Our first three days in Varanasi have been very hectic, a whirlwind of activity, with today in particular being quite crazy. After settling into our hotel room, which is standard, simple and small, yet functional, we took our much-needed showers before treating ourselves to our hotel's pristine view of the Ganges River. Hotel Alka is near Meer Ghat, which means it is in the northerly third of the river ghat area, which stretches for around 4 km. So we can see a lot of action right from where we are staying, since at around 15 meters above the main walkways one has a pretty nice view for prime people watching. Much of being in Varanasi is the odyssey that any excursion turns into, as the narrow pathways are cramped and packed, not just with pedestrians, but also animals and, frustratingly, even motorcycles and scooters as well.
For dinner we decided to check out Ganga Fuji, one of several restaurants advertising "free nightly live classical Indian music." While we feared a repeat of our boring but brief stint at a Nepali culture show in Pokhara, we were instead rewarded with a very decent concert, though it clocked in at just around an hour. Nonetheless, wood flute with a tabla accompaniment went well with our dinner, and the food was also above average. Of course our request for "spicy" fell on deaf ears, as it seems to more often than not. Hard to believe, but no one in the subcontinent seems to believe we whities can handle the heat. Apparently too many previous travelers have been scared off by authentic zesty flavors. Please, don't come to India if you cannot handle eating real Indian food :-)
We then recovered from our train journey by sleeping in, just a bit, and then proceeded to get lost en route to the internet. We turned our misadventure into an excuse for some ice cream, with bountiful walking on either side, and when we did finally make it to an Iway, we certainly appreciated the A/C more than we would have otherwise. After failing, again unfortunately, to make any real progress on photo uploads, we then had a rooftop lunch. Once the heat of the day had finally passed, we unironically journeyed to the main burning ghat, Manikarnika, unsure of what our first experience of Hinduism's ritualistic public cremations would be. We cautiously followed an obvious tout onto a rooftop (but resisting his karma-based sales pitch - for funereal wood for elderly women - wasn't too challenging), and soaked up the scene for a decent while. It was very interesting, and not at all sad but rather quite serene. People's bodies, wrapped in colored cloth, are dipped in the holy waters of the Ganges, and then placed on a funeral pyre. For devout Hindus, being burnt at the edge of the Ganges means they escape our current cycle of life, thus making Manikarnika one of the holier, and therefore busier, ghats. Only men are present for the cremation, because women cannot handle being there, according to our talkative unrequested guide. The burnings take place 24 hours a day, every day, and each pyre's fire is started with dry grasses lit aflame by a 5,000 + year old flame first sparked by Shiva.
A little while later we wandered over to a less morbid nightly ritual, the Mother Ganges ceremony, at Dasaswamedh ghat, the main hub for activity along the river. While a live band played, bells were constantly sounded by rows of older men, while younger men in front of them waved incense sticks, tossed flower petals, and then switched over to holding fiery candelabras, all the while chiming additional bells. Quite a large crowd was present, which also meant touts were thick (selling postcards, henna/stamp kits, nighttime boat rides, etc.), as were beggars, but such things merely contribute to the crazy carnival atmosphere. Every night at 7:30 the tradition occurs, we'll probably go back again tonight to see how the crowd can vary, if at all. All this takes place on stone steps at the edge of the river, with the music at full blast (and therefore typically distorted), and numerous lights flashing - both cheesy Vegas style lights above the bell-ringers, and the just about constant flash photography. Women were also involved in the ceremony at the beginning, playing drums and perhaps another type of instrument (our vantage point wasn't the best :-). Afterwards, for dinner, we grabbed a cheap 20 Rs thali, within the depths of Varanasi's endless paths. On the way back home, we grabbed some amazing ghee-based desserts, all sweet and super-sugary - a small box-full for 35 Rs.
