Business in Varanasi

Thinking about our shirt production business in Varanasi we some how ended up in a jeep with the owner of Glenary’s, the very same place we had spent on the internet and gazing out of the window with a fine pot of tea. It all felt quite colonial for a moment. Well she bought it from the British and ultimately is now monetising it as much as possible.

After we are kicked out of the jeep early and ushered into another share taxi to the station we make it early, only to find, as usual that the train is late.  We end up waiting for 3 hours extra, on top of the 3 hours we had allowed ourselves as leeway. Great, another wait, not ideal in New Jalpaiguri station ,which is a real hell hole.

Laura experienced her saddest moment here, watching the madly intoxicated kids ranging from 5 ish to early teens.  All of them were sniffing glue pretty much the whole time, but when they weren’t they looked gaunt and sad begging incessantly and never taking no as a no.  I visited the train cafe and ate some rice/ Dal and subzi (veg) combo and followed another mans lead of giving my left overs to one of the boys peering in at the window.  Not looking particularly happy with the food he still asked from 5 Rs!  At one point a boy who was really high and flailing down the platform with a crazed smile found some chapati in the bin. He cheered and waved it in the air before taking it off to eat it.  His friends came over to share in some of his prize, but the boy had none of it. The only bit he gave away was a large pinch that he gave to a stray dog. Laura was touched.

kids at the New Jalpaiguri train station

kids at the New Jalpaiguri train station

Later that night we watched the kids gambling the small change that they had collected during that day, we guessed “to make it big”, in between breathing glue vapours from an old bag (see pic).  This kid had just had something taken from him and was chasing an older kid…. not the things ‘normal’ children do. Later they curled up under the platform stairwell and smoked marijuana, as well as sneak up on a lady sleeping, flick her in the head before running off to avoid getting caught.

Getting on the train was a relief and we slept for the most part for the journey, with lightning flickering as a back drop to our journey. The journey was painfully slow and our backsides ached instantly after shuffling to a more comfortable position. We arrived at Mughal Serai station, 30 minutes away from Varanasi at 9pm, instead of the quoted 4pm.  A man from Delhi kindly cheered our hopes and suggested we take a rest room and food at the station. Sounds good.  Perhaps unsurprisingly after being referred from piller to post- literally… why is it that there are booths of 4 men with a sign saying “Happy to help”, when they don’t even turn around, vaguely try to help and just tell you to go somewhere else that doesn’t know!… eventually we find that there is no space and that the canteen is practically empty. I am starving and so eat a really, really bad vegetable Biryani, constantly harassed by a scraggy looking girl who was chased off by station staff to just return again, with a vacant look and filth all over her.

We had to take a rickshaw to Varanasi tonight and so left ourselves at the mercy of their rip off tactics.  After our first reasonable offer we accepted their lead to a guesthouse in the South of the city near the area where the rickshaw can drop us off (the old town is paved and inaccessible and walking was out of the question at this point).

We arrived at Elvis guesthouse and even negotiated another good room rate, but asked to keep it to ourselves. The next day we mooched up to the roof terrace to find a group of Israelis hanging out. What a great roof terrace- not a bad recommendation Mr rickshaw driver!  Varanasi is hot again and we realise what the plains were like, although to be fair it is not quite as hot as it was…

We decide that we need to focus our immediate time on sorting business in Varanasi and to head north to the old city that day- we know how long and how things never go to plan in India and with a fair amount of cash at stake need to get things right.  