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The darker side of India’s spirtual heartland

I found myself on a train bound for Muhgal Serat, wondering to myself, how did I get here? Coming to Varanasi was never part of the plan. I had no reason for not planning on coming to Varanasi. I pretty much had no plan what-so-ever for my 9 week journey through India. I had ideas, but no plan. I find it’s the best way to travel. However, there I was in the cool blue surroundings of a second class carriage, in an Indian train, bound for Muhgal Serat. Upon arrival I already could feel the tumultuous times awaiting me. Unfortunately I wasn’t even in Varinasi; I was in Muhgal Serat, 15 kilometers away, and in need of transportation. So I stepped out of the train station, and into the chaos of the car park out front off the station. Most stations are laid out the same when it comes to the car park out front, you have your large taxis in one part, rickshaws in another, vikrhams (if they are around), in another part, and cycle-rickshaws jostling for what ever space they can find. I found where the vikrhams were parked and inquired how much to Varinasi.

“Fifty Rupees,” the driver told me, smiling to himself, knowing he was overcharging me by five times.

“Fifty Rupees!” I exclaimed. “But I just heard you charge them ten rupee each,” looking at the couple in the vikrham, trying to get some sympathy out of them. I got nothing. Now I was a little prepared for this, so I simply walked away from him, and onto the next driver in the line of vikrhams waiting.

“Varinasi?” He enquired.

“Yes, how much?” I asked

“Sixty Rupees.” I didn’t even bother haggling with the driver; I just walked on to the next one that was waiting.

First a little bit about my appearance, being almost 2 meters tall, and Scandinavian blonde, I stood out like a 2 meter blonde man in India, and the rest of the drivers were beginning to see me make my way down the line of vikrhams. Perfect I thought to myself, they can see that I am not happy with the prices I was being given. I had just come on a long train journey and wasn’t really in the mood for this. However they were in control, it was dark, I wanted out of there, and they had the means to take me. Now you may be wondering how much I was arguing about. The exchange rate is roughly 50 rupee equals one euro, so these were not expensive rates they were offering me. However for me it comes down to two things. First, the principal of the matter, I am being overcharged, and they think they can get away with it. Second, when in a foreign country such as India one must think in Rupees, or face the consequences of being overcharged for everything.

I eventually came to a driver who offered to take me for twenty, but my bag cost ten extra. I agreed to his price, feeling a little defeated, jumped onto the already full vikrham, while they secured my pack to the roof of the heavily loaded vehicle. Now a vikrham is, in case you haven’t seen one, basically a stretch three wheeler. The driver and his money man sit up front, while six to eight of us are squeezed in back facing each other. Or to be more specific on this journey, and most of the journeys in India, I am being stared at by 7 passengers who are very interested in my non-Indian looks.

After some waiting, we are full and secured, so the driver put the vikrham in gear and we putter off leaving a nice cloud of blue diesel-kerosene smoke in our wake. The journey takes about thirty minutes on bumpy dirt roads through small villages, or suburbs of Varinasi. Eventually we come to the bridge, and I get my first glimpse of Varinasi. Varinasi is situated totally on one side of the river, the west side, this is because of its importance in the Hindu religion. Every morning Hindu’s gather on the banks to perform their daily ‘pujas’ or prayers to the rising of the sun. So it’s very important for the opposite banks to not have buildings obstructing the view of the sun rising, hence no buildings. We eventually come to the main train station in Varinasi, and I am informed that this is my stop. I pay the money man, and mention to him that it’s not nice to overcharge tourists. But my journey is not over yet, I still need to get to my hotel, its night, and Varinasi is a huge maze. So I crossed the street and walked to the train station for some guidance. I soon found myself in a rickshaw headed for the Sun Rise Hotel, “right on the river,” which in India can mean 200 meters, with no view what-so-ever of the Ganges. I check in and dropped my belongings and walked around feeling death in the air.

Varinasi is one of the ‘most holy cities in India,’ which is the way almost all the places I had been to are described in the guide book – this place is different. It actually holds some truth. In Hinduism it is believed that if one dies here, and is cremated and the ashes spread on the Ganges, that person receives instant liberation from the cycle of birth and death, which, to a Hindu, is a good thing.