Earlier in the day we'd made plans to share a boat ride the next morning with another tourist at our hotel, so that meant we awoke a bit after 4:30 am, and a little after 5 we were down by the water, trying to find a low-pressure boatman. Procuring one was none too difficult, though we had to walk up a few ghats to find one. For 150 Rs the three of us got a 1.5 hour boat, which meant we saw about half of the Ganges ghats. We were rowed by a total of two cremation ghats, which were of course still operational, but the real excitement was possessed by all of the early bathers, frolicking in the (disgusting and seriously polluted) water. Children of all ages, as the phrase goes (though with our opinions on typical Indian maturity levels that isn't really too inappropriate a statement), were bathing, swimming, playing, racing, etc. This is in water that literally has sewers dumping into to it all times, while also being the home to many a dead body sunken to the bottom. Animals, pregnant women, children under 16, sadhus, & hijra, are all unable to be cremated for varying reasons, and are therefore sunk to the bottom of the holy Ganges instead. Dead body sightings aren't uncommon, although we haven't seen any yet. We are pretty sure we saw one on our wildlife-watching rafting trip in Nepal, but we're not 100% sure...
After a quick breakfast at our hotel, mostly made up of deliciously in-season mangoes, we decided to venture down to Heritage Hospital, so Liz could get her needed 3rd Hepatitis B shot. She had the first 2 while in the States, and the year is almost up during which she needed the final booster. After swinging by the ATM, we rode a rickshaw to the hospital, and that's when pandemonium struck. We quickly, but not quite quickly enough, realized we had left our bag in our rickshaw! Nothing of value, per se, just all of our photos from Nepal. Liz was already being processed by the hospital, so Anderson got to run from rickshaw to rickshaw, looking for our bright blue bag. Apparently our karma must be good, and our driver's definitely was, because after about 15 minutes he returned, much to our amazement! Clearly an amazing stroke of luck on our part, we don't know if we could have ever found that same rickshaw again, never mind actually retrieve our bag, and its personally precious contents. All that was inside was our camera case, devoid of the camera - but with all the other components and cards, and our two notebooks, but that basically means all of our memories of Nepal. So thank you, thank you, thank you, anonymous Varanasi rickshaw driver (& friend), I hope the baksheesh was appropriately appreciated!
After that avoided disaster, Liz's shot seemed like no big deal, and it indeed wasn't, as Heritage Hospital was very clean and professional. We got bounced around a little bit, first needing to get a prescription from one doctor, which was filled reasonably quick by the pharmacy, for the booster shot and a disposable (clean) needle. Once in the actual doctor's office, we found out we also needed to buy some sanitary gloves, but obviously we happily did so. Shot went fine, no mark left mere hours later, and a minor arm massage was even included for free! Total cost: around 900 Rs (530 for foreign tourist treatment, 350 for shot, needle, and gloves), just over $20. Total time: 1.5 hours. Total heart attacks: 2, because even we are stupid rookies on occasion :-).
From there we headed to Benares Hindu University museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan, which is "a famous museum of rare collections" according to Wikipedia, though we were far from blown away, although not exactly at full attention due to our already long day and the oppressive heat. Still, the museum houses a fine group of miniature paintings, plus Hindu statues, antique jewels (stored in a bank-type vault), plenty of coins, plus galleries of donated materials from Fred Pinn, a British collector, and Alice Boner, a famous sculpter/painter from Switzerland who was strongly influenced by India. The Boner gallery, if you will, was definitely the most finely presented, with the featured highlight being a massive tryptich of three Hindu deities.
On our way back home we tried a guide-recommended restaurant with an unusual Middle Eastern thali, wasn't all-you-can-eat as we had hoped, but still very filling and flavorful, with 70 Rs getting you two overflowing pitas (once you bought an extra pita, of course :-). Again the rickshaw god - probably Ganesha - was on our side, as we got to share a ride with some Indians back to the main "Old City" for much less than the usual tourist price. Then another fully rewarding shower, and now these finger excretions...
We'll be in Varanasi for another few days, have to mail Jordan her package, as well as soak up all the spirituality that we can!