Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Varanasi Boat Ride

Sleepy time on the river

‘The Quintessential Varanasi Experience’ is how our guidebook talks about a dawn rowboat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi. So, one morning in the still-hot pre-dawn we hauled ourselves out of bed and through the concrete warren of the city towards the river. Halfway there, a boatman spotted us and led us down through unlit tunnels to the water’s edge, where we negotiated a price.

We’d been warned that at the moment, the price would be higher than usual; the monsoon rains swell the river and create strong currents, meaning two or three men are needed to row the boat, rather than the usual solo oarsman. As expected, the boatman made a big deal of how many people were needed to row the boat at this time, but we agreed on a price and boarded the boat. Our ‘boatman’ promptly disappeared back into the dark maze of the city’s alleys, leaving us alone on board with a small boy of around twelve and a man straddling middle and old age. Just how these two were going to power this rather hefty vessel up the river was puzzling.

The solution to the problem of powering such a craft upriver became immediately clear as the young boy reached into a compartment, pumped furiously on a lever inside and a clunky diesel engine grumbled into high-volume life. We were on our way, the vibrations of the engine shaking us from our seats.

‘How nice is this?!’ I yelled at Angie as the orange sphere of the sun began to rise through distant clouds.
‘What?’ she screamed back, leaning into my ear.
‘I said it’s nice!’
‘I told you we should’ve found another boat!’

We chugged upriver, past dramatic riverside buildings, the ghats (steps leading into the water) filled with bathing locals, and boats filled with tourists being rowed by two men with another on the rudder. We vibrated past them at a comparatively breakneck clip, the chug and splutter of the vessel’s mid-mounted tractor engine announcing our presence to all.

The looks we were getting from other tourists out for their Quintessential Varanasi Experience were less than appreciative. Angie felt the grimaces and scowls were because these other tourists felt we were making too much noise. ‘Why would you choose that horrible smoke-and-noise-belching monstrosity for a pleasant morning boat ride?’ their scrunched faces seemed to say. I choose to believe that it was actually jealousy that they were feeling; our superior machine would cover at least twenty percent more water than them, in the process adding to horrid pollution that gives the Ganges it’s distinctive, decidedly unhealthy appearance.

On the left is a man having his morning bath. On the left, stuck in the archway, is a corpse.

Not that the Ganges needs much help in this department; we passed two dead bodies in an hour on the river, one floating freely amongst the garbage and floral offerings, the other wedged in the arch of a semi-submerged temple. Those alive on the shore were more of a spectacle. People bathe, wash clothes and perform ceremonies at the water’s edge, creating a enchanting environment of colour and sound. They also cremate bodies at the ‘burning ghats’ which may explain why the clothes I sent to be washed came back smelling of smoke.

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