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Maoist Rising and Overwhelming India (Varanasi)

I spent my last evening in Kathmandu eating dinner at the house of Steve’s host family. They were an extended family, as is usual in Asia, with the grandparents also living there. The house was typical Nepali architecture and consisted of three floors. Steve lives on the top floor. I spent most of my time visiting with the grandfather who still managed a hotel in Chitwan National Park. The dinner consisted of dhal bhat, but there were also some curried eggs which were quite good.

The next morning I woke up around 5:30 as I had a 7:00 am bus. I had the guy manning the front desk to come down to the taxi with me to tell him where to take me. I had only a slight idea of where the bus should be. The bus normally left from behind the monkey temple, but the bus company had said I should wait by the post office instead. Off we went and I was dropped off in front of a small military post near the post office. I waited and waited for my bus. Numerous other buses came by and stopped, but they were all going to Pokhara. On numerous occasions several bus attendants looked at my ticket and assured me my bus was coming. I even went to a business (which sold bus tickets) across the street to inquire. They said my bus comes there. Eventually at about 8:00 am, I went back to the shop to see if I could use their phone to call the bus company. They called for me and come to find out the bus had left from behind the monkey temple and was already gone. His exact words were the bus was missing. His english wasn’t the best and I assumed he meant the bus had left. Thankfully due to bad traffic, the bus was still in the Kathmandu area. He tried to tell me where to go, but as before, I had trouble understanding him. He finally hailed a taxi and they spoke back and forth in Nepali. I was told to go with the taxi driver. I got in and was whisked away going who knows where. We went weaving in, out, and around the traffic (driving on the shoulder and things). I noticed we were passing all the buses that I had seen earlier that morning. We eventually pulled onto the side of the road. The taxi driver leapt out and started running around looking for the bus motioning me to stay with the taxi. His parking place appeared to block some traffic and people were looking at me to move it. I could only signal that the driver was gone. The driver came back without finding the bus despite asking several people. I went back across the street with him and saw my bus in the distance. After one more running around spree to find change to pay the taxi driver (I gave him 25% more for his help) I got on the bus aggravated at the extra 200 rupee cost I had incurred. My aggravation didn’t last that long though as I was excited to find out that my legs could actually fit in the seat.

The bus trip was fairly uneventful, but slow, until we reached Bhutwal. I spent the time sleeping and talking to the man sitting next to me. He was Nepali and worked for a program called Livelihoods & Forestry Program under the British Embassy. Along the way signs of the Maoist were everywhere in terms of flags and rallies. They had laid low during the Nepali holiday season but where now back in full force. Once in Bhutwal (the sight of my previous banda experience) traffic was once again held up by a banda. There was nothing to do but wait and listen to drivers senselessly blowing their horns, or so I thought. The embassy man next to me said that he had a ride around the banda and had one seat left if I wanted to come. I asked how could he get around the banda. He said he knew another route that wasn’t blocked. He told me not to tell anyone but to come quietly so that his ride wouldn’t be besieged by others wanting to go around. I thought for a few minutes and decided I was tired of bandas and sitting on that bus and went with him. I was slightly apprehensive as it probably wouldn’t be pretty if we got caught by the banda organizers. Near the bus, a white SUV was parked. It was the type of SUV favored by the UN, embassies, and governments the world over. Inside were three older Nepali men who also worked at the British embassy. I climbed in the backseat and we set off down a narrow road. Before long we had turned off and were offroading through ricefields and down narrow dirt lanes. The vehicle occupants were not exactly sure how to get back to the main road and had to keep asking for directions. It was also getting dark by this time. We eventually made it back to the main road and drove on to Bhairawa. Once in Bhairawa, I was told that I should stay there for the night. Bhairawa was only 2 km from the border but it was now dark. They called a hotel for me and told me the name which despite repeated attempts I couldn’t understand. As a sidenote I should point out that while many in India and Nepal speak fluent English they have a very strong accent that is hard to make out. It involves rapid fire word delivery coupled with much rolling of the letters. I was told that the hotel was expecting me. A rickshaw driver was called for me and told the hotel name. After I thanked everyone for their help, the rickshaw driver took me to a hotel. I went in and found that they had never heard of me. Despite this I decided to go ahead and get a room as I was very tired by this point.

