Friday, April 2, 2010
Varanasi, often referred to as the holiest city in India, or the City of Lights. It was a great experience in so many ways. I traveled with an Indian lady, someone I met briefly at a wedding, in Hyderabad, two years ago, and then saw again, once, in Delhi where she was my guide in the lanes of the old city. In other words, we were virtual strangers to each other. Six days later, I feel that I've made a new friend.
Of course, it was extremely different from traveling with my husband and children, a bunch of foreigners staying in hotels usually ranging from very nice to luxurious, and eating breakfast and dinner in them too, as it is so much easier to be on the spot at the beginning and the end of a touring day: kids can eat familiar and safe food, and have their bath before we tuck them in at night.
Both my friend and I were adamant about staying on the ghats, as opposed to the Cantonment where the nicest hotels are. This means that what you pay for is basically the view. Careful research on the internet and trusted guides like the Lonely Planet yielded only half a dozen suitable places, and the preferred ones were full. We ended up at the Sita Guest House, on Rana Ghat, and the experience reminded me of my old backpacking days, when I toured South East Asia on a 5 dollars a day budget. But the place was clean, and when the electricity worked (Varanasi has power cuts everyday from 1 to 3 PM, and most of the time from 4 to 5 PM, with a few surprises thrown in) we even had A/C - most necessary, as the average temperature during our stay was 100 degrees F. and up (39 Celsius).
My friend Sangeeta, who is the type of person who makes friends the second she arrives somewhere (funny, as my husband is like that ; I'm much more reserved by nature) met a young pandit who offered to take us to the main temples in town. Contrary to me, whose agenda was basically to visit this famous city, look, look, make notes, and soak in the atmosphere, Sangeeta had a carefully planned program that included visits to a list of temples, and buying sarees (Vanarasi is known as one of the best places in India for sarees). I'm glad to report that we both more than fulfilled our expectations.
The arrival. After almost six years in India, I've grown accustomed to the fact that the country is the second most populated in the world. But Varanasi is something else. Even my friend was stunned by the swarms of people, vehicles (cars, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, old tongas pulled by buffaloes, bicycles) and animals (cows, more buffaloes, horses, goats, dogs) filling the streets and lanes of what feels basically like an overgrown village.