s a horrible smell; I don’t think I’ve ever smelled it before, but I think I’d know if I did.  We pick our way through the black ash, huge piles of wood, wandering cows, more mangy dogs, goats, and a squatting old man shaving the eldest in the deceased’s family with a straight-edge to prepare him for the cremation. We must walk through this area quietly and respectfully and are absolutely forbidden to take pictures.  Ajay does allow us to take one picture of the eternal flame, which has been burning, apparently, eternally… 🙂

heading to the cremation ghat

heading to the cremation ghat

Ajay, who is quite the charmer, tells us he’d like to take us to his place of business, where, surprise (!) he sells silk goods.  Walking down the narrow alleys, we encounter a queue of cows bullying their way through; we have to push ourselves up against the wall to avoid getting underfoot or gored. Down another alley, cows are sleeping or just lounging on steps. Goats wander along and a dirty puppy jumps up performing tricks for treats, of which we have none to give him. We pass by vendors selling bags of sandalwood and spices and beautiful textiles.  Flies swarm everywhere around the piles of cow shit on the streets.  I feel like dirt and filth are jumping off the alleyways and buildings and animals and clinging to my clothes and skin.

cows napping on steps

cows napping on steps

Inside a Hindu temple

Inside a Hindu temple

the streets near the burning ghats

the streets near the burning ghats

We enter through a large courtyard surrounded by blue chipped concrete buildings hung with laundry, and into a room where we sit on carpets and lean against the wall.  A fat Indian man offers me chai, while Ajay takes Jayne to the Golden Temple, or Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The current temple was built in 1776; 800 kg of gold plating were added to the tower and dome 50 years later. The temple has very strict security because the Gyanvapi Mosque is adjacent to it and there are obvious communal tensions;  since we’re not allowed to take our bags, cameras or mobile phones in, we opt to go one at a time.  I watch Jayne’s bag while she goes, and I sit and have a strained conversation with this fat Indian who, despite his attempts to be friendly, comes across as genuinely fake.  When Jayne returns, I go down the street with Ajay, but I’m not allowed to even go inside the temple because I’m not Hindu!  This is apparently one of the most famous temples in India dedicated to Lord Shiva.  A Hindu is expected to do a pilgrimage here at least once in his lifetime.  It’s a very cool street, and what I can see of the temple from outside the gate glows with gold, but, alas, I’m relegated to outsider status.

huge stacks of wood at the burning ghat

huge stacks of wood at the burning ghat

shaving in preparation for the burning of the corpse

shaving in preparation for the burning of the corpse

Back at the silk shop, the fat Indian has started taking out silk scarves by the dozens.  They are beautiful, but he tells us the price is 1,800 rupees (~$41).  No matter how much we tell them they are too expensive, he continues to unfold them in waves of color before us.  This is one place we later regret not taking pictures.  This goes on for quite a long time, with piles of silken color before us.  Finally we talk him down to 1,300 rupees (~$30), thinking foolishly that we’ve talked him down so we’ve got a bargain.  I buy two and then on the way out purchase another for 1,000 (~$23).  It’s funny sometimes how you get caught up in a moment, and you do stupid, VERY stupid things.  This was way too much to pay for these scarves!  We don’t even really know if they’re true silk or some kind of mimicry of the real thing!!  First big rip-off in India!

an Indian woman selling flower blossoms

an Indian woman selling flower blossoms

the courtyard outside of Ajay's silk business

the courtyard outside of Ajay’s silk business

on the streets in Varanasi

on the streets in Varanasi

Ajay asks if we’d like to meet the “famous” guru and we are curious about him so we go to Guruji Ashram.  This guru, after showing us photographs of some blond girl who only vaguely looks like Goldie Hawn, tells us he can do several different tiers of fortune-telling, the cheapest being 1,100 rupees (~$25).  One level goes up to 3,500 rupees (~$80)!  He asks for our date, time and place of birth and then tells us to come back at 2:00.

