India, so far, had some ups and downs. Some days were good, some days were bad, some days were worse but then out of nowhere it became better with a toothless smile from a stranger, a brilliant train journey or a meal from a random place that would just make you happy again. The start of Varanasi began low as we walked towards a Ghat asking ourselves, when we leave India for a 2 week break in Sri Lanka, that we should just move on to Nepal rather than coming back.
Our home, Kedar Guesthouse, was fine – simple with great owners – so did the job. We were just tired of doing everything everyone tells you to do. See this temple, get a driver, don’t walk it’s to far, don’t eat there it’s too dirty, eat here instead. We had a list of “must see” ghats on the Ganges that we just couldn’t be bothered with. We walked to Assi Ghat, a pretty important one, but it was quiet and there was nothing happening. We shrugged and asked ourselves why we were here as we turned down a small alleyway towards another ghat. It would turn out to be the wrong way but we were greeted by a friendly cow, just hanging out in the backstreets, as you do. That’s another thing that perks you up in India – the cows. They just don’t give a… I mean they just don’t seem to care. Okay, your annoying tuk tuk driver blowing your horn, asking me to move but no, I’m a cow and you will move. There’s no grass here, but I have four stomachs so will happily digest whatever I eat, because I’m a cow. It was the line in the sand moment. From now on we would be cows. Walk wherever we want, eat wherever we want and if the case so happens (and it could happen) poo wherever we want.
First up then, Samosas from the first shop we see selling samosas. Three minutes later, Sarah was waiting by a bubbling pot of bouncing pastry triangles. The man with the big spoon said it will be 40 rupees for two. Seemed like an inflated price for India, but . We were then given a fat parcel rolled in newspaper filled with seven golden samosas.
We spent the afternoon getting lost amongst the life and death that is Varanasi. You can’t get away from it, and why would you want to. People say you will love it or hate it. We cannot see why you would hate it. It was everything we wanted from India. Spending every day walking the streets, getting lost even when you had nowhere that you needed to go.
A big thing to do is a boat ride at dawn, up the Ganga to witness the morning prayers and the washing, the cremations, the buffaloes and everything this monster river has to offer. Sadly the day we arrived, the Ganges was in full swing, egged on by the monsoon rains so when a group of 18 people capsized, there were no survivors. We were genuinely impressed that in the wake of this tragedy the authorities cancelled all boat trips, but it was sad to see a few locals still pushing their luck by offering it on the side, risking their own, and everyone’s lives. But this was Varanasi, so when there is death, there is life. And life is worth living. So on the banks of the river, the buffaloes still bathed alongside the pilgrims while the kids grouped together for a game of cricket.
We stayed lost in the galis until dusk, finishing off the day with a vegetable curry before heading to bed.
We were woken by the beating of the drums as the pilgrims headed down to the ghats so decided we should also make our pilgrimage downstairs for breakfast. After a glass of masala tea we planned our day. Do exactly what we did the day before, except for one addition. We had to visit BaBa Black Sheep that actually did not have any wool, just silk. The Raggler left his haggling in his holster this time as it was a fixed price shop. Lucky for them!
We wandered again through the galis looking for a shop we stumbled upon the day earlier that sold handmade items for a girls orphanage. But of course we got lost, so it was hours later until we found it again. As we walked past the men selling chai in pottery pots, next to a smiling lady selling the freshest array of vegetables, just after we saw a cow waiting at an ATM, we turned to each other and said Okay, we get it we are understanding you India, and we like it, actually, we love it.
It was this precise moment I turned to take some photos of some bricks, as you do, when some guys threw wet cement at me. At first, I was not happy, but then I looked at the pile of rubbish in the stagnant water, at the red stains on the walls from the men spitting paan, or the big pile of cow poo next me and realised, of all the things that I could have been hit with, I got cement. Wade 1 – India about 35 but still – Wade 1. Sarah just laughed.
The evening we were cultural. We wandered to Dashashwarmedh Ghat were we got an early seat before the thousands of people arrived for the ceremony of Agni Pooja where, amongst the crowds, a group of shiny dressed fellows perform the Ganga aarti that includes chanting, puja and lots of fire. It did not matter that we got there early for our seat, as the faithful would squeeze in next us, popping Sarah out three steps higher up amongst a group of girls wanting some photos while my hand and another’s foot was crushed by a very large bum. It was quite atmospheric and with all that body warmth piled together, it was also hot. Unsure of when it would finish, we followed the departure of the most devout lady on the basis it was about to finish, or at least, the good stuff had finished. Following us out past the stalls selling flowers or the men covered in ash was the rest of the crowd in a sea of orange, smoke and chattering.
The following morning we had just over a half day remaining in now, our favourite city in India. We had read the night previous that a restaurant around the corner offered cooking lessons, if you asked nicely. We wandered in and asked for the owner, Ashutosh. He hesitantly agreed. What do you want to learn? We heard the Paneer Butter Masala was quite good so that and a dhal dish would be great. Okay, you come at 11:30 before lunch, I tell you how to make it, then show you, then you eat. Deal.
We filled in the next hour in the best little bookstore, Harmony Books, in preparation for a few days floating on a houseboat in the Kerala backwaters, before heading back to Shiva Restaurant for our lesson. Sat in the low couches at the back of the restaurant, Ashutosh grabbed my little red book of recipes and wrote down the secret for his Fundamental Sauce (F/S) which was the base of our Paneer Butter Masala (PBM) with notes and pictures that I have now spent time deciphering. He walked away so we sat wondering what had happened. Five minutes later he popped his head through the kitchen door and yelled, Come!
His pot was heating up next to his tin of well used spices. With ten minutes of him repeating what he had told us in between the constant advice of Stirring! Stirring! Stirring! our meal was ready. He sat with us while we ate, only leaving to grab a plate so he could criticise his own meal, but there was nothing to criticise. It was delicious.
We walked off our curry bellies with one last stroll through the the alleyways before opting for the only ATM we could trust in the city (the one our fellow cow was patiently waiting at) before heading back to Kedar Guesthouse where we chatted with Virendra , the owner, about our lesson at Shiva Restaurant and it turned out they were friends. Within seconds we were washing our hands in his kitchen for an impromptu lesson in making chappati. Within minutes they were done, moistened with butter and wrapped in foil for us to take on the train to Kolkata for a picnic.