Varanasi (also called Banaras or Benares), is easily the craziest place I have ever experienced. If you take regular India, which is already astoundingly crazy, and add another factor of about 10, you have Banaras!
Located in the North Eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is the holiest sight in all of India. 3 million Indians and 200,000 foreigners flock there every year to see the holy Ganges and the many ceremonies celebrated there. And it isn’t only the Hindus that find this place holy. Jainism, Buddhism and Shiekism are all linked to Varanasi as well, and about 25% of the city’s residents are Muslim, so there is a great deal of cultural diversity. Best of all, is that all these cultures seem to come together in a peaceful way. That, in of itself, might be a miracle!
Our first time walking down the Ghats, I spotted this bit of grafitti. Sadly, during our second trip down this way, I noticed that it had been covered by flyers advertising a sale…
Cows and boats…typical sights in the ghats
There were plenty of boats being fixed as well
We walked along the River Ganges several times, people watching, animal watching and enjoying the old buildings and colourful scenery. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is very auspicious (lucky/holy) because it means that you will no longer have to reincarnate, and instead you will find Nirvana. Many people die and are cremated here and certain Ghats (areas of the river with steps leading into the water) are specifically reserved for that purpose. We saw several cremations taking place, which was both fascinating and a little horrifying for our sheltered western eyes. To the locals, this was business as usual, and there were children playing cricket in the neighboring ghat, where the smoke from the cremations blew into…
Cremation costs are based on the type of wood and the amount of wood that is used in the process. Salesmen in the area will urge you to come up onto a big alter for a ‘better view’ of the cremations, and then request that you help fund the funeral once you go to leave. Frankly…watching a body be cremated wasn’t something I wanted to experience, so the idea of ‘getting a better view’ wasn’t exactly on my list of priorities…
One of several cremation sights
Walking along the river at night was especially interesting. In addition to the cremations, there is a ceremony every night where people send out little floating candle offerings. This year hasn’t been great for tourism in India, so when we were there, there were probably more salesmen than tourists. The big seller on the banks of the Ganges: boat rides. Everywhere you go, people will be asking you a 1 word question: “boat?”. Depending who you speak to, a boat ride along the Ganges can cost anywhere from 100 rupees to 1000 rupees. The official price is suppose to be around 250 (according to government regulations), but just like everywhere else in India, the salesmen in Banaras just can’t help but try and soak you for that extra money…
Boats sit on the Ganges while spectators watch the ‘special’ ceremony that is done every night…
On the banks of the Ganges
Plenty of people also tried selling us hash, opium and even Colombian cocaine (doubtful). And of course, there were always beggars around, with various ailments..some real…some badly faked. It is considered specially good to give money to beggars in Varanasi, but it’s very unwise to do so as a foreigner. If you give to one…not only are you encouraging a practice that the government condemns, but you’re also opening yourself up to being mobbed by 30 other beggars in the area. I had it happen to me in China, and it was scary! It is very hard to give in when you are being asked by children…so hard…but it’s much better that they take on jobs instead of relying on begging. Especially with India’s growing tourism industry and the jobs that are being created with further focus on sanitation in the country, there will be more and more jobs opening up for these people in the future.
See here: urinals. Of course, nobody uses them. Instead you see people peeing up against the walls everywhere…the smell is terrible in some places…
There is hope for Varanasi though…trash bins are being placed all along the ghats. Now the struggle the government faces: getting people to USE them…
There is also life away from the Ganges’ Ghats. This densely populated city has a population of about 1.2 million residents. When you add in tourism, there are some very full roads. Varanasi is also quite poor, so the infrastructure leaves something to be desired. In an alley barely wide enough to fit 1 car, you’ll find Tuk Tuk’s, rickshaws and cars all weaving around each other, while pedestrians and people on bikes try to get out of the way. And of course, there is livestock everywhere as well. We saw plenty of cows, goats, pigs, chickens and even a few horses walking the roads of Banaras. Considering that the holy city is larger than the capital of my home province (Winnipeg, Manitoba), the variety of animals in the streets is surprising to anyone just arriving in India.
