Did someone just hit us? As I gave a nod of confirmation, Caitlyn turned back around in the front seat and not so quietly told me she that was closing her eyes. It was to scary to look at the road ahead any more. Our driver did not even give it a second thought and pressed on. With that we were introduced to Varanasi.
We came to Varanasi on the advice of one of our fellow EBC trekkers, Kim Calabrigo. Who is as nice a person as you would ever meet in your life. Varanasi sits on the Ganges River and is one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. There are 84 Ghats, stone steps that line the embankment of the river, that stretch for kilometres. The Ghats are used for bathing, laundry, praying and the cremation of the dead. Yes you read that right. There are two main crematoriums. The primary is at Harishchandra Ghat and it's where the Hindus cremate their dead. After wards they toss the ashes and remaining bones into the river, just upstream from people bathing and swimming. It was the primary reason we came to Varanasi but we survived the taxi ride first.
Raj had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Varanasi Airport so we figured we were good to go. When we met him we both introduced ourselves and we received a blank stare. There was a 5 second uncomfortable silence then he mumbled "come this way". I immediately missed Raj. I have him the name of our hotel, The Elvis Guest House, and he nodded knowingly. Cool. I could care less if this guy bit the heads of chickens and scared small children. I needed him to find the hotel. If you travel in India you know that this is a wish that is seldom granted easily.
Raj was a safe driver and was always apologizing for the poor quality and dangerous driving of his countrymen. Our new driver, whose name I never got, was the anti - Raj. The moment we put our bags in the car and were on our way he started with the horn, and it never stopped. It got aggravating pretty fast and the closer we drove into town the harder he gripped the steering wheel and the more he leaned on the horn. Was this his first time driving in the city?
The first hour of this two hour journey was painless traffic wise (again the confusion about the horn). We were going to Assi Ghat and I think this scared the shit out of him. As we passed through the city centre traffic was the normal bumper to bumper madness. Once through the city centre we pressed on to the Ghat section of town. Traffic suddenly doubled and stopped and like to many other places in India, so did time.
Let make a very long painful story short and to the point. Our drive had no idea where our hotel was. He stopped and asked directions which I respected. It was when he said we had to leave the cab and take a pedi-cab because it would be easier that my mood shifted. We were close and to his credit we realized later that with the location of our hotel it would indeed have been impossible for him to drive there.
Off the main street, again having asked directions, we walked down a series of narrow alleys that were dingy and strewn with garbage, cows and cow shit. A bit of intrepid work and there it was, our $10 a night dump. Now as challenging as India can be I have come to the realization that despite it all, when you ask for help such as directions most people will stop what they are doing and help.
Finally we were close and as it was our Hotel/hostel was down a series of narrow, dingy lane ways that we ended up walking to after asking directions. The address was wrong on booking.com but it did not matter. It was nearly impossible to find.
There was no time to contemplate the cluster fuck that we just endured because it does not matter. We dropped our bags off in the room, well the second room because the first was not acceptable, and off we went.
We wandered the streets and they were as chaotic walking as they were being passengers in a poorly driven car. Cars, cows and chaos. Enough of that, lets get down to the Ganges and the Ghats. It was mid afternoon and there was nothing overwhelming to start this part of the walk. The more we walked towards the main Ghats the busier it seemed to get. Is ghat the past of get?
We could see a small fired up ahead so we headed straight for it. In hindsight we probably shouldn't have. Caitlyn suddenly got very quiet and moved way over to the left on the path. I looked to my right and realized why. Not more than 6 feet from me was a dead body wrapped in white cloth. You could make out the shapes of the head and the curves of the body. It was laying atop a large bundle of wood which was laying atop a large bundle of straw. We stopped and found a place 15 feet away to regroup and what happened next occurred so quickly we both stood and stared. "Is this really happening?"
A group of men stood around the funeral pyre and calmly torched the straw, which immediately engulfed what had to be extremely dry wood. A cremation had started, mid afternoon, right before our eyes. Caitlyn choked up and turned around to look out of the Ganges. I watched as the flames started around the head and the white cloth was engulfed. Then came the smell. It was new and enough to realize we did not belong and were way way way way out of our element.
That night we went to watch the Aarti celebration with its colors, chanting, music, bells and fire. It topped a very interesting day which was challenging, diverse, complex and emotionally shocking. There was no way Varanasi could get any more extreme.
Then came the next day.