My third and final day in Varanasi. I've made a few long online-only updates about the first part of the stay, and also of Nepal, which, to reiterate from the blog updates, I adore. I have a whole financially unstable plan to travel to Nepal and Taiwan next summer. Maybe I'll stop in Tibet while I'm at it--make a tour of contentious Chinese territories. Nepal seems to peaceful, next to a region so rife with conflict. Even having their so-and-so-years-old monarchy deposed was a peaceful affair. The tour guides informed us as we passed a palace that it was a museum. We asked what kind of museum, and they said "Yes, 5 days." (OK, maybe not, but these are the kinds of conversations we usually have with the language barrier). It had only been a museum for as long as the monarchy had been dissolved! I found this somewhat amusing.
Varanasi remains a pleasant surprised because I didn't expect much from it, but I found more than I thought. It's still not my favorite place I've been, even in India. I think Mussoorie and Rishikesh are my favorite places, so I'm looking forward to staying at Mussoorie, even if the specifics of that plan are up in the air.
A few things I didn't write about regarding Varanasi: Sarah and Alex both mentioned the dead body we saw floating in the Ganges, face down. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to mention this. I found the charring skull in the cremation fires further along the ghats more arresting. The man in the river almost seemed alive. I wondered about him--his hair was still dark, so he couldn't have been too old. What had he died of? Did he have family? Who took him to the water? Who took him out? Or is he still there, under the waves, in the same water people bathe, do laundry, and brush their teeth in every morning? It was a general curiosity, and a little sadness because he seemed young. But I had more horror during our sunrise boat ride today (with our same boatman from the first night), when Sarah spotted a dead cat, stiff and a bit bloated, floating along with all the water weeds. I was sure this cat had died at the hands of awful people. I don't know why I felt this. Maybe the cat drunkenly stumbled into the water and drowned without ever knowing what hit him. But I started thinking about how evil people can be. I'd already been thinking about it because of the awful descriptions of rapes and other abuse in the semi-anarchy after Partition of India and Pakistan (the book is Flash House, a mystery, which so far is pretty well written). Part of me has to write this off, like 'people aren't really capable of this. This is fiction!" But I know people are capable of really awful things. It puts into perspective things I really beat myself up for, like asking where someone got their name. Um, this isn't really about India anymore.
Let me write some about where we stayed. I'm here now, still, sitting in the front room, talking on and off with Mr. Sahi, the owner. Sarah and Alex have gone to have their fortunes read. They rode there on the back of the internet shop owner's bike. I assume it's his motorbike, so I am eager hear about all aspects of their experience when they get back. Anyway, the guest house was lovely and low-key and low-pressure. They gave us good advice on prices, and where to go. It truly seems to be family-run. The food is fantastic, and we've all felt well, even after mango lassis three times a day. I tell myself the lassis are necessary because I have a mother of a yeast infection (effecting multiple parts of me) after all the preemptive antibiotics I've taken. But really I just love lassi. Before this trip, I like neither mango nor lassi.
Directions to the place? Go down the dirt road, or the road the exact consistency of ankle-deep chocolate icing if it's been raining, then turn down the alley with all the poop in it (probably from 2-3 different kinds of animals). At the guy with the blanket and the curly hair, turn left. If you smell some marijuana, you've gone too far. Go past the mountain of generators for when the power goes off (daily from 12-2), and take the stairs towards the mangy cat. Do not touch the cat. Enter into a shockingly clean little guest house with a lovely view of the Ganges and with old Sri Sahi holding court in the front room. If you need anything at all, ask the Shy Guy (every hotel has one). He is happy to help, understands English, and will silently laugh at most of the things he witnesses you and your friends doing. These directions were hammered out in conjunction with Alex.
Our Internet Friend (-cum-chauffeur for Alex and Sarah right now) seems to like us. He claims Brad and Angelina used his shop while staying at the very nice hotel next to our guest hour. Perhaps this is true. He seems trustworthy. He talks about how expensive India has gotten over the past few years. We're paying about $12 total per night at our guest house, but a few years ago would probably have paid about $3, according to him. Then again, there would have been no ATMs, so maybe it was necessary for prices to be so low? Kidding--I know enough econ to know these are both secondary indicators of economic growth. But Internet Man (Praveen) has the usual complaint that goes along with commercialism--the lack of the personal interaction during purchases. If any are poster children for why the personal touch is the superior alternative, it's Praveen and Mr. Sahi. They have probably been my favorite part of the stay at Varanasi, and it's not just because of my internet and good food addictions. I recommend these places to anyone in Varanasi.
Yesterday we called our airport taxi driver to give us a driving tour of the city. Unlike Hera in Nepal, whom we liked so much, this dude was a bit of a dud. he spent a significant amount of time taking us to places where he made a commission off of us. I had my first bad meal at the place he "recommended." The place's sign, which I found hilarious, said something like "Surety Satisfaction! Most recommended restaurant in a guide book!" We did make it to Sarnath (incidentally, most H's in Hindi transliteration only represent that the previous consonant should be aspirated, so it's pronounced closer to "sar-not"), which is where Buddha gave his first sermon. It was, however, disappointing. A museum was OK, especially for 2 rupees. There were stone umbrellas, but only 2--I wanted a whole forest of them, and Sarah said "What, like that level of Super Mario Brothers?"
There were still the hoards of beggars, even all the way out in Sarnath. Children holding children following and sometimes clutching your clothes with their cupped hands outheld. We ended up paying the 100 rupees to get inside the stupa gate just to get away from them, but they remained at the fence, reaching through. One of us pointed out they were like zombies, an image helped by their droning ("Hello, hellomadam, madam hello, hello madam, hello, hellomadam"), and now I keep thinking of them truly that way, where the deadness in their eyes really indicates someone took their soul somewhere along the way. It's heartbreaking, but it makes me appreciate the kids along the river. Even though they're just as clutchy and clingy, they are always selling something, and still have a playfulness. One girl applauded when I tripped on some steps, which made me more amused than embarrassed.