Varanasi is the oldest functioning city in the world. Next to the sacred Ganges river, the city was made by the god of destruction Shiva, so most temples are dedicated to this god. We woke up for a sunrise boat tour at the Ganges river, our guide Babu appeared to be stoned out of his mind and could barely speak. We walked with him on these super small old alleys until reaching the river. It was completely dark and Eitan stepped on a big pile of “Holy Shit”.. You get it??? Cows are sacred in India. After finding a water well to pump some water to clean his foot and flip flop, we were ready for the boat. Varanasi has about 87 Ghats, these are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. Most of the ghats are used for bathing while a few are used exclusively as cremation sites.
The boat driver was extremely bizarre and would randomly sing and spoke in a very weird drawn out monotone voice. There are a lot of weird people here! We are almost getting used to having guides or drivers singing to themselves out of nowhere.
It was a relatively peaceful boat ride with the ghats. There are morning ceremonies thanking the river that we could see and hear from the boat. The big ceremonies occur in the evening (blog post to come). People use the calm mornings to come meditate and practice some Yoga.
We really didn’t want this boat to tip and we were extremely paranoid of any splashing, the Ganges river is one of the most polluted rivers in the world (if not, the worst). The Ganges River Pollution is now at such a high level that the amount of toxins, chemicals and other dangerous bacteria found in the river are now almost 3000 times over the limit suggested by the WHO as ‘safe’. It is literally filled with dead bodies, trash, sewage, and other stuff we don’t even want to know. It is so dirty that it only takes 10 minutes to develop cancer if you swim in it (reference: Mr. Noodle Encyclopedia for the Medical Sciences), best case scenario your DNA will change and you grow an 11th finger… from your forehead….
But the people here think this water is extremely holy and they come here to bath in it, drink it, and do laundry in it (avoid sending your laundry to get done here in Varanasi, as it will be washed in dead body soup).
Who needs a dentist when you can brush your teeth with holy Ganges water. We on the other hand don’t even dare to use the tap water here to brush our teeth, just bottled water. Their immunity to bacteria should be studied by NASA to make future super humans.
We heard of another “scam” where local people come close to your boat and start splashing you with disgusting Ganges river water until you agree to pay some money. Luckily this didn’t happen to us.
We navigated for around 3 hours around the river passing through most of the important Ghats. The ride was very chill and seeing the way of life of the locals was really eye opening.
Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies and many ghats are privately owned. Some of the Ghats have a very peculiar significance, there is one that is used to cause a divorce in a couple if you swim next to it; another one is for infertile woman to wish for a kid, etc…
We reached the most important Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat. This is the one where the evening ceremony is performed every day to thank the mother Ganges (we came here next day to see it). Two Hindu mythologies are associated with it: According to one, Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva. According to another, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses, during Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna performed here.
You like sushi? because if you eat it here you have 100% chances of mercury poisoning. In this picture a local fisherman is trying to save one fish from his miserable life swimming in this river.
On the way back to the hostel, we needed to walk thru very narrow alleys while sharing the road with some bulls.
The piles of trash you see in the streets here is astonishing, its like no one has ever put their trash in a trashcan since 1980.
The sunrise was nice but we were exhausted from the early wake up so took a nap and then explored the city. The streets are full of life and cow shit. There are very colorful stores and many photo opportunities.
We walked to the center of the old town where the Golden Temple is located, Kashi Vishwanath as it is known by whoever can speak Hindu, is apparently the oldest still in use temple in the world. This is the holiest temple in Varanasi as well and dedicated to lord Shiva. Unfortunately we do not have any photos of this section of the day because they don’t allow you to bring anything in and thus you need to put your items in a sketchy locker and there was no way we would risk putting a camera in a locker here!!! They had a terrorist attack here a few years ago (Hi Moms!!) so the security is very strict. Before entering you need to give your passport to a police officer with brain damage that will copy every single detail of your passport in a pace of around 1 letter per minute. He was so smart that he still needed to ask Eitan where is his passport from, it’s not that its written in big letters on the passport cover…. Like any other passport in the world. We bought some offerings from the locker guy so we could use his locker and entered the temple. They ask you if you believe in god before they let you in. Guess what you have to say here…(thank God I am a good liar..)
There is a bunch of people in this temple that will explain stuff and then charge you for the explanation; One guy started explaining stuff and I told him I don’t have money, he said he will accompany me where I left my money so I can pay him, I basically gave him the Shiva look with a nice thank you and he finally left us alone.
The temple was very spiritual, we made the line to give our offerings on the main shrine dedicated to both genders. It is a cube stone filled with milk with a rock in the middle symbolizing the male gender. You throw the previously bought flower necklace here and the Brahman (Hindu monk) will put the milk soaked necklace on you for good karma. You are supposed to either put the necklace on the Ganges or feed a holy cow, we didn’t want to go near the water so we later found a cow (not that difficult) and gave it to her.