poolside at the Ramada after our showers... the only oasis in Varanasi

poolside at the Ramada after our showers… the only oasis in Varanasi

By this time it is only 9 a.m. and we head back to the hotel to shower and prepare for the day.  Our driver Sanjay tells us that his duty with us is done and another driver will take us around Varanasi for the day.  He doesn’t like us, it is clear, because we don’t just do everything he says.  I think he is upset when we tell him we bought silk scarves from Ajay’s guy, yet we refused to see Sanjay’s Muslim guy for silk.  He’s so pouty!!  So, we’re actually happy we will have a new driver for the afternoon.

the lobby of the luxurious Ramada

the lobby of the luxurious Ramada

Back at the hotel, Fahad, the bartender from last night, has saved a table for us in the breakfast room.  He says, Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all morning.  We tell him we went on the sunrise boat ride on the Ganges.  He is still being flirtatious and Jayne even notes that he seems to like me.  It’s strange of course because he’s a lot younger than I am.  He asks us what we plan for the day and even offers to take us to the monkey temple, which he says is his favorite place.  We say we have our driver and have an entire sightseeing trip planned.  He says he’ll be at the Toxic Bar tonight, so to come and say hi to him there.  We wander around the hotel pool and wait for our new driver to pick us up for sightseeing.

Funny thing is, our new driver is… Sanjay. 😦  Obviously, he can’t get rid of us, and sadly, we can’t get rid of him.  We seem to be stuck with him for the duration of our stay in Varanasi.  We head out to the Bharat Ma­ta Tem­ple, also known as the  Mother India Temple, which has on its floor a huge relief map of India and the Ti­betan plateau, carved out of mar­ble in three di­men­sions. The map is said to be per­fect­ly to scale both ver­ti­cal­ly and hor­i­zon­tal­ly with moun­tains, rivers, plains and oceans and the holy pil­grim­age cen­ters all clear­ly vis­i­ble.

India Museum

outside the Mother India Temple

the relief map of the indian subcontinent in the Mother India Temple

the relief map of the indian subcontinent in the Mother India Temple

We then go to the small Durga Temple, better known as the “monkey temple.”  We must leave our cameras behind, but it’s fine because we’re certainly not impressed.  There are monkeys everywhere, and of course their droppings, so the place is filthy and smells disgusting.  I find it one of the grossest places in Varanasi.

Sanjay then takes us on a drive through the campus of Benares Hindu University, established in 1916.  I think as I drive through this campus that it would be difficult to teach in India because of the dilapidated state of the buildings and grounds.

Benares Hindu University

Benares Hindu University

Benares Hindu University

Benares Hindu University

On the grounds of the university is the New Vishwanath Temple, which unlike most temples in Varanasi is open to people of all religions.  However, we happen to arrive there right at noon, when it is closed for an hour.

entrance to the new Vishwanath Temple

entrance to the new Vishwanath Temple

a market of flowers

a market of flowers

colorfully-dressed women have a picnic

colorfully-dressed women have a picnic

Finally, in the last of our temple tour, we stop at a beautiful red-painted temple where I buy a beautiful necklace of red flowers.  However, they tell us we must leave our shoes and pay for them to “mind our shoes.”  We say we don’t need anyone to “mind our shoes,” that we will just carry them in.  Because of our insistence, suddenly we’re told we’re not allowed in after all, because we’re not Hindu.  I can’t for the life of me remember the name of this temple.

flowers for sale to offer to the gods

flowers for sale to offer to the gods

the mysterious red-painted temple where we're not allowed in because we're not Hindu

the mysterious red-painted temple where we’re not allowed in because we’re not Hindu

Finally, at long last, we head back into Varanasi proper to see our guru.  Sanjay drives through the chaotic streets, adding to the cacophony of horns by flexing his wrist constantly against the horn whether its necessary or not.  We park at an old movie theater where we sit in the car waiting for Ajay to meet us and take us to see the guru.  While we sit there, an Indian wearing a yellow silk turban comes up to our window with a snake in a basket.  He wants us to give him 5 rupees for the privilege of touching his snake!  I say, No, thanks! You’d have to pay ME to touch that snake!!  Of course he won’t take no for an answer, but continues to harass us until we finally roll up the windows and ignore him.

