You know how when you think of India, only a part of you wants to go there? Well, imagine all the worst ideas you have about India. Think of all the reasons that, when you think of me here, you breath a sigh of relief and think "better her than me!". Okay, now times it by five.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Varanasi.
Ironically, Varanasi (or Benares, as it used to be called) is the holiest city in Hinduism. The city of Shiva with dozens of holy ghats descending into the magical, mystical, mythical River Ganga. Unfortunately, that river is also the dumping ground for 30 or more sewers, so basically it has a content of 1.5 million faecal bacteria for every 100ml of water. Oh, and did I mention the smell?
We all know that cows are holy creatures in India, and no where is that more apparent than in Varanasi where in the middle of a busy intersection with traffic whizzing in all directions a single mournful cow stands unmolested, calmly defecating as traffic swerves around it. Heidi has been clipped by rickshaws twice in two days now. But do the cows get hit? No, oh no. Not the cows. They don't even get honked at.
Getting to our hotel is like walking into a Tim Burton set, except there is no way out. This city is supposedly the oldest living city on earth, so it is not surprising that the roads closest to the river are narrow, winding, and utterly filthy. Vehicles are not allowed in this part of the city, and even if they were how they would fit down these alleys I don't know. But our little Hotel boasts riverside views, so we wander the darkened, pooh lined alleys to get here and back everyday. Since there are no maps which show all the winding alleys of old Varanasi we are left to our own navigational devices every time we step out the door. One moment you think you are walking away from the river, you feel sure that the next turn will bring you to a main road, and the next thing you know you are staring at yet another curving, smelly, dangerous alley that is just as likely to lead you back where you started as to get you out of here.
The sky is always overcast here. It lends this sort of eerie feeling to an already freaky city. It also means that the humidity is almost more than humanly bearable. The ground is wet, muddy, slick where old cobblestones have not been covered in mud, cowdung, or...other things. And because I know the statistics of the river, I'm terrified of all water here, imagining everything is covered in the same 1.5 million faecal bacteria.
To be fair, our hotel is the nicest one we've yet stayed in. Clean, well run, and with those famed "riverside views". I took advantage of the view the first day, and that was enough for me. Little boys swimming naked in the river, old men with shaved heads waist deep in devotion, monks chanting as they washed in the holy waters. Then I saw some of them gargle it. And even now, I wretch just to think of it.
Scindhia Ghat, where our hotel is located, is right next to one of the burning ghats. There are two such ghats where devout Hindus who were lucky enough to die in the city of Shiva are cremated and flung into the waiting arms of their "Great Mother" the Ganga. This means that continually, day and night, if I open my door I can smell the bonfires of human flesh.
If you die in Varanasi, according to Hindu belief, you will be released from the cycle of rebirth immediately. A shop owner with whom I spoke yesterday explained it to me like this: "As you live you have good things and bad things. These things stay with you and when you die God will ask you about it and punish you with a new birth. But if you die here, you go to heaven and God will not ask you any questions." And I guess I can see that. I mean, living in this city is probably more than enough punishment itself without any new births.
I wish I could tell you I've learned something deep and transcendent here, something about the relationship between life and death or human potential and frailty. The truth is, thus far, I have learned one thing.
When in Varanasi, try not to look down.