Saturday, 23 November 2013

Varanasi: stench capital of India

First impression of Varanasi: Bloody touts.
Second impression of Varanasi: Oh wow, it smells bad.

I mean, it smells really bad.


We went to the prepaid office rather than let any drivers mess us around, then let them fight over the three white people, who would pay.....  well, exactly the same as an Indian, given that we'd just gone to the prepaid office. Having not had breakfast or coffee, I really couldn't be bothered haggling. None of us could.

And no, we're not going to give you 200 rupees extra for you to walk us to our hotel from where you drop us off. If I get lost, I'll walk down to the river, find the ghat it's on, walk up the steps, and hey presto, there's the guesthouse.

Autorickshaws can't get right to the river in the daytime because there are too many people on the street, so we got dropped off at the last point and went our separate ways.

But apparently rickshaws can take me to the ghat?

Or so he said. He wanted 50 rupees for it, which he had to be joking about. I stuck to 30 or walk, and the usual starting to walk away trick worked. OK, 30 rupees.

To drive me 100m down the road to the next roundabout.

No, this isn't Munshi Ghat. Where you claimed you could take me.

Why didn't you tell me this, you dishonest little (expletive)?

And in order to save this post from the trap of the last one, I just paid him the 30 rupees, told him he'd have bad karma and walked the remaining 5 minutes to the guesthouse.

Though it feels like a lot longer on the tiny backstreets of Varanasi, where you don't have a clue which direction you're going in, let alone how far you are from the Ganges. And given that the first person who said he'd take me there just pointed me in some general direction but really just wanted me to go to his silk shop, I was fairly sceptical of any other helpful locals.

I shouldn't have been. This one was actually helpful. I would have walked straight past the street had he not pointed it out to me.

The guesthouse owner was more than happy to let me leave my bag, and for me to go and have breakfast on the rooftop. Good big breakfast and flipping cheap!
And hello Ganges!
There are monkeys everywhere here too. I mean everywhere. They run across the rooftop quite happily. Little feral monsters they are though.

Having only just arrived, it seemed strange to be sorting out my transport out already, but this is Varanasi, and it's impossible to get out of - I guess because everyone takes a sniff and realises that they want to leave too. With no Indian SIM card yet, and with the Indian Railways booking website annoying me enough that I'd rather go for a swim in the Ganges, I headed to a travel agent who might be able to sort it out for me.

Like the agency in Kathmandu, this one was also run by a guy called Om. Must be a thing.

Yes, I can sort you out with a train on Tatkal (the last-minute bookings service you pay a little extra for) but it leaves from the other station 18km away, and there are only 10 sleepers left.

Yes, that'll do.

OK, come back at 12.

So I went for a bit of a wander on the ghats, which were strangely quiet. Nice though!

And the ghat my guesthouse was on, Munshi Ghat, was the nicest of the lot actually - less concrete and more actual historic design work. Strange that in such a holy place there was so much dirty concrete, but it means less distractions I suppose.

I headed back for 12, having to have to shout at a few people who were trying to accost me. If I didn't get the ticket at 12, I'd be done for, and stuck in Varanasi for another few days. No, no thank you, I've been held up enough as it is.

GET OUT OF MY WAY part 8000
Back there for 11:57.

OK, there are now 6 left. But we have to wait until 12, because of how the system works.

Logic level: India.

Details put into the system far too quickly, submitted, and result back.

I've got the last but one seat.

Which Om got incredibly excited about, and shook my hand far too many times, before printing the ticket and wishing me well. I was just glad that I was going to be leaving Varanasi at some point, even if it did mean having to deal with autorickshaw drivers again.

And having paid an agent to do it, I then got the one thing that I needed to book train tickets myself: an Indian SIM card, and an Indian phone to complete the set. Not even a Nokia, I'm not that upmarket.

Logic level: India. I've adjusted already.

So new phone in hand and lunch eaten (the food is very good here), I went to have a look at the temple.

On to the main street and I was accosted by a guide. I made the mistake of telling him I'd be back later, rather than just telling him to bugger off, because I'm too British for that. So he decided to follow me to the temple, or, as he tried to put it, "show me the temple". He wouldn't listen to my requests to leave me alone or to go find someone else to follow, so I just played the British card and put up with it.

The temple's nice as well, even if I can't go into the main complex. No photos as cameras aren't allowed inside, so you'll have to find one by someone who's sneaked one in (search for "varanasi golden temple" and ignore the one that's actually in Amritsar).

Oh no, here's a priest, he can take you inside for 7,000 rupees.

Yes, of course he's a priest. I'd rather convert to Hinduism and back and go in for free in the meantime.

And please, leave me alone, let me go around on my own, rather than making sure I'm guilt-tripped into going back to the shop that you receive an extortionate commission from. And yes, I want to go for a walk along the ghats NOW, and I don't care if things don't get interesting until 5:30pm, I just want some pictures. And some peace and quiet where I don't get accosted.

