…….The World Without Boundaries

Exploring Varanasi

Written By: jipp - Jul• 06•19

Bhadra Khali Guest House

The hotel was Bhadra Khali Guest House. I found it on Booking.com with excellent reviews. Since the room that I booked was so cheap, I was not surprised when the guy at the counter told me that the one that I had booked was a non-airconditioned room. He offered to give me one with air-con, with additional RM75 to the bill for 3 nights. I was there when the heat was making news all over, with the temperature at some places in India had soared to 50℃. That temperature is a no-joke. Considering that I may spend much of my time in the room (thanks God they had a good internet connection!), I agreed to get the one with an air-con.

Bhadra Khali Guest House met most of the good reviews that I had read about it on the internet. The staff were super-welcoming. The owner was there too most of the time. Opening up to a conversation that I started, he told me that he was in the UK for 20 years but had to come back to Varanasi because nobody was taking care of the hotel. We exchanged views on India and the people, which was one of my favorite topics of conversation. He told me how outsiders would think that everybody on the streets of India is poor when that is not quite the case. In fact some of them are millionaires but they mingle around with the crowds and you wouldn’t be able to tell which and which.

He also told me how that there is job for everybody in India, and those who can’t find a job are those who are lazy and want easy money. I gotta say I was taken aback when he said that but then he is a local there so he should know his people more than I do.

My favorite part of the hotel is the rooftop café. Unfortunately, the summer heat (yes, they call it summer) made it almost impossible to stay on the rooftop when the temperature was soaring high, and going there in the morning when the temperature was cool could expose me to a threat in the form of monkeys – or so I was warned by the staff. I was told that the monkeys could be quite aggressive so I had to be careful being around them. But I did manage to sneak out when they were not around and enjoyed the beautiful view of Ganges River from the atop the building. The view was breath-taking and the feeling was amazing.

One of the best things about Bhadra Khali Guest House was the location, which was very much near to the river. Walking out from it would be a quick access to the riverside and very near to the main temples where the puja ceremonies would take place in the evening every day. When I first came out to the river, I was instantly overwhelmed by the crowds, the sweeping views and the bustling atmosphere. Dozens of boats were docked at the riverside while dozens more were making their ways across and along the river. They really looked like they came straight out of a movie scene that I remember having watched, or probably from some book that I had read. 

The History

Varanasi is a city of a very long history. It is described on Wikipedia to be a city that dates back to the ancient time, when gods and goddesses were still roaming the earth and even fought against each other. In Hindu mythology, Varanasi is said to be the place where Shiva dropped Brahma’s chopped off head which then disappeared in the ground and holifed the whole area. In later eras, kings are known to have built temples and palaces in Varanasi and they are still very much there as a testament to its glorious past.

Exploring the streets of the old town of Varanasi can be quite confusing. It is a complex maze of streets that would likely send you tagging behind your own tail if you are not familiar with them. Quite a few times I lost my way and had to ask around, which was not easy since most of the locals could not speak or understand English. They’d point their finger to somewhere but it was more like they wanted to get rid of you the quickest possible.

The Smell

Just like in most major towns and cities in India, Varanasi is still struggling with littering problem. The buildings and the streets are so beautiful – even rivalling those in the old towns of, say, Europe and probably South America, and yet the piles of trash and the stench that comes with them is such a huge setback. The stench does really come from the piles of trash though. Instead it comes from the spitting of betel – which is a popular practice among the locals in Varanasi (and many parts of India).

Then the people of Varanasi seem to embrace their co-existence with animals, mostly cows and dogs so their disposals also make up most of the smell of the streets. That we did not see any cats all throughout our trip was one of my topic of conversation with my travel buddies when I went to India the first and second time. Seeing them in Varanasi and later in Kolkata was quite a surprise and delight to me. But still they were far fewer than the number of cows and dogs that I bumped into while walking on the streets in these two cities. They were literally everywhere.

I gotta admit that the smell of the streets of Varanasi was quite unbearable to me in the beginning, but as I spent more and more days in this bustling city, my nostrils kinda got used to it and I could finally accept the fact that all the smell was part of the characteristics of the city and in a way was part of its beauty. Heh. 

The Food

The quickest way of finding out the best restaurants in Varanasi is via Google – which would usually lead you to TripAdvisor. Desperate to get a good food in Varanasi (the hotel does cook but I had to stop ordering food when the cook seemed to cough incessantly, just for precaution), I googled for it and tons of restaurant reviews popped up. After noting down some of the restaurants that I thought I had some interest in, I went to look for them.

I was actually looking for a restaurant called Aadha-Aadha Café, and without any internet access to my phone, it was not easy to locate. Asking the locals had proved to be futile too, may be because they don’t go to such restaurant. When I finally managed to find it, it was closed for the summer because the restaurant is apparently located on the rooftop of a hotel where the summer heat was unbearable.

I went to my second choice on the list, to a restaurant called Sushi Café and Continental Restaurant. The food did not really wow me, but it was the coffee that immediately clicked in my head. India may be known to produce some of the best, not to mention expensive, teas in the world but coffee is definitely not really their cup of tea. Getting a good coffee on the streets of India has always been not easy so when I found a not-so-bad coffee at Sushi Café and Continental Restaurant, I was thoroughly delighted.

And of course I kept coming to this restaurant ever since, and I had come to realize that the same reviews on the internet could come so handy when it comes to ordering food. Since the menu did not offer any visual assistance, I had to rely wholly on my own imagination based on the name of the dishes on the menu. Fortunately though many of those who have left their reviews on TripAdvisor left pictures of food that they ordered too – together with their reviews – so it really made my ordering food so much easier.

