Feeling courageous (or foolish), this summer I embarked on a two-week trip to Varanasi to undertake research for my dissertation…and I travelled alone!
Varanasi, Shiva city, the beating heart of Indian Hinduism, known once as the ‘City of Life’, (ironic perhaps as it’s also a city of considerable death), is by far the most relentlessly indiscreet place I have ever been to. The tangle of tiny galis (alleys) are overflowing with chai stands, trinket sellers, temples, cows, and hundreds of pilgrims…not to mention the draped corpses that wind their way through the back streets of the old city. Although prepared for many a close encounter with dead bodies, I never expected them to be floating past my balcony facedown in the Ganges, nor did I think I would find myself stepping carefully around the severed leg of a baby. But this is the norm in Varanasi; no one even flutters so much as an eyelid.
To add to the countless corpses and copious amounts of cow dung lining the streets, was the unrelenting attention I received from touts, beggars and local men alike. In other circumstances, I might have been flattered by the ceaseless stares and swooning but when trudging through the less than fragrant back alleys, at times knee deep in dirty water, a new boyfriend was not what I wanted. The same was true of my lovely little hostel where massages were not only offered, but obligatory, where wandering hands crept up from behind and knocks on the door for naked massages became commonplace. And not a woman in sight.
I have never really considered myself foolish or easily taken in, but somehow on my penultimate night in Varanasi, I found myself sitting cross-legged in the house of a holy Baba, wearing the old man’s lungi (read loincloth) and nothing underneath, and ended up paying thirty pounds for the privilege! You may be wondering how this happened, but the honest answer is, I don’t really know! An unfortunately timed downpour, a particularly pervy Baba and a desire to have my life story told, ended up as what was to be the most uncomfortable and indiscreet hour of my life.
The entire week had been an assault on practically every sense in my body. Needless to say, I departed earlier than planned…..