Ancient Varanasi’s Secret is Digital – Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Ancient Varanasi’s Secret is Digital
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Yes, it seemed like he was going to rub my arm with his sweat and snot.

I was sitting on a straw mat, facing the holy Ganges River. My outstretched right arm rested over the shoulder of a chubby, half-naked man. His breasts hung over his belly, his crooked teeth peeked through the wire mesh of his moustache. A thin layer of gray fur covered his body. But he yelled at me at just the right time.

“Shave head? You! Shave?”

I shaved my head just a couple weeks ago.

“You! Massage?”

After a chaotic introduction to Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities, a massage sounded like a good idea. Within five minutes of hopping onto the Mahanagari Express from Mumbai to Varanasi, one man tried to con me out of my bunk bed, another asked, “Why do you travel without locking your luggage?” and another physically chained himself to his large duffel bag. Not the most auspicious of signs. Not exactly the indefatigable ladies of Cathay Pacific who ask to see my boarding pass and who know to offer me an English-language newspaper.

It was a 30-hour ride.

Once I arrived in Varanasi, the taxi driver couldn’t “find the gear” of his “new” car, and thus choked the geriatric vehicle to stall five times. He saved for two years to buy this vehicle and I was his “very lucky first client.” While he struggled to control the car, I witnessed striking images of poverty and illness, personifications of diseases I assumed had been eradicated. A man was crawling on the ground. Tumors covered his body. A woman held out her hand for some rupees. She only had three fingers and her palm was seared a fresh pink.

The car didn’t explode and we arrived at Hotel Temple at the Ganges, towards the south end of the city. The driver offered a daylong tour in this four-wheeled deathtrap for a “very reasonable price, boss.” I quickly declined, but wished him success in his new business. I had big plans involving naps and showers. I had a date with my toothbrush. I settled in my room at 6:30 in the morning. At 6:50, the electricity died, immobilizing the fan and A/C. The temperature was already in the 90s when I left the room to walk along the river.

Varanasi’s importance among Hindus is not unlike Meccas to Muslims. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. A believer who dies within the city automatically liberates himself from repeating the life-death cycle. The city is on the banks of the Ganges River, whose brown water is not as thick as the green sludge of Venice’s canals, but is unquestionably dirtier. The city’s sewage drains directly into it. Yet, the river teems with people who are bathing, diving, fishing, and doing laundry. The place is filthy. And at the end of town, near my hotel, the river is so polluted that there is no traceable oxygen in the water. A responsible portrayal of this area should devote at least a couple lines to feces. There is shit everywhere. And the 100-degree heat cooks fresh piles of it, lacing the already thick air with strains of pungency. Because cows are sacred here, they go wherever they please and indiscriminately leave behind steaming gifts. Some of their shit is picked up and placed neatly in polka dot arrangements near the river. Dried, they are used for fuel, fertilizer and Shiva knows what else.

It was in this backdrop of filth that this man called to me. My refusal of touts has become second nature. No, I do not need a rickshaw ride, or a tailor, or marijuana or a shawl for my mother who must be freezing back in America. I reject their offers as comfortably as I exhale. But for this man, I stopped. A massage could have fought off a heat-induced headache that was creeping quickly up my neck.

I took off my shirt and he began flicking my vertebrae, his thick fingernail threatening to slip each disc. He does this all the way to the base of my skull. Strange method. But the technique was born on this river thousands of years ago, fine-tuned over generations, harnessing arcane knowledge of the human anatomy. The series of flicks was timed perfectly to awaken my entire body. Western doctors still don’t know about this, I thought. Then he sneezed and wiped the slimy residue with his hands. Certainly, that wasn’t part of the traditional treatment. Though what else was he going to use? His feet? My hands? The newly opened box of three-ply aloe-infused Kleenex tissues he picked up at the Varanasi Wal-Mart?

I looked at him. He flashed a grand smile that expressed “no problem” instantly. He gripped my upper arm with both hands and began to rub, loosening muscle, stimulating blood flow and greasing my arm, and eventually my face, with his sweat and snot. No problem.

So went my initiation into the brotherhood of the Ganges.

After the massage, I wandered through the city’s maze of alleys. The stone paths measure four to six feet in width but manage to accommodate the transportation needs of the city’s animals, carts and motorbikes.