The next day I got up early and left the hotel around six. The hotel manager had told me that I could catch a bus from Sunauli (Indian border town) to Varanasi. I used a rickshaw to cover the 2 km to the border. As soon as I alighted from the rickshaw someone wanted to know if I wanted to change money. As I had 1100 Nepali rupees left, I went with him and conveted those, and about $40 US dollars, to Indian rupees. I then went through the Nepali and Indian border stations filled out the forms, and got various stamps without any trouble. After passing under a big Welcome to India sign, I was in India. The main difference between the Nepali and Indian sides of Sunauli were the crowds. India is much more crowded. I straight away set out trying to find a bus to Varanasi as Sunauli was very dirty/dusty and didn’t have much to offer. I got various people telling me there were buses coming or no the bus had already left. Not wanting to get stuck in Sunauli, I found a bus going to Gorakhpur and got on it. Gorakhpur was the nearest place I could catch a train to Varanasi or I could take a another bus. The only other foreigner on the bus was an older Korean man. The bus left pretty much on time and took about three hours to get to Gorakhpur. I was a bit disappointed to find that the roads and buses in this part of India were no better than in Nepal (a much poorer country). Once in Gorakhpur, the Korean man accompanied me to the train station. He only spoke a little English and looked quite lost. He didn’t have any Indian rupees and gave me some US dollars for some of mine. We then searched around for and finally got in line at the English language counter. I first bought his ticket for him to Delhi and helped him fill out his forms. While I was doing this, he set about blocking people from skipping the line. It was then my turn only to find out that the train to Varanasi was full. A general ticket was available for the lowest class. This meant that at the train boarding time I would have to fight my way on the train and hope I could land a hard wooden seat. I decided to try for a bus.

Leaving the train station and Korean man behind, I headed for the bus station. At the station, I was informed that I needed to go to a bus station about 2 km away. I got in a rickshaw and was pedaled about 100 meters down the road to a new bus station and was informed by the driver that yes this was the correct bus station. I paid him and off he went. As soon as he pedaled away, someone informed me that I was still at the wrong bus station. Getting aggravated now, I once again caught another rickshaw and this time was taken to the right bus station. It really was about 2 km away. I paid the driver but he wanted more money than we had agreed to. A young Indian student came to my rescue and after a shouting match between the the two I left without paying anymore. I finally found a bus going to Varanasi. It was a local bus and if I thought the area between seats was small in Nepal, it was nothing compared to this. I literally could not put my legs inside the seat area. Sitting with my legs out in the aisle was no fun though as I was sitting near the door. As in China, they like to pack these buses so I constantly had to keep moving my legs here and there. We stopped after a few hours for lunch which happened to be some of th best dhal I have had yet. After lunch a shouting match between a passenger and a the bus attendant broke out over some change. As I was sitting near the attendant, I had to keep moving the passengers elbow so as not to be hit in the head as he gestured wildly. I finally managed to get a better seat.

Arriving in Varanasi after dark, I was a little apprehensive as how to get to my hotel. I had read that the touts and con artists in India are some of the worst and can be quite aggressive with you. They get a commission if you stay at the hotel they take you to. Fortunately for me it was actually a bit of an anticlimax after my exciting two days. As I was on a local bus, there were no hoards of people trying to convince me to go with them. I got on a rickshaw and was pedaled through the dark streets. As we neared the Old City on the Ganges, a young man started jogging along side telling me about this other hotel and started speaking to my driver in Hindi. I quickly interupted and told my driver that I was paying him and to take me where I told him. The streets of the old city were too small for the rickshaw so I had to walk the last bit to my hotel. I was accompanied by my new “friend” who said I should look at my hotel first and then go look at his. My hotel (Hotel Alka) was fairly easy to find due to the arrows painted on the walls on the very narrow streets. I was told at the hotel that they only had one room left which I happily took. The hotel is situated at Meer Ghat overlooking the river. After putting my bags in my room, I went to see the view. The moon was full, but it was misty. The water level in the Ganges was quite low and set well within it’s banks leaving large sand dunes exposed. In the distance I could see the spires of temples glowing faintly in the pale moon light and mist.