Trivia time!! Whats up with the cows and Hinduism? The cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. However, many non-Hindus interpret these beliefs to mean that Hindus worship cows. This is not true. It is more accurate to say the cow is taboo in the Hindu religion, rather than sacred. To me, its just a waste of rib-eyes and filet mignons. I recommend the following read if you are interested in learning more: http://qz.com/531620/the-holy-cow-might-be-indias-most-dangerous-animal/
Cows in India are left alone because they believe that when the gods come to earth, they will need transport and the cows will be here to help. The gods will definitely not take a taxi as they are well aware of taxi drivers reputation and they might get scammed. The cows here in Varanasi go to the river side during the day and come back to their owners in the afternoon to get milked. The bulls do not get milked and it’s illegal to kill them so they are basically homeless animals.
While walking the streets its not recommended to wear red and give these bulls plenty of room. Bulls attacking people is not unheard of.
Unlike Delhi we felt safe to walk around the streets here to see the sites. That being said, as Sarah described, she feels walking here is like you are in a video game because there are people, bulls, poop, horns honking, tuk tuks coming out of nowhere and trash everywhere so you have to be careful at every step. Sarah was the second victim of “Holy Shit” at this moment but less extreme as Eitan’s. We walked along the river and the Ghatts were pretty empty so it was a peaceful walk. We arrived at a big market area and bought cheap scarves and Eitan a more traditional Indian shirt Bollywood style. Sarah has bought so many different colored scarves to cover her shoulders as a way to make this annoying covering up thing a bit more interesting.
Our hostel has Chai tea time at 3:00 pm so we took advantage of that by joining our fellow travelers for an hour before heading out for our delicious Food Tour. Chai tea is the safest drink here in India (besides bottles water and soda) because in order to prepare it they have to boil the water and the milk together for a long time. Nothing is a guarantee but its a risk worth taking because it is absolutely delicious
Anil was our guide this time, always smiling, rapping and giving excellent descriptions everywhere we went. Our first stop in our culinary afternoon was a famous Chatt place, this is a food that is basically fried potato patties covered in tamarind and coconut sauce and other indian spices… I think. Holy mole this thing was spectacular, locals eat this as a snack, I would eat this as a way to reach Nirvana. We tried the potato one and the tomato one, but there are hundreds of varieties we would need to reincarnate several lifetimes to try them all… what a shame.
The next stop was the Muslim Quarter, these guys eat red meat so I like them… a lot. After having some red meat withdrawals episodes during this trip, I was happy to know I was going to eat Buffalo! Remember cows are holy so they needed to find other sources of red meat like goat and buffalo. We stopped at this stand in the middle of the market where they sell buffalo meat patties on a naan bread. I’m usually very careful when eating street food, but according to the World Health Organization, if your street food has been wrapped in used Indian newspaper, then it’s safe to eat. I gave it a try (trusting our guide) and Holy Mole again this was incredible! I like this tour. We also got sweet naan bread wrapped in the same clean newspaper that was also delicious!
Our third stop was the Blue Lassi (Indian yogurt drink) famous shop. This family has been running a lassi shop for 3 generations and we could taste why. This lassi is served in clay pots, these pots are one time use and they break them at the end. The government, in order to help the people who make these pots, made a law to prohibit the reuse of them. The cost of each clay pot is about 1 rupee so its really cheap.
We ordered 2 lassies, Eitan ordered Mango, Pomgranate and coconut and Sarah ordered Mango Pineapple. Both delicious. Anil explained to us that most milk in India is buffalo milk. Cow’s milk is usually only given to children and they use it for ceremonies.
Everybody sticks a passport photo on the walls of this place making a cool looking mural.
Our next stop was a Paan street stand.
I will try to describe what is Paan: They grab a leaf of some tree, they spread some secret herbal sauce and then they proceed to add about 30 different things to it, from anise, sugar, candies, coconut, dried papaya, and other things I don’t know what they were.
They fold the leaf and wrap it in real silver foil (the locals eat it without the silver because its cheaper, but we are white tourists here so we can afford to eat silver you know!). You have to put it in your mouth all at once, which was a problem for Sarah as it was way too big for her and after a few attempts she had to spit it out.
I loved it, when you put it in your mouth you get an explosion of flavors, your brain doesn’t know what is going on. It kind of taste like toothpaste which makes sense as they used this to brush their teeth a long time ago. There are 2 types of Paan, the tobacco one and the one we tried. People are addicted to the tobacco one here as they need to stay awake either working long hours or driving a train and cigarettes are a commodity here. You can see most people spitting this Paan regularly on the streets (another gross thing that colors the streets here).
We stopped at a candy/sweets shop where we tried a few different ones. In reality all tasted the same but were tasty. We will continue buying these through India.
At night we went to a bar (more like a restaurant that serves beer) with some other people from the hostel. Most restaurants here do not serve any type of alcohol so we were excited to finally get to try Indian beer. We tried the strong Indian beer Kingsfisher which was pretty good. After chatting for a long time with fellow travelers about their experiences, we decided to head back to sleep.
Bonus Pic of The Day: Try to find the urinals in this picture! you found them? there are 2 urinals in the middle of the picture right above the people. That is the most bizzare location of a urinal I’ve even seen. Also, below them there is no plumbing so it basically drips into the floor, making them useless. WTF India.