After my train, vikrham, and rickshaw journey I was beginning to feel some hunger. I found a restaurant, empty, but had dinner there and talked with the owner, who was from Bodhgaya where I had just come from. He told me an interesting story of an Austrian man who had come to Varanasi. Apparently he had gone mad after smoking a few times with a Sadhu, and Indian Holy man. He threw all his money and passport away, tore off all his clothes, and ran into the streets – must have really been some good stuff. The police found him a few days later, still crazy, and took him to the hospital. He managed to escape and dance naked through the streets again, only to be found, again. The police eventually contacted the Austrian embassy, and his parents came to India to get their son. Suffice to say, they were grateful to the police man who found their son and contacted the embassy. They even offered the man ‘golden coins,’ but he refused to take them on the account that it was his duty as a person to ‘look after a fellow man in need.’ Whether or not the story was true, for me it was a good one. I paid my tab, and went back to the hotel for some needed sleep. I had a boat trip at dawn.

Dawn came much earlier than I wanted, but five thirty in the morning usually does. I got dressed and headed to the lobby to meet the Canadians I was joining for the two hours boat trip. We were led out of the hotel by our boatman; he took us through a maze of streets one can only learn from years of walking them, and to the docks. We got in the six person row boat, and set off. Even if we were floating on the dirtiest and filthiest river I had ever seen it was still amazing. At first light the town gathers on the ghats that line the entire length of Varanasi to perform pujas. It’s an amazing spectacle to witness. Faith makes people swim in shit, and not only swim in it, but drink it as well. At this point in the Ganges 2506 kilometer journey it is no longer the beautiful and clean river it was in Rishikesh where I had previously just come from. The Ganges here is dead (or appeared to be, as I later saw fish being sold), it contains no life except for the devout bathing. The Ganges really reflects Varinasi – devoid of life, but filled with nothing but supreme holiness. Varanasi is a city of death; people come here to die, simply put. This was very obvious in this boat trip. With the sun rising over the trees and hills to our right, on our left we saw people bathing, chanting, washing, and cremations, some on the banks themselves, and others in the larger burning ghats spewing the smoke of the dead – a normal day in Varanasi. It’s also not uncommon to see an actual corpse float down the river, however this morning the Ganges was corpse free. During the boat trip, I even saw some tourists getting into the action of the pujas in the river; I wasn’t willing though for obvious reasons. The boat trip lasted a very powerful, but short forty-five minutes. We were let off where we began. The Canadians were going to have some breakfast and asked if I wanted to join, so we headed into the maze of Varanasi in search of some food. We had breakfast on the roof top jungle, watching the sun rise, and monkeys playing. With the sun rising, so was the temperature, we finished breakfast and parted company. I had some getting lost to do in the labyrinth of old town.
As magical as Varanasi is to the Hindu’s and many tourists alike, there is a darker side to the town, and I was unfortunate enough to experience it. I made my way around old town that morning, actually being quite lost in the labyrinth. I eventually found myself on the ghats, just up from the Ram Ghat, one of the main ones in town. I felt like a bit of a tourist, so I decided to indulge in my photographic addiction. Two pictures later, and I was approached by a skinny dirty man – the filth of Varanasi. As a guest to any foreign country I try to be nothing but respectful to the customs and the culture of the people, but I found myself in a situation questioning my ways. I had taken a picture of the massive stacks of wood next to the main burning ghat, this was my mistake, or so I was told.

“You have done something very bad.” The man told me coldly. “Last month two Japanese tourists go in jail for taking pictures.”

 Not realizing I had done something wrong, I did as I always do when I don’t want to speak to someone; I walk away, or in this case, ran up the steep stairs of the neighboring ghat – the man followed. He started getting more and more aggressive, and grabbed my scarf I had tied around my waist. I began to feel a bit nervous. We were alone, on the top of the stairs, a labyrinth surrounded me, and he was saying that he would make trouble for me by telling the family of the person being cremated, what I had done. The last thing I wanted was trouble in India. I said to him that we should go to the police, and he immediately agreed. I decided that it might not be wise after all, maybe I did do something wrong. I followed the man. He told me that I must give money to the Hospice in order to make everything right. He led me through the maze towards the burning ghat. I didn’t know what to do, but knew that I needed to break this 500 rupee note I had. I stopped at a shop along the way and bought some cookies, trying to call to the attention of the shop owner to the guy leading me. He didn’t respond, but I had successfully broken my note into much smaller and more donate-able bills. I continued to follow him through the sparsely populated meandering alleys of old town, not knowing my fate. After a few more twists and turns, he got agitated and grabbed my arm. That was it, I exploded!
“I am a guest to your country and you’re treating me this way! As a Hindu you are required to treat me with respect as a guest. You believe in Gandhi and his teachings of non-violence?” Conveniently, the previous night, the owner of the restaurant told me something else. He told me that as a Hindu, he is required to treat me as a guest to his country. The Gandhi stuff I thought up myself, but it seemed to work. 

“Yes.” He muttered a bit confused, but letting go of my arm.

“So why are you grabbing me then?! I believe you owe me an apology!” The whole time my hand resting on the knife in my pocket.

“I am sorry…” he mumbled, and we continued on. I felt victorious! Two more turns and we arrived at the Hospice. He led me up to an old woman who was sitting in the stairway of the hospice.

“This is the leper ward, and this woman looks after them, you must donate money to her, 400 or 500 rupees for the ‘crime’ you committed.” I grabbed one of my freshly broken ten rupee notes, concealed its amount in my hand,  and gave it to the old woman.

“Look, I am not a rich man,” I said, bending down to give her the money, “but take this donation as my apology,” I stood up and began to leave.

“What! You give only five or ten rupees!?” The filthy man shouted at me.

I continued to walk away, quickly, to the nearest hotel. I walked in the front door, up the three flights of stairs to the roof top restaurant, and immediately inquired about train tickets out. After some consideration, I decided first to cool down, so I ordered a chai, and smoked a cigarette. I felt angry, confused, scared, and very hateful of this ‘town on a sewer.’ I returned to my hotel, gathered my belongings, smoked a quick chillum, and closed my eyes for ten minutes.

I raised feeling more relaxed, but still wanting to get out. So I check out of the hotel and got a rickshaw to the train station. When I got to the station, I had to go into the tourist office, and book my ticket. I realized, that in my haste to leave, I probably wouldn’t get a ticket out of here today. I didn’t, but did succeed in getting one for the next morning. On my way out I was mobbed by rickshaw drivers wanting to take me into town. I settled on a chilled Nepal guy who offered to take me where I wanted to go – the Yogi Lodge.”

We arrived and I went in to have a look. I quickly realized that this wasn’t the hotel I wanted. Sure it was called the Yogi Lodge, but it wasn’t the Yogi Lodge I asked for. So I left, and began to walk off, evermore frustrated. The Nepali guy chased me.

“Hey! What’s wrong with this place?” He shouted.

“It’s not the place I asked you to take me to.” I replied, feeling defeated for the day.

“Where you want to go then?” He asked.

“You know the Puja Guest House?”

“Sure, give me your pack and I lead you there.” I followed behind him as he led me to the Puja Guesthouse, really not wanting to deal with any more bullshit. Puja Guesthouse was the place the guys from Bohdgaya recommended, and where I should have gone to begin with. After 15 minutes, or so on foot, through the labyrinth, we arrived at the deeply buried Puja Guesthouse. I inquired about a room and was soon shown up to my quarters. I grabbed my notebook, and headed to the rooftop terrace. What an amazing view! I was right in the middle of the old town. I could clearly see the muddy Ganges winding its way past the city. To my left was the bridge I has crossed the previous day in the vikrham. I could even see smoke from the burning ghat that had caused me so much grief. It was all lined up in front of me. I stood on the roof, feeling like a king in his castle. I ordered a chai, sat down, opened my notebook, and wrote my thoughts about the day.

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