I am going to tell you a little story, of how I, as a foreigner, felt when I was in Varanasi.
Here, for the first time in India, I was scared that I could get hit by locals, scared sometimes to walk alone in the streets in the night and probably the first time when I felt really alone. Don’t get me wrong, but I lived in India for almost 1 year, so I thought I knew the drill. I love India and I know how to deal with people, I was thinking. Before going there some friends told me: “Brother don’t go there alone, it’s a bit different” and I was like: “What are you talking about man, I know India better than Romania”.
First of all, some of you may be curious, what is Varanasi? I’ll describe everything from what I know, not from the internet, to make things more interesting.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities of the world, and it’s the most sacred place for Hindus, Hinduism being the oldest religion in the world. It is located along the banks of river Ganges. A river that they believe is God. One of their Gods.(they have millions).
You can see here how people are burning the bodies or how sadhus (saint people) are smoking chillum in the streets, for them it’s legal somehow. Only for them!! There are many things you can see here.. I can say its really crazy!
Another important thing, alcohol is forbidden there!!
So, go and grab a beer, before I start my story.
Chalo! (in hindi means: “let’s go”, you can hear it very often in India).
After being for in Delhi for 2 weeks, I took the night bus to Varanasi. I didn’t take any accommodation, I was sure I can find easily, which is true. In the bus, I met a guy from Israel who told me that he knew someone who can give us a really good price at a hotel. So we reached the hotel in the morning. In the daytime ,the road looked almost fine for me, but something was weird, anyways, I didn’t want to spend too much time in the room which was called Ali Baba, if I remember well.
I left the room to I start my adventure. This Israeli guy went to the other side of the city.
Alone in Varanasi, I moved along on the small streets. At the beginning, it looked the same for me, a lot of mess, a lot of colors, may be more cows on the streets. I went to an area where there were thousands of shops and you can get lost very easily. Being alone, everyone was following me, asking me for money, to buy things or to donate. I knew that from before. But here was something different. People were a bit different. I could feel, like, some of them can get really aggressive, if I didn’t want to buy.
Police are almost everywhere there, so instead of feeling safe, I started to feel a bit scared. In India you don’t see so many policemen in a small area, usually. I stopped to have a Chai (milk tea). One nice local came to me and started talking really nice. I felt that he may be a good guy. I call him, Ravi, to make the story simpler. He wanted to show me some places and in exchange, I had to go to his shop and maybe buy something in the end. Fair enough, right?
After explaining some things to me, we went to the sacred place where they were burning dead bodies. We met Ravi’s cousin who explained the rituals and places that usually people are not allowed to see. At the end I was supposed to pay some donation. Fair enough, right? He showed some really interesting places. I will talk more about this in other articles.
During the visit he kept saying how expensive the wood to burn the bodies is, and how important are the donations for these people. At the end of the tour he asked me, to donate some money. Usually people donate around $100-150 but feel free, said this guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not greedy, but I don’t like to be scammed.
So, this guy, Ravi, told me the tour is over to go to his family shop. Unfortunately, a bit too late, I realized that it’s a scam between them to take me to different places, where, he said all of them are relatives. So I said I’m not going to pay anything for these lies. He admitted everything and asked me for tips. So, I just left. I was too tired of this.
But somehow I start feeling really alone and insecure.
Is this the real Varanasi?
But wait, it was not because of this that I got really scared. Wait for it!
Alone again, I went to this huge temple which people claimed is the oldest in the world. There was a big queue and a lot of police. I had to leave my bag, phone, camera everything outside.
Inside, I saw the real India that I knew, but much more interesting. Everyone was happy, you could feel the blessing inside. I could just sit there and watch how everyone was waiting in queue peacefully, for days. When I was looking at someone, I could see happiness or pain, even sometimes I could see hope in their eyes when they were praying. Hope for a better life, hope for things to go better for them. For few minutes I felt sad. Most of them are doing everything from their heart and still have such a difficult life. I lived there for so long, but still, I don’t have any idea what difficult life means, even if I saw it in so many places.
From nowhere I felt an arm on my shoulder, one local, who didn’t speak English smiled and invited me to the rituals. After I finish he was thanking me. I don’t know for what, he was happier than I was. It was pure happiness on his face. After visiting few other temples, people were nicer and nicer. I remember that at one restaurant some local tried to pay for my food, after we discussed about his religion.
Fully recharged I took the decision to go back to where the bodies were burnt, because they said it looks incredible in the night. I walked on the river bank for almost 30 minutes. During this time, I’ve seen more than 10 different rituals. Amazing!
I can’t describe how people were singing at the same time, chanting, smiling, praying to the God. Such a loud but pleasant noise, so many different things and of course the smell of the scented sticks dominating all other smells things that I’ve been through all the day. Is this the real Varanasi?
As I was taking the pictures of the burning bodies, the locals were everywhere around me. They were screaming that I made a mistake and I have to pay. The soul will be trapped now into the camera, they said. So they start pushing me to go to the boss, because this is a huge problem. There were around 10 people, pushing me and screaming, that I did the biggest mistake of my life. So I just ran, as fast as possible. They can’t reach me I was thinking. But they start screaming, so, at some point., when I looked back, people were coming from all sides, few of them were running with big bamboo sticks, screaming to stop.
When I was a child, I was involved in many similar things like this, probably every boy was. The thing is, we were home, you know? I knew that I can go back to my family and feel safe again. But where should I go now? I was thinking. I didn’t know anything, even the roads I didn’t know them well. I had this weird thought that they can just burn my body if things go wrong, no one will know where I was.
At some point, I saw a big fence and I heard some music behind it. So I just jumped over the fence and ran to the seats. After a while, two policemen came to me. They looked really nervous. But in the next second, they give me one warm smile and invited me to seat and enjoy to show. I tried to explain but they didn’t speak English. So I took a seat and I tried to relax.
I guess that was the first time when I was scared and I felt really alone and helpless, after a long time. I was thinking of my friends, and how I am alone in this country, with no one to help me, no one to know about me.
At the end of the concert, I was trying to find the safest way to reach home, so on the street, I saw a group of locals. They were laughing and asked me to join them. So I stayed for few minutes. But minutes turned into hours. So here I was about 4 hours, with 20-30 locals laughing, enjoying chai and eating. They insisted to pay for everything, and they were just kids, working everyday for money to survive. Is this the really Varanasi?
They told me that everyone is avoiding the burning bodies places. It’s a very dangerous place because people get drunk, I don’t know from where they have alcohol. They are getting drunk because they have a very difficult job, they said. To carry around 200 bodies every day and burn them and after throwing them into the river. It’s really a tough job. They insisted on come along to my place if I felt scared. But I left alone.
You remember that I told about the weird road back to home on the day time? It was a nightmare in the night, no lights, very small roads and a lot of dogs. People staying in the dark without talking just watching. Really scary. When I finally reached home. I felt relieved. But waiting at the entrance was this big barking dog. I stayed there for 30 minutes, waiting for it to leave and thinking about the day I had.
I usually try to not judge, I want to think that all the people are good in their hearts, but because of some events in life, we change.
Life is hard in India, we should not forget that. People are working very hard and they can barely provide for their children. I have forgiven those guys. I don’t want to hold grudges.
In every place on the earth, are good people and bad people. Don’t get me wrong, I was just unlucky. I had an amazing experience in Varanasi.
To be continued…