2 Weeks in India | 36 Hours in Varanasi & Video Diary

The third city we tackled was Varanasi. To be perfectly honest, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. It was a pretty traumatizing experience for us. It was the first place we encountered poverty up close, it was a huge culture shock for us, and just overall, it was pretty uncomfortable. That being said, I was still able to appreciate the beautiful side, we saw many amazing things, and I ended up learning a lot about Hinduism.

Plus, this is the reason I like to travel. I don't want to be someone who is so stuck in her own little bubble. I want to know more about the world, understand that there are people and places different from what I already know, and I want to grow as a human.
I actually feel like I could devote several posts to this one place even though we really only spent a day and a half there. I could write an entire post trying to convey my emotions in this place. But, I'm condensing it into one post because I don't want to let myself dwell on anything unnecessary.
Our flight was really easy but we landed pretty late and there was a shortage of cabs. We managed to get one of the last ones. Our annoying, terrible cab driver charged us random fees and was really just a terrible human.

We arrived on the evening before Holi, which is known as Holika Dahan. The people burn bonfires which is meant to represent the burning of Holika, a.k.a. the devil. So our first exposure to the city was huge pyres everywhere and just random fires burning in the streets.
We stayed at the Palace on Ganges. While we were booking the trip, we didn't know that we'd be here during Holi and we actually had trouble finding lodging and ended up booking this place because it fit our price range and seemed to have decent reviews. I think the hotel itself was v. basic and nothing to write home about, but we did appreciate its location. It's located in Assi Ghat, which is basically the southernmost ghat, and I think that's the best place to stay. It's quieter and less crowded.

We were hungry but unwilling to venture out of our hotel because our unfamiliar surroundings made us a little nervous so we opted to eat at the rooftop of our hotel. This was also our first exposure to mosquitos. The second we sat down at our table, our ankles were being eaten alive.

The food was just so-so. We ordered paneer saagwala (with spinach) and lentils makhani; we decided to stick to vegetarian food because we were a little nervous about the cleanliness of the kitchen. This entire meal, which included naan and a huge pile of rice, only cost maybe $5 total.
Our room was fine. The air conditioning worked, the shower had decent pressure, and there was free wifi, but only for up to 2 users but we were able to hack the system so it was fine.
After we settled in, we decided to explore our neighborhood a little. The pyre that had been unlit when we'd arrived was being lit and kids were throwing random things into it. We also saw stray dogs and there were cows everywhere. It wasn't long before we got a little too overwhelmed and nervous (I almost had a panic attack but held it together for the sake of my friends) and we headed back in to just relax and get some rest.
The next morning, I woke up because I could hear shouting and music. This was Holi, the festival of colors and celebration of spring. I asked our hotel reception what they thought we should do and they warned us that girls will get unwanted attention and that it was best that we stayed inside until around 2PM when things calmed down. We didn't want to get stuck indoors and our hotel rooftop wasn't that exciting so we decided to go a couple doors down to another hotel to use their rooftop. I called ahead and got permission so we got ready and walked over. Because the madness hadn't quite set in yet, we were really safe walking over.
This hotel was really quaint and I wished we'd been able to stay here. But being able to use the rooftop was great. It was actually really beautiful. There were loads of flowers and seating and because it was nice and high up, there was a nice breeze.
We got breakfast at the hotel, which included a delicious bowl of muesli with yogurt. I cut up a banana into mine and drizzled generously with honey and it was awesome.
And of course, I had a masala chai to accompany my breakfast, along with a mango juice which was like biting into a perfectly ripe mango.
After breakfast, we went back up to the rooftop to watch the crowds growing. Someone started playing music, people were dancing, and the colors really started flying.
We wanted to maybe experience what it was like in the crowds before it got too crazy so we actually went down and walked around a little while it was relatively tame. Afterall, we saw other tourists doing it and having a great time. We had dressed in garbage clothes that could be thrown out, just in case, and that was a good thing because we ventured into an alleyway and even though we asked that they leave us alone, some kids used a water gun to shoot bright purple at us.
J actually took the brunt of the "abuse" which worked out well for us girls. He was a great sport about it so a lot of people were coming up and asking to get his face. I really only got hit in the sleeve by the kid with the water gun and later a guy asked to put some colors on my face but I politely told him no and offered him my hand instead, which he took as an acceptable alternative. D was adamant about not getting colored and she was wearing black so even if she'd gotten hit by the water gun, no one could tell.