I had my first standoff with a cow. I couldn’t pass through. His large, docile eyes stared blankly at me. He didn’t get it. I hadn’t witnessed how locals moved aside bovine roadblocks. So I didn’t know if stamping my feet would be rude. A suggestive pat on the side? I stood in front of him and asked politely. Nothing. What a stupid idea–he obviously doesn’t speak English. Inch by inch, I advanced towards his face. Any animal should recognize an oncoming object, and unless provoked, should move out of its way. This is a matter of instinct. The center of my chest got within sniffing distance of his nostrils. His head swayed to one side, his body shifted, creating a space through which I could squeeze myself. But as I was halfway through, he returned to his original pose. His belly pushed against mine, driving me to the wall. I checked around. Not a single Hindu in sight. I placed my hands against his spine and grunted through a vertical pushup.

“Come on, just a little,” I said. He obliged.

My reward, as if the cow knew all along what all tourists desire, was a sign that advertised an internet connection. I climbed a ladder to enter a storage nook, where three PCs were set up. It took 20 minutes, but I got through, and there was good news: Rogier made it to Varanasi, and he was still in town.

Rogier and I were the two dirtiest guys on the British Airways flight from Bangkok to Mumbai. If the plane needed to rid itself of excess weight, it would’ve been the two of us: They sat us next to the emergency exit. Judging from his appearance, I assumed Rogier’s budget and itinerary were similar to mine. His shirt was fraying. His board shorts had been through a lot. His blond hair showed dreadlock promise. Rogier introduced himself to me. Before starting medical school in Amsterdam, he decided to take time off to travel. He had heard similar horror stories about India, so we decided to stick together once we landed in Mumbai.

“Once you land in India you will want to run back to your plane,” a German engineer told me.

“Nothing will prepare you for India. You walk on the streets and people are just lying there on the ground. Hundreds of them,” said his girlfriend, who got diarrhea and had spent five days vomiting.

“I was in a bus, and I was stuck like this,” a French guy rolled himself into a ball, tucked his chin in his chest, wrapped his arms around his bent legs, “for NINE hours!”

Rogier and I grabbed a cab outside the airport and agreed to stay at the YMCA. I decided to stay in Mumbai while he moved on to the rest of his trip.

Though I had already found my own hotel, Rogier emailed me directions to his hostel in Varanasi. I found him on the balcony. There was immediate consensus about this city: It’s hot as all hell and there’s nothing to do. We watched for floating corpses on the river. While it has true moments of suspense and exhilaration, holding a cadaver vigil is a rough way to pass the afternoon. It’s like waiting three hours for a 30-second roller coaster ride. How was it then that a Swiss woman next to us had managed to stay for three weeks?

Within two days, I had caught the Varanasi virus. I didn’t want to leave. As I stood near the river, watching its slow progress, I scrambled for reasons to stay. I was supposed to take a train to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. But that’s been there for hundreds of years. It’s immortalized on tin cookie cans. It ain’t going nowhere. I could have stayed in Varanasi for just a few more days, certainly.

On the third day, I woke up with a headache, fever and with every cell of my throat on fire–an actual virus had found me. The first thought was to combat the illness, the second was a wish. As I gargled hot water and salt, I hoped I was too sick to get on the train. Despite the fever, the pollution, the noise, the shit, the unrelenting force of touts and beggars outside my hotel, there was something about Varanasi that kept a fat kid’s smile on my face. There is no good reason for anybody to like this place and yet Varanasi’s improbable charm–its intangible secrets–draws travelers in and keeps them from leaving.

Was it because I enlisted in a four-hours-a-day yoga class with a maniacal teacher? I performed sun and moon salutations until I collapsed into the child pose, marking the white mat with enormous moth-shaped sweat stains.

“Now be like a tree branch!” the teacher said. I straightened myself into a half-descended push-up. I held my body still.

“Straighter, Bumper Yogi!” he said.

That was my name. And it apparently described what he felt was an overzealous commitment to yoga. I wanted to learn all the moves as quickly as possible, and if I wasn’t going to slow down, I definitely needed bumpers for the inevitable crash.

“Straighter, Bumper Yogi!”

My chest and upper arms began to shake. I closed my eyes to relax–to keep the pose for just a bit longer. I imagined cooling blue energy entering my body with each inhalation. I looked over at the teacher, and he was doing a pose of his own. His back was on the ground, but his legs were folded Indian-style, raised perpendicular to his spine. His hands tugged onto his big toes.

“Do this pose,” he said, “when you are having difficulty sleeping or are sexually aroused and cannot satisfy yourself.”