I should take a moment to explain why people come to Varanasi. It is possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. It is considered very holy to Hindus. They come to the ghats (steps leading down to the river) to wash in the Ganges. The Ganges is known as the Great Mother and bathing in it washes sins away. Many people come to be cremated in the burning ghats. The ghats were built over the centuries by various rulers hoping to gain favorable karma. The river is lined with the crumbling remnants of their quest for salvation in the form of temples, palaces, and observatories.

My first item of business in Varanasi the next morning was to go to the train station to buy a ticket for Agra as tickets sell out fast. This was easily accomplished at the foreign ticket office in the station. The foreign ticket office is one of the rare times in India where the dual segregated system for foreigners actually works out well. Usually you just pay more with getting nothing extra for your money. Leaving the station, I returned to my hotel and decided to take a walk down to the river. I walked down the stepped platforms on the riverbank watching people bathe and wash clothes in the river. I was disturbed to see people actually drinking the water though as they washed. The Ganges, despite its holy status, is polluted beyond belief. Due in part from all the people washing and ashes from burnings, but mostly from all the raw sewage that gets pumped into it. The river edge is full of trash and animal droppings from all the goats and cows that cover the ghats.

My first main sight was the burning ghat. Here is where the main cremation takes place. As I approached I was joined by a guy wanting me to go to his shop. During the whole walk I was being pestered by people. He first said that he knew of a place where I could get a good view of the cremations. I knew exactly where he was talking about. There is a balcony over the burning area. One goes here and then gets pressured to donate money for wood. Despite knowing this, I went anyway, as it really is the best spot for viewing. I figured that by now I was used to rebuffing people who wanted money. As soon as I was on the balcony, I was joined by a young acolyte or priest. He started explaining the burning process to me. There are three levels for burning depending on your caste. The bodies are first washed in the river and then placed on the pyre. Unlike in Nepal, I saw that the bodies were placed wrapped on top of the pyre. Looking down I could see bodies in various stages being burned. When only the bones remain, the chest bone (if it’s a man due to his strength) or pelvis (if it’s a woman due to making babies) is rewashed in the river and then burned again. As I watched, a pelvis was being carried to the river for washing. Some bodies are considered pure and aren’t burned. For example holy men, female beggars, and smallpox sufferers. These bodies are taken directly to the river, tied with rocks, and sunk. Also, this ghat was only for people who died a natural death. Deaths from accidents were cremated elsewhere. After explaining all this, he then pointed out some nearby buildings where old people came to live until they died so that they could be cremated. After this the spin for the money began. He told me that each kg of wood cost 150 rupees and a body takes up to 200 kg. He walked me over to an ancient woman sitting on a mat. She was one of the residents waiting for her time. She apparently was collecting the wood money. With this ancient person looking forlornly up at me, he said most donate 3-6 kgs. I said thats great, but I will give 150 rupees. I then was sat in front of this lady where I think she blessed me. I really didn’t mind giving some money as the guy did tell me a lot about the cremations. He left me with quote “Remember, burning is learning, cremation is education” That alone was worth the 150 rupees.

Upon leaving the ghats, I continued my walk. I kept being besieged by kids wanting me to take their picture and show it to them. One group of kids (two girls and three boys) was especially difficult as they kept pushing and shoving each other. As I was trying to arrange them, a very dirty man came over in what I thought was an attempt to help. After he got them in a line, he starting lifting the dresses on the little girls, leering at me, pointing to their underwear saying very nice, and pointed at me to click away. The little girls stood there giggling from the attention. Sickened, I shouted at him to leave them alone and turned and walked away hoping that he would leave them. I turned around to see he was following me. I stopped to see what he wanted. Incredibly enough he wanted to know if I wanted a massage. I said no and he wandered off somewhere. Continuing my walk, I refrained from taking pictures of anymore children despite the parade following me saying “Picture, Picture”. I felt sick and disturbed the rest of my walk. I did stop to act as photographer for a wedding party.

At night, I went back out again to watch a ceremony held nightly at the main ghat. It is religious in nature and involves singing and men standing on platforms doing a slow dance with various types of candles. At the end of the ceremony, all the pilgrims in the area come to the platforms to recieve holy water. During this time I had to fend off several people trying to put tikkas on my head. Tikkas are made from a red dye that is painted on the forehead above the nose. I declined for two main reasons. The first being the large sum of money they would want from me afterwards. The second being my aversion to participating too deeply in religious ceremonies I don’t believe in. I enjoy observing the ceremonies but I think it would be disrespectful to participate in something that holds great significance for them but is meaningless for me.

Waking up right at sunrise, I went down to the riverfront to hire a boat to take me along the ghats for an early morning ride. I managed to find someone for 80 rupees/hour. (40 Indian rupees=US$1). After getting into the wooden boat, I found that my rower couldn’t speak. Off we went and were joined by many other tourists in boats doing the same thing. We rowed up the river opposite of the way I had walked the day before. Again the riverbank was full of people doing laundry and bathing. The buildings lining the river were lit up in the soft dawn light. After the boat ride, I walked into town to try to find a bank to get change. India, like Nepal, has no change. I found a bank. Going inside I was confronted by a man wearing a bandolier and holding a shotgun. I am assuming he was the guard. (A shotgun is a very stupid weapon to have for guarding an enclosed small space) He asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to get 100 rupee notes. He again started with the “Not possible”. I said yes it is this is a bank. He demanded to see the notes. As soon a I produced a large stack of 500 rupee notes fresh from the ATM, his whole demeanor changed and I was whooshed to the front of the line. He personally told the bank teller to get me change talking over a man already at the window. I got my change and then left.

My next destination was the Golden Temple. To get into the temple, I was patted down by armed guards no less then four times. Varanasi is currently full of armed guards as it has been a scene of religious tension over the last few years between Hindus and Muslims. There were bombings in a courtroom that killed 16 lawyers the day before I arrived. All the temples I passed said Hindus only. I stopped outside of a small chapel contemplating whether I should try to go in. My mind was made up for me. The door was guarded by two sadhus. One demanded that I take my shoes off, give him two rupees, and go inside. I spoke to him in English so he knew I was a foreigner. I said okay and went inside. Inside the courtyard I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I wasn’t a Hindu. This was difficult as I had no idea what was going on and my above stated feeling about participating in rituals. Everyone around me was making ritual motions in front of one statue or another. Before I knew it though someone demanded I sit in front of him. I complied as to not make a scene. He smeared a tikka on my head and invoked Shiva’s blessing over me. He then demanded 100 rupees. I saw his plate was full of 10 rupee notes and that is what I gave him.

That night at my hotel, I was speaking to one of the waiters about my day and told him about the temple experience. He seemed more concerned that I hadn’t gone into the main temple than he was that I had gone into a Hindu only area. This has been my observation at every temple I have gone to here. Despite the signs, everyone insist that I go in even though they know I am foreign. Upon learning that I missed the main temple, he kept saying that I should go with him after work. I finally relented. He said I just shouldn’t say anything. At 9:00 pm we set off. I was once again patted down and then lead into the main area. The centerpiece was a golden spire made from 800 kg of gold. Underneath it were priest performing a ceremony over a Shiva linga. I followed him on a whirlwind circuit of the temple as he stopped in front of various deities. Along the way, I had various colors smeared on my forehead and water thrown on me. I did make what I figured were the bare minimum gestures I could get away with to keep up appearances, the whole time feeling like a big fraud. I left the temple bewildered and feeling guilty. I don’t mind pretending to be Indian to get around the unfair pricing system, but my conscious was screaming at me for doing it in a religious area. I have decided that I will try not to get into a similar situation again.

My last full day was spent in Sarnath. This is where Buddha first began his ministry after gaining enlightenment. The main attractions in the area are the monastery ruins and the gardens. The gardens provided a much needed respite from the constant badgering that went on from salesman in Varanasi. I visited an archeological museum and an aviary containing pelicans and ibis. I didn’t go into the main ruin area though. I tried to get in by paying the Indian price. I don’t state that I am Indian, I just offer the Indian admission rate. If they said go ahead, I wouldn’t argue. They saw through me and wanted the foreign rate which was 20 times more. As I could see all the ruins through the fence, I declined.

Today I catch a train for Agra where I will be picked up by the parents of a friend from work. The trip will take 12 hours with me arriving in Agra at 6:00 am tomorrow.

Sidenote: India is 15 minutes ahead of Nepal. In hindsight, maybe I was suffering from jet lag adding to my tiredness.

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5 Responses to “Maoist Rising and Overwhelming India (Varanasi)”

  1. Mom and Dad Says:

    Not loving the India experience so far! Hope it gets better!
    Love You! Stay Safe!!!!

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Gashwin Says:

    Wow … I’d *never* take a bus from Nepal to Varanasi … those are barbaric stretches of the north! The further south one goes, the more civilized India gets …

    Your experience with the girls is horrendous and shocking. I’ve never had that, but that’s perhaps because I’m Indian. I guess it goes to show that some pedophile types travel to such places and exploit the poverty of young children. I hear that more about places in South East Asia, but I’m sure it goes on in India. This guy was assessing if he had found a client. (I’d have gone to the cops; but then, I speak Hindi and I know people.)

    Steel yourself when it comes to being a fount of all rupees. I get it all the time — they can smell an NRI (Non Resident Indian) a mile away. At least I can shout back in a language that is understood.

    Please don’t *ever* think about getting into a general compartment (unreserved) of a train. It’s brutal. No matter how many rupees you pay to a tout to secure you a place. Use the foreigner quota and travel in the reserved coaches.

    Finally, try and get over the physical discomfort and constant hassle that India can be. it’s like the thick rind of a juicy fruit … get past the rind and India opens up to you. (Ok I’ll stop being cheesy and poetic).

    Enjoy the Taj.

  4. Posted from United States United States
  5. admin Says:

    I am currently staying with an Indian family in Agra and am really enjoying the experience. It is India without the hassle. I did enjoy Varanasi despite my one sicko run in. The sellers here (Varanasi anyway) are just much more aggressive than China and Nepal. My one disapointment was that unlike Nepal most people that approached me in Varanasi wanted money of some sort instead of just talking to me. I did meet lots of good people as well such as the waiter at the hotel. Also even though I had to pay the cyclorickshaw drivers I know more than usual. They were all honest after we agreed on a price and took me where I wanted.

  6. Posted from India India
  7. Kellie Says:

    I’m going to have to agree with our parents. Please be careful about who you trust to take you places. I’m sure it doesn’t seem so bad when you’re in the situation, but to us it sounds unsafe. Love you!

  8. Posted from United States United States
  9. Preeti Says:

    I can’t believe that sick old man. How utterly appalling. And what an introduction. The sad thing is that there’s no one to stand up for those little girls, who don’t really know that what’s happening to them is wrong. Shudder.

    You’re not the only one who feels like a fraud in most Hindu temples. I’m Hindu and don’t hold with all the statue (murti) worship, so I feel very uncomfortable being made to cover my head and bow to this statue and that book and then get water sprinkled on me for my trouble. All I can say is don’t feel guilty about seeing the temple, and as long as you’re respectful of the tradition, no one should be offended by your curiosity.

    Oh and monkeys: we had the half-wild monkey that hung around the hotel at a hill station (Delhousie) wander into our room (the door was open in the interest of no AC) on all fours and steal a bag of biscuits off our table. If he’d stood on his hind legs, he’d have been as tall as me, so you don’t fuss with the feral rhesus who wants to eat your favorite cookies.

  10. Posted from United States United States

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