Thanks to the recommendation of a girlfriend, I chose to skip the third corner of the Golden Triangle, Jaipur, in favor of spending two days in Varanasi, the holiest city in India. It was absolutely the right decision.
Varanasi was an incredible experience for me. So far on this trip, I have been to Mcleod Ganj (Dharamsala), which is a mixture of mainly Tibetan and Western cultures. I also spent a week in Rishikesh, which is basically a city of Ashrams filled with Western travelers. Varanasi was my first true taste of India. The noise, smells and sights. Unlike the other cities, Varanasi doesn’t give the sense that it would crumble if all of the tourists suddenly decided to pack up and leave.
It is heading towards bilstering hot season, which means that Westerners are few and far between, headed off to the north of India where I came from. I was lucky that a Aaf, a Dutch girl I met in Rishikesh, was also traveling to Varanasi for a few days, so we were able to coordinate and spend some time together seeing the city for my only full day in Varanasi.
Aaf was staying at Sameer Guest House in the Shiwala neighborbood of Varanasi. Although her room reminded me a little of a closet, she was getting an incredible deal at only 100 rupees ($2USD) per night. In addition, the staff at her guesthouse were wonderful. They picked her up from the train station, helped us navigate the city and at the end of my time in Varanasi, one of the guys took me to the bus station on his moped – even though I wasn’t actually a guest! That brings me to one of my favorite things about Varanasi – the people. Varanasi is full of incredibly kind, incredibly helpful people who bent over backwards to make sure I enjoyed my time in their city. From my couchsurfing hosts, to the Sameer Guest House staff, to the apple pie master at Pizzeria restaurant, they always managed to make me feel like more than a walking ATM. There is a lot of pride in the city and it shows.
One of the staff at Sameer Guest House offered to accompany us for the day to show us a local perspective of Varanasi. He insisted that he didn’t need payment, that he wasn’t a guide, but a friend. Thanks to Sonu, we had a great day seeing the sites of Varanasi. I was craving an American breakfast, so Sonu took us to Pizzeria, a place known for its wood fired pizzas and its homemade apple pie. Even though it was breakfast, Aaf and I couldn’t resist splitting a piece of pie. The pie came warm and, much to my amazement, was incredible! I ended up talking to the baker and he was happy to give me the recipe. I scribbled down all of the ingredients and I am going to try to replicate the pie when I get home. My suspicions are that this will be impossible! In my two days in Varanasi, I managed to consume three pieces of pie! How’s that for coming off of my “cleanse” in Rishikesh!?
Next, we wandered the streets of Varanasi, and stopped in to visit Sonu’s family and girlfriend. Varanasi has many windy, cobbled streets with colorful buildings, reminding me of some of my other favorite cities in the world, Antigua, Guatemala and Trinidad, Cuba. The only drawback was the incessant honking of the mopeds as they tried to dodge all of the cycle rikshaws and pedestrians that clog the streets. Talk about obnoxious!
We also managed to get in the way of as a parade of school children marched toward our cycle rikshaw that was parked on the side of the road. Instead of maneuvering around us, the headmaster exchanged angry words with our driver and we were forced to move out of the way.
Varanasi is one of the best places to buy silk in India. As we wandered the streets, we came across house after house where the weavers were hard at work hand weaving sari fabric, scarves, and bedcovers. We stopped in a little factory shop to check out the silk for ourselves. It was fun to see all of the brightly colored fabrics and we even got to play dress up. I ended up buying the fabric you see me wearing. I’m planning to take it to a tailor in Delhi and get a silk robe and a Western-style dress made from it.
We had a late lunch at the tad overpriced but very delicious Open Hand Café, which is a nonprofit that supports a group of disenfranchised India women who are victims of everything from HIV to domestic abuse. The café itself sells traditional handicrafts and a smorgasbord of Western goodies including filter coffee, homemade muffins, and ice cream.
Even though I was only in Varanasi for two days, it crept into my heart and will definitely be one of my favorite places in India.