It’s the first thing I notice stepping off the train, the overwhelming, nauseating, wet smell of days-old urine.
It is the middle of the night and surprisingly chilly, outside the station it’s cloudy and dark. Years of experience have taught me that 3am excursions in the streets of poor cities with all your worldly possessions on your back, is a recipe for some less that agreeable encounters. Here in Varanasi this is even more true than usual. Finding transportation, which would in this case be an arthritic, bicycle-powered rickshaw, almost certainly overpriced because it is in the wee hours of the morning, is only the first hurdle we face. Transport can only take you so far here, we will eventually have to navigate the cow-poop encrusted, maze-like, pedestrian-only allies of the city, and in pitch darkness, searching for a hotel where we aren’t sure we’ll get a room. In addition to tricky transport conditions, this part of India is known for colorful characters, scam artists and late night robberies.
For this reason we have little choice but to spend the remainder of an already frustrating and sleep deprived night on the piss-covered floors of the Mughal Sarai Train Station. Having already lost a camera, computer, two pairs of fake Ray Bans, a pullover in desperate in need of a wash and my reading glasses, to petty midnight train theft, we are weary of our loaded bags and the $10,000 in salary payouts (from a contract we recently finished in Thailand), burning a hole in my husband’s pocket.
Who is stupid enough to travel with that much cash on hand? Apparently we are.
This is a new low in my travel experience. While I have stayed in some pretty down and out joints, sharing a mattress with bedbugs, sleeping in someone else’s dirty sheets, and calling a foam-flat on a dirty floor a bed, I don’t think I have ever spent the night on a piece of refrigerator sized Styrofoam on the floor of a public train station. And this isn’t just any train statin, this is a rat-infested dump filled with rotting oranges, vicious monkeys and what seems like the city’s entire population of vagrant crazies. My husband and I take turns “sleeping”, counting down the hours until we can escape from the ever-present stink of urine and the feeling that we’ve just crossed some sort of line where our dignity is concerned (and yet in retrospect it was a valuable and eye-opening experience summed up simply by “shit, this is how some people live”).
And so goes our first night in India.
Thankfully the sun finally rises, the streets come to life and at last we are free. We are reassured of our decision to tough it out at the train station when we find that almost every hotel, hostel and guest house in town is full. Apparently when my husband said he had checked the dates of local holidays, he hadn’t. We have inconveniently arrived during Diwali, the many-days-long, festival of lights and one of the most important Hindi holidays. As you can imagine, this generates a huge influx in local tourism.
But sometimes negative begets positive and we finally take a room at the only hotel with an available space, despite the fact that it’s about double our desired budget.
We love it.
The Ganesh Guest House is located in a labyrinth of hallways and alleys that seem to lead nowhere, but eventually end up somewhere. It is a clean, colorful and a perfectly placed refuge in the chaos that is Varanasi. The rooftop restaurant overlooks the Gangers River and a set of winding stairs leads directly down to the famous Ghats, a series of stairs dropping into the water.
Now that we are settled, I need a new Camera. It would be a crime to travel here without one. Luckily India is one of those strange places that is as ancient as it is modern and while you can eat fire-cooked curries out of banana leaves and sip hot chai from a hand-pinched clay cup, you can just as easily find your way into the most well stocked Cannon store imaginable.
Finally restored to my prior self, camera attached at the hip I can now explore the city.
Varanasi is disgusting place and it’s my favorite place in India. Cliché as it may sound, there is nowhere is the world as raw as this. It’s a city of life and death, of false holy-men, medical curiosities and gold-glitter pilgrimages. It is the hotbed of all that is sacred in the Hindi world and yet somehow one of the most glaring examples of pollution, overpopulation and a complete disregard for those very wonders that are held so dear.
Take the Ganges, holiest of the holy, here is a river thought by Hindus, to be the liberator of the endless cycle of life and death, a dunk in which, supposedly brings the bather closer to nirvana. Yet in the early hours of the morning it doubles as the city dump yard, a convenient toilet and a cow washing station. Despite being the most unsavory body of water on earth (due in part to the fact that it is where bodies are burned after death) it serves as a place to wash your teeth, scrubs your balls and clean behind your ears. Uniquely it is also a dirty-diaper dispensary and compost disposal. Coming from the world of compulsory recycling, antiseptic toothpaste and a don’t-look attitude towards death it is confusing to me how something so revered can be both bathtub and burial ground. But this is why Varanasi is so great, because I just don’t get it and I never will.
On this particular occasion, both to my great relief and morbid disappointment there are no floating human corpses. A few cows and a dog, but nothing so grotesque as I had been expecting after hearing my husband’s stories of charred cadavers and skull goblets. Instead the river today is just a stinky, slow moving cesspool of mucky mystery.
But Varanasi isn’t all death and dirty water, its also one of the most colorful examples of life, both literally and figuratively. There are people everywhere. A striking young woman lays freshly cleaned Sari’s to dry in the dirt along the Ganges while gangs of children partake firecracker contests nearby, screaming at tourists to get out of the way before the tiny blasts blow apart chunks of dried cow dung and mashed trash balls. In the market pathway a man holds the head of a dying cow in his lap (he will do this for three days straight), caressing its muzzle and muttering in its ear. Down by the water a group of old women sit side by side forming dung patties for cooking fuel while at street level a man in a floor-length pink Lungi chases a goat out of his shop. My husband is approached repeatedly by the same crooked-walking boat captain trying to sell him a river ride and small girls materialize from nowhere with colorful pots of skin paint and attempt to decorate on my hands. As evening draws near groups of holy men and gurus, fake and real, model dramatically while tourists pay for pictures. In Varanasi, as in much of India, life is lived backwards, upside-down and totally in public.
For me a day on the streets of this mystic city is as confusing as it is thrilling and leaves me with a full memory card and the desperate need for a shower.