I wish I had the guts of eating some of the food on the street of Varanasi which were aplenty but 3 visits to India were apparently not enough to grant me with those (the guts). For one the streets are so dusty, so I could not help but imagining that those food were heavily coated with dust and dirt. Then the hands of the food handlers – I mean, I could imagine all kind of things on their hands but the bottom line is, I just did not have the guts. Not yet.

And then the chai. I am more of a coffee guy and less of a chai’s but then it is still good to be had as far as my constant need for caffeine is concerned.  But then I had this stupid thought that some of the water supply might be siphoned off the Ganges river – which was not entirely illogical since the holy river is believed to be able to purify both the bodies and souls. I never asked any of the locals to confirm about this anyway.

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Written By: jipp - Jun• 24•19

So I have just returned from a trip to India, this time to Kolkata – the former capital city of India, and also to the holy city of Varanasi. It would be my 3rd visit to India, and the first since the fee for visa to India has been increased to RM463, which is more than double the previous fee. Doing the visa sucks big time as usual. The fact that they have moved the India Visa Centre to some building in Damansara which is not reachable by public transport didn’t make things any better. Then finding a parking space was also problematic because the center shares the buildings with dozens other companies, restaurants and even a college.

Since I didn’t have the guts to go down to the basement (new car. Heh) I had to park my car at the VIP lot (sort of). That alone had already cost me some money. Then a missing H at the passport number on the form had cost me another RM20 to pay for the over-the-counter correction. The Indian Visa team really knows how to make money. I remember how last time they did not even allow applicants to photocopy their documents at any of the adjacent photocopy shops but at their office so that they can slap them with some exuberant charges. I seriously don’t know how they can get away with all this stupidity. Perhaps, nobody has reported it so far.

So the plan was to fly to Kolkata on Air Asia, then to take a bus or train to Varanasi. But reading through all the online forums, it was quite obvious that booking a train ticket was next to impossible because they require a local Indian number, then going there by bus would involve taking a few buses instead of a single one which would be quite of a hassle to me. In the end I decided to take a domestic flight which would significantly shorten my traveling period and give me more time to explore Varanasi and later Kolkata.

So I flew over to Kolkata from Kuala Lumpur at about 10.30pm and arrived in Kolkata at about midnight. I surprised myself by sleeping through most of the flight so the flight did not feel as long as I had expected it to be. Since the flight to Varanasi would only depart the next day, I had to spend overnight at the Kolkata airport.

I had to look for the best spot where I could take some rest – and if possible – some sleep. Unfortunately, it was not easy and I found myself dozing off every now and then without really getting into a good nap. In the end I spent most of the hours going back and forth inside the airport terminal. I keep telling people that time ticks by faster when you are at an airport but it was quite the opposite when I was at the Kolkata Airport while waiting for my next flight to Varanasi.

When it was finally time to fly, I couldn’t help but feeling so relieved that the long hours of waiting had finally come to an end.

It would be my first time flying on an IndiGo flight. Categorically a budget airliner, I was surprised by how comfortable it was. There was more space for my legs than I remember it was on the Air Asia flight. Buying the ticket online was also easy and so was the web check-in. I was a happy customer.

When I first landed at Varanasi airport and disembarked from the aircraft, the first thing that I noticed was the heat. It was so damn hot and it was not even 10 in the morning. After going from counter to counter and comparing prices, I decided to take one by OLA, the Indian version of Uber.

It had cost me around 535 rupees, which is equivalent to about RM32. The driver could not speak a single word of English, although he was so eager to have a conversation with me. The first thing that he did was to stop at a gas station to get a garland of flowers – which he said was for the luck of the day – and asked me to pay for it, which I declined. I love India, but sometimes the rip-offs are just too much.

Driving towards the city center where the roads became more and more busy, one of the first things that I almost immediately noticed was the constant honking by all the motorists. I mean, the people of Varanasi really honk a lot. I like to believe that they were all friendly honking, but I’ve seen how some of the motorists got angry when the vehicle behind them kept honking incessantly without a stop. There was one time when I was so sure it was going to end up in fist fight, but it never did. My observation all throughout my stay in Varanasi and later in Kolkata told me one thing – that the people in India can be quite dramatic when it comes to arguing with one another, but you wouldn’t see them go physical in the end. For that alone they got my respect and admiration. Heh.

So the taxi dumped me on the side of a very busy street, which I later understood why. The road that led to the hotel that I was heading to was closed for pedestrians. So I lugged my bag along the busy street and it wasn’t long before somebody came up to me and offered to take me to the hotel. Quite typical of touristy areas in India of course, he took me to some clothes shop which he claimed belonged to his brother.

This so-called brother jumped up when he saw us and showed me pieces of clothes that I had no interest whatsoever so I politely declined and walked away. The guy came after me and eventually led me the hotel. I gave him INR100 for the service he rendered, which came quite handy and useful since I did not have any internet service on my phone and the complexity of the streets that formed a maze on that part of Varanasi would have had me tagging along behind my own tail.

Some say Varanasi is the craziest place on earth – for whatever reason. And true enough, I had only been in this city for a couple of hours and I was already so overwhelmed by all things that I saw and experienced within those hours. But then I believe they were just a small fraction of what I was going to discover and experience here in this very old city of Varanasi. In fact, they were just the very beginning.

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