A young sweaty rickshaw-wallah passed me down my backpack and insisted I follow him on foot through the narrow alleyways that buffer the Varanasi ghats (wide riverside steps). As respectfully as I could, I squeezed passed a convoy of the dead being carried to their flaming finale on the cremation ghats. As we arrived at my hotel the young wallah placed his hand on my shoulder and softly warned me, ‘don’t go out at night, you’ll be mugged, at gunpoint’. My eyes widened. I paid him his fare and silently turned away. He placed another hand on my shoulder, turned me around and looked at me once more, deeply in the eye. He looked away, taking a moment to compose himself before issuing his final statement, ‘tip, sir?’. I couldn’t possibly deny this morbid messenger, if he would of hugged me, I wouldn’t of let go. Where, I sobbed, was my mother when I needed her. I scurried into the hotel, and prepared for the evening lockdown.
I slept like a log – not such a good idea near the burning ghats – awaking in the morning to a soothing sound drifting through my window with the wailing prayers being carried on the morning mist of the holy Ganges. I listened excitedly for a few moments. It was the voice of a woman. It could of told me to tidy my room, and I would. If it told me my clothes were dirty, I’d of cleaned them. It could of told me to eat my greens, and I’d of gulped them down. Told me my hair needed a cut, and I’d of cut it. It could of told me to watch my pennies because the pounds will look after themselves, and I’d believe her. I threw on some clothes and unbolted the door, ‘mother!‘ I gasped. There she was, relaxed against a stairway across the courtyard chatting to some travellers beside my cheery dad (no doubt telling them to cut their hair, eat their greens and save their pennies). I skipped along the balcony and embraced them. Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Trail of Ants’ presents the month long guest appearance, of my dear mum and dad. To cut a long story short, they sold their house last year and now spend much of their time crisscrossing the globe and we found out recently that India would be home us all this November, so I’ll now be on my best behaviour until Christmas.
Returning to the point in hand, Varanasi is a city in the north of India where some Hindu people choose as their final resting place, in the belief that it breaks the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. It’s after being in this city that I can appreciate why they would go there to die. You can choose a variety of ways to call in the boatman in Varanasi; if you don’t fancy being run over by a rickshaw, a cow, an autorickshaw (engined three-wheeler) or a bus then you could take a walk down the street and be hounded to death by the touts of the aforementioned. Hundreds choose to bathe in the polluted Ganges to speed things along, some pray, some wash, some just drink the cocktail of government-funded euthanasia being pumped in from the 30 sewer pipes and human remains. If that doesn’t finish you, then you can always take a walk home through the ghats that evening, I know a rickshaw-wallah who could show you the ‘best’ spot to meet your maker. Varanasi is well equipped for those after a quick passage, and it was an experience to see it. At 5am one day we wound up in a boat as the three of us alternated rowing duty to transport our boat-wallah along the length of the spiritual ghats. The hive of activity was a fascinating wake up call, there was no hiding the fact that I was in India. I felt I’d stepped out of the protective window of Nepal and was stood high and fearful on the outer sill of northern India, while my serial-killing subconscious contemplated the double murder of my vertigo stricken body and it’s beloved soul.
Varanasi was the single worst place I’ve been to on the journey so far – it would take a novel to detail my distaste for it – and one that made previous monstrosities rise to near utopia status, as the train pulled out of Varanasi I had no regrets – not even for telling a rotund middle-aged man who was pushing me down the crammed train car aisle that if he ‘tells me to proceed, proceed one more time, I will proceed to bruise his ugly, chubby, gurgling face’, I then executed the Backpacker Bruiser in sublime fashion (sharply swinging round to topple the annoyance with my backpack). The smaller town of Khajurahao offered some post-Varanasty peace, it also proved that a single persistent tout is as bone-chillingly irritating as a bulging crowd of them. My patience was on trial, and in defense called my spirit and soul as witnesses. A pile of uplifting emails from more India-savvy friends was called as evidence and I eventually judged myself not guilty. The result being that I’ve begun to keep my friends close and my enemies closer, the touts are my new best friends and it’s been a refreshing approach. Khajurhao is home to a complex of temples famed for their erotic facades and discussing a stone carving of a man serving a horse was the most perfect way to catch up with my folks. Just how I’d imagined it.
I was warned before arriving in Agra that it was as bad as Varanasi, but the lure of the Taj Mahal meant the journey was unavoidable. To my relief, the warnings turned out to be false, and with my new inner-peace Agra has become a haven where I am able to start to appreciate India. It’s quiet(er) streets, chirpy and honest (mostly) wallahs, non-existent (almost) touts and all together more relaxed lifestyle has been a blessing. Agra Fort offered a fascinating glimpse of the period of the Mughal empire, as well as our first ogle at the distant Taj Mahal. The fort is a formidable red palatial structure designed to brutally withstand the most bloodthirsty of attacks, though it’s most memorable room for me was designed specifically for the King and Queen to play hide and seek. I’ll hide, I thought. The afternoon was a visit to the most famous ode to love in the world, the sublime Taj Mahal. My expectations were extremely high, and I was far from disappointed. The magnificent white marble mausoleum defied belief, it stood upon it’s plinth, innocently showing off to crowds of excited visitors. The setting sun caused the tomb to radiantly glow, like an ornate serving of the finest vanilla ice cream, the scattered crowds of vibrant saris finished the treat off, as though acting as a scrumptious sprinkling of multicoloured hundreds-and-thousands. A monument to love, that has helped me begin to forgive an India riddled with sin.