We arrived in Varanasi late at night. The sun had set and we sat in the back of the rickshaw, anxiously awaiting the walk to our hotel. The oldest part of Varanasi has narrow lanes, too narrow for cars or rickshaws, so we had to walk. The rickshaw stopped. Disoriented, we searched for a landmark. We spotted a Post Office and quickly checked our Lonely Planet for the icon on their map. It was far away from our ghat. We grew impatient, telling the driver that we wouldn't pay until he took us closer to Schindia Ghat. He patiently brought over a random man who spoke English. "You are close," the second man explained calmly. "There are two Post Offices in Varanasi." Embarrassed by our lack of composure and our quick-to-blame mentality, we paid the driver and started to walk.
Lost in the alleyways, we followed rule number one of safe travel: always look like you know where you're going. We took turns with confidence, avoided unlit alleys and chose routes with busy shops. Eventually we admitted that it was futile. A young man approached us and asked if we were lost. He pointed us in the right direction and walked the opposite way. Later, another man approached us and told us we could follow him to the ghat. Our instinct to distrust was triggered and we looked at each other warily. Follow a stranger down a dark alley? What choice did we have?
We reached the sacred Ganges River and the man stopped. He explained that he lived in the opposite direction than we were headed, but wished us luck and welcomed us to Varanasi. He asked if he could be friends with Toby on Facebook, but to this day hasn't added him. He helped us purely out of the kindness of his heart. We found our hotel and began search number two of the night.
Looking for a restaurant in the maze was another challenge. Far from the main, and more touristy ghat, we didn't have a lot of choice. Again we passed a group of guys who asked us where we were heading. After walking us to the restaurant, we were starting to have a new respect for Indian men. Then the famous line was quickly uttered; "If you have some time tomorrow, you could come to see my shop. You don't have to buy anything, but just to look..."
And there is was. Life in Varanasi means survival, and for shop-keepers in this touristy town it means offering one service in exchange for another. I'll show you the way, if you help me fill my pockets.
Boat trips to admire the crumbling, magnificent buildings lining the Ganges is a must-do activity for Indian and foreign tourists. Boat rowers, eager to cash-in on the naivete of foreigners and thus the opportunity to overcharge, exclaimed with gusto, "Hello, Boat!" when a gora walked by. We joked to ourselves that in this town, all foreigners were called Boat.
Life not centered on tourism was not so different than in other parts of India. When the sun began to set, groups of children flocked to the ghats, the only truly open space in town. They brought with them kites, which inevitably tangled with power lines, washing lines and each other. They brought curved stones and sticks for a bounce-and-hit game I have yet to see elsewhere. They brought balls and bats for often interrupted games of cricket, where the last man in line was in charge of retrieving the ball from the murky water at regular intervals. They brought badminton racquets and birdies, and one evening I sat with some guys who wanted to hear about Canada while Toby played keep-up with another. Life for these young men and boys centered on fun.
Other children weren't so lucky. Life in Varanasi means eking out a living by selling. When the nightly puja ceremony drew near, they circulated through the crowds, hawking their floating bowls of flowers and candles. Postcards, bracelets, and other small trinkets for sale were toted through the crowds in the main ghat.
For the first time in our trip, we didn't have to worry about offending people by taking their pictures. Kids, ladies, and even men wearing only towels approached us to ask us to take their pictures. They posed, sometimes with sombre faces, sometimes in jest, and beamed when their images was displayed on our camera screen.
Life in Varanasi isn't confined to human life. Dogs, cows, buffaloes, goats, birds and cats survive, reproduce and die on this famous river. Cows navigate narrow passageways and feast on vegetable waste, left on the streets by women. Buffaloes bathe in the sacred waters alongside men washing laundry and Brahmins, with the white string diagonally draped across their bare chest subtly declaring that they are Brahmin, taking a holy bath to wash away their sins. One night we watched two young goats, dressed awkwardly in sweaters, climb and play through a pile of concrete rubble. This was their Alps. They butted each other playfully, oblivious to their unnatural habitat.
But there is another side to Varanasi, and that is death. The sacred Ganges River is considered a most auspicious place, and to die here means that the person has escaped the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. The elderly contemplate life at its riverbanks. Families relocate here near the time of imminent death of a loved one. And once death has come, they prepare for cremation.
