Varanasi, Sacred City of Light and Death

December 30, 2010: Varanasi, India

The journey to Varanasi was a long one and involved many modes of transport, including buses, Jeeps, rickshaws, walking, and trains. It had taken nearly 20 hours to get this far. It was nine o’clock in the morning and as I exited the train station, my mind was tired, but the craziest part of the journey was just about to begin. My mission was to find a place to lay my head.

Outside the train station I was instantly surrounded by a mob of taxi and rickshaw drivers in my face offering their services. I quickly hopped into a rickshaw, and though I was still on high alert, I kicked back relieved to feel the morning chill and observe the chaotic introduction to Varanasi all around me. I was hoping to find a guesthouse I’d read about in Lonely Planet, but twenty minutes later, the driver stopped in the middle of a tumultuous intersection and explained he couldn’t enter the narrow walkways where my guesthouse was located.

Some sketchy dude nearby, who was wearing a suit and looked like a used-car salesman, offered to take me to my destination. Remembering the advice of many—“don’t trust anyone in India”—I was skeptical of this guy, but for the moment I felt slightly helpless in this chaotic ocean of activity buzzing around me. And so, reluctantly I began to follow him.

He began leading me through a maze of incredibly busy walkways which seemed to be getting narrower and darker the further we walked.My huge backpack posed a challenged and many people were pushing to get past me.

The cobblestone corridors are lined with a lively array of vendors of religious trinkets, glittery bracelets, sweets, snacks, and chai. Endless rows of fast-talking Indian guys are trying to direct you into their shops and they all want to know which country you are from. “Hello my friend, come look at my store. Very nice– nice price for you.” I smile to keep myself from getting discouraged.

My shady “guide” is a few paces ahead of me and I’m trying to keep up as best as I can. We round a corner and come across a pack of huge beastly cows who are just standing there dumbly, clogging up the walkway, looking strangely out of place, as if someone’s cruel joke had placed them here. I’d heard about these cows and quickly saw for myself how, once alarmed, they gallop dangerously through the crowds, conjuring the running of the bulls and posing equal risk.

The walkways in this maze and everywhere are slippery with mounds of excrement and sludge, trash and filth. There is no garbage-collection here, no clean-up crew, and due to the many cows, dogs, and humans depositing their various waste directly into the streets—the streets are seriously nasty and I cringe to see the many people walking around barefoot.

After countless lefts and rights through dark alleys, I’m thoroughly disoriented and find I am totally at the mercy of my guide. Astonishingly, however, we come around a corner and there it is— Brown Bread Bakery, which has an affiliated guesthouse where I hope to stay.

Soon after getting settled in my guesthouse, I begin chatting with a funny Russian girl staying in the room next door. Her name is Oxanna and we quickly become friends. She suggests we go for a walk around the old town, and though I’m extremely tired, she keeps me laughing as we walk.

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