I had heard that Varanassi was the epitome of an India experience and was a must see town on the travelers route heading towards Nepal. It was said to be all at once beautiful and disgusting. If you wanted a taste of the real India, this was the place to go. Be prepared however people warned, it is overwhelming. Not just the sights, but the smells, the touts, and everyone in the town!
Coming in on a 12 hour train ride that was delayed a further five hours, I fought my way through the hotel touts and moto rickshaw drivers and managed to get to a point where I could walk down the maze of narrow alley ways toward my hotel. Fortunately a man on the street began talking to me and leading the way. At first I was reluctant as this type of person is usually after a commission from bringing you to the hotel you want to stay at. Without him however, I would still be out wandering the streets.
I arrived at a dirty hotel, as dirty as any I have ever been in but the roof top restaurant that overlooked the city made up for it and most likely I would only be here for a couple of days anyway so that didn't really matter to me, at least not to much. After recharging my body on a ridiculous amount of food at the restaurant, I decided to take a sunset stroll along the riverside ghats (bathing and washing areas). I could see smoke coming from the closest ghat to my hotel and I assumed that this was the ghat I had heard they burned bodies at. A few turns through the alley and there I was, immersed in the middle of a giant outdoor crematorium. People from all over India were burning the bodies of their loved ones while others were still waiting for their turn in the hospice building that overlooked the ghat. A man began explaining to me the different processes the families went through with the bodies and how much money it costs to burn each body with the special wood while all the conversation, ash from the burning corpses rained down upon my head.
After being persuaded to make a small donation to the hospice to help pay for funeral wood, I found myself in the middle of some kind of a religious procession marching down a narrow alley way. Along the way there were stones that people touched, shrines that were kissed and bells that were rung. I never determined where it was going as I turned back toward the river at the first chance I had. Alongside the river again I found myself immersed in a crowd of people bathing, swimming and washing in the Ganges river. Keep in mind now that this river has over 30 sewer systems flowing into it just upstream from the city. It is supposed to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet people from all over India come to bathe, wash, drink and sink the bodies of their loved ones into it.
I was enjoying all of the activities of the historic ghats of this holy city but since I was feeling tired, I sat down on some steps overlooking the river to take a break. As I looked out at the river, an old woman dressed in a beautiful purple sari walked down to the edge of the stairs on the riverside. She turned around to face me and then squatted over the water. As there is urine covering almost every inch of ground in the city as well as enough cow shit to make you feel like you are walking through an obstacle course, I figured she was just being polite and urinating in the river. The fact that people nearby were scooping water out with their hands and drinking it didn't seem to matter to anyone and she continued squatting. After a minute, it occurred to me she had been squatting a bit too long to be just urinating. A few more minutes passed and she finally stood up and walked off. Left in her place was exactly what you would you would expect, an armada of little chocolate boats! As they floated toward the people who were drinking the water and swimming, I couldn't bear to watch so I began the confusing journey through the twisting maze of alley ways that lead in the direction of my hotel.