The writers’ conference which I had enjoyed immensely had come to an end. The only bit I had hated was the hotel, The Ramada, it was my second stay in a Ramada hotel, and I can assure you, it will be my last. However, in terms of the city, we had been shown the bits that everyone comes to Varanasi for, the evening aarti, the morning boat ride and Sarnath as well as being taken on a walking tour of the old town, sampled the street food, been to an akhara (traditional wrestling place) on Tulsi Ghat and seen some pretty impressive weaving. I could have left it there, afterall, that was the usual stuff and more, but my job is to research, and I had heard that there was more to discover.
Now, picture the scene if you will. I had been down with food poisoning for 3 days (as had many of the writers on the conference, spot the common denominator), it was the first time in my 20 years that I had had to resort to Imodium, yet had naturally battled on stoically. But by the last day I was feeling rough and miserable and really just wanted to go home. I still had three more days to go. The writing is a hobby, the conference had been fun, but it was time to move onto the day job, I had to complete my research of the city. It was hot, dirty, dusty, I was ill, the most ill I have been in 20 years. I was not in the best frame of mind.
Thankfully I have contacts, fortunately there was a wonderful new hotel in town, happily I had been invited to try it out and not only that, once they heard of my predicament, they even sent someone to The Ramada to rescue me. Things were looking up. One look at me and it was instantly decided to take me to the hotel via the doctors, who sent me to the chemists and from there to the hospital. It was that bad. There I was to be injected with goodness knows what. I didn’t care. By this stage, I needed to regain control of my bodily functions. Too much information?
Now those of you who know India, know the propensity of the local, less well educated and travelled population to stare at a foreigner. It is never threatening, more an idle curiosity and something I usually handle with grace. However, this was not a usual situation. Picture if you will, a foreigner in a hospital, being injected in areas best left to the imagination. The word spread on the street not only that there was a foreigner to be stared at, but that she had her not insubstantial arse on display. The nurse was unable to take preventative action, my saviour from the hotel had respectfully stayed outside. The inevitable crowd formed. My sense of humour, already flagging, took a further tumble.
It was quite some time before I was allowed to depart the hospital, sadly not Varanasi to the welcome comforts of the Brijrama Palace, the newest and most luxurious addition to lodgings in this ancient city. Brijrama was (and still is) on the ghats and is usually reached by boat, however there had been a stampede the day before, 24 people had been tragically killed and therefore the boats were banned from operating, follow that logic if you will. This meant that I had to walk through the market to get to the ghats. We were met by another escort from the hotel who had been sent to meet us armed with cold drinks and towels, however with the best will in the world, not much can anticipate that a cow will choose the exact moment you have to squeeze past her rear end, to relieve herself. Some people swear by the health benefits of cow urine, I am not one of them.
I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life to this country, I adore it, I am renowned for my incessant optimism for the same, to coin an Indianism, yet now I was wishing I was somewhere, anywhere, any other place on the planet, than Varanasi. I had joked about buying wood for my own funeral pyre, now I started looking for the matches. At this point we entered the ghats, the hotel was in sight, my relief was palpable, however, such was my karma on this particular day, that just as we were picking our way along, someone opened a sewage pipe with either impeccable or appalling timing, take your pick. I was wearing white trousers, within seconds, they were stuck to my legs as I was coated in viscous, globular shit, literally. This was too much. My renowned sense of humour took its final curtain call.
In summary, for the first time in three days, I had just about managed to regain control of my bodily functions. This has been achieved by having had my not too minimalistic bottom on display for all to see. I had been weed on by a holy cow and now I was coated in sewage. Even my ability to view India through diamond encrusted, rose tinted spectacles failed. I sent a message to my boss,” Get me out of here, and I don’t mean Varanasi, I mean India.” Yes, it was that bad.
The hotel staff were mortified, I was rushed into the building. Check in formalities were waived, a chilled-to-perfection fresh lime soda was delivered to my room, my sewage-soaked clothes whisked off for washing and the staff discretely left. I had a hot shower and crawled into a clean and comfortable bed. As a break from tradition, I even put the A/C on.
I woke three hours later with no blaring horns, people staring or dangerous rumblings from any part of my anatomy, just the strains of some Holy Raga (bhajals), the faint hum of the a/c and instantly connected wifi. Whilst I hadn’t quite started to wonder if I could have a refund on my log pile, I at least cast my matches aside. However, I wasn’t out of danger just yet. I still had work to do, and marginally recovered, it was time to face the day job.
The next 24 hours were a classic example of how, if you chose the wrong people to assist you in India, you will leave, never ever wanting to return. The local office sent a guide who was apathetic, irritating and uninformed, together with dreadfully maintained car with a scruffy driver. I sat and chatted with them about what else I could do. They mentioned the aarti, boat ride and Sarnath, fullstop. I asked about walking tours and forts and weaving and boat rides and streetfood and was met with nothing but blank stares or negativity. It was apparent that I knew more than they did. If this was how they showcased their city, I had been right, no one should bother visiting. They knew nothing and cared even less. They had no intentions of helping me to discover beyond the norm. They had no interest in their own city.
In my attempt to escape their clutches, I took matters into my own hands and informed them that I was taking a boat ride I had heard about, sailing from a beach upstream. It was possible to camp out overnight here, if so inclined, and then sail all the way down into Varanasi itself a journey that could be timed so that you arrived in time for the evening arti. What could be more romantic? Well, let me tell you, staring at the oarsmen’s underpants hanging on the tiller for a couple of hours as we ‘sailed’ along, kind of took the edge off the sense of romance. However, in all fairness, the boats were simple but relatively comfortable and this wasn’t meant to be a luxury experience being more aimed at a younger crowd, or the more adventurous. The crew were affable and all in all it would have been quite pleasant, however… It was still too early in the season, it was a boiling hot day and there was no wind. Therefore, instead of sailing, the crew were rowing me in the blazing heat, just so I could have the experience of arriving into Varanasi by boat. I felt morally uncomfortable. I offered them my ice-cold drinks and forced them to accept. However, after an hour, and on discovering the journey would take another three, humanity took over. I asked the oarsmen to pull over, called a driver to collect me and tipped them handsomely before bidding them farewell.
