A Week in Delhi, India: Part 2: 21 – 23.09.2013

It’s my birthday!

Today was amazing; a lot of fun with two special people. We woke and lazily had breakfast, chai, coffee and our daily yakkult. We were in no rush this morning with no real set plans; I wanted to visit Old Delhi and since our host had not yet been to that area, we decided Old Delhi was the go. I knew it would be chaotic and crowded, full of people and traffic and noise and mess, street food and street vendors, shops and historic sights; in my mind, a snapshot of the “real India” – whatever that means. I still haven’t quite grasped what the real India involves, it’s so diverse and ever changing, it seems.

It was wet today; heavy rains poured down for much of the day, but it didn’t dampen our fun. We took the train into Delhi, hopping off at Chandi Chowk and walking out into the chaos and madness that was Old Delhi. Walking around through the sprawl of people, traffic, umbrellas and puddles of water, we were all busy trying to navigate ourselves and the new surroundings – something which was quite difficult. People approached us and shop sellers invited us into their stores, or called out a series of “G’day mate” and “Konnichiwa;” I still wonder how they can assume our nationality so confidently (and correctly!).

We tried some various street foods: some chaat, aloo tikkia and kulfi falooda, and looked into the different shops and lane ways that were so over crowded with people riding motorbikes and shoppers busy buying gold and saris, men standing over vats of blackened oil and people eating kulfi and street foods beside the stalls.

We headed towards the Red Fort, and turned to cross the road when the rain began to pour down. Within minutes we were all soaked right through our clothing; drenched and dripping we wandered through the heavy rains trying to find shelter and the train station: we’d seen enough – for now – of Old Delhi.

We took a train from Chandi Chowk, first lining up for a train token with more than a thousand other people – absolute madness! The men in several queues were pushing and shoving, and the women’s queue, which was substantially shorter, wasn’t too much more civil. Our host, being so polite, explained to one girl who obviously tried to cut in front of us that “we are in a queue.” I don’t think that girl, or most of the people in the room, understood what a queue actually was, or involved – if they did, then it was a very different understanding to ours…

With a token in our hands, and no doubt a few bruises from the pushing and shoving happening behind us, we climbed through the security screenings and headed to Kahn Market area for some respite: we needed coffee and cake. After all, it’s my birthday today!

In the Kahn Market area, we looked around at some shops before we found a wonderful café with nice cake and coffee – we dried off and sipped our cups of deliciousness, sharing a slice of gooey chocolate cake between the three of us. The café doubled as a book shop, and after refueling we spent some time looking through the shelves; our host and I both enjoying the children’s book section and sharing our love for all the beautiful illustrations.

We stepped into one of the gourmet grocery shops and picked up some chicken breasts for this evenings dinner, then headed for the station and back “home” – some 60 minutes or so away by train.
The train system here never fails to impress me, it’s very clean and convenient, clearly signed and easy to negotiate and navigate. It really reminds me of the Japanese trains, although the rude people always pushing and shoving and generally doing whatever is necessary to get themselves a seat is not reminiscent of Japan trains in the slightest…

For dinner our host prepared an incredible Black Dahl and some beautiful salads, Jacob cooked chapatti and we made a style of grilled chicken that we usually cook back home… a mix of Indian, Japanese and Australian for dinner; amazing food, amazing people, amazing memories…

More chai, more good conversation, and I go to bed tonight technically one year older, but still feeling like I did when I was sixteen… okay, okay, maybe eighteen… fine! fine!…I know I’m not eighteen any more, but I am absolutely not a day over twenty one!

September 22nd marks our 55th day in India – our final day in this country – tomorrow we leave for Nepal. Wow.

It’s still unofficially my birthday today, according to our host (and me – every day is my unofficial birthday!), so we celebrated as we have every morning, with spicy home made chai prepared by Jacob, and a big breakfast – with Vegemite, of course!
Our host taught me some Japanese words as we sat around the table, and I diligently put them into every sentence I could for the rest of the day. I’ll be fluent before we get to Japan now…

Our second host comes home today with her boyfriend (whose birthday was on the 14th, just a week ago), and we’re having a sort of joint birthday party this evening: Our hosts are – incredibly generously – preparing a Japanese feast for this evening. I feel very spoilt.