inside the guru's place

inside the guru’s place

Back at the guru’s ashram, we are supposed to get a half-hour each with him, but we each end up with a 10-minute session.  I climb some steep narrow stairs into a warm windowless room, where he invites me to sit on the floor and he tells me the following: I am a Scorpio and the Chinese sign of the sheep.  I will live until 87 or 88 minimum, at which time I will die a natural and easy death in my sleep. I basically will have a good life with no problems.  I’ll have my own property by the time I retire.  I’ll have good health, although I might have some problems with gastric pain.  He asks me if I currently have these kinds of problems, and I say no, I don’t.  He tells me I’ve had four pregnancies.  I protest and say I’ve only had 3, but he insists I must have lost one!  He says I’m independent and don’t rely on anyone and I’m very strong and controlling in my family.  He also says I have a mind like a child.  He doesn’t mention anything about love, so I ask and he says I will have problems between life and love; I will have a man, but no fixed man.  Men will come into my life and go.  I ask if there’s anything I can do about that, and he says I can buy a talisman from him for 2,300 rupees (~$52).  Ha!

our guru who allegedly worked with Goldie Hawn

our guru who allegedly worked with Goldie Hawn

After Jayne has her session with the guru, we have Sanjay drop us at the real Brown Bread Bakery, where we sit on cushions at low tables and order Kingfisher beers and several kinds of cheeses and breads and compare our guru sessions.  Jayne tells me she can see where I might have a mind like a child because maybe I’m a little spoiled and gullible and I trust too easily. I find truth to her words so don’t feel too bothered by them. It’s a nice atmosphere inside, with music playing and a kind of hippie vibe to it.

the guru's ashram

the guru’s ashram

After lunch, we wander around the ghats for several hours, just looking around until we go at 6 p.m. to grab a seat to watch a ganga aarti ceremony along the Dasaswamedh Ghat.

flowers for the gods

flowers for the gods

While we wait we see a wedding ceremony, with the groom dressed in his silken finest and his bride in sari demurely following behind him.  A drunken man on the streets dances crazily to the wedding music, an interloper to this magical event.  The ganga aarti ceremony is supposed to have puja, fire and dance, but after waiting for what seems like an eternity for it to start, we finally give up and head back to meet Sanjay at the movie theater.  It turns out we get lost after walking probably a mile in the wrong direction; we eventually take a cycle rickshaw back to the movie theater, which was nowhere near the place we ended up on our walk.

huge crowds turn out for the ganga aarti ceremony

huge crowds turn out for the ganga aarti ceremony

a wedding in progress

a wedding in progress

Back at the hotel I go into the Toxic Bar and order a red wine and a huge bowl of peanuts.  Fahad is there and asks if I went to the monkey temple and I tell him yes, but we didn’t like it because it was so dirty.  He says, Yeah, but it has all those monkeys running around! I say, yes, that’s just the problem.  He tells me he lives in the city proper and walks 25 minutes to and from work every day.  Then he asks me my age and I say, how old do you think I am?  He says, I think maybe around 65-70!! I say, what?  Wow!  That is really an insult.  Most people tell me I look in my 40s.  This is the thing that infuriates me about Asians.  Nearly every Asian I meet thinks I am much older than my age because of my white hair.  They don’t even notice that I hardly have any wrinkles on my face (at least not yet!), or that I’m in fairly good physical shape.

a drunken dancer joins the wedding party

a drunken dancer joins the wedding party

After this insult, I shut down and don’t even want to talk to him any more.  But he keeps going on about how Spanish and Italian girls are so beautiful but not smart because they can’t speak English.  I say the ability to speak English isn’t really an indicator of a person’s intelligence.  He then goes on to complain about Thais, Koreans and Japanese, saying they always bring their own food with them to the hotel restaurant and they can’t speak English. I agree with him on this, because I know Koreans at least do take their own food with them when they travel and that most have trouble speaking English. I am bored by now and finish my wine and prepare to leave.  He says, Enjoy your vacation, mam.  I HATE that.. the “mam” thing.   I really wish people would get over acting like I’m an elderly woman!!  I’m still very young at heart. 🙂

waiting and waiting for the ganga aarti ceremony

waiting and waiting for the ganga aarti ceremony

All night I can’t sleep because I’m upset about the guru’s prediction of erratic love in my life, Fahad’s insult, and I am missing my friend Tao.  It’s a long and fitful night despite being utterly exhausted from the frenzy of Varanasi.  I am ready to move on from this place tomorrow.  Little do I know that the next two days will be pure hell.

varanasi: cows. naked monks. pigs. temples. oil-drip massages. insanity.

