India Varanasi 2001.12.03 - 12.07

Kathmandu to Varanasi

Our expensive bus ticket from Kathmandu to Varanasi was supposed to be for a luxury bus with one transfer at the border town of Sonauli. Both "expensive" and "luxury" being relative terms, we were happy with the dirty Nepali night bus with partially broken padded reclining seats. We could sleep. At the border, we rode a bicycle rickshaw from the littered Nepali side to the disgustingly polluted Indian side. We were shocked at the amount of rubbish and cow manure covering the Indian street in Sonauli. More shocking was that conditions worsened as we moved inland.

On the Indian side of Sonauli, we and the other tourists were loaded onto a filthy dilapidated local bus with broken hard wooden seats. Everyone complained, but we were soon convinced that this was the only bus running to Varanasi that day. Peering out the grime coated window, we watched the littered countryside slowly pass by as the bus made repeated stops to tightly pack local travelers into our "direct luxury tourist bus". 12 hours later (from the border) with sore butts, we disembarked in Varanasi.

In Varanasi, the pollution was shocking. We saw our first living sewer. Sections of walkway along the bank of the holy Ganges River were piled high in human feces and soaked in human urine. Raw sewage slimed into the holy river. 50 meters downstream, people submerged themselves, washing their faces and rinsing their mouths. One Japanese man we met who returns to bathe in the Ganges for 3 months every year claimed that the fact he hasn't become sick proves the magical and holy properties of the Ganges River.

Rickshaw drivers in every country pull the same scam. We agreed to be taken to Vishnu Rest House for 20 INR. 5 kilometers later in the general neighborhood, the driver stops at Sunshine Hotel. Pointing at the adjacent boarded up building, he says, "Vishnu closed, but Sunshine good." We simply responded, "We agreed to pay 20 Rupees at Vishnu, but since this isn't Vishnu, we'll pay zero," and judging the direction from our rudimentary Lonely Planet map of Varanasi, started walking off. Hurrying after us, the rickshaw driver feigned that we made the mistake. "Oh! Vishnu Rest House. Before you said, 'Vishnu Guest House'. I will take you there." "No, we'll walk," we toyed with him. 200 meters later near the Vishnu Rest House, we decided we wanted the driver to go his separate way. "Here's your 20 Rupees. Next time if you take us where we agree to go, maybe we'll even give you a tip."

"When choosing accommodation, remember that having a haven is essential in India," we were advised. This advice proved to be true. In Varanasi, the Vishnu Rest House was full but the receptionist directed us to the adjacent family-run Homy Guest. With basic but adequate rooms and daily freshly prepared vegetarian meals, we could escape the commotion of Varanasi at Homy Guest, casually talking with the family and other guests while sipping a delicious lassi (yogurt drink) or ice coffee. Six times the price of Homy Guest but ten times more luxurious, we found another haven in Jaipur at Madhuban. Having a sanctuary where the freshness of food and honesty of staff can be trusted makes the Indian experience all the more tolerable.

As the sun rises over the Ganges River, the devout bathe in the polluted water as part of a cleansing ritual.

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