Hanging out in Varanasi, India

Hanging out in Varanasi, India

During the days we stayed in Varanasi, we discovered more places at which we enjoyed spending our time.
While visiting a city that is that busy and hot, it is good to find places where you feel comfortable, so you can take a break frequently.
We have seen many tourists who only allot a short time to visiting the city, and they try to see and do as much as they can every day.
They returned to the hotel looking frazzled and very overheated.

We had lots of time to walk, see and taste things, and also time to waste, linger, think and observe.
Because we no longer read guidebooks, it is helpful and necessary to move slowly, allowing the place, the people that we meet, and our instincts to tell us where the good and unusual things can be found.

There are several specialized markets in the central part of Varanasi.
There is the silk market, the flower market, a household goods market, the vegetable and fruit market, yogurt and cheese market, clothing market, etc.

In the narrow lanes of one of these markets, we found a man selling natural perfumes, made without alcohol.
He showed us an old guidebook in Japanese that recommended his shop.
Then he proceeded to smear us with samples of his perfume oils, until we chose two scents that we liked, and bought two small bottles.

We walked the little lanes of the Bazar, enjoying the many sights.
We saw men dyeing fabric in bright orange colors.
They hung the long orange fabrics in the alleys, and they looked like the robes of angels, swaying in the wind.

One of the lanes was filled with little shops making fresh paneer cheese.
They looked like tofu squares, which are also kept submerged in water.
One of the sellers gave us a taste and their paneer tasted light, gentle and truly wonderful.

Down one of the lanes we found “Baba Lassi,” which serves fresh fruit lassis.
The whole shop was just a small room, with benches all around the walls.
On the walls were writings left by previous customers, words of wisdom and quotes, like:
“Life is like an open book, and those who do not travel, read only one page.”
Or:
“It is better to be an idiot traveler who makes many errors, than an armchair wise man.”

“Baba Lassi” makes each lassi by hand, to order, for each customer.
You first select the fruits that you want.
I selected a pomegranate and orange Lassi.
Jules selected pineapple and banana.
The fruit was put into a large steel pot and fresh yogurt was added.
The man used a handmade pestle to crush the fruit and blend the yogurt.
At times, he used twirling motions, simulating a blender.
The Lassi was served in a small clay pot with added fresh curd yogurt, some more fresh fruit and sprinkles of crushed pistachios.
It was truly finger-licking delicious.

The main mosque in Varanasi was heavily guarded by armed police and metal detectors.
There were dozens of monkeys running around the tall minarets and jumping onto the roofs.

The Golden Temple has several entrance gates across the Bazar, but it was extremely crowded and you had to deposit your cell phone and camera in one of the broken wooden lockers before entering.
We saw the crowds on the closed circuit TV and decided not to wait in line to go in.
All they seemed to do inside was to pour milk or throw flowers onto the main altar and then move out through the impossibly busy line of people.

Jules told me that he can understand how so many people in India die every year in stampedes.
When you are constantly pushed and walking like a tinned sardine with people on all sides of you, there is just no room to jump out of harm’s way, if something does happen.

I agreed, but I had to remind him that accidents are not real and that he is the master of his destiny and NOT at the mercy of random occurrences.

Farther down one of the lanes, we discovered the Bona Cafe Restaurant, where we ate a surprisingly good veg Korean Bibimbap.
The place is owned by a Korean woman, and so they had a very good selection of Korean food and flavored teas.
The cafe has a very relaxed atmosphere and both chairs and couch seating, on which many backpackers rested, played scrabble, or surfed the slow internet, making plans for their trips.

In another lane, we spent some time in a very tiny shop, sitting in front of a guy with a computer who played for us classical Indian music that we could download to our iTunes, for only 100 rupees per album. We listened to many albums of soulful chanting music, with singers who seem to pierce the Heavens with their beautiful, powerful voices.

Outside the Bazar on Godauliya Lanka road by Tulsi Ghat, we came upon the Raw and Vegan Cafe.
I was SO delighted to find it.
I missed so much eating big salads and simple, not spiced and not oily raw food.

In one of the hotels where we’ve stayed, a charming man from the front desk was showing us to our room, and as he showed me the bathroom scale he humorously said:
“And here, Madam, we have a bathroom scale so you can see how much weight you gained on your vacation…”

Unfortunately, he was right.
Both Jules and I have gained weight during this trip, and the raw food organic cafe was just what we craved.
Our palace hotel price included breakfast and dinners, but at least for lunch we could have fresh juices and salads.

On one of our last days in Varanasi, we returned to the main cremation ghat to sit there in the shade and observe.
We made sure to shake off all unwanted “guides” and hospice “volunteers,” so we could just sit there and observe.