We went back to our hotel to wash up a little and then headed back to our beloved rooftop.

We had a great time people watching, we played our own music on the rooftop and danced around, played games, and just enjoyed the sunshine.
At around noon, the police started chasing everyone out of Assi Ghat. We watched some people bathing in the Ganges but pretty soon the streets were empty and we felt save to venture out again. We tried so hard to find a place to get some lunch but everyone was closed for the holiday.
After several dozen phone calls, eventually, I managed to find a place that was open for dinner so we grabbed a tuk tuk and headed towards the main ghat.
We decided to stick around to watch the agni pooja (worship of fire) and aarti (prayer ceremony) at the Dashashwamedh Ghat (main ghat) before heading to dinner. Varanasi is known as the holy city - it's the holiest of the seven holy cities - and Hindus believe the Ganges is healing and restorative so the ceremony is performed on the river and it's supposed to be beautiful.
Unfortunately for us, it wasn't all that beautiful. I don't think we stuck around long enough to see all of the lights on the river but we just couldn't stay there. First of all, we were really annoyed by all of the people selling random knickknacks. There was one lady selling a holographic poster of Ganesha. Really? You guys are here to worship and you want to buy these tacky things? I just found it weird and not at all spiritual. Though, who am I to judge? There was also a flock of girls who were not-so-discreetly trying to take a selfie with us in the background. D and I kept moving away because it was just rude and irritating. Finally J humored them by making a silly face in their photo; it must've been satisfactory enough because they finally left us alone.
Also, we got there really early and found a spot to stand. People who came in much later, after the priest had started his singing, sat down behind us and then had the gall to ask us to please move because we were being rude by blocking their view. And the only spot we could move to was swarming with bugs because it was near a light pole. Ugh, it was just a frustrating experience all around, which wasn't helped by the fact that the three of us were hangry.
The bugs were bothersome so we left in search of food. We walked along the river, which was quiet and quaint.
Ganpati was one of the only places open so we just went for it. I'd kind of lost my appetite at that point but my body was obviously crying out for food so I got biryani just because I knew it would be a simple food to digest. D went for chow mein and J went all out and got thali. The food was decent; it wasn't anything to write home about but also it only cost $12.
After dinner, we had to make our way back to the main ghat to catch a tuk tuk back to the hotel. I guess a pipe burst or a sewer overflowed or something because the intersection of the road from the ghat to the main road was flooded with a foul-smelling liquid. There were some people that didn't seem to mind at all and were wading through it barefoot. However, those of us who didn't want to get some kind of infectious disease had to crowd over to the side. I have a mild case of agoraphobia so I started to freak out a little. D was basically in a full panic as well, especially after she almost stepped on a homeless man lying on the sidewalk and then subsequently stepped on a rag which she mistook for another homeless man. J, whether he was faking it or is really just a zen dude, was calm and guided us through it like a champ. We survived without getting trampled and without having to step in the nasty poo water and made it back to our hotel in one piece.

