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Sunday, Oct 5, 2008. Varanasi
As raw as Varanasi seems, there’s a humor to it. It takes a while to find, but if you do, you might just fall in love with this city.
This is something a fellow backpacker, a U.K. gent, told me on my first nightmare day in Varanasi after the initial culture shock had settled into me and I was contemplating getting the next flight back to Delhi. I was a new solo traveler in India. This is technically my first Indian city traveling alone and up until this point, I was having both, a rough and eye-opening go!
I was glad I remembered what that backpacker said, because I remember it to this day and this is the best way I can explain Varanasi to others. Afterall, what can you possibly find funny about a polluted city, dirty and raggedy streets occupied by lazy cows, dodging touts and sketchy folk, who spit betel nut juice out in front of you?
You do find the humor in Varanasi, as you do with a lot of India. And it invites you just laugh with this city…
So why not take a tour with a fake guide in Varanasi?
I took a tour with a fake guide in Varanasi !
NOT having a patience for touristy things, I walk the streets in search of Varanasi sweets and snacks and come upon Uday Singh, a “palmist” who tries to read my palm… badly. Then he tries to tell me he’s a tour guide.
We go to his “friend’s” store on the main road and from the surprised looks I get from his friends, I know he’s trying to play a fiddle with a banjo! It’s likely he’s not either. Yup, live scam going down here and I’m his first fish.
But I like taking tours occasionally and Uday, I assess, is a harmless ‘storytelling’ (aka ‘liar’) sort, whom I quickly realize can fill my day with a few theatrics and possibly unique experiences. I decide to let Uday work for his 100 Rs ($2) and tell Uday that while he doesn’t have to be accurate, he does have to be entertaining.
With that, he proceeds to show me the “unofficial” sights of Varanasi.
My Humorous Underbelly Tour of Varanasi
First, Uday took me on a tour of his local house temples . Many of these houses were small rooms with open doors and window. Despite the openness, some were still quite dark. Family altars ranged from minimal to ornate. Hindu followers put much into their daily yogic devotion.
But then we started to get too deep into the alleyway homes and less where tourists roam, I started to feel reluctant. Varanasi’s ghat neighborhoods can be a maze of alleys of shops, homes, yoga ashrams. I didn’t like that I could get lost and if I got too far off the main drag, I’d easily be vulnerable to possible danger. Uday could lure me into trouble, perhaps a scam, or into a house, where I could be raped. I wasn’t about to take chances.
I told him Uday wanted to leave and go the bigger temples. Uday acquiesced and so we also walked to larger community temples (photo below). Uday’s explanations of temple rituals and regaling stories in truth, were entertaining.
1. Going barefoot in Hindu temples
When entering temples, … YOU HAVE TO TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF!
Sorry, but it’s an unavoidable rule. With all the cow poo and pissing that goes on in the streets, removing footwear is the last thing I wanted to do. So, I walked with cupped feet.
Devotees bring water from the Holy Ganges River in tiny cup bowls for worship, using it to anoint statues of their gods. They offer anything from flower garlands, thrown petals and sweets. Thousands make pilgrimages throughout the day, trekking in and out of temples with Varanasi “street feet”. (Street feet is my word for it. Your feet dipped in Ganga water and street dirt is enough to make a slightly gross watery mud, which you will put back into your sock or shoes)
2. Decoding the Indian Temple Ritual
Leading me through a Shiva temple, Uday begins…
After you enter the temple…
1) “You ring bell as if ringing the doorbell of a house you wish to enter. Here, you are calling on God’s house”
( knock-knock, ring bell) “Hello God- are you home?”
2) “Stand in front of altar and make your offering of flowers-food-money”
“God- I bring you a housewarming gift “
3) “Touch statue & then lightly touch between your brows and then to heart. This is prayer for the spirit of god to enter you.”
‘God, you are in my heart & spirit”
4) “Make your prayer and tell God what you want”
5) Take Prasad from the priest. (Prasad is like an exchange “gift” in the form of a red tikka or dot between the eyebrows, a sweet or a rope tie)
God says “Thank you, please come again”
Uday is pretty damned good, right?
But then, Uday Singh touched a dripping Ganga altar with his hands and roughly smears the Ganga water all over my face. (ewww… Ganga water is technically very filthy…) Then he took prasad from bowl and force fed it into my pursed germaphobe lips.
3. Changing the agreed tour price
Our last stop was the popular Monkey Temple, where there were ongoing rituals and devotees, waiting for worship service to begin.
The day was coming to a quick close and I could tell by Uday’s anxiousness, that he was starting to wonder how he could make more money off of me. His jovial nature turned dark and irritable when I didn’t agree to being taken anywhere else. I could feel his growing desperation. Then he asked me to pay 200 rupees vs. our agreed 100 rupees. I told him I’d pay what we agreed upon and he wasn’t happy. It wasn’t going well.
It was time for me to make a quick exit before his temper rose. I put the 100 rupees in his hand and quickly walked away. So I’m cheap… what can I say- I’m currently unemployed and traveling India on my savings.
4. Haggling for a rickshaw and getting screwed
Okay, this had nothing to do with the tour, but the basic fact I did not know where I was. The shitty thing about being a traveler is that you never know the actual lay of the land. You don’t know how far or close things are from where you’re at. It makes you feel helpless and vulnerable.
From the temple, I decided to take a rickshaw back to my guesthouse. I haggled with the driver. He wanted me to pay 80 rupees, but I knew locals were only paying 40 rupees (I actually asked Uday how much it cost to get back before I left him). So I was stubborn with 40 rupees. Fine, the rickshaw driver sulkily agreed.
Five minutes he dropped me off in nowhere remotely recognizable. I felt stranded. He refused to go further and just left. I was pissed.
So I went around asking locals for directions back to the wat neighborhood I was at. I decide to make the best of being lost and do some leisurely exploring. Then, when it started to get dark, I followed several pointing fingers back to the main ghat, which would put me back in the perspective of knowing where my guesthouse was at.
On a lighter note…
The Water Height of a Rising Ganges
An interesting fact in Varanasi is that the water height changes. On the ghats, you see temples and guesthouses/hotels, etc… raised high and with steps leading up to it answering the call of a really challenging Step-Aerobics class. This is because during monsoon season the water levels can get pretty high and half of the original ghats in Varanasi are submerged under water.
Tonight I am off to attend the evening Aarti at the main ghat with Lee. The performance starts at 7P ; I hear it’s beautiful and not to be missed. I shall take dinner and then get dressed and go. Have to run now.