We sat on the shaded benches of a tea stall, from which we could get a good view of the cremations.
It was an exceptionally busy day and stretcher after stretcher of bodies covered in red and gold shrouds, were taken down the stairs into the Ganges.

We saw a young father holding the body of a tiny baby covered in a white shroud.
He took it for a last purifying dip, and then an attendant chose a large flat stone that was about the size of the baby.
Another man took a long rope and tied the baby to the stone.

When they were ready, a man with deformed legs who lives on one of the wooden boats, made his way into a small boat which he boarded using only his hands, lifting his body from his house boat into the rowing boat.

He rowed the boat to shore and the father carrying the stone with the tied baby, along with all his friends, boarded the boat.

The man with the deformed legs rowed the boat only about a hundred feet from the shore.
The father lifted the small stone, kissed his baby goodbye and dropped the stone into the river.
They then returned to the shore and the father went up the stairs to shave off his hair.

The man with the deformed legs returned to his house boat, which was nothing more than a hovel with a small roof under which he could sit.
He then threw a fishing line into the dirty water full of body parts, fishing for his dinner, waiting until the next body that cannot be cremated comes along.

Two other tourists came over to the Ghat, and sat by us.
We started a conversation.
They were from Austin, Texas and they told us they had been cycling.
They had brought their own bicycles from the States and they had cycled in Ladakh, which, like us, they absolutely loved.

When I expressed my admiration for their strength and willingness to cycle in this hot and humid season in India, which has almost no good roads and terrible sanitation, they admitted that they had arrived in Varanasi by train and that they were going to Nepal, where they plan to cycle the Annapurna.

At hearing this, my eyes and mouth opened in disbelief.
It is hard enough to hike the Annapurna, and I did not even know that it was possible to cycle the Annapurna.

Yes, they said, they have built new roads in the Annapurna recently, which makes it possible to cycle to the high base camp.
Jules and I were truly impressed.

On days when the river is very low, we saw people take boats over to the mud flats on the other side of the Ganges.
They went for a walk, a picnic, and some even did horseback riding on the low tide mud flats.

For me, it was hard to see the half-naked men panning for gold, right there at the dirty cremation Ghat.
Yet, somehow, the family members of the bodies being cremated, did not seem to mind that greedy men were looking for the gold rings that melted off the fingers, teeth and toes of their loved ones.

It was also very hard to see people bathe and wash their laundry, with bloated dead bodies floating around.
One day we saw the bloated body of a small boy half eaten by fish.
I even saw a woman praying after her bath, still in the water, offering her cupped hands to the gods, her eyes closed and her mouth singing a chant of devotion.

Some people slept on the dirty floors of the Ghat, while others dried their laundry right on the dirty steps.

My mind was spinning…. do they not see that drinking, washing their teeth, bathing or eating the fish from this polluted river is a bad idea?….
Statistics on the pollution levels of the Ganges in Varanasi show that the river has reached dangerously toxic levels.

How can they not care, stepping into the river to bathe, right at the same place where the half eaten body of a young boy is floating……Am I missing something in my understanding?….

Do their beliefs in the holiness of the river and its ability to purify them, really protect them from all the filth, or are those people just careless and uneducated about basic hygiene?…..

After all, many of them smoke heavily, chew betel nut and tobacco even though on the packages, there are real photos displaying the most horrendous forms of facial and oral cancers imaginable….

I have observed that some of the people care so little about life, and treat themselves and their children with the same uncaring harshness.
But what about the sadhus who are so devoted to the spiritual path….
How come they bathe in this polluted river?….

If you take a boat ride and observe Varanasi from the water, ignoring the many sad sides of life here, Varanasi looks very picturesque.

I closed my eyes, and in my imagination, I surrounded the river with a golden healing light.
I held this picture in my mind for as long as I could, focusing on the purity and joy, imagining that the river is clean and truly holy.

When I opened my eyes again, I could see the harmony here.
The old and very beautiful temples, the ornate stone carvings, the steps of the Ghats, the people bathing and the children swimming, jumping, laughing in joy.
I love the little dingy shops, the charming cafes, the delicious Lassi, the Hindu chanting music and the Muezzin call for prayer….

Monkeys swing from temples, colorful kites fly from the rooftops, pink wooden boats line the shore, piles of red and gold fabrics left over by the cremation ghats, fabric that used to shroud the bodies of the departed….

One day we negotiated a rickshaw ride to Saranath, the old town in which the Buddha gave his very first sermon.
The area has some old ruins, a massive stupa and many modern temples of different Buddhist sects.

Tomorrow we fly to Mumbai for one night.
From there we continue on to one of the highest achievements of the human spirit, a feat of creativity, artistry and craftsmanship, the amazing Ajanta and Ellora caves.

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