Backdated from March 29 – April 03
Lassis are an Indian staple. They’re a drink made by blending yogurt with water, and can be served sweet or savory, mixed with sugar, spices or fruit. The best ones will be mixed with a bit of milk, and topped with a thin layer of clotted cream. And the best I’ve had in all of India are to be found in Varanasi, at the Blue Lassi in Kachauri Gali.
Here the drinks are piled high with fresh fruits, shaved coconut, coffee or cocoa powder, or combinations of all the above (Because we are living IN THE FUTURE, you can even pop over to youtube to watch a lassi being made here). A personal favorite of mine was the chocolate banana. For the adventurous, ‘special’ (wink wink) lassis are also available. Perhaps don’t ask for them too loudly, though.
This particular evening I went with a chocolate blackberry (which turned out to actually be dark grapes), while Pete chose chocolate banana coconut. Our bellies filled with yogurty goodness, we made our way down to the river to hire a boat. On the night’s agenda was to watch the Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat.
An Aarti is a fairly common Hindu religious ritual, particularly in any towns or cities that skirt the Ganges, but they really go all out in Varanasi. Every evening at sundown (typically between 6 and 7pm), a crowd gathers to take in the ceremony, which includes song, dance and the lifting of flaming lamps lined with wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter). From the steps and the boats floating in front of them, pujas of small leaf bowls filled with flowers and candles are set afloat on the river, offerings to the mother Ganga.
(My point and click wasn’t quite up to the task of capturing the evening ceremony in the fading light from a moving platform, but a quick google image search of ‘Ganga Aarti’ will yield you a considerable array of photos from the ceremony, several of which are absolutely stunning.)
The ceremony is best viewed from the water, and hiring a boat for the full two hour ordeal shouldn’t run you any more than 300 Rs all in, or approximately 6 Canadian dollars. As we made our way down the river, Pete and I both tried our hand at steering and rowing our wooden transport; that shit is a LOT harder than the boatmen make it look. We tipped our man at the end.
The rest of our time in Varanasi was spent largely wandering along the ghats and twisting alleys of the old town. During the course of it, we managed to repeatedly run into one man in particular, who seemed to materialize from the the shadows of the narrow lane-ways whenever we found ourselves lost. Frustratingly, I somehow managed to forget his name every time.
On our last day in the city, while floating up the river, we happened across the shooting of a Bollywood film featuring the very popular Sunny Deol. When the icon arrived to greet the crowd the locals excitedly swarmed his boat until security began to beat them away with massive bamboo poles. Curiously, they seemed to be laughing while doing so. Pete and I both lingered in the optimistic hope of being asked to join the set as extras. Alas, we’d reached the filming site just as they were beginning to break it down for the day.
We instead began a hunt for one of Varanasi’s kite makers. Questioning a couple folks on the streets yielded positive results, and we were soon following a local kid up the stairs to a man’s home. At 3 rupees a piece (aprox 6 cents CAD), we apparently overpaid for the kites. We were okay with it.
On the way back to our hostel we were frequently approached by children asking for our kites. With them being so cheap we felt bad for not having purchased extras for gifts. At the same time, we were saddened by the obvious expectations of hand-outs from foreigners. It’s an almost impossible balance to strike – weighing an urge to help in the places we travel without breeding an expectation of privilege to charity. Everyone likes to put a smile on someone’s face but no one wants to feel obligated to do so (or feel like a bag of shit when you can’t help every single person to ask. And, in India, you get asked a lot). It’s certainly a balance I haven’t yet found.
Back on the high roof of a restaurant, we made our attempt at setting the kites in flight. We were miserable at it. Admittedly, the wind wasn’t really helping us out, but a stray Baba was able to get one of our kites airborne easily enough. Whenever we took the string back from him, though, the kite inevitably began its rapid journey back to earth. I was now doubly amazed at the control the kids of Varanasi managed to wield over these supposedly simple toys. Some of them will fit out their kites for battle, coating the strings in glue and affixing scrap pieces of glass or metal with which to cut the strings of others. I destroyed one of my two kites upon the first 5 minutes of working with it. During a particularly sharp turn I managed to smash it into the side of my head and the thin material split from its light, wooden frame. The last thing I needed to do was affix glass shards to that fucker, thus making it into a weapon with which to blind or garotte myself.
I made one more attempt on our last morning in town. I did manage to get the kite up and keep it there for a personal record-breaking 30 seconds. Proud: I was it.
Leaving the non-destroyed kites behind for any other travelers looking for a lesson in humility, Pete and I packed our bags and headed off to reclaim our bikes from Monty, the shop-owner with whom we had left them. After one last epic lassi for breakfast, we were off towards Daltonganj, our via point on the road to Betla.
On my last day in India, as I was packing my bags for my flight home, I had the Indian MTV station playing in the background. A program entitled ‘Sound Trippin’ caught my attention – Sneha, the show’s hostess, moves through Indian towns and collects sound clips, then later compiles them against a backtrack to create original songs reminiscent of the places she’s traveled to. The video I caught was ‘Ram Ram’, which was made in Varanasi. I found it to be a fantastic representation of the city as I experienced it, and have listened to the song several times since.
The video, which contains some beautiful clips of the Ganga Aarti ceremony I raved about at the start of this post, can be viewed here.
Health update: Am now at what I consider to be 100%. Am still bummed to have had to cut my trip short (especially now, looking over these photos and vids and longing to go back), but goddamn does it feel good to be healthy again.
Have begun to make plans for Australia, where I plan to move mid-July. Likely port of landing at the moment: Melbourne.