Apart from by a "mother and child" with empty milk bottle, who I told to Google "milk scam".

Bloody silk shops. They won't give up.

So I went in, bought something cheap and told them I'd have a think about the rest, and got out of there. They invited me back for chai the next day, but that was never going to happen.

He chased me outside and still tried to sell me some of the more expensive pashmina at "my price". Having been told his costs were 2050 rupees (as if), and having told him I wasn't going any higher than 1500 for something he'd wanted 3000 for, I'd left. But he was still willing to sell it for 1700.

Yes, willing to sell at a loss.

No, I don't buy from liars, sorry.

And he still followed me back to my guesthouse, the whole way trying to get me to go to a massage parlour that he wouldn't tell me the prices of unless I went myself.
Silk shops don't have this view, so I don't want to go
So in an effort to lose him, I went along. Ah, you're charging British prices in India? Seems legit. Avoid "Kerala Massage" in Varanasi - you can get what they offer at one-eighth of their price pretty easily.

But no, that didn't work. So I slipped off down the side street to my guesthouse, but he must have had a GPS tracker fitted to me or something, because he managed to find me again - and demand a "guide fee" from me for his "services".

I nearly punched him.

Walking inside your guesthouse works to get rid of them. If only I'd realised earlier.

But yes, from now on, if anyone accosts me, I'm not speaking to them.

I'd been told that a place called Blue Lassi did the best lassi in India, so I went to try it out. And I needed it after that afternoon's experience. It most certainly did the trick - the stuff is amazing.

Inside I met an Australian girl called Nat, who was using it as a cure for Delhi belly. Not sure what the doctors would think of that, but there we go - I can't talk about using non-approved recovery tactics anyway. My sense of humour just confused her, but we got along well enough. Oh, and her pearl of wisdom for you all: if you need some change, ask a policeman, because they take so many small bills in bribes.

And in India, you always need change. Everyone wants change. Yet ATMs still insist on giving out 1000s.

We grabbed some food at a place called "Spicy Bites", which just gave me flashbacks of some of the horrific post-night out food I've had in a takeaway of the same name in Leamington. Thankfully, the food here was really quite good. For entertainment, there was a guy across the street who kept trying to sell us drugs in more and more hilarious ways as time went by; he really would not give up!

Everyone here sells drugs as a side job, which means I get to use my "no, I don't need them, I'm an international drug lord" line far too often.

As for autorickshaws, I just tell them it's against my Jedi religion, and that Indian customs confiscated my staff.

Day 2 and I had to be up at 5am to make the sunrise. I was going for a boat trip on the Ganges, and with me not wanting to pay white-man price, I got my guesthouse to negotiate for me.

Indian mornings, why so cold?!
So I got Indian price plus commission, which turned out to be white-man price after all.

And however cold I was in my leather jacket (maybe not the best choice while traversing a Hindu holy site, but there you go) it was genuinely enjoyable. Incredibly atmospheric - how the place is so noisy, so busy, so crazy, yet so serene is beyond me. But it made coming here worth it - despite the touts, the utter stench, the dirtiness, the craziness and the general intensity of the place.

Still, I'd just got up at 5am and needed to go back to bed to put my system back to normal.

System back to normal, I went on the wander down the ghats that I'd wanted to do the day before, but that my friendly "guide" didn't want me to see. Because obviously, silk is more important than, well, the Ganges.

Don't mind us
Again, it was very quiet, but still strangely atmospheric. Until, that is, I got offered cannabis by a 4-year-old, who seemed genuinely disappointed that I didn't want any. Not sure he understands "international drug lord" though.

Then I got lost on the back streets.

Normally, this isn't a problem, but this is Varanasi. The back streets smell even worse than the main roads - they're genuinely unbearable. Buffalo everywhere, rubbish everywhere, buffalo excrement everywhere, flies everywhere. Absolutely disgusting. And impossible to escape, because every time you try to go in the general direction of the river, you reach a dead end.

Eventually though I found the main ghat, and had a seat.

Then someone noticed that I was sprouting my excuse for facial hair, and that maybe I'd like to have a shave for 20 rupees.

OK then, saves me doing a bad job of it. And I still don't have any shaving foam.

No Anselm, posing for this picture is unnecessary
But the usual Indian male approach of getting far too close for comfort kicked in again, and he decided that it would turn into first a head massage, then a back massage - then I said no more, you'll probably charge me for it. No no, I'm doing this "as a friend". No no, I don't like joining in your personal game of gay chicken.

He only wanted a bottle of Pepsi in return as well.

40 rupees? Cool, have this 500.



Right, stop crying about it. And no, I don't like Pepsi, so no.

So he got possibly the biggest wad of change I've ever seen out of his pocket, and admitted defeat.

So wait, why did you need change?

I don't understand it. Everyone hoards change here.

The issue is, when everyone does it, getting out of that equilibrium is near-impossible - especially in a country without supermarkets which will change any note for you without crying about it.

Logic level: India?

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