At the station we walked past a group of Indians busily clearing their throats, spitting wads of phlegm against the wall, and went to find our platform. Spitting, like farting, is simply not seen as rude in India and people will do it wherever and whenever they want. On one occasion I got stuck next to an overweight woman on a bus who farted and burped just inches away from my face for a good two hours, I wanted to murder her. On the platform a beggar with a skin disease and a porter in a tattered red jacket both spotted me at the same time and hurried over. I politely refused them and stepped over a family sleeping on a scrap of cardboard. Everywhere I looked Indians were spread across the floor, some asleep, others merely resting. They lounged on discarded rice bags, cotton sheets and strips of cardboard or plastic sheeting. No one seemed to want to make direct contact with the filthy floor. A baby slept just inches from my foot, oblivious to the flies buzzing around its eyes. The parent’s seemed utterly unconcerned. The whole spectacle was strangely typical of India, too many people in too small a place and no one was trying to keep anything clean. Even the air smelt of decay. Fat rats scuttled along the tracks and I spotted human excrement on one of the benches. An old man wrapped in a blanket was lost in angry conversation with himself oblivious to the pack of mangy dogs eyeing his rice bowl. After a while the train arrived and families jumped up with surprising speed. The crowds surged to get on-board and a scrum quickly developed. My rucksack made passing people in the narrow aisle extremely difficult and I was buffeted from side to side as I tried to find my seat.
Once aboard I quickly teamed up with a couple of other travelers and agreed that we would stay together once we arrived at Varanasi. I slept for most of the journey and emerged at the other end bleary eyed and still half asleep. We signaled to an auto driver and somehow crammed all of us and our rucksacks into a bright yellow tuk tuk with a 200cc engine. The driver seemed excited to pick up twice the legal number of customers in one journey and happily dived into the manic traffic. With suicidal abandon he wrenched the wheel to one side, narrowly avoided a truck, skirted a cow, cut off a swearing motorcyclist and just managed to avoid running over a passing beggar. The other backpackers were buried in the back under a mound of luggage but I was sharing the driver’s tiny front seat. The driver’s sizeable paunch took up most of the front cab and meant half of my body was exposed to the oncoming traffic. I tried to act nonchalant as we narrowly avoided death every few seconds but my knuckles were white and my foot was pumping a non-existent break as I held on desperately. The driver smiled at me happily and pointed out local landmarks. “Down there is the Holy Ganga, very best sir, beautiful at night isn’t it”. I nodded along and watched as pedestrians, beggars and children skipped, lurched or jumped nimbly out of the way as our overladen vehicle rushed past them. Eventually the driver dropped us outside a grim looking alley where our hostel was supposed to be located. Unfortunately our vehicle, tiny as it was, could not fit into the maze of twisting alley-ways and lanes which comprised the old part of the city and were crammed with stores, painted cows, holy men, beggars, chai stalls, soldiers, pilgrims and the odd insane motorcyclist who always had at least two terrified passenger in tow. We wrestled our packs through the heaving masses towards a chai stall where we stopped to ask directions. The smell of piss hung heavy in the air and was barely concealed by a choking smog of incenses, exhaust fumes and fried street foods. The stall owner quickly bid us sit down and plied us with small plastic cups of piping hot masala chai whilst we nibbled on a thirty pence meal of Tibetan dumplings and dosas. After finding our hostel and dumping our bags we continued to explore the street. The backpacker girls I was with found the streets to be intimidating and for good reason, they were constantly approached and grabbed at by slimy Hindu men and I spent most of my time pushing people away. We spent the evening in a smoky bar which was one of the few places it was possible to get a beer. The beer was cunningly disguised and served from a teapot to avoid any complaints from devout Hindus. After a couple of well earned cuppas we headed off to bed and prepared to explore the Ghats the next day.
The fabled Ghats of Varanasi comprise row after row of stone steps marching down towards the Ganges where pilgrims and locals bathe, pray and stroll throughout the day. The burning Ghats is where Hindis come to escape the cycle of reincarnation and be burned after death at the water’s edge. Early the next morning we clambered into a small rowing boat and, still bleary eyed from sleep, made our way quietly through the mists covering the water until we were bobbing slowly along in the middle of the world’s most revered river. Golden rays of light from the freshly rising sun pierced the darkness to illuminate a group of brightly clad woman washing saris and performing their morning rituals. Small pockets of light from the burning Ghats, which are never allowed to go out, flickered along the river’s edge occasionally sparkling brightly as the fires were fed more wood. I sat back in the carved wooden boat and watched our oarsman navigate the swirling eddies and unpredictable currents on a river turned golden by the sun. Whilst soaking in the true majesty of this most sacred of… CLUNK, a dog, twisted and swollen, knocked against the side of our boat with a wet smack shortly followed by the body of a man on his back with a face blackened by rot. I decided not to join the crowds reveling in the water and after a time we gingerly stepped ashore to explore the city once more.