Jake and I had no plans today: we traveled to New Delhi station and went to Connaught’s Place again. We wandered around for a while and then met up with an Indian couple – the girl who, funnily enough, I met through my blog. It was a really nice afternoon; we met and chatted in Café Coffee Day for ages, and they helped us to buy some beautiful biscuits from Wengers, an institution it seems in Connaught’s Place. We gained a great insight into India through speaking with them, and were grateful to meet them both!

Traveling back on the train to our “Japanese home in India,” it was a bittersweet feeling: tonight was to be the final hurrah, and we’ve really loved every minute of our stay – we’ll miss our Japanese family.

Arriving home, our host and her boyfriend Toshi were already home, and everyone was busy preparing everything. We showered and got ready for our party, and chit chatted with everyone whilst Jacob whipped up some more pavlova mix.

Dinner was an absolute feast; Japanese food, delicious inari, salads and beautiful vegetable dishes, along with tandoori chicken especially for Toshi, who hadn’t tasted it yet. There were six of us in total and we sat around the table chatting and eating – it felt so much like home. Yoshi – the neighbour from upstairs – bought a bottle of wine, and it mixed well with everything else going on.

With dinner finished, we cleared the table and took the little meringues we’d baked out of the oven.

…and then the lights went out and our host bought out a birthday cake. Not just any cake, but one with a whopping big photograph of Jacob and I on it! After blowing out the candles and fighting back tears of amazement and gratitude, I asked how and where they got such a cake… “Only in India” was the reply.

This massive 1kg cake, complete with our smiling faces staring back, was cut into just 6 massive pieces and served in tiny bowls; cake overflowing from the rim. It was hilarious to see everyone trying to negotiate their slab of cake, and Jacob and I were both struggling to eat the quarter of cake we’d cut from one of the six big slabs. On top of the cake, we had chai, biscuits and meringues, which were all a bit of a hit and left us all feeling full and sleepy.

Toshi was flying out late this evening, so eventually it was time to say goodbye to him – we sent him back to Japan with a bag of meringues. The evening came to a quiet end, we chatted a bit more and lolled about on sugar highs before eventually climbing into bed.

I can’t believe that tomorrow we’re off to Nepal. Tomorrow we have to say goodbye to our hosts and – bittersweetly – to India, where we’ve spent the last two months traveling and exploring. It’s hard to understand it, and I don’t think it’s quite sunk in that after tomorrow, we’re not going to be in India any more. A few days ago I was desperate to leave, I didn’t want to come to Delhi and I simply wanted out. Now, I will leave feeling good and content, and I couldn’t have asked for more. I know I’ll come back to this country again one day, and I’ll be more prepared for what is in store here. I will never forget India, nor my experiences and feelings in this country, and I am both grateful for what I’ve experienced, and grateful to be moving on.

That’s a rap.

A Week in Delhi, India, Part 1: 16 – 20.09.2013

Arriving into Delhi four hours later than we were expecting, thanks to train delays, I’d endured all the staring I felt I possibly could have and was grateful when the train finally pulled up in New Delhi station.  Packs heavy on our backs, we queued up (an Indian style queue, of course, which naturally involved cutting-in, pushing, shoving and no real order) and paid to leave our backpacks with the very inefficient and disinterested cloak room man.

Free of our packs, and still with no idea of what the hell our plan was now that we were here, we really needed to sort ourselves out. Firstly, we needed to post off the bag of stuff we’d accumulated in India and no longer wanted to carry around nor throw/give away, secondly, we needed to phone the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, and find out if we could apply for our visa there or if we’d have to do it here in India, and finally, we needed to call our couch surfing host and see if it was still okay for us to come along to her home. I was starting to question whether or not we should even bother couch surfing; I was ready to leave India and we contemplated just booking ourselves a flight to Nepal for tomorrow. However, we decided we needed to give Delhi a chance and both of us wanted to meet our couch surfing host, so we persevered.

Fighting our way through the crowds of touters and people obviously lying to our faces, we managed to find a public phone and call the Myanmar Embassy in Nepal, which promised we could organize our visas there within three working days. Done. I was in no mood to deal with anything in India that I didn’t have to at that moment. With the visa concern now resolved, we headed to Connaught’s Place –  a very rich area of Delhi filled with fancy shops and cafes and restaurants and well-dressed locals. We took solace briefly in a cafe and made a basic plan for what our next move would be; how much longer would we stay in India, when would we go to Nepal, should we get another iced coffee? All those sorts of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

With a bulging bag weighing me down, we decided out next priority was to post this bag of crap home. The post office was very near by, but of course that didn’t mean that the act of posting some items home was going to be a simple, stress-free, pain-free, hassle-free or quick process. But then again, by now I have learned that the above mentioned processes do not often exist here.