We woke up early the next morning so we could experience the morning aarti at Assi Ghat. It was beautiful and I definitely felt spiritual standing there watching the priests do their movements with the lanterns and incense. I also loved the beautiful singing of the young girls.
We wanted to be able to experience sunrise from the Ganga so we decided to skip out of aarti a little early and grabbed a boat. We haggled our way to ₹500 ($7.50) for a one way ride from Assi Ghat to Manikarnika Ghat. And actually, he asked us where we were from and when we told him we were Americans, he hassled us for a tip. We obliged and gave him another ₹50 (75¢), after all, he hauled our heavy asses in a row boat, rowing against the current.
It was serene and charming and beautiful experience. Be warned, there are mosquitos everywhere to be sure to bring some bug spray with you, or else you won't think it's a serene, charming, and a beautiful experience, at least in the beginning while it was still pretty quiet and uncrowded.
However, I do have to say, the Ganga is known for housing dead bodies, which I will explain further down below.
(This is not a dead body; it's just a guy swimming. But I found it equally repulsive.)
Manikarnika Ghat is where cremations are performed. The belief is that Varanasi has been inhabited for over 5,000 years and is one of the oldest cities on earth. The city is believed to be sacred and it is where Hindus prefer to die. It is the city of Shiva the Destroyer (the destroyer of evil, not some Godzilla-like creature stomping cities) and it is believed that if a person dies in Varanasi, they will be redeemed of all sins by Lord Shiva and by the cremation fire. Elderly people actually make pilgrimages to Varanasi and wait to die.
The cremation ceremony starts with a dip in the Ganges (the dead body is submerged) because the river is sacred and will wash away all sins. Then it is left to dry out for a few hours. Once substantially dry, it is placed on wood, additional wood is placed on top of the body (without the weight of this additional wood, the body will sit up from the heat) and it is cremated. The ashes are then dispersed into the river.

The cremation ceremonies are expensive because the wood costs money. So, families who cannot afford the ceremony will often just toss the dead body in the river. I read that the government introduced flesh-eating turtles into the Ganges to aid in dealing with the sheer amount of putrefying flesh in the water.

The ritual is horrible for pollution, it's unsanitary, and it's unsustainable (as it takes a lot of wood to cremate a body and resources will eventually dwindle and become more expensive). But it is important to the religion.
It's become somewhat of a tourist attraction. You're not supposed to take photos up close; the family of the deceased should not see you making a spectacle of the funeral. I took my photos with a zoom lens from afar and only observed once we were close enough.

The bodies are shrouded in an orange cloth before they're brought down so you never actually see anything too morbid. And actually, funerals in Hinduism are supposed to be a celebration because there will be a new journey for the departed soul. However, people still grieve and therefore, women are banned from the ceremonies as the men fear the women will be too emotional and prevent them from maintaining celebratory vibes.
Despite the fact that there are dead bodies in this river, people bathe in the river to cleanse themselves of their sins. It made me wonder, how sinful must they be to risk contracting a disease? But I also had to remind myself that the people are likely uneducated or their religiousness trumps whatever they know about the risks involved.
As we were wandering through the alleys trying to find a spot for breakfast, we saw a lot of garbage, a lot of cow poop, animals everywhere (including the monkeys in the photo below), and it was overwhelming. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when we came upon a seizing dog. J assured us he was not in pain but it shattered my heart. I couldn't control my tears and it was one of the most upsetting sights I've encountered; I'm not a big fan of humans but I am a huge fan of animals and it was horrifying to see one that was sick and unhappy. So like I said, Varanasi is not for the faint of heart; I think I'm faint of heart.
For breakfast, we went to a rooftop restaurant to continue to enjoy the sunrise. J and I got masala chai while D went for a coffee.
J had french toast, which he said was soggy, D went for toast, and I went for a tomato, mushroom, & cheese toast. It was pretty delicious.
After breakfast, we went to the famous Blue Lassi Shop.
We watched the proprietor meticulously preparing the lassi. He took curds and whipped it with a bit pestle along with some sugar and some other ingredients I didn't recognize.
We asked for a pineapple lassi and a banana, coconut, & chocolate lassi. Both were delicious. They were tart, lightly sweet, and incredibly creamy. I understand why it's worth the hype. However, I was so weirded out by the fact that these little ceramic cups are disposable.
After breakfast, we went back to our hotel to finish packing and we were off to the airport once again.
There weren't too many options for lunch but I got a pretty delicious paneer tikka panini while J and D each got a chicken tikka croissant.
And then we were off!

Here's my video diary: