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Cows and corpses

Varanasi, India

Haroon was already waiting for us when we dragged ourselves downstairs at about 5am. A group of English public school gap-year kids, who were also staying there, were also downstairs for the early morning cruise. One of the other brothers was taking care of them. They were being taken to the ghat directly nearest to the hotel, where you can only get unlicensed boats. Haroon asked “OK, we're going this way?” pointing to where the others had just gone. Joanne complained that those boats were unlicensed, but this time he didn't seem worried. We could go with either, he explained, only sometimes this way it's not so nice, he again indicated the others' exit route. Joanne did not want to risk it, so he agreed to take us back to the government boats.

The cruise was a bit more interesting in the morning. We saw a beautiful sunrise then, because it was getting lighter rather than darker, we were able to see the impressive ghats ever more clearly. The water was lovely and quiet but there were already people starting to crowd on the steps for their morning bath and laundry. At the burning ghats, last night's ashes were being cleaned up. Dogs were going through them, presumably looking for leftovers, and in the water in front of the pyres a couple of men kept diving under, looking for gold teeth, Joanne suggested. Meanwhile piles and piles of new wood were being brought in for the day's cremations. It was piled up in boats and all the way up the steps it was piled high. Again I marvelled at how people could happily splash about in such filthy unhygienic water, but as far as they are concerned they are bathing in a goddess and the water protects them and promotes well-being.

On the way back to the guesthouse I remembered to take a couple of photos of something we had seen repeatedly in India. Disgustingly, it seems that most of India's holy cows are fed on rubbish, at least that is the only thing we have ever seen them grazing on there. To look at them, though, you wouldn't say it can be too bad for them as they all look pretty fat. I suppose greasy Indian leftovers must have the same effect on cows as the food does on my waist line.

Back at the hotel, the French guy across the hotel was playing scales again. He obviously did not care that people usually sleep during the hottest part of the day in Varanasi, so we soon gave up trying to sleep and wandered out into the baking heat. I wanted to see the ghats close up so we just walked down to the river then started making our way along. The place was almost completely deserted. Some people were dozing in the shadows, but we were the only people walking around in the midday sun; even the mad dogs were nowhere to be seen. Buffalos were wallowing in the river to keep cool. We passed another group of silly Caucasians heading in the other direction, but the ghats remained free of locals. I was enjoying this much more than anything else we had so far done in Varanasi; up until that point it felt like we were being baby-sat: on the cruises and on the city tour. This was the first time we'd had to ourselves. The ghats are all really ancient looking, many of them looking like forts, but we came to one and saw something very incongruous that I thought I had seen from the boat: a Space Invader painted onto one of the buildings' stones.

Soon after that our feeling of freedom was ruined: a young Indian guy, who was “just trying to be friendly” and was a “hhonest man” intercepted us and tagged along next to us. After establishing that we didn't want a guide, he decided that we should visit his brother's shop. Joanne had been looking for a top for India that would be reasonably cool but still stop Indian men from gawking at her or groping her, and she was also looking for a scarf to do as Indian women almost universally do, and drape over the bust for exactly the same reasons. It's easy to get irritated with the hustlers and touts in India because it is almost incessant and I could see Joanne bristling at the guy's presence. I don't have much time for them when they're trying to sell things we don't want or when they are taking us to someone else's shop for commission, but this guy was taking us to the family shop and he said they sold what we were looking for so I thought we should treat it as a fortunate coincidence and give him a chance. He even offered to take us to the post office which was one place we were really trying to get to, so that we could finally get rid of the letter we were given to post by the tea house owner on the way back from the Langtang trek. The post office was down a tiny wee street and didn't much look like one: it was a cramped little room with monitors and keyboards piled up on shelves, but there was nothing computerized about the place. Even the purchase of a few stamps was handwritten, double-entry no doubt, into a huge ledger. It took about fifteen minutes just to buy stamps and hand over the letter. But I suppose post offices are at the cutting edge of efficiency the world over, aren't they?

