I only come to Varanasi because I get on the wrong train in Delhi. Train journeys in India bring a lot of pitfalls. I get on the train, which is on the right track at the right time, carries the right train number and still drives to the wrong place. I planned to travel from Delhi to Gorakhpur, stay there for one night and then board the bus to the Nepalese border. As my fellow Indian travellers explain, karma has intervened. Fortunately, the train doesn't go in a different direction, just to a more beautiful place. When I get out, I see a white couple, and since I have had no time to get informed about the local hostel situation, I join them.
Together, we fight against the shamelessly lying rickshaw agents who try to stuff us in rickshaws and drive us to the hotel of THEIR choice (they get a commission). It's a battle of strength. Here their strategy is, ask often enough and apply pressure. Then the tourist will do whatever you want. But not me. I get very sharp, so sharp, that my French companions look at me in surprise. Since Iran, I have lost any interest in being or to be thought of as polite. I don't give a f ***. But that doesn't help either. Our tormentor plays the who-has-the-longest-breath-game.
When our taxi finally arrives, we have survived the worst. Again, I don't trust the taxi driver either, but at least I can check up on him with my phone. He takes us to where we want to go. When we arrive, everything smells rotten. We walk past tiny craft shops, see men and women sitting on small looms and little children playing with stones. In many places, we see rotting or dried orange marigold blossoms. After some wrong attempts, we arrive at our hostel. Our guesthouse has a French name and hides behind a blue wooden door. Once we're inside, the foul smell is gone, we're standing on white pebbles and are welcomed by friendly faces.
Varanasi is considered one of the religious centres of the country. I decided not to visit it because I feared that the tourists coming here were a disagreeable mix of dreadlocks wearing, grass-smoking idiots. I was right. I see how Europeans pseudo-spiritually talk to Sadhu's (called "holy men" who live austere ascetic lives, recognisable by their often orange or white shawls, dreadlocks, and facial colours), smoke grass, and climb the sacred stairs. Varanasi is a drug-drenched hole. Once again my compatriots make me speechless. I judge their behaviour to be superficial, romanticised and culturally insensitive.
The so-called ghats are exciting places, however. Here, the Hindus perform their ritual ablutions in the Ganges, where the bodies of the deceased are burned as well. Life and death exist hand in hand. Between the flames of the cremations young men run to stoke the fire, cows eat the marigold garlands from the graves, and children fly small paper kites. Life is mourned and celebrated simultaneously. Every day is a feast.
The Ganges is the dirtiest river I've ever seen. And yet, in my photos, it looks as if he had a dreamlike turquoise colour. The actual colour of the water, a brown-yellow with a greenish tint, becomes one of the most beautiful colours ever, due to the reflection of the clouds. Varanasi looks so much more beautiful in my pictures than it is. Never trust an image.