Saturday, March 5:  Bright and early, we say our goodbyes to K. Lal and pose in front of Hotel Singh Sons for departing photos.  He then drops us at the Delhi airport for our uneventful and brief 9:30 a.m. flight to Varanasi.

goodbye to K. Lal, our driver in Delhi

goodbye to K. Lal, our driver in Delhi

We arrive fairly early, where we meet our new driver, Sanjay, who seems to have an attitude problem right from the get-go.  He insists on taking us to his office, where we meet his boss, Nandu Mishra of Holiday Travel Tips.  We don’t much see the point of this meeting and after, when Sanjay insists on dropping us at the Ramada Plaza JHV in Varanasi for an hour and a half rest, we protest.  We don’t want to waste our time meeting other travel agents when Umer has already arranged our tour; neither do we need to take an hour and a half rest.  Come to find out Sanjay just wants time to go home and eat lunch.  We say we only need a half hour to drop our bags then we’ll be ready to go explore Varanasi.  He’s irritable about this, it’s plain to see, but our thought is we’re paying for this tour and his time, so he should be ready to go on our schedule.

At this point, we are gung-ho about our journey.  Jayne is only 3 days in and I’m 5 days in, and we are still energetic and optimistic.  This changes over time.  As our trip continues, it becomes grinding and difficult and this hour and a half would be a welcome respite.  But.  That’s the benefit of hindsight.  At this point in time, we think there is much to see and we’re here to see it, so we better move along.  Ha!  If only we knew.

So, we check into the beautiful Ramada, which in retrospect turns out to be our #1 hotel in India.  It’s lovely, clean and elegant, quite a huge step up from the Hotel Singh Sons in Delhi. We simply drop our bags in our room, and head back out to meet Sanjay.

one of millions of cows in India ~ on the streets of Varanasi

one of millions of cows in India ~ on the streets of Varanasi

cows are EVERYWHERE on the streets of Varanasi, scrounging around in garbage & living alongside people

cows are EVERYWHERE on the streets of Varanasi, scrounging around in garbage & living alongside people

We head out into the onslaught of Varanasi.  This is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and one of the holiest places in India.  It’s unapologetically chaotic, insane, and edgy.  There is no way to prepare for the streets that are Varanasi:  narrow two-lane dirty roads where cows roam and munch lazily on plastic bags and garbage.  They shit all over the place, adding to the generally all-encompassing piles of debris.  Cows rule here, along with mangy skin-diseased dogs, small armies of pigs pushing up dirt with their snouts, goats, and more cows.

Streets of Varanasi

Streets of Varanasi

Rickshaws in Varanasi

Rickshaws in Varanasi

the packed streets of Varanasi

the packed streets of Varanasi

whole families pack into auto-rickshaws

whole families pack into auto-rickshaws

People’s clothes and faces and arms are covered in dirt and they live alongside the cows and other animals, stepping over their piles of shit, accepting, even embracing, it as a permanent part of the landscape.  Women in saris sit on piles of rubble hand-mixing the profusion of shit with hay and forming it into little patties, which they then form into larger igloo or beehive shapes to use as cooking fuel later.  Horns honk and screech and play goofy little ditties, a cacophony of loud abrasive noise. Whole families burst at the seams of auto-rickshaws, hanging on for dear life and smiling as if they are having the happiest moments of their lives.  Between the bicycles, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, the cows, the animals, and the filthy people, there is not a space to breathe or rest.  Everyone and everything is in constant motion, and you must go along with the flow or you’ll be swallowed whole.  The energy here is so intense, it takes your breath away.