In the young man's shop, which was little more than a kiosk with a big stock cupboard, he made us chai and took us through what they had to offer. Joanne was looking impatient because he wasn't showing us what she wanted to buy, making sure we saw everything else first, but I was quite happy; we were sitting just off a busy little street, too narrow for cars, and all around were little old-fashioned shops. It wasn't too hot, I was sitting down, and I had chai. He was actually also a very friendly guy, incredibly friendly by Indian standards, and just trying to make a bit of money. In the end he got around to showing us the tops and scarves, and we bought them for what seemed like a good price. He kept saying, “I am hhonest man, I am hhonest man”.

Letter, scarves, and top ticked off, next on the list was to find an off-licence. There was one listed in the Lonely Planet so we headed in that direction, stopping off at a restaurant, where I reasoned we might be able to get a drink. My heart sank when I saw the menu: “Pure Vegetarian” means no alcohol. Why are Indians so puritanical? Or is it just that alcohol was never part of the culture before the Raj? Or were Indians not so puritanical until they learned it from the Raj? The food looked nice anyway and we ordered some. At the next table was a couple, the girl with wearing a bhindi on her forehead and dressed in the short top Indian women wear under a sari: it's underwear and equivalent to walking around in a bra and nothing else on top. Very inappropriate, Joanne said. The girl started singing out loud and continued to sing loudly all the way through our meal. It sounded like it was Indian music. Quite bizarre, the people who are attracted to India. All full of finding themselves and spirituality and expressing themselves and all that nonsense. Bah!

We left the restaurant and failed to find any off-licences. Drinking in India is really difficult! The walk back took us through the edge of the old town which looked quite interesting, with even more cows in the streets that an average Indian town, so we decided we would explore it a bit more the next day. It had also been nice to escape Haroon; they were very nice at the guesthouse, but so helpful it was a little suffocating.

That night I finally got a decent rest. In the morning we saw Haroon had got rid of the bleached quiff in his hair. He explained that a guest had done it for him recently, but Indian people are very conservative and people had started talking about him, so he'd had to restore his more conservative hair style. I was very disappointed because I hadn't yet had a chance to take a photo of him and I had assumed it was his usual haircut, part of promoting the Elvis name of the guesthouse. He suggested that we take a day trip to a nearby town famous for being where Buddha delivered his first sermon, but we wanted to explore the old town more.

We walked along the ghats, passing another incongruous Space Invader, to the main burning ghat, where we stood around for a while with the crowd watching the pyres. We headed back from the river and, passing huge piles of wood, we were passed by a couple of groups of men carrying bodies wrapped up in sheets. We found a rooftop restaurant, where we stopped to check the view, but there's not as much to see from above so we headed back out deeper into the warren of streets that make up the old town.

Here I began to really like the town because it is so chaotic, with hundreds of little shops selling everything from food and pann to tourist souvenirs, and pedestrians fighting for space as they edge past bikes and cows. Joanne wasn't enjoying it so much, though, and was getting really annoyed with the constant harassment from people trying to sell us stuff or “help us”, so we headed back to river, arriving just in time to see some people row out to the middle and dump a body wrapped in sheets straight into the water. We wondered which of the five categories of purity the deceased fell under. Quite a strange thing to witness, and enacted with relatively little ceremony.

So now we had seen a few dead bodies, albeit wrapped I sheets, so our Varanasi experience was complete. I can't say that I ever felt the magic most other people seemed to have felt there, but the old town is fun, the ghats are very impressive, and it's fascinating to watch all the activity in the water.

Nearly back at the guesthouse, a mystery was cleared up for us. I had been wondering what happens to all of the dung the cows presumably produce all over the towns in India. The streets may be filthy, but cow manure is unusually absent. It turns out people collect it all, dry it out, and then sell it as fuel. The cow is so holy, even its shit has value!

We were running late and had to take a taxi to the train station as soon as we got back. Another overnight train journey awaited us, but this time we had opted for sleeper class again to avoid being frozen.

permalink written by  The Happy Couple on June 18, 2009 from Varanasi, India
from the travel blog: Michael's Round-the-World honeymoon
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