Wednesday, March 23, 2011

India part 24a: Varanasi

Leaving Lucknow (coincidentally, this is also the name of the made-for-TV sequel to Nicolas Cage boozeathon Leaving Las Vegas) was more stressful than it should've been, because I left the train ticket printout at the hotel and made the mistake of asking the railway staff to help me out instead of just dashing to an internet cafe to print another one - which I ended doing anyway. The culmination of the railwaymen's frenzied attempts to help me find out which train we were on and which carriage we were supposed to be in was being marched to the tourist office - despite the fact that we were in danger of missing the train - to sign the visitors' book and record in writing how helpful they'd been.

The journey was peaceful, though, and I made a sizeable dent in Gregory David Roberts' absolute rainforest of a novel, Shantaram, which is required reading for any India travelling cliche - we've encountered it at every turn - alongside Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It's a page-turner, even if there are 936 of the blighters, but physically painful when he starts banging on about the mysteries of fate or talks about a woman's eyes - "the colour of sunsets peppered with the fragrant yellow pollen that floats past the smiles of innocent children playing in apple orchards, the pupils daubed with the specks that spoke of the grief of the recently bereaved" (NB this is not an actual quote, but you get the picture).


Before my mum and dad arrived in Varanasi - parents in India, I know! - Sarah and I did a huge investigative traipse along the river to see the ghats and, inevitably, ended up at a few overlapping funerals. It's a 24-hour business, and walking through the backstreets of Godaulia, you're bound to have to stand aside to let stretchered corpses past. We saw a couple of bodies covered in shawls; our Australian friends Jacob and Laura, who we'd met in Dharamsala and bumped into along the ghats, said they'd seen a pair of feet sticking out of one of the pyres as it burnt. The feet were unceremoniously shoved back in with a stick by one of the attendants. "It was intense," said Jacob.

In many obvious ways, Varanasi's incredible, as you might expect from a place old people go to die. The similarities with Bournemouth end there - it's also a bit of a Lonely Planet theme park and easy to get a full house on the traveller bingo card: one Englishman getting annoyed by urchins trying to sell him candles, two Westerners chatting to a saddhu and hoping people will notice, three boatmen bidding, five Japanese tourists off in their own world, ten pairs of fishermen's trousers, 20 SLRs, HOUSE! But of course, there's lots of stuff you won't see anywhere else, and you will - pictures to appear in tomorrow's post.

Lights on the ghats

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