We don’t spend much time in the city proper today.  We just drive through on the way to Sarnath, on the fringes 13 km northeast of the city.  This is a deer park where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenment, teaching his Eightfold Path to reaching nirvana. This is an oasis of peaceful beauty at the edges of frenetic Varanasi. The grounds are lovely, with flower gardens and a bright green carpet of grass.  Crowds of students congregate on the lawn to listen to mock Buddha sermons and monks with shaved heads lounge on the grass in their maroon and gold robes.

Sarnath

Sarnath

the ruins and the stupa at Sarnath

the ruins and the stupa at Sarnath

a monk walks around the stupa at Sarnath

a monk walks around the stupa at Sarnath

the gardens & ruins of Sarnath

the gardens & ruins of Sarnath

At the end of the 12th century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials. British archeologists rediscovered Sarnath in 1835. The restored ruins are all we can see today.  Sarnath is a place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad. A number of countries in which Buddhism is a major religion, among them Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the style that is typical for their country.  As we wander around the grounds of the archeological survey, we see a Tibetan monk walking serenely around the Dhamek Stupa, a mound-like structure used by Buddhists as a place of worship; the walls are covered with beautifully carved figures of humans and birds, as well as inscriptions in Brahmi script.  Stupas usually contain Buddhist relics, typically the remains of Buddha, but this one was built mainly to commemorate Buddha’s activity in this area.

souvenirs outside the archeological museum

souvenirs outside the archeological museum

After wandering around the beautiful Sarnath and its ruins, we go through the 100-year-old sandstone archeological museum where we see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and a huge 2,000 year old stone umbrella, carved with ornate Buddhist symbols.  Sadly, we’re forced to leave our bags at the gatehouse, so we’re unable to take pictures in the museum.

bamboo scaffolding inside the Jain temple for painting

bamboo scaffolding inside the Jain temple for painting

Next door, we go into the Sri Digamber Jain temple, just behind the Dhamek Stupa, inside of which bamboo scaffolding is erected; painters stand on bamboo in their bare feet, painting the ceilings and walls.  At the entrance sits a monk who shows us pictures of a famous Jain monk who lives his life totally naked.  The pictures he shows us are of this famous monk, stark naked,  meeting high-level dignitaries.  Like Gandhi, but with even fewer clothes!

the buddha on the grounds of the jain temple

the buddha on the grounds of the jain temple

Jainism is an Indian religion that believes in non-violence toward all living beings.  The philosophy involves self-effort to become liberated and reach divine consciousness.  “Non-violence” is sometimes interpreted as not killing, but the concept goes far beyond that to include not harming or insulting other living beings. There can be even no room for thought to injure others, and no speech that influences others to inflict harm. It also includes respecting the views of others.  Other principles are to always speak the truth in a harmless manner and to never take anything that is not willingly given.  It actually is quite a lovely religion.  Apparently Jainism was founded between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE and is one of the most scholarly and literate religions in India.

We make another stop at Sri Digamber Jain Temple, a small park and temple.  We go into the grounds to walk around and when we return to the car, we find Sanjay taking a little nap.

Sri Digamber Jain Temple

Sri Digamber Jain Temple

Jayne at the gate of Sri Digamber

Jayne at the gate of Sri Digamber

our surly driver Sanjay in Varanasi, napping

our surly driver Sanjay in Varanasi, napping

After meeting and taking pictures of a bunch of schoolgirls riding bicycles on the street, we visit the modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a Buddhist monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society.

schoolgirls outside of Mulagandhakuti Vihara

schoolgirls outside of Mulagandhakuti Vihara

schoolgirls outside the buddhist monastery

schoolgirls outside the buddhist monastery

Inside are beautiful wall paintings on important episodes of Buddha’s life, done by a famous Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu during the years 1932-1936.  Outside is a life-size diorama of Buddha teaching his disciples.  We encounter a mangy dog trying to escape her three ravenously hungry puppies; they try to cling to her to teats despite her obvious disinterest.

