Saturday, March 18, 2006

Varanasi

Ok, so I'm getting a little behind on the writing. I'll try and catch up but break it into parts so it's not such a torture to read. I already said I liked the Golden temple but didn't mention the India/Pakistan border closing ceremony up there too. It is the only open border crossing between the two countries and every evening at sunset there is a very theatrical ceremony put on by both sides that people come to watch. They have the whole thing set up with special uniforms and stands set up for the spectators/participants. It's a huge hit with Indian tourists as they can run around flag waving and chanting through the whole thing. I don't know why but I've always found such displays of patriotism by people and countries amusing in that "watching an absurd little kid" kind of way. Needless to say I just sat back and shook my head and laughed as Indian and Pakistani border guards did a little chicken dance battle with each other across the gate. I hate getting so close to a border and not being able to cross it though. We were all itching to go.
From Amritsar it was down southeast of Delhi to a small village named Orchha, known for it's ruined palace and temple area on an island in the nearby river. Very picturesque, quite quiet compared to what we'd been through recently, we were there for a few days. From Orchha it was an overnight train to Varanasi.
What do I say about Varanasi? For those that don't know about it, let me just say that it is a huge tourist destination and everyone says you have to go. The site is thousands of years old and is one of the holiest places on earth with thousands of Hindu pilgrims coming everyday to the ghats to bathe in the river Ganges. It's also known as an auspicious place to die so people come to die and get cremated on the riverfront, though apparently it's not uncommon to see the odd dead body floating down the river too. The old town is narrow alleys, small shops, holy men, cows, cows and more cows. In short , it's supposed to be the place to see Hindu life and religion in the raw. On the down side, it's horribly dirty and is notorious for having the worst touts, scams and theives. For new tourists in India, it's one of the lower levels of hell and we intentionally routed our trip so that we would come toward the end of our time in India. Having spent nearly 4 months in India now, we figured we were ready for whatever it could throw at us. As it turned out we really didn't have to contend with much.
We arrived on the morning after the Varanasi bombings. One of the places hit was the train station we arrived at. Tons of guards and sections taped off and the building a mess but we had no idea what had happened. Everyone tried to tell us as once but it was pretty obvious from the phalanx of guards and a bunch of damaged area being roped off. As a result of the bombing, everything in Varanasi was super toned down. That first day the town was dead with most of the shops closed in protest. We only stayed in Varanasi two days (too short by most people's standards) but it was enough to get the idea. It wasn't going to be the full-on experience while we were there. The number of people at the riverfront was way down but we did watch the ceremonies and holy men. The cremation ghats were really interesting as we could see all the stages, from bringing the wrapped body to the river (different colour cloth for different ages and sexes), dunking it and putting it on the fire, poking unburnt legs into the center, to cleaning up the ashes and setting up the next wood pile. Then, to add to the misery of Varanasi, it poured on our last day. First time we've had heavy rain since early december and first time in India at all really. Wow! We really hadn't thought about it before but the garbage mess that is streets of India become a lethal mud slick in the rain. It's so gross, especially with people lying in the mud, major splash damage from vehicles or just walking around in sandals when the mud comes up to your ankles. I'm definately not sticking around for the monsoons......
Ammon

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