Varanasi, or its ancient name Benares, is India’s holiest city. As we step off the train we are caught in a melee of pilgrims, families, sadhus and a thousand other people from all walks of life. We are hustled through the station and into the 45-degree heat of the day by our sweet-talking rickshaw driver.
Varanasi is Mecca for Hindus, and unlike the millions of Indians who wish to draw their final breath here, the last time I was here I did think I was doing to die, having been so sick with gastroenteritis. But that was 12 years ago. Now I am here in a new phase of my life with my favorite travel companion, Paloma.
My recollections of this ancient city are still some of my favorite travel memories, as Ben and I were on our first adventure together and so in love. Could a city as ancient as this have changed much in this tiny drop of time?
Our rickshaw driver Ranjit thinks he knows the hotel I’ve been describing to him, one right on the ghats, the steps, which look over the Ganga and are alive with ritual and daily life.
My old diaries are buried somewhere in my collection of things too deep to unearth. But I think I remember where our sweet octagonal room was in the hotel high above the river. Ranjit leads me through many winding alleyways to many out-of-the-way hotels, claiming they have a view of the river. Well, yes, through the bathroom window. Meanwhile, Lisa waits in the rickshaw sweating and entertaining the kids while I play the scout. After too long I put my foot down and demand to be taken to the hotel we asked to go to an hour before. It’s a carnival of errors from here on in. Now grumpy, he drops us off on the side of the road with the kids and all our luggage. We have to take a bicycle rickshaw into the heart of the old city as the laneways are big enough only for two rows of pilgrims to pass one another. ‘You are like a sister to me, not tourist…this is my life’s work, my karma…’ are his parting words before asking for more rupees than initially agreed on.
We load ourselves with guilt onto a bicycle rickshaw. Our cyclist, an old man, is already sweating heavily in the mid-morning sun. He pulls the four of us and our luggage through the masses of people. Out of thin air, another man appears then, literally hanging onto the bike and running alongside us yelling that he has the best hotel on the ghats. He is reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. We later find out he is a heroin addict like so many other young guys here. Foolishly, I let him lead me through the labyrinthine old city to yet another awful hole in the wall hotel with no view. Concerned I will never see Lisa and the kids again I ask him to navigate our way back, more rupees are handed over, again with a line about his spiritual mission to help others. In a place so full of spirituality and all about escaping the material world there seems to be a frightful lot of wheeling and dealing and money being exchanged…