After I had gone to three counters, found myself a man who would wrap and sew my parcel together with calico and a needle and thread, found a pen, gone back to another two counters to get the correct piece of paper, gone back to the parcel sewing man, paid him and waited patiently whilst he sewed my already well-wrapped parcel shut, gone to another counter to attempt to find a felt-tip marker, found a marker, written the address, struggled to meet the requirements for a sender address in India (seeing as I am a tourist!), written a fake sender address, waited a bit more, filled out a form, waited in line a bit more, got told to fill in another form, waited a bit more, and then finally got told I had to go and get my visa and passport photocopied before the parcel could be sent, I realised that this whole “send my goods home to Australia thing” would not be so simple.
Down a few lane ways, in a shack under a leaking, damaged roof, a tiny Indian guy gladly photocopied my passport and visa for a whopping 10 rupees. Strutting back towards the counter with my documents, I was thinking this might actually be the end of the procedure and after more than an hour, my parcel might actually get processed, but no. It was then some cutting, some gluing (similar to primary school when the teachers give you the shitty, cheap glue that doesn’t stick to anything, except for the fact that in India they don’t even offer you a paint brush); I was forced to use my hands as a glue brush in an attempt to stick my very important documents to the material coating of my parcel that was about to travel across the world.
Handing over a parcel wrapped in calico that looked more like a kindergarten paper-mache/patchwork art work, I paid for the ‘slow service’ and watched as the staff member typed some information into a computer and then hurled my belongings over his shoulder onto the ground. My Indian post office ordeal was over… but who knows if that parcel will ever make it back to Australia.

Parcel sent, it was already mid afternoon and time to head out to our host’s home; a 50 minute train ride away. We were worried how we’d handle packed peak hour trains with our backpacks, especially after experiencing Mumbai’s metro madness…And then, after purchasing a ticket in a normal sort of way, we hopped onto a train that was not only modern, but also fast, clean and air conditioned; it very much reminded me of trains in Japan. For a second, I wondered if we were still in India, but then I saw a pile of men – one picking his nose – sitting all over each other on the designated ladies seat whilst three elderly women stood, and I was bought right back to reality.

At the station near by our host’s home, we were greeted with hugs and smiles. Her driver took us to her home, where we met her house mate Michiko who squealed with delight when she saw us and gave us a great big hug. Instantly, we felt at home.
Whilst we relaxed and showered – feeling disgusting after two days of not showering and sweating in the Indian heat – Masami and Michiko prepared us an incredible feast of home-cooked Indian curries. They invited their Japanese neighbour from upstairs, and together, the five of us enjoyed the company of new friends and amazing food.

Within just a few hours, the feeling of intense need to get out of India and away to Nepal as soon as possible began to diminish. We still didn’t know when we’d be leaving India, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow.

The following few days were spent in a really relaxed sort of manner, choosing to come and go as we pleased and take things a bit easier. Basically, it felt like we were attempting to recover here.

On our first night with our hosts we discovered their love for Vegemite, so on our first full day in Delhi we made it our mission to find a jar of the stuff for them. This search led us to Kahn Market, a high-end fancy area of Delhi where many diplomats, expats and tourists come to look through nice shops, eat and drink at fancy cafes, scour through book shops and purchase high quality foods from the many international supermarkets and grocery stores. Milka and Ritter Sport chocolate, quality imported cheeses and meats, jams, sauces, beer, and of course, our beloved Vegemite, were just some of the items lining the shelves. It was an interesting place to spend a few hours.

We discovered the INA market area a few stations away from Kahn Market, when we were searching for Dilli Haat – a food and craft market we’d wanted to visit. Missing Dilli Haat completely, we spent time wandering through INA instead, finding much of the same products as we did in Kahn Market – including a LOT of Vegemite – as well as other bits and pieces and other interesting things.

