In the holy Ganges
“Varanass, Varanass” was the mantra of the bus conductor as he announced our imminent departure for Varanasi, India, holy city on the Ganges. It had a magical ring to it, enhanced by the patter of rain on the bus windows and roof, the water slowly drip-dripping from the leaky roof onto my left shoulder.
“Varanass, Varanass.” I hadn’t even asked how long the trip would take. I didn’t care. I was getting out of Gorakhpur, my first overnight stop in India, and it hadn’t impressed me. For all I know, it may be a nice city, but that wasn’t the impression that the street in front of the railway station had given me, for that’s all I saw of it.
Since it’s now later in the week, I have to reach into my heat-addled memory to Monday morning, when I left Kathmandu. The only thing I scribbled in my journal that day was “The best samosas I ever ate were in the Kathmandu Central Bus Station. Pity I only bought two.” The best food is in unlikely places. Our departure was at 7:30 am – I’d been awake since 4:15, a regular habit during this trip [I guess I’m still on Beijing time] – but by the time the bus cruised the streets looking for passengers so that it could leave full, it was 9 am. The journey to the border was hot and uncomfortable, I was cramped in my seat, and the humidity of the Nepal lowlands was getting to me.
The bus passed right through Lumbini – the birthplace of the Buddha, but I wasn’t even tempted to get off. The town looked like a hell-hole. Sue me. I’m saving myself for Sarnath, where he gave his first teaching in the Deer Park.
At long last, 5:30 pm, we arrived in Sunauli, which straddles the Nepal-India border. I gingerly lowered myself from the bus, my butt and right knee so sore that I had to hobble the few meters to a hotel with a dining room, where I had a cup of coffee, my first of the day. Unfortunately, it was the instant Nescafe-with-sugar-and-whitener shit. I took a bicycle rickshaw 4 km to the border crossing, giving the driver 120 rupees, a huge amount, but I had to get rid of my Nepali money since it can’t be exchanged or used anywhere else.
The border crossing into India was the most mellow of my life – both the Nepal and India authorities were friendly, in no hurry, full of helpful advice, and solicitous. Immediately beyond was the bus station where I caught the 6:30 pm to Gorakhpur, another 3 hours of travel, but I wasn’t about to spend the night in a border town – I hate them.
My first bus in India, from Sunauli to Gorakhpur
I do stupid things when I’m exhausted, such as paying for hotel rooms without inspecting them first. My journey so far had taken had taken two buses and 12 hours. We got to Gorakpur at 10:30 at night, and I plunked down 300 Indian rupees for a room. I was aghast when I saw it: filthy, with scarred walls, beds with gross, stain-encrusted sheets, and small windows that opened to the hallway and noisy train station street. I threw my backpack on the bed and left the room – I didn’t care that the lock wouldn’t even work. I walked down the street and found a nicer hotel, paying 700 rupees for a deluxe air-conditioned room with marble floor and clean sheets. I deserved it. I had a quick, unmemorable meal – it was now 11 pm – at an eatery that served me chicken thali. I then walked back to the first hotel, gathered my belongings, plonked my key on the front desk, and simply said “Goodbye.” Sometimes you just cut your losses and walk away. Enough said.
The following morning I woke refreshed, but in serious caffeine withdrawal. I still had my stash of real coffee; I walked to the front desk and asked for a pot of hot water. “Certainly, sir,” the gentleman said. A couple of minutes later, an employee came to my door, walked to the bathroom, and pointed to the water heater over the shower. “Hot water,” he said. “Yes, I know,” I replied, “but I meant to drink – coffee. Tea.” He pointed to the telephone by the bed. “Call Room Service, extension 33,” he said, and left. I called Room Service and repeated my request for hot water. “Certainly, sir,” Room Service replied. Shortly, another young man came to the door. “Yes, Sir?” he inquired. I was beginning to feel like I was in a Marx Brothers movie.
I repeated “Hot water, please,” this time holding up my package of coffee and small plastic canister for brewing it. He got it. “Pitcher of hot water.” -“Yes, thanks. Pitcher.”
I got my hot water – a whole metal pitcher of it – and tipped the young man. I lounged in a chair, my feet on the bed, and had about 30 minutes of quality time just chilling out and communing with my extra-strength Lavazza crema e gusto Italian coffee. Suddenly the world made sense again and everything was beautiful. Even in Gorakhpor. I didn’t even mind that I’d wasted time at the train station earlier that morning trying to buy a non-existent reserved seat to Varanasi. I would take the bus: that would provide symmetry and unhurried enjoyment, provided the seat was comfortable.
Waiting for a fare, rainy morning, Gorakhpur
Long story short, I’m now in Varanasi, where the temperature today reached 41 degrees C – that’s 105.8 Fahrenheit – with 65 % humidity. The ride here was leisurely and contemplative, rural India passing by the open bus window like some long, unwinding diorama of farms, villages, cows, goats, and rice fields. I’m at the Teerth Guest House, with a nice room with a fast-spinning ceiling fan that keeps me from dying of the Indian heat. The staff at the hotel are very friendly, but the people outside are too friendly – it’s impossible to walk more than two steps without someone attaching himself to you, trailing you, talking talking talking, selling something: silk, guide services, boat rides, rickshaw rides, postcards.
Palace on the Ganges, facing the ghats, Varanasi
Fast-forward: It’s now Thursday [July 29] my second morning in Varanasi – I’ve now learned to limit my sightseeing to 6:30 to 10:30 am, by which time the heat and humidity are stifling. I’ve learned to take siestas a couple of times a day, staring up at my jet-propeller ceiling fan – otherwise I’d get heat exhaustion.
This morning I bought some cotton clothes at a local shop in a narrow lane of the old quarter – a comfortable Indian pullover shirt and drawstring pants. I picked out a couple of Benares hand-woven silk scarves that I’ll go back and buy later, as gifts. Just for fun, I also picked up a cheap, gaudy necklace. I had breakfast at the German Bakery, in the funky upstairs room of an ancient house. The espresso was bad but the food was delicious: homemade bread, fried eggs, curd with fruit, and potatoes fried with what tasted like mango chutney. I think for lunch I’ll revisit the only air-conditioned restaurant I’ve found so far, the Aroma Vegetarian Restaurant.
Finally, on my thrid day in India, I ordered a masala dosa today. It was delicious, but not earth-shattering. Maybe I’m just waiting for the perfect dosa of my dreams.
At long last – my first real Indian food in India: the Maharaja Thali feast, Aroma Vegetarian Restaurant, Varanasi.
The aarty ceremony is held every evening at Dasswamedh Ghat in Varanasi. I saw this gracefully choreographed performance my first evening in the city.
Varanasi, the ancient town:
Elegant ancient building
Up the steps from the Ganges, another invitation to get lost; it happened to me all the time here.
Ancient lane near my guest house: architectural detail
Bicycle cow. During the frequent power cuts, especially at night, there’s a real danger of stepping on one of their, um, offerings.
Main drag near the waterfront: sellers, sellers everywhere