Friday, 12 November 2010

1. Varanasi - It's a New Dawn

It was with a heavy heart that we left Nepal today. I have so loved everything about the experience. Even the challenging bits. Sure there was dirt, pollution and poverty, lots of all of it. But within it all the vibrant and beautiful place shone through. The people are reserved but friendly and you can tell they warm the more you get to know them. What little we saw of the country, was bursting with energy and also a peacefulness that seemed impossible with all the madness around. I also enjoyed the tourist and traveller energy. No doubt without the millions of travelers before us, there wouldn't have been the great places we ate in and the little supermarket that sold all our daily needs. Also, all you needed to do to find safe spots to eat or interesting places to go was follow the white faces.

We got to the airport a little later than planned (no surprises there) and were the last to check our baggage. The man at the counter assured us that we had some of the best seats on the plane as we would have views of Everest (which the pilot didn't point out so I'm unsure if the massive snow capped mountain in saw in the distance was it). We checked our baggage and went through the security where they x-rayed our bags then searched through them and patted us down. This seems to be a theme when leaving Nepal. By the time we finally got on the plane they had searched and patted us down 5 times. At one point we had walked through one security check, down a corridor with nothing in it, to another bag check and pat down. Trish exclaimed that it would probably save a lot of time if they just hired one person that they believed would do a really good job. Instead of 5 people who they don't seem to think had done a good enough job the first time.

While we were waiting for our flight to begin boarding Trish found something she wanted to buy. As she was quickly trying to finalize her last purchase a man came past saying it was last call for the flight to Varanasi. As she went to sign the receipt she noticed there had been a misunderstanding about the price and needed to cancel the transaction. Unfortunately the payment (by credit card) had already gone through. 20 VERY intense minutes later, the transaction was cancelled and we headed onto the terminal, frantically hoping we hadn't missed our flight. Lucky for us the flight was, in true Nepali style, running late and we had plenty of time.

The plane ride with Indian Air was ... interesting. Firstly the plane didn't seem in the best condition. But also as it started up both Trish and I exclaimed that we smelt smoke. It was nothing but it was the first flight in a long time where I felt very tentative about our take off and landing.

And then 45 minutes later we were in India. The hotel had orgainsed a car to pick us up, which made life easier. And an old man in a little van started our drive to Varanasi We hadnt realized how far out of Varanasi the airport was and so for the first 1/2 an hour we had both been thinking to ourselves "if this is Varanasi, then compared to Kathmandu, this is easy" ... oh well you live and learn.

The car dropped us in New Varanasi and we started the walk to old Varanasi. By this time both of us had realized that the stories we had heard were right ... and hugely underestimated. This city is vast and dirty and so very busy. The air is so thick with pollution that you cannot see any blue in the sky. The ground is running with dubious looking water and covered in rubbish and cow pats. And the people are busy and abrupt.

If we had thought the cars and bikes in Nepal were wild. Here they are even more so. Their tinny ring actually hurts your ears. And the bikes drive down these tiny streets barely big enough for two people to walk side by side.

When we arrived, a young boy named Sunil walked us to the Hotel Alka. He asked if we needed a guide. And on the spot we said yes! Funnily, when we were on the plane we had scoffed at a story that a woman had told Trish about her guide. Actually saying we couldn't imagine getting a guide, because (of course) we would figure it out.

One step into old Varanasi we realized how wrong we were. In these narrow dark streets we would have gotten turned around and not been able to find our way to the ghats, let alone out hotel.

Sunil spent the next three hours showing us around and helping us get the few bits that we needed. We asked him to help us find something like a supermarket. Not knowing if such a thing exists. He lead us to this tiny hole in the wall store front that sold a lot of your basic needs all packed into a shop smaller than the size of most toilet rooms.

We organised to meet Sunil the next morning in front of the hotel (we were pretty sure we could find that). And settled in to getting acquainted with our home for the next five days.

The Hotel Alka is basic cheap and clean. It lacks the traveller vibe we were both hoping for but is central to most of old Varanasi and has a direct stairway to the ghats. Our hot water doesn't work but seeing it's so hot, it doesn't bother us enough to talk to management.

It's is Diwali tomorrow and the festive spirit is already in swing. Firecrackers and bangers that sound like a bomb has gone off next to you are already being set off regularly. It adds to the chaos of what I am feeling because every 5 minutes I almost jump out of my skin.

I'm looking forward to waking tomorrow and seeing this place with fresh eyes. I wonder how long it will take me to find my groove? Or will I still feel like a rabbit in the head lights when we leave? I guess time will tell.

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