On our second evening with our hosts we had an Okonomiyaki Japanese feast – so much incredible Japanese food that we were all able to cook and eat and share together around their table. We loved being there and felt so welcomed and at home; I could feel our exhaustion starting to ease through new friendship, comfort and good, healthy food. Jacob and I had visited the supermarket earlier in the day with the hope to find ingredients to bake ANZAC buscits, but we had found none of the main ingredients and had instead found sugar, nutella, eggs and pomegranate – enough to make some kick-ass mini-pavalovas; Jacob hand-beating the egg whites and sugar for almost an hour. This dessert was a real winner, and over the next week or so with our hosts and anyone else who joined us for dinner, we all consumed too many mini pavs to count (or think about without feeling guilty and fat).

Soon after arriving in Delhi and meeting our hosts, our plans changed from leaving immediately to staying for a week: it was going to be my birthday on the 21st and why leave before then when we could stay and celebrate!? One of our host’s boyfriend was flying over from Japan and they were going away together for a few days, but she’d be back and all of us could celebrate together. It suddenly made no sense to leave early – we were having such a wonderful time, relaxing and recovering and eating and making new friends. I was also suffering from a horrible cold, and a few days were spent in a very low-key manner whilst I tried to recover; there was no way I was going to Japan in any less than 100% top condition.

Days were filled in easily, we came and went, took the train here and there when and if we chose to, we spent a lot of time cooking and even more time eating, talking late into the night sometimes, sharing music, movies, stories, culture, language and lots of home-made chai, chapatti and food. We were able to do little things we’d been missing, like washing our clothing in an actual washing machine, showering with hot water and cooking our own food. We cooked dinner one evening, and Jacob attempted to bake bread which, we learned the hard way, does not cook well in a convection oven. One evening was spent choking on the smoke coming from a loaf of bread that had cooked from the inside out, and caught fire. Lucky we’d all smelt it quickly, before any damage was caused! He’d prepared two balls of dough, and after the first mishap, a quick google search explained the best method to bake bread in that specific type of oven. The second loaf was more of a success.

We visited very few areas of Delhi during our few days there; often choosing respite over sight-seeing. I drank a lot of bubble cup, Jacob cooked a lot of chapatti and chai, our host cooked incredible foods and the three of us – sometimes four of us when the upstairs neighbour came down for a meal and a chat – had a lot of fun.

We visited Dilli Haat again one day where the momos were average and the crafts the same as everywhere else except much more expensive, and ventured into New Delhi station very briefly to check out the touristic area of Paraganj – which we very quickly left, but not before more foolish touters tried to mess with us and tell us we were apparently going the wrong way and should absolutely follow them as they are experts in this area (and no doubt at scamming money from naïve foreigners too). There’s no fooling these two whities any more!

Amazing how in just a few days of being away from the intensity of pollution, heavy traffic, touters, scammers, people harassing us and hoards of people, entering back into the sprawl of craziness left us overwhelmed, frustrated and impatient.

We went shopping nearby to where we were staying one day; I bought a pair of jeans and a jumper in preparation for Japan. Our clothing has become embedded with so much dirt to the point it can not be removed, and I refuse to walk around Japan in brown trekking pants that were once a light beige colour, and a streaky light-blue faded t-shirt that was once a dark navy colour. Besides, how could I pass up brand new Levi jeans for $25 AUD, when back home they’d cost me more than $100.

We arrived in Delhi on a Monday, the start of the working week, and by Friday evening, the end of the working week, Jacob and I had become quite at home with our host. Our second host was still away with her boyfriend, due back on Sunday. Saturday is my birthdayi, and Sunday is my non-birthday birthday; our host will be back with her boyfriend and we’re having a party. The details are being kept top secret, but I am so excited to be here with our little Japanese family in Delhi. It’s funny how things have a way of turning out. We needed this – we needed to end our time in India on a high with good people, healthy food and respite from the intensity and overload that India so often offers. I certainly feel that’s how things are happening here, and it was just so much luck that our paths crossed.

Varanasi: Confronting India: 13 – 15.09.2013

Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.

We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.

We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s  sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.

Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.

Welcome to Varanasi.

I was so excited to be here.

We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.

The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand,  rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.

Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.

Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.

When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.

We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.

By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.

There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.

Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.

The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.

Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.

We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.

One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.

The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.

Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.

On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.

We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.

At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.

Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.

As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.

Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”

Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.

Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.