Thoughts on Varanassi

chat.jpgVaranasi: most holy city in India, seat of learning, and also where people prey the most on the average traveler. It is amazing how many travelers have stories about this, it is almost a rite of passage. It sort of tells everyone: “Ah, he has been bloodied in battle, now you are really ready for the rest of your trip.”

Varanasi is an amazing city, no doubt. If you don’t know which city this is, it is the one were everyone hopes to go to bathe in the Ganges River and there are several ghats (Riverside Temples for lack of better words) two of which are were bodies are burned before the ashes are sent to the river. It is a hard city for travelers because you can’t actually just wander and explore the ghats due to the very aggressive beggers, guides, and “people that just want to be friends” and are in fact guides.

onganges.jpgIt is very easy to leave feeling like everyone is trying to extract as much cash as possible from you, no matter what. My getting cheated was due to a very poor recommendation on the part of my travel agency, but a small bump. I am most fond of being in India when I am alone just wandering in the bazars. Not even the buying, I have no skill at negotiation in the shops and if someone drops a price from 540r to 500r, I am doing well (please note, that means $1). But tiny cheats don’t bother me. I just love the feel and the smells and even just riding about in the rickshaws. One day in Varanassi I spent just buying small things and posting some pictures that I promised people I took pictures of back to Maneybhjang. As I was getting my things posted, I was invited to sit and have some chai with the postmaster and I have no idea why. I had not packaged my things properly, and they asked me to come sit behind the counter, got someone to package my things, ordered chai from the stall across the street while a line grew of angry tourists from other countries.So, we had tea, paid for my packages and left with smiles all around… well, not from the other tourists.

vboat.jpgI have no idea why this happened, but it was a nice way to start the day. Later that night, I scheduled to head back to Delhi (depending on the whims of the train god), and my seedy little “Hotel Relax”. I still had to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, as they note it in your passport and you are not allowed to leave India without seeing it.

I spent much of my time on the train reading “India Unbound” by Gurcharan Das, an excellent book on the history of the Indian economy to the present from the perspective of someone that has lived it his entire life. It is interesting to overlay the book with my experiences on the street level here. It is hard to imagine how the great growth India is seeing in major cities will extend both downward on the economic ladder and across. On the one hand this is the time of the great Indian Start Up Company. On the other, you cannot help but see the day to day attitude of “the only way to get ahead is to take advantage of others”. By others I don’t mean tourists, I mean “everyone but the people living in my own home”. If local inter-cities economies cannot be created in such a way that pricing is transparent to consumers, which leads to open and healthy competition based on a number of factors and not just price, then I fear that the motivated commercial cities of India will be the only ones to join and reap the benefits of being on a larger economic stage.

For your amusement, here is a picture of a water buffalo: