After four months in India I am well used to the constant staring from Indian men, women, small children and the odd cow, all fine. Things have gone too far, however, when the monkeys start getting voyeuristic too. I arrived in Varanasi after a supremely leisurely train journey from Jhansi. We had an hour delay outside a tiny station half way through the morning. No problem, within ten minutes the chai men had come rushing over to the open carriage doors. Actually I think I’m developing a kind of Pavlovian response. Everytime I hear the long wail of “chaaaiiiii” my mouth starts to water and I have an urgent desire for a hot, spicy, sugary drink. Strange. We eventually got to Varanasi and I rang the guest house who dispatched someone to pick me up and bring me over in a rickshaw, now this is service. My room is on the top, the 6th floor. I hauled my ever-increasing rucksack up the flights of steep steps and collapsed onto the bed, then decided to go and take a shower. As my window overlooked the ghats from very high up I’d opened the curtains to let the sun in. So out I walk from the bathroom, naked, and still slightly wet, to see a rather large monkey sat outside my window regarding me with some interest. I was rather startled and then rather embarrassed to be caught in the buff by a monkey. I hurriedly drew the curtains and quickly got dressed. A few hours later after a huge lunch on the restaurant terrace and an interesting sunset boat ride along the Ganges I popped back to my room before dinner and walked into the bathroom. Now there is an alcove into the wall from the outside that has only a wire mesh in front of it, right above my toilet. In this alcove were huddled two female monkeys and a baby who didn’t react particularly well to being disturbed. I was considering backing out and leaving them in peace when I remembered this was my bathroom in my room and I had paid to stay there and I was dammed if a couple of monkeys were going to take over. I proceeded to clap my hands loudly to scare them off. They sat there. I shouted. They continued to sit. I swore…loudly and still they didn’t budge. Oh well, nothing else for it. I dropped my trousers and plonked myself defiantly onto the toilet seat trying to ignore them. When I got up afterwards the two adults had their mouths hanging open in what I would swear was an expression of disgust. Sod ’em, it’s my bloody bathroom!
Varanasi is probably the smelliest, dirtiest and most fascinating place I’ve been yet in India. Despite my monkey problems I slept well and got up at the ungodly hour of 5.30am for a morning boat ride (free from the guest house) along the ghats. The riverside disappeared into the early morning mist and pollution in the distance and as the sun began to rise over the horizon the smattering of clouds turned from grey to gold as dozens of boats rowed slowly up and down the length of the city. A few early morning bathers were already stripping down to the rather poesy cloth pants the men wear here, and dousing themselves in India’s dirtiest river. Thirty sewers pump raw waste into this river, it may be good for your karma in the next life but it’s not going to do your health any favours in this one! Coming back up the river we passed by the main burning ghat where everyday up to 200 people are cremated. Huge piles of sandalwood lie stacked up around the area and grey flakes of ash and smoke fill the air. Bodies were being carried down from the streets on bamboo stretchers covered in glittering cloths. The bodies are lifted out in their white shrouds and placed upon the piles of gathered wood, carefully weighed to determine the cost and the right amount to fully consume the body. The flames burn for three hours after which the ashed are gathered into urns and the relatives, dressed in white cloth, the men with shaven heads bar a small tuft of hair, scatter the remains into the river. It’s fascinating to watch but rather macabre.
Today I’ve spent most of the day just wandering up and down the length of the ghats, sitting and people watching. Well I say people watching, there are also goats, buffalo, cows, dogs, cats, monkeys, hawks, pigeons and the odd ferret running around. The whole length of the city is like a bizarre mix between a religious site, a open farmyard, a bazaar and a riverside promenade. There are groups of boys playing cricket, huddles of men bent absorbed over a game of cards, bathers in the river, women washing clothes while their half naked kids run around the steps, buffalos being herded down to graze the rubbish strewn grass, fishermen, holy Hindu men with their long beards and orange robes gazing thoughtfully over the river, jewellery sellers, head shavers, boot polishers, boatmen, flute sellers, tourists, locals, firewood carriers, beggars and loiterers. You could sit and watch the whole spectrum of Indian life go by for hours.