Cremation is big business in Varanasi. At the burning ghats, piles of wood are ready for a family to purchase. It is a science to determine how much wood is needed to burn an entire corpse. Male family members stand around and participate in the activity, while women are not seen, but may be watching from afar. Bodies, draped in orange fabric, are carried through the streets in procession to the ghat. Feet and sometimes faces exposed, the flames reach into the sky, smoke wafting into the eyes of onlookers. Once the body has turned to ash, men wade with sieves full of it, shaking the remains into the Ganges River, removing any trinkets left behind.
Needless to say, cremations are sombre events and it would be highly inappropriate for tourists to photograph these personal occasions. This fact is well communicated, in hotel lobbies, guide books and on signs at the ghat. However, walking by the ghats every day of our stay, we were guaranteed to hear a local man "helpfully" say, "Please don't photograph the burning ghat. And don't pay any money if someone asks you to help to pay for the cremation. Those are scam artists." What was the intention of these men?
We didn't photograph the burning ghat. We respected the rule. We avoided it, even, feeling intrusive. We scoffed at other tourists, who gawked, often dressed inappropriately, and seemed to interfere. One day, standing quite far from the burning ghat, Toby snapped a shot of the temples above the burning ghat, which seemed to surround our hotel from this vantage point. He told me later that he debated whether this picture would be appropriate, but reasoned that it was as long as the burning ghat was not included. Then he photographed a cow and showed it to me, laughing. Suddenly four men appeared. The next five minutes of my life went by very quickly. They asked to see Toby's picture. (The Cow? Are they being friendly? I thought.) They insisted that he had photographed the burning ghat. They accused him of stealing the dead person's soul. They told him he had bad Karma, and had affected the dead person's Karma. They insisted that he needed to go the police station. They threatened that the family of the dead person would break his camera - or his arm. They told us we needed to pay. Either we pay the family, or we would be arrested and have to spend six months in jail.
In my scrambled mind, I was confused. I knew Toby hadn't photographed the burning ghat, that police officers in India are often corrupt, and that they were speaking on top of each other on purpose to make us anxious. I calmly suggested that Toby should delete the photo and all would be well. They shouted that he should not. They grabbed Toby's arm. Toby angrily pulled away, losing his calm. Finally, they told us to pay or go to the police. We decided to "go to the police station" and started to walk very quickly. Our minds racing, we whispered to each other to decide what to do. The word "pay" had triggered the thought that this was a huge scam. We recalled the numerous Indian tourists we had seen photographing the burning ghat, even boldly with flash. We recalled that postcards were sold featuring burning bodies on them. We rationalized that these men had been waiting for a camera to be pointed in the direction of the ghat in order to exploit us. The fear slowly turned to anger.
One man escorted us, shouting at us that we were in big trouble. Toby, in a flash of anger that I have never seen before or since, turned to the man and in colourful language told him to leave. I hushed at Toby to calm down. I didn't know what these men were capable of. They outnumbered us, they knew the city, and they may have known the police. For some reason, the man stopped following us.
The rest of the day, while waiting for an overnight train, we watched over our shoulders and stayed alert. We debated whether our reactions helped or hurt us. In hindsight, we could have calmly rejected their claims, stating that it was bad Karma to threaten and intimidate tourists out of their money. In the end, our balance, Toby's anger and my calm, did the trick. I have wondered since whether this is the source of income for these men, and how terrible it is that tourists are likely to pay to avoid trouble.
On a separate occasion, I was harassed by someone else. A common tactic in Varanasi was for a local man to offer a hand to a tourist in welcome, then take the tourist's hand, massage it, and offer massage services. We caught on quickly and responded to outstretched hands with a Namaste prayer gesture. One man, acting strangely, perhaps from a neurological disease, was trying to sell me a massage while Toby was chatting with local men a few meters away. When the man didn't leave me, I heard a voice from the river. A man, in the middle of his bath, was yelling at the man to leave me alone. Meanwhile, three men walked by us and turned with concerned eyes to make sure the man left. I smiled at these men once I was alone, grateful that they were ready to come to my aid should I need it.
Kindness, scam artists, garbage-eating animals, child labor, cremation and offerings to the gods. Such is life and death, in Varanasi.