I’m currently sitting on the rooftop terrace of my hostel watching people relaxing, monkey’s climbing buildings and kites flying (there will be no less than 50 in my current lie of sight). Facing the other direction is the Ganges, the undisputable epicentre of Varanasi. As I’m writing this, its Christmas eve, and faced with the reality of once again seeing in another Christmas away from home, its refreshing to have to hustle and bustle of the Hostel staff busy arranging a Christmas party around me. I actually might be in the way, but they are too polite to ask me to move! From up here, Varanasi is magical. I feel the serenity and chaotic peacefulness I expected to have in such a spiritual city. Hindu Temples and Mosques sit side by side here, in a display of religious acceptance. The call to prayer is happening from the Mosque by the river as I write this. From the rooftop it is magical………then you hit the streets!
As a experienced female traveller, I’m well aware of scams and touts to which Varanasi has its fair share! Its especially noticeable down by the river, where you cant walk, or even just stand to soak in the sights, without being approached in one way or another. A guy walked up to me and quickly put a tika (which is the dot on the forehead) on me, then started doing a prayer. He then expected a large payment for this and was very unhappy when I didn’t (and couldn’t) give him what he wanted. This was actually a lovely thing to experience, but unfortunately leaving a slight sour taste as both of us left the interaction slightly irritated.
Call me a little silly, but I knowingly (and willingly) took up the service of a unlicensed guide to show me around. I wanted to go to local places, places I wouldn’t have had a chance to go to otherwise. In doing this, I did managed to visit mosques and temples I wouldn’t have otherwise. I also saw parts of town where I was definitely the only tourist, and I revel in seeing people in their own environment. This did actually work out for me, but definitely don’t quote me on recommending this way to go!!! You need to know how to deal with them, how much to pay and what you want to see. Even then, its not guaranteed. My tout got me very close to the cremations at the Ganges, but he was then arrested. Yes, arrested. He was taken to the police station by the river for not being a licenced guide. A little bit under the table negotiations and he got released.
They have a fantastic ceremony by the Ganges here every evening, with tourists, locals and pilgrims alike, going along and appreciating the ceremony or worshipping. I was sitting next to a teenage boy who told me that they come every weekend from Delhi to it – at least I think that what he was telling me. He asked if I was still going to be there next weekend and if we would see each other then. He seemed genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be and I appreciated having a interaction with someone who didn’t appear to want anything other than my company.
Varanasi is a place like no other. Magical, spiritual, captivating. It is also touristic, poverty stricken and money hungry. Not a trip for the first time traveller, but definitely a experience for those up to the challenge!
From the heart of the old town, Varanasi