“It doesn’t pay to go over old ground, especially if it’s Varanasi”, says Jane Howard.
What was I thinking going back to Varanasi?
I’d been there 35 years ago and all I could remember was that amazing scene of bodies being burned beside the Ganges, but nothing of the city itself.
As soon as I got there I realised there was a reason for that. It is so awful that I had expunged it from my memory.
Ten minutes after arriving I was planning my escape. Varanasi might be the holiest place in India, but Nirvana it certainly is not, although that was the name of the room I was locked into at the start of what I thought would be three relaxing days.
It had read so well online: organic cafe, yoga classes, view of the river, simple rooms but with own bathroom (NB: I’m past sharing.)
Let me tell you, Nirvana wasn’t that heavenly, more in keeping with Cell Block H from Prisoner.
No truly: bars on the window, and the much-touted view of the Ganges was across a wasteland crowded with cows, pigs, buffalo, dogs, kids, families, teenage gangs, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks, all making as much noise as they could.
Thank God – note the use of the singular not the plural here, (more on that later) – for my noise-cancelling headphones… and drugs – note the plural there.
When I ventured out to do the river thing again I was given the biggest lock I’ve ever seen to secure the door – can’t trust those yogis obviously – plus there were bolts on the inside. Presumably so that when you lie down on some very questionable sheets (“Thread count?” I hear you ask. “None, I’d say) you feel safe. Not so. All I could think of was that if the air-conditioning unit, which had a serious leak, burst into flames I’d never get out, especially given the amount of valium I had taken to sleep.
And to make matters worse, the resident yoga master had obviously become enlightened and done a runner to the Big Smoke to make some real money. His replacement, the chef, of whom it must be said was a very good advertisement for his own cooking, had stepped into the role.
The prospect of the chef-turned-yoga master doing a headstand with his shirt flapping open to reveal his belly was just one vision too many for me, hence my decision to flee.
I had time to fill after booking the new place, so the chef/yoga master kindly sorted a guide for me; his cousin I’m sure, but a sweet bloke, very serious and knowledgeable about his religion’s 333 million gods. You read that right. There are millions of them.
It was when he started to quiz me on which god was which that I decided it was time to immediately pull up stumps on my attempt to prove I am a traveller not a tourist.
So I fled the ‘authentic guesthouse’ on the banks of the Ganges for a five-star resort in a guarded enclave that was as far away from being authentic Indian as I am a serious traveller interested in gods.
How happy I was in this enclave of excess with its infinity pool and choice of French and Californian wines. We’re talking pig-in-sh#t territory. That’s metaphorically speaking, but I did see plenty of the real things beyond the barriers surrounding the hotel. The heavily-armed, soldier-types guarding the hotel told me they’d gladly shoot any pigs on the site, on sight, as per my request; or indeed any guides wanting to question me about gods.
If you are judging me harshly, compare the respective views from my two different rooms and decide which one is your vision of Nirvana. Another time I will tell you about the throbbing red monkey bums on full view in yet another temple my guide and I visited. I fear monkeys, believe they are evil creatures to be avoided at all costs and even though I told the guide how I felt, he insisted on taking me to the monkey temple. “Very important god,” he explained.
God help me. But I can’t revisit that memory yet without retching.