Welcome to the Monkey House

me-in-varanasi

That’s me doing my Max Gogarty impression. We’re in Varanasi. It is beautiful, and it’s not hard to see why it is considered the spirutual heart of India. In the evenings, the haze of smoke over the river works with incense, bonfires and candles to induce a dream-like state of consciousness. Our room has a balcony overlooking the Ganges river. The Ganges is septic – it contains no oxygen. What it does contain is more than a million faecal bacteria per hundred ml of water. To provide some context, a safe figure for bathing would be about five hundred bacteria per hundred ml. This enters my mind with much alacrity every time I see groups of men completely and repeatedly immersing themselves in the river. Hindus make pilgrimages to Varanasi in their thousands in the belief that this holy river will cleanse them of a lifetime of sins. Some drink the water. This tradition has led to the creation, over hundreds of years, of ‘ghats’ – small harbours with steep steps leading to the water’s edge.

Our guest-house is on the Schindia ghat. I was sitting on the balcony a few minutes ago, fully absorbed by my Kurt Vonnegut collection entitled ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’. This turned out to be serendipitous, as all of a sudden I was surrounded by monkeys. We’d heard they steal anything you leave out. Book abandoned, I bid a hasty retreat to the room, hoping they didn’t share my taste in literature. I would have stayed out there amongst my hairy cousins had it not been for the mother/baby team making threatening noises at me. Monkeys! I should have been braver. I have, after all, had rabies shots at great financial expense, and it would be a shame to waste them. I always wonder how anyone who has ever seen a monkey could have trouble with the theory of evolution.

The main burning ghat is just a few yards down from our ghat. I should explain – people bring their dead from all over the state to cremate them by the ghats of Varanasi. The dead are carried through the streets, shrouded in satin and silk, to the ghat where they become the filling in a sandwich of wooden planks. A fire is lit, and they burn. You can stand above and amongst the burning ghats, unable to avoid inhaling the thick smoke of a dozen corpses. They get through a couple of hundred bodies a day.

You are strongly discouraged from taking photographs for obvious reasons, although the matter of respectful behaviour does not stop aggressive touts from trying to take you to a place for a ‘better view’ in return for a few rupees. Touts are numerous – it is a rare visitor who leaves Varanasi without a silk product of some kind, usually purchased soon after a boat trip – but they are not as persistent as the ones who plague Delhi.

We had dinner with a young Australian couple. They made us feel old, but shared our humour, observations and age-gap. We might see them again in Goa. I’m an expert at quick and temporary friendships.

We have been offered a lot of Opium since arriving in Varanasi. The sales pitch of choice is ‘full power seven hour’. It would probably take me seven hours just to figure out what to DO with Opium.

We’ve had a good time here. We’ve enjoyed long, lazy mornings on our balcony, long lazy lunches at the Brown Bread Bakery and long, lazy afternoon walks along the ghats, venturing from time to time into the narrow, winding cobbled streets where you jostle for position with cows, goats, motorbikes, stray dogs, mounds of cow shit and rivers of urine contributed to by species of all kinds. An American we talked to described asking a local for the location of the nearest toilet. The local replied, ‘You’re in India – piss anywhere you like!’

I like staying in places for more than a couple of days, with little to do other than wander around. In fact, the less you have to do, the more you feel at home. You also notice small details. For example, only for the first time today did I spot a rubbish bin between our guest house and the Ganges. It is the first such public utility I have seen in India. The futility of this rubbish bin cannot be overstated. It has a capacity of about ten litres. It is virtually empty. A few yards away, a pile of rubble in front of someone’s house features about a thousand plastic bottles, cigarette packets, crisp packets and empty chai cups. The streets aren’t as squalid as in Delhi, but it’s bad enough that the neat little rubbish bin with ‘Dust Bin’ carved on the side in Hindi and English becomes comically pointless.

I’ll miss this guest house. It sets a high standard for guest-houses everywhere. It’s called the Schindia Guest House. We found it by scouring travel forums for information about accommodation in Varanasi. On one of them, there was a thread dedicated to this very place, with half the contributors singing its praises, the other half damning it to hell. Fascinated, I knew there was no way I was going to stay anywhere else.

Our first morning at breakfast revealed telling signs of what might cause uptight people exasperation. A couple of young Frenchmen asked the proprietor, one Kush Barman, whether the lemon tea on offer was black tea with lemon in it, or just hot water and lemon. Our host turned, treated the hapless Frenchman to a few seconds of stony silence, then responsed. ‘My menu is perfectly clear. Decide what you want, then write it down.’

I might have imagined him wearing the faintest hint of a smile as he stormed off to the kitchen. Once out of sight, our fellow breakfasters joyfully launched into anecdotes about previously displayed eccentricities. To order food at the guest house, you write your room number along with your order on a little pad of paper which sonmeone comes round to collect every few minutes. The previous evening at dinner, we were told, a group of women had handed over their slips of paper, which Kush took one look at and tore up in front of them. They had ordered more food than he could be bothered to rustle up, and that was his way of letting them know.

I’ve had no such encounters here – everything’s been perfect. I love eccentric characters and the entertainment they provide far more than I dislike not getting what I expect from time to time. We’re getting a night train to Calcutta this evening. Varanasi has been wonderful; the Schindia Guest House especially so. I would also recommend the Dolphin roof-top restaurant, the Lotus Lounge and the BB Bakery, should you ever find yourself here. Just don’t be tempted to cleanse your sins in the Ganges.

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