As has been the norm for well over a year now, the journey to our next destination – this time India – began with tedium, boredom and a monumentally trying connection of various transports:
1. An overpriced taxi through the bobbly, bubbly roads of the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu
2. 300km to the border on some of the worst roads of our trip (and in fact, fellow travellers and friends informed us, ’the WORST roads in the world!’) on a suspension(less) bus. It took almost 12 hours
3. … We did not in fact get taken to the border and so had to pick up a rickshaw for the last leg of the journey. Again, a bumpy ride!
4. Walking across the border. No security and almost missing both the immigration exit and the immigration entrance booths on both sides
5. A – less bumpy – bus ride to the first major town (…apparently Indian roads are in a much better state than their neighbours in Nepal)
6. An overnight train journey; where I will now start the story proper…
India. Bedding down for the night in an unusually quiet train. A welcome relief after more than 20 hours of travelling already. Only 6 more to go til our first proper destination, Varanasi. Our bodies, hardened to bumps and bruises of long travel after many months, were no worse for wear but; our minds were weary and the 2 hour delay for the train, standing on a freezing cold platform, had not helped!
Thinking back on the trials and tribulations of the journey the day before my legs dangled over the speeding ground.
We had arrived in India. Neither of us could quite believe it. But the last few hours on the train will end up – in time – telling the story of India as a whole … I think.
Beautiful fields screamed past us, kids fumbling on bicycles waved frantically, birds danced in the air to the rising sun.
Simultaneously, grown men squatted not 10 metres from the train, bare arses mooning me (probably mocking me as well) and releasing yesterday’s curry onto the adjacent tracks; a dead cow’s corpse lay below my thankfully quickly moving feet, its jaw resting on the rails in a sardonic grin; rubbish piles heaped up alongside the shit and effluence.
India. We had arrived.
India. Full of highs and lows.
India. A roller coaster. And we had only just begun.
Eventually the train pulled into Varanasi station and after the inevitable back and forth of haggling we were skimming across Tarmac, dodging people, buses, cars and other rickshaws; as well as a fair share of cows, dogs and goats. Hands gripped tightly onto bags. Eyes darted – tennis-match-like left and right – trying, and failing, to take it all in.
Then we were on foot again and winding our way through choked alleys – this time dodging touts who’d try to drag us to ’their’ hotel for a commission.
Narrow alleyways tightened into narrower alleyways. Squeezing past people, horns bellowing in your left ear; shop owners in your right. Deep fried goodliness finding its way through the polluted air… You find your feet following your nose and not your weary head to bed!
Woo. STOP. back up…
Cow. It’s blocking the path. Can’t go forward. Can’t go back. Suddenly we find ourselves doing the moonwalk as it lumbers heedlessly towards us. We breath in to let it past.
Varanasi is not a city that houses an abundance of life. It is life. The city scintillates with an unseen energy.
It is in your face… And so are the people!
Varanasi is in fact the heart of India. Well, old India anyway. It is the reputed birthplace of Buddhism and Hinduism. And it is the sacred home to the ’Mother’, Ganga. The Ganges.
Rowing on her back and watching the city wake for another day is a moving experience. Power emanates from the bank as pilgrims perform their daily rituals.
Taking Ganga from her and gifting it back. Washing themselves in Ganga. Their feet. Their hands. Submerged; their entire body.
The sun still not risen yet the city lives and breathes already. Even the waters roil with life as boatmen plough their oars hard against the power, the current, of their mother.
And when the sun rises, it fuels that life, charging it further.
The ghats that line the shore gaze out across the wide, fast flowing, waters as the sun starts its steady climb heavenwards. Life continues its hum, increasing in volume in line with the sun.
Of all the ghats that line the bank – and their are many – two make their mark strongest against the turmoil of the city. Smoke billows out in great plumes from the city’s two burning ghats. Here souls are laid to rest, their physical bodies cremated next to the mother; their ashes sank into its sacred waters. As the fires dance their everlasting dance, wood is offloaded from an endless army of boats to fuel the fires.
Alongside the water’s edge, resting against the riverbanks’ buildings the wood is towered. As high as the buildings themselves. And higher.
As the burning ghats recede from view an endless promenade of ghats stand proud and tall in plain view.
Some under repair from years of hot sun and waterfall-like rains. Others crumbling before your eyes, no repairs being made, but still emanating an age-old power. Others swarm with today’s pilgrims. And others stand almost forgotten, but for royal carpets laid before them.
And all around Sadhus sit, stare and meditate on Ganga. On life. On death…
… Or pose for photographs. Yet wherever they are along the banks of the Ganga, they always take centre stage!
Departing the rapture of the banks and winding once again through the back streets of this maze-like city we sought to escape the spiritual toil that being next to Ganga exerted on us, but in Varanasi you cannot escape.
Loud rhythmic voices boomed off the warm stone walls all around us. As they marched round the corner into full view the pallbearers carrying yet another brightly disguised body, we stepped aside in silent respect. Processions of this sought endlessly sound down the gently rolling streets of Varanasi, returning the dead to their mother’s embrace.
Right. Ahem. Sorry about that. SoOOo good.
Refreshed and full of curd-fueled-energy we returned to the more spiritual side of Varanasi. At a blanket of darkness shielded the far side of Ganga a daily ritual was performed to honour the mother. Pilgrims and tourists lined the bank in their droves to watch the spectacle – an insight into the reverence held for the Mother – take place under open air.
Amidst the clanging of bells and surrounded by incense woven smoke the Devotees danced… and all around them the darkness fell deeper. And they were further lost in their trance. Moving with the infused spirit of Ganga.
As our final day dawned on Varanasi a very different scene dribbled past our window. Rain had struck the town (out of season) and turned the endless alleyways into rivers of s**t.
We ventured out briefly before scurrying far above the dank brown rivers and basking in the sun, once it decided to show its glorious face. And so it was that we looked around, and down, upon Varanasi from on high. Above our heads too-many-kites-to-count flitted with the shallow breeze, clinging landward by a hundred little hands; whilst on balconies around us monkeys scowled and schemed.
And it was with all these memories buzzing in our heads that we left Varanasi. Ourselves buzzing through the rain soaked streets as the heavens opened once more upon our open-topped pedal-powered rickshaw. Needless to say we boarded the train as drenched rats, not as buoyant-backpackers!
Oh. One final word.