And if you think I must be exaggerating about the state of Varanasi’s roads, I will provide proof of the mayhem. This is a combinations of several videos I took while visiting the holy city.
If markets and the River aren’t what you seek in Varanasi, there are also plenty of temples to see. According to Wikipedia, there are an estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, ranging from small shrines to massive stone structures. We didn’t go into any this time around because we’ve seen enough to last us a lifetime. Instead, we walked the busy streets and spent an afternoon at a small cafe near Assi Ghat. Open Hand Cafe was wonderful…playing English music (the Dixie Chicks!!) and serving excellent coffee. Best of all, they sell items made by disabled women and children, who are unable to otherwise create income on their own. With fixed and fair prices, it’s an excellent place to make purchases.
Although this pack seems well fed, there were way too many skinny dogs in this city! I saw one with a rat in its mouth and I caught myself cheering for the pup! My joy that he was getting a meal trumped my disgust at the dead thing it his mouth…
A beautiful building down by the river
Varanasi is thought to be one of the world’s oldest continuously lived-in places. Some of the buildings sure look old….
In short, in Banares you will experience everything from fully visible cremations to near death experiences on the road to people claiming to be selling Colombian cocaine. No matter what your interests are…Varanasi has something for you!!!
We’re home now…but don’t worry! I’m not done writing about India just yet! Stay tuned for my posts about the Taj Mahal, our night in the desert and our final days in Delhi!
It’s a green-tea-drinking, guitar-music-playing and blogging type of night! After a fabulous day off spent scooting around Guiyang with Dave, I’ve decided to postpone my final piece of the National Holiday Saga for a night when I have less recent events that need telling. So today, I shall write about Guiyang, the city where I am living 365 days of my life.
Guizhou Province is the poorest province in all of China. People who know about Guizhou province don’t have very fond opinions of the place, and while we were on vacation we received quite a few negative reactions from Chinese people when we told them where we live. However, the majority of westerns have no idea where Guizhou even is. It’s sort of like Saskatchewan in Canada…internationally, it isn’t very well known, and within the country, nobody really wants to talk about it!
We live in the capital of Guizhou province: Guiyang. And although it definitely has it’s flaws, we feel safe here and I most definitely never scoff at it’s scenery. Guizhou may not be as rich as Xiamen city , or as scenic as Guangxi province but the scenery here is so ruggedly beautiful.
Still, Guiyang does have its flaws.
It’s an up and coming city…In the last 6 months, there’s been a huge influx of western restaurants and stores. As of now, Guiyang has many KFC and Dairy Queen locations, a Burger King, a Starbucks, 3 Walmarts (with another being built), a Carrefour (a French Grocery store chain) and most recently, a Subway (it opened here last week). There are even western clothing stores in Guiyang, such as H&M and designer stores like Diesel and Calvin Klein. Guiyang is moving up in the world! The only problem is that many of the citizens of Guiyang haven’t caught up to their city’s progress!
I know that Guiyang will eventually be fabulous in all ways, but the city is currently very lacking in the sanitation department. Parents allow their children to urinate in the streets (they sometimes hold them over sewers so they can relieve themselves…but often it’s done on the sidewalk), and people spit constantly. It’s not pleasant to hear, and it’s not pleasant to see on the ground. Walking in Guiyang is a fun little game…you need to watch where you’re going, but at the same time, you need to have your eyes on the sidewalk so that you can dodge spit, urine and loose or uneven tiles in the ground. How so many women here walk around in 3 inch heals is beyond me…the sidewalks are an obstacle course!!
Surprisingly, there aren’t many cockroaches in Guiyang. When we first moved into our new apartment, they were a HUGE problem, but since we got the place cleaned up we haven’t seen a single one. Rats, on the other hand, are an issue. The school is infested. My desk often has poop in it, and I find myself constantly wiping everything down with sanitary wipes. We find chew marks in our books and we sometimes see them running along the pipes above the teacher’s office. Worst of all, I can often hear them moving around in the walls behind my desk. Lexie and I will just look over at one another and shudder at the sound.