In spite of my experience, I could appreciate that this could be a lovely way to spend half or a full day and one I would be tempted to recommend for the right type of client (not luxury) in the right season. I have also been assured that the crew will remove their underpants from the tiller in future. That would make for more family friendly photo opportunities.
I once again took refuge in the cool, calm confines of Brijrama, where I was served with afternoon tea and once again, felt my spirit return. Somehow, call it stubbornness if you will, but I knew that this couldn’t be the Varanasi that people flocked to see. Such was my indignation and such is my tenacity to refuse to be defeated, that I then became more determined to prove that, if only I could find the right people, even this (ironically) godforsaken destination as I now thought of it, could surely be transformed.
I grabbed my little black book, made a couple of calls and within an hour of my return, I had arranged a meeting with a local experience provider, who assured me that despite only having 40 hours left, though he couldn’t guarantee that I would fall in love with the place, that he could at least have me leaving wanting to send some clients there. It was a challenge, but one that he claimed he was up to and, as always, I am happy to be proved wrong. I had two days left and I put myself into his hands.
The next morning, we ventured into the Old Old town, yes, older than the old town itself, and it was this part that truly charmed me. It was actually quaint, which is something one rarely gets to say about India. With streets so narrow that not even motorbikes could pass, though somehow cows managed to squeeze through. Beautiful old doors were set into crumbling walls, chai walas so old they looked as if they had been there since time immemorial, shops selling sacks of tea and tobacco and ayurvedic herbs, were tucked into impossibly small spaces. Every shop or stall one looked at, every artisan one met, transported one back in time, into a charming day dream, the India I seek to find, and it was not 15 minutes from where I had been recently covered in the effluence of the city.
And the hidden gem? A jeweller, the last of his kind, making pieces so exquisite, they were indeed priceless, well for anyone with a budget less than that required for a moderate sized house. Not only did I breathe for the first time in 48 hours, I felt the stirrings of a smile.
We visited a pickle village close to Sarnath renowned for, well yes, its pickles and delicious they were too. Having been too ill to visit Sarnath earlier in the week we went back there too and stayed for sunset, a brilliant time for photography. I was drawn by the resonance of a large bell and followed its tones to the Mulagandhakuti Vihara or Sri Lankan Buddhist temple, where hundreds of Sri Lankan pilgrims were gathered for their evening ceremony, something most people don’t tell you about. We stayed and watched, enjoyed the peace and devotion, uncomplicated, unhurried, no noise or ceremony, just a gathering of like-minded souls.
We went out to Ramnagar Fort, not the best fort I’ve visited but the residence of the ‘king’ non-the-less and something different to do, and they do have a strangely large exhibition of guns. A boat ride can also be arranged back from here, a much quicker journey than going by road and it can also be timed to visit the evening aarti on the river. However, the highlight for me, close to Ramnagar Fort was the Durga Temple with some of the most unique and exquisite carvings I have seen. It was officially closed but we persuaded the gatekeeper to turn a blind eye and bobbed in for a quick peek, I can recommend working out the timings in advance so that you can take a proper look. We also bobbed into the Chunar Fort, stopped to watch the raptors circling overhead and then went to the nearby cemetery, full of graves of the British with some beautiful stonework and interesting epitaphs.
Time was running out but on the way to the airport the following morning, we ventured into the countryside and came across a cow rescue centre. It had been started in 1924 by a Rajasthani saint called Jhawardutt Dharma and the milk produced by these hitherto abandoned bovines is donated to a nearby charity. Not only that but the cow dung generated is sent across the road to a women’s initiative where they make masala and pappads, which was our next stop. Here I learnt that each lady earns INR25 per kg of pappads made. Now they are light right? So I asked how many per kg, the answer, 260 which is, to be fair, quite a lot though it transpires they each make 3kgs per day. What’s the dung used for? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you. They convert it into bio gas which they use to cook the pappads. I won’t lower the tone of an already gutter level blog post to talk about food being cooked over the gas ultimately emanating from the back end of a cow.
Varanasi is the very best, and the very worst of India. It is India in all its resplendent, illogical, technicoloured magic and mayhem. It is an assault on the senses. Get the wrong guide and it can break your trip, however, find the right guide and it can make your trip. Kunal, from Experience Varanasi is just that person. He is the second banker turned tourism professional I have met, spurred on by a desire to showcase his city fully, properly, nuances and all. I recently sent a group there for 2 days/1night as part of a three-week itinerary and 50% of the group proclaimed Varanasi as the highlight of the tour. Not bad for a destination that had almost made me, the eternal India optimist, want to quit the country!
Where not to stay: The Ramada. Sorry, I’m not usually brutal but I’ve stayed in two Ramada hotels now and never had such bad food or apathetic service.
Where to stay: The Brijrama Palace http://www.brijrama.com/ great location, staff, food and accommodation if you have the budget. They rescued me and I will be eternally grateful. One usually arrives by boat which is a charming experience and it is just a 2-minute walk from the main evening aarti.
Who to contact for guiding services? Kunal at Experience Varanasi:
For a slightly less tongue in cheek post on Varanasi, as I did witness the spiritual side of the city earlier in the week: https://memsahibinindia.com/2016/10/snapshots-varanasi/
If you are planning a trip to India then you might find this useful: https://memsahibinindia.com/2017/05/top-tips-for-traveling-to-india/