“OK, thanks,” I said. Strange timing. It was mid-afternoon. I fell flat on the mat.

Challenging notions about what my body could and couldn’t do, the instructor said it was time for the chakra asana. I literally bent over backward–making an upside-down U–to suck the energy of the cosmos through my bellybutton. If consistent practice brings yogis peace when they’re off the mats, it’s because they are no longer in insane, neck breaking poses. Did my love for Varanasi spark the moment I balanced on my hands, flipped my legs behind me and became a scorpion? This single move revised a personal legacy of clumsiness; it continues to be the biggest accomplishment of my life.

If not the yoga, are the nightly blackouts the secret to Varanasi’s allure? The first time it happened, I was walking along the Ganges and had to tiptoe all the way back to the hotel, carefully avoiding poo. I also did not want to step on people–especially holy men–who slumbered near the river.

The second time it happened, the next night, I was prepared. I walked towards the river and woke up an old man with a boat. I hired him to row me back to my hotel. Except he never fully woke up. His right arm was much stronger than his left, so we kept veering towards the shore. A burst of consecutive left-handed strokes realigned the boat. His arms didn’t need the governing force of a conscious mind. He had probably done this his entire life and could do it in his sleep. Then he actually fell asleep. His arms kept rowing until we crashed into a boat. And then we lost one oar. And I said, “You can drop me off here, this is fine.” He couldn’t quite row the boat to shore, so I had to wade through the river. I held my breath, thinking it might stave off the bacterial invasion. I imagined fingernails, feces and frogs clinging to my legs. I raced back to the bathroom of the hotel, this time unconcerned with the karmic repercussions of a holy misstep.

The yoga? The blackouts? Is it the dead rats on the street? Is that the secret of Varanasi? The insects that dive bombed my face as I ate? The monkeys fighting on tin roofs? The endless glasses of black tea drunk while exchanging itineraries, horror stories and gastric symptoms with the fellow traveler? The burning bodies? The smell of it all that never, ever goes away? The throbbing diversity of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus–among others whose faiths I’m too ignorant to identify–who live harmoniously in this city? Mosques next to temples. Women covered head to ankle in black cloth, passing women adorned in henna and gold. Is it their children who bear few vestiges of religion, preferring instead to wear faded jeans and knock off Adidas shirts? They scream up and down the alleys, avoiding cows in chasing games, avoiding poo in their version of hopscotch, but taking a few seconds to yell, “HELLOOOO!” to the lost tourist.

No, not these.

I know the secret of Varanasi and I’ll tell you how to get there. Ask a rickshaw driver to take you to the main ghat. Walk towards the river and pass the temple on your left-hand side. They will likely be frying potatoes there. The next alley is where you enter the labyrinth. You’ll see a ladder, propped up against a small cafe. They’ve been trying to install an awning for days. Go straight, until you see a tiny store selling Fuji film. Take a left. Walk 20 meters until you see a sleeping dog on a wooden step. It won’t seem like anything, but open the door and ask if you can come in. (Don’t step on the dog.) You will see a small child with a round face. He’ll be wearing a sweater vest. He claims he’s 15 years old. He’s the one you pay.

Two rupees for three rounds of Street Fighter II. Thirteen rupees for each 90 lines in Tetris. Two rupees again for one life in Mario Bros. Welcome to the Varanasi arcade.

There is only space for two benches, an arm’s length away from a counter. Two TVs that need an occasional slap, and cloned Nintendo machines sit on this platform. If you’re a sweaty tourist, they’ll even turn on a rusty fan that is missing its cover. The controllers are broken. The directional keypad rotates freely, which disoriented me and my Street Fighter II character. I couldn’t get Guile to do his razor kicks or sonic booms. I challenged a kid, insisting with all of my American bravado on showing him how this game’s really played. I won the first round, he won the second. The deciding third ended with me shrieking. My 13-year-old opponent had tolerated enough of my childhood nostalgia. My fighter barely moved before he was beaten. I screamed at the kid and was about to give him a friendly jab. I decided not to. (His head was bandaged.) Instead, I called him a cheater and challenged him to a winner-take-all Tetris showdown.


J. Lustre has outrun a rock avalanche in foothills of the Himalayas, chatted with a Costa Rican drug lord (who, thankfully, is now in jail)and suffered amnesia after colliding with an Indonesian truck. Despite occasional disasters, he lives for the road. He recovers in Southern California, where he is a writer. Please email him at jlustre at gmail dot com and let him know what you think.

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