the Buddhist temple

Mulagandhakuti Vihara, the Buddhist monastery

beautiful murals of the buddha's life in the buddhist temple

beautiful murals of the buddha’s life in the buddhist temple

life-size diorama of the Buddha

life-size diorama of the Buddha

Buddhist prayer flags

Buddhist prayer flags

the street outside Mulagandhakuti Vihara

the street outside Mulagandhakuti Vihara

Next stop, the peaceful and serene Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, a Japanese temple. It is one of the many temples of various Buddhist sects in Sarnath.  It is much like the temples I found in Kyoto when I went there in February, with a beautiful reclining wooden Buddha and another Buddha sitting under a tree.  An Indian woman is vigorously sweeping the dirt ground outside one of the side buildings and a young Japanese woman who has ridden her bike to the temple is praying in front of the Buddha, with her forehead to the ground.

the Japanese temple

Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, the Japanese temple

the reclining buddha at the japanese temple

the reclining buddha at the japanese temple

We are tired out from all these Buddhist and Jain temples and monasteries and archeological surveys.  We’ve decided we want a massage, so we tell surly Sanjay that we want to go to the Lonely Planet-recommended Hotel Surya for a massage.  He tells us it’s very expensive and not good and first he’d like to take us to a Muslim guy to look at silk stuff, bedding, scarves, etc.  We tell him firmly, NO!  We don’t want to see any silk.  We want a massage.  Then he wants to take us to a massage place he recommends, a place where he undoubtedly gets a kickback.  We insist that we want to go to the Hotel Surya, and we don’t budge in our insistence.  Every time we stand our grand with Sanjay, his surliness becomes more evident.  And more obnoxious.  Finally, he grumpily takes us to the Hotel Surya’s Relax Point Spa & Salon, where we each have an hour-long Shirodhara massage.

flowers on the grounds of the hotel surya where we have our oil-drip massages

flowers on the grounds of the hotel surya where we have our oil-drip massages

flowers at Hotel Surya

flowers at Hotel Surya

flowers at Hotel Surya

flowers at Hotel Surya

flowers at Hotel Surya

flowers at Hotel Surya

During the Shirodhara massage, warmed herbal oil is poured in an even stream onto the forehead to “pacify and revitalize the mind and body.”  According to the brochure, “In addition to its intense rejuvenating and anti-aging effects, Shirodhara improves memory, normalizes sleep pattern and treats other neurological disorders.”  We figure this will be a great thing to have after our intense day in crazy Varanasi.  It feels wonderful, but after our hair is soaked in oil.

all slicked down after the oil drip massage

all slicked down after the oil drip massage

We tell Sanjay we want to go to the other Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, The Brown Bread Bakery, for dinner.  He protests that our hotel is on the outskirts of the city and it will take an hour to drive into Varanasi proper.  So he takes us to a dirty outdoor restaurant with no other patrons.  We tell him we don’t want to eat there.  Then he insists on taking us to a restaurant called Brownie, which he says is owned by the same people as the Brown Bread Bakery.  We go in and decide it’s not what we want.  We also suspect he is lying about this Brownie being owned by the same people.

We return to the Ramada, where we go directly, in our oil-soaked hair, to the Toxic Bar & Lounge.  There we chat with the young Indian guys at the bar, and as Jayne is British and follows cricket, and they are watching the cricket matches on TV, they have a grand time discussing the sport, about which I know absolutely nothing.

our cute indian bartenders at the Toxic Bar & Lounge ~ fahad is on the right

our cute indian bartenders at the Toxic Bar & Lounge ~ fahad is on the right

We order Kingfisher beers and they give us the most delicious peanuts ever, roasted and salted with the skin still on, along with some chips.  We keep laughing because the oil is literally dripping from my hair onto my skin and my shirt, and no matter how much I wipe it off, I’m drenched again in minutes.  One of the bartenders, a cute Muslim guy named Fahad, is being quite flirtatious, and we’re all having a grand time.  We order a delicious spicy prawn appetizer, which along with the peanuts and chips, (and the drinks, to which we’ve added a glass of Indian wine), serve as our dinner.

dripping in oil with fahad in the background at the toxic bar

dripping in oil with fahad in the background at the toxic bar

We stop by the business center where we check emails and update our Facebook status… Haha, as if anyone cares!  As a matter of fact, none of our kids or anyone in our family has written to even ask if we’re still alive!  I shower and wash my hair twice, but I still can’t get all the oil out.  Oh well, I guess I’ll wash it again in the morning, after our sunrise boat ride on the Ganges.