I sat on a row of stone steps and after a short while was joined by an orange robed Sadhu, a Hindu wandering holy man. Sadhus forsake their families and their old lives and wander the sub-continent in search of spiritual enlightenment. Many are on a real journey but for hundreds of years the orange robes have been used as a guise by conmen and criminals. The Sadhu sitting next to me had a long and tangled white beard; his skin was blacker than most Indians from spending so long wandering in the sun. He had calm eyes and a toothless smile and I estimated that he was at least seventy years old. He carried a painted gold cane made from a piece of gnarled wood and seemed a little stooped from all of the beads hung around his neck. On his forehead he had painted a miniature golden trident to show that he was a follower of Shiva, the destroyer. He had red and yellow paint on his cheeks and a faded orange bandana tied about his head. His fingernails were dirty and he was barefoot. After a time I greeted him with a ‘Namaste’. He looked at me, smiled broadly and nodded. He continued to waggle his head backwards and forwards a typical Indian gesture whilst smiling. In one hand he had a wooden begging bowl but he made no move to draw my attention to it. I had been accosted by Sadhus a couple of times already, they would sit along paths and roads and when you walked past them would raise their begging bowls expectantly, sometimes violently. I had so far ignored them. This Sadhu was different, I sensed that maybe he was the real deal. He certainly looked it. He was older than many of the other holy men I had met. He spoke to me, catching me off guard ‘which country you from?’ I answered and asked him where he came from. After a time he explained that he had walked from Udaipur, over one thousand kilometres away. We sat and talked.
His English was faltering but as we talked more his confidence improved. The whole time he smiled and waggled his head, listening. I learnt that he thought he might be eighty two and had been a Sadhu since he was a young man. He had wandered all over India many times, sometimes he would stop for weeks, months or even years but eventually he would always wander again. His English was old fashioned and extremely polite albeit pretty rusty. Before he had been a Sadhu he had gone to school, worked with cars and then one day he had dropped everything and left his village to explore his spirituality. I had to marvel at his faith. After a time I had to leave and I shook his hand and made to go, I reached into my pocket and peeled off a pair of ten rupee notes but he would only take one saying that twenty rupees is too much. I handed him the one note and he waggled his head appreciatively. I left him on the steps to stare into the murk of the Ganga and contemplate where the road would take him next. I entertained an idea that I would bump into him again further down the line but although I saw many hundreds of Sadhus whilst in India I never saw him again. This one old man with his faded orange robes and painted cheeks would stick in my mind for many months as the ultimate traveler.
I wandered into a cafe, ordered a chai and pulled out my kindle. I wanted to watch the lines of pilgrims on the Ghats but was soon distracted by the crowd of backpackers to my left. They were crowded around a small round table and loudly discussing their theories on India and Spirituality. “I dunno man, I mean, I love this country but I hate it” said one sagely, “I read you brother” answered a skinny man with waist length dreadlocks “Indians only care about money, I love the country but I hate it as well”. The group continued to bat around this idea for a while with everybody agreeing that India was a country to be both loved and hated. A Spanish man was quietly whispering to a pretty young redhead about the bonds between spirits and she was oddly enraptured. He tried a different tack and placing one hand on her thigh started to talk about tantric meditation. The only bond he was interested in was quite clearly one of a more sexual nature but in India everyone seems to take everything at face value. It’s strange; sometimes the people you need to be wary of are other backpackers.
I caught lunch with the Aussie girls and then we made plans to head back towards Delhi, the girls only had a short time to spend in India and needed to catch a flight to the sun and drink fueled paradises of South East Asia. I had agreed to escort them back towards Delhi as I was headed that way anyway. After a fast-paced introduction to India I was keen to spend a couple of months exploring the desert state of Rajasthan before making my way down to the beaches of Goa. I had received an email from a charity operating in Udaipur in Southern Rajasthan and after a quick think had decided to offer my help in exchange for food and accommodation. My plan was to explore for another few weeks and then head to the project where I would have more of a fixed base and be able to plan what on earth I was actually going to do for a year. We had a couple more days to kill before the girls were due back in Delhi but the extreme dirt, noise and heat of Varanasi was grinding us down and we decided to leave early. We jumped on one of the first trains that pulled into the station and headed off in the general direction of Delhi hoping to find somewhere interesting to stop off on the way.