We stay in a kind of fortress hotel where the tourists are insulated against the intense life and death spectacle going on in the town below them. Here you can eat what you want and wear what you want without fear of cultural or digestive contamination.
Too late for me, a reaction to my malarial tablets gives me a feeling of undefined uneasiness followed by something less ambiguous which started on the toy train in Darjeeling, so that I lay early in my bed by a crackling fire, continued on the winding three hour drive back down the mountain and intensified on the little propeller engined plane to Varanasi.
In transit I get the second big laugh of my trip. In the ladies airport loo I have my head turned towards the the loo lady who I am thanking while at the same time walking forward and just miss walking into the wall. It’s an oops moment, we both laugh and as I turn my head back to say bye, I fall off the steps sideways and just manage to recover my footing. Back in the lounge I am regaling Kaye with this tale when I see in the distance the loo lady howling as she demonstrates what had just happened in mime to her friend.
The Varanasi morning boat trip means another 5am rise before the crowds became too big. A.J is our guide, a gentle intelligent thoughtful man. We go out onto the Ganges in the dawn, pale light over bathing pilgrims, marigold coracles bearing small candles on the dark water. The rituals of the people are obviously very devout, sincere and also sociable. The women immerse themselves and then put on bright new dry saris that have been blessed. Funeral pyres can burn at any time by the water, but we don’t see any. Instead the water laps the oars as we weave among the people of the river like aspirant Richard Attenboroughs at the watering holes of the spirit.
We are back on the river in the evening, sailing by burning pyres on the gatts. A rickshaw ride back up the road is coloured by the tsunami of my inner tummy which has become more and more alarming throughout this day packed with temples and Buddhist sites, silk workshops and more temples. Earlier we receive puja at the Durga temple; all sorts of people are here doing their devotions- professional, traditional, peasant or trendy, all ages. Their religion seems to be an emotional reality for them in a way that makes me wonder.
The acceptance of life and death and their vagaries seems even more real the next day with our driver and his motoring techniques. Initial alarm becomes acceptance as I realise that this driving in the middle of a pot holed road at seventy straight towards a truck, is simply the dance of life. You see the space, you seize it. Or the lorry seizes it. And then that space is the space where once you were and you get another chance in another being.