Sunday, March 4, 2012

36 Hours in Varanasi

The last main attraction on our marathon India adventure was a trip to Varanasi, home of the very religiously significant (and heavily polluted) Ganges River and apparently the oldest city in the world

Now I am by no means either a religious or spiritual person. Yet for some reason going here was for me a must-do for India. I think it had something to do with reading about how, in addition to bathing in the waters being a very holy experience for Hindu's, the river was also used as a place to send-off the recently deceased. I had images of dead people (or their ashes) just floating serenely down the river. Maybe even being cremated while on the river, kind of like a Viking funeral.

It turned out to be a trip that really tested our endurance.

After spending a couple of days in Agra (where I am still in awe of how cool the Taj Mahal looks) we headed for the train station for the journey to Varanasi. In order to get there we had to again brave the India rail system, which you may recall I did not exactly have a fun time with on our earlier night train. But this surely must be different, and travelling during the day, even if it is a 9.5 hour trip couldn't be that bad?

Let's just say that instead of getting into Varanasi at 8:00 PM and having a casual evening before having to get up at 5 AM to watch the sunrise from a boat on the Ganges, the train pulled into the station at 2:00 AM, and it was another hour to get to the hotel and crash for a brief nap before we had to drag ourselves down to the river.

Thankfully the fatigue was not so severe that we did something silly like falling out of the boat. Once we were led to the shoreline our guide arranged for a small boat for us to take out into the river and tour the shoreline.

From that vantage point we were able to see the sun rise, witness locals coming down to the waters edge for a morning bath or to do laundry, launch three flower offerings from our boat, and even go over to the local crematorium at the waters edge and see a dead person being brought in for a final cleansing and cremation.

"The Varanasi Marina"

"The View from Our Yacht"

"Bath time"

"The Local Laundromat"

"Last stop for the dead people"

The rest of the day was a blur. We attempted to rest until we were picked up in the last afternoon to go back to the waterfront and make our way through the masses to check out the ganga aarti ceremony.

Then it was back to the hotel to crash until our 5:00 AM pickup to head back to the train station.

At least we woke up on time. We groggily made our way to the car and drove through the dark. Once at the station our driver told us to wait in the car while he checked things out. He returned very quickly to inform us that the train was running 2.5 hours late (what a surprise). We waited patiently while trying not to think about how much more sleep we could have had in the hotel, and watched a steady parade of locals use the cement wall ahead of us as the local urinal. Finally the driver went back to see how the train was progressing. He returned with a grim look on his face, and told us that it would be another hour.

With this news I snapped. After a quick family meeting we called our tour operator and asked if it was possible to fly to Delhi instead of wait another hour for a train that was gong to take 15 hours (assuming it ran on time the rest of the way) to get us to Delhi. Thankfully after a few minutes all necessary arrangements were made, and very soon after that we found ourselves back in Delhi, met by Mr Singh who delivered us to a lovely hotel where we had a very calm and restful last night in India.

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