As stated in the previous post Varanasi is an old city, one of the world’s longest inhabited communities. We didn’t get to explore as much as first anticipated. Chelle was experiencing a renewed occurrence of the intestinal illness that started in Udaipur. The Burning Ghat nearby exacerbated her condition and also due to the particular combination of “aromas and fragrances”. A blue plate special of cow manure, human waste, incense, acrid smoke and numerous street kitchen smells that under normal circumstances are a bold mixture.
We took a dawn boat ride on the Ganges, our guide and oarsman was a knowledgeable local who had a houseboat on the river but still managed to sleep past his alarm. Once on the water we viewed several other ghats used for bathing and other ceremonies. At this time of day the majority of the area is filled other row or motored boats packed with tourists. A few devout locals were bathing in their sacred water. The hulls of most boats were covered in local business advertisements. Not for as a revenue stream of the tourist guides but to receive fresh paint.
The glowing orange sun rose over the Ganges burning it’s light through the smoke filled haze. Following the boat ride we moved to a guesthouse above a small cafe we frequented…Chelle described the first place in her later review “like living in a 40 year old truck stop bathroom”. Our only guesthouse dud of the trip. We toured the riverfront for a short time eventually locating a used book store for Chelle to pick out a new title. I’m still on the original book I purchased on our arrival. Walking through the newer section of Varanasi was quite pleasant. We settled on a Korean restaurant filled with tourists and expats. Unfortunately Chelle victim to the allure of a fresh salad (purported to be cleansed with mineral water). Her personal suffering would continue on.
While the old city is a microcosm of the worst features of this developing nation. Both difficult to fully describe and manage on a human level. However, the folks we met further contributed to the vast wealth that is the people of India. The cast of characters included an ash covered Sadhu we passed a few times prior to my request for a photo. He obliged in exchange for a donation (a win win transaction). As I dropped my coins on the stone slab he placed a fingertip of ash on my forehead and placed his hand lightly on my head. Chelle had been watching from a short distance enthralled by the scene as it unfolded. For me, Varanasi has a hidden beauty. Subtle layers to be teased out from under the poverty and pollution. An impact that I will consider long after I leave.
India continues to demonstrate a resiliency amid the growing pains of their emerging development. There is joy and smiles in the children we pass headed for school at the same time the dirty faces of the cities poorest children reaching out for scraps. It’s an intricately complicated mosaic. A large segment of Varanasi is locked in the past unwilling or unable to break free from it’s history. My hope is for all the children of this troubled city to get the most out of whatever opportunities are created for them.