varanasi, sewer of shiva

3 December 2004

I'm in varanasi right now which–-sorry to say it—is a pit.
People are trying to rip me off constantly and everybody is lying about every little thing. I'm in a very light mood, nothing at all bothers me. I find it humorous, but it just doesn't stop. My mood is ethereal and philosophical and then: "please friend, let me shake your hand" (he wants to try to sell me a hand massage. once I shake his hand he will not be letting go of it until I am unavoidably forced to protest). So I smile and avoid him, and then avoid somebody else, and then somebody else.

This is the city i thought i was going to love the most when i first started looking at India. Actually I feel like leaving tommorrow.

Right next to where I'm sitting people keep walking past carrying corpses to take it to the ganges and burn them. This is the most fascinating part of Varanasi.

I went down to the river and watched a lady set onto her funeral pyre, and then watched her for an hour as she burned and disintegrated. The legs are yellow inside, like insulation. The fat pops out and sputters, the tendons snap and curl up. She looked young for a little while, then she looked like a death mask. Everybody is just doing their job down there. Somebody tried to poke her with a pole to break the legs down, but her son (perhaps) stopped him. Let her take her time. No pictures are allowed there, not that its a feeling of great sanctity–– its very work-a-day, at least from the outside. (By the way, what are ants doing when they drag the bodies off ? Where are they going with them ?)

I just had a rickshaw driver go into the usual 'where do you want to go ?' over and over he is pestering me. "nowhere actually, I'm already here". I'm just standing there. 'but where do you want to go ?' "how about right here?" i point to the ground. 'hmmmm.... $30 he jokes'. "shit, i can't afford to stay here anymore, goodbye...." so that was a fun transaction. Most of them keep going until you are forced into finding a way out of the situation.

We (some friends and I) did get taken by the guest house owner to a really nice peaceful ashram. The atmosphere was very tranquil. The fire there had burned for a thousand or more years. I wanted to stay for a while there, but we had to go. The trick to Varanasi is that you have to stay there for a while and get under its skin. He took us to another small Hanuman temple that had a pretty amazing atmosphere. Its hard to describe these places, and you don't really want to take a picture.

Then he took us to a silk factory (everybody has a plan hidden somewhere...) no problem, just look see..

I just found out i was ripped off this morning buying silks. 3 times the normal price. Do i go back and try to alter his thinking ? Will i remind him that the karma shit he was blagging on and on at me about is now all over his face and that is so very sad ? But i'm the idiot for not checking the prices before (rule number 1: don't buy anything without knowing the price before hand). And it was still cheap (and i paid $8 too much), so doesn't he deserve to have won this round ? Yes he does. He deserves to win the game; but he has children making these silks (as they have done for centuries). So I'm guilty for buying them at all.

As is usual in india, if one place is popular (guest house, yoga center), many other ones spring up with the same or nearly the same name so that you will get confused. That's what they have to do to make that rupee. It is a problem that one place gets listed in Lonely Planet and then they have a virtual lockdown. Other places that are nice (or not nice at all) don't have a chance. I rarely stay at Lonely Planet places at all.

But actually let's back up. we arrived (myself and some Israeli's I met on the train), and the first guy said "Hello and welcome to Varanasi" in a very warm and friendly tone; and he gave us a fair price for rickshaw and found us a guest house that was good enough. He has a book of really nice things that 'westerners' have written saying how much he helped them. He was genuinely friendly and knows perfectly well that most Indians are scamming us as hard as they can, and don't treat us like humans. And most of us aren't treating them like friends either. When you are getting aggressively scammed constantly, you tend to just walk by and ignore everybody, and assume that the good guys know why you are walking that way (quickly, without looking at anybody who is trying to get your attention).

So I'm anxious to take off, on to Bodh Gaya. Buddhist towns are pretty relaxed.

Post-script: I have since discovered that there is a lot of Varanasi that you have to stay a while and search deeper for. I had other plans at the time. I saw a large Indian guide book detailing all the Temples, Ashrams and teachers in Varanasi. It was very in depth.

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