And Guiyang’s lack of sanitation isn’t its only problem. The queue situation isn’t quite as bad as it was in 2006, (the main issue in Xiamen was that queues didn’t even exist…), but still, people often cut in line. Just today, I had a women cut in front of me at Carrefour. She had a cart full of items, and all I had was a bottle of MeiJiu in hand but still, as soon as I looked away, she pushed her way past me. The smug grin she gave me after made me so angry I wanted to backhanded her. But the Canadian in me took over and I just gave her a passive aggressive dirty look instead.
But there is something even worse than urine on the streets, or people cutting in front of me at Carrefour. Traffic in Guiyang is insanity. The infrastructure here is so bad that it makes Winnipeg’s streets look logical, but even THAT isn’t the worst of it! People here have absolutely no regard for other drivers on the road, to the point where signaling isn’t done (EVER!) and instead of doing shoulder checks, everyone just honks to let others know that they are there. Guiyang is a LOUD city!
Just today, we saw someone make a U turn from the far right lane of a busy 6 lane road. I should add, that this U turn was NOT made at an intersection. We were driving in the lane to his left and had to swerve and slam on the breaks to avoid T boning him. Did he look scared or regretful, you might ask? Nope! He just kept driving. I’m not even sure he realized that there were other vehicles on the road, or that a beautiful white scooter had nearly been injured due to his insane expectations of what driving should be.
So why, you might be wondering, am I still living in this city? Why do I continue to work in a rat infested building and continue to navigate horribly designed streets under fear of sudden insanity brought on by road rage? Well…that’s the thing. Amidst all this craziness, we both find ourselves happier than either of us have ever been.
There are so many things here that contribute to this happiness. The food is a big one…everything here is flavored with an abundance of spice. The only bland food I’ve had has been when Chinese cooks try to prepare dishes for the western palette. Hot Pot is especially delicious and we’ve found several restaurants that have really made living here a tasty and fantastic experience.
Even better than the food at this restaurant, are the people who work there. Their restaurant is always clean and well maintained, and the staff work very hard. The owners, Kevin and LoMan, greet us by name every time we arrive. They are two of the nicest people we’ve met here and I hope our friendship grows. I always told everyone back home that the two things I missed the most about China were the People and the Food. At our hot pot place, we get the best of both 🙂
But honestly, I think even more than the people and the food, what makes me so happy here is how much I LIVE!! Every day is an adventure…every adventure is a challenge. Whether we are trying to mail post cards or trying to find some western ingredient for a dish we are craving…every moment of our lives here is interesting. Seeing the way people drive here is interesting. The cultural norms here, that are so drastically different from our own….are interesting! We went to Walmart today to look for a Halloween Costume for Dave, and saw the funniest things. We saw strange meat, and asked what it was. The woman replied that it is rotisserie rabbit. You can also find stools at Walmart, that have the middle section cut out. These are built this way so that they can be placed over squatter toilets so that you can sit comfortable instead of crouching, while trying not to get pee on yourself!
So I suppose what I’m trying to say here, is that I love my life. I love that everything is difficult. I love that I’ve learned so many new words in the last 3 months. I love how exciting it is to say something in Mandarin and have the other person understand what I’m saying! I love how the people here can be so amazing! Our waitress at the hot pot place didn’t speak a word of English when we first started going there. Now, she has a friend teaching her so that she can ask us simple things in English, even though we know how to ask for them in Mandarin.
I love how I’m building meaningful friendships here. I’ll never be able to talk about those rats with anyone like I can with Lexie!! I’ll never be able to stand on a street corner in the rain and rant about work and students and craziness like I can with her, because she’s going through the same things I am!
I love what I’m discovering about myself, and what Dave and I are discovering about our relationship. We are learning what we are like under the most stressful circumstances, and I’ve gotta say…I am SO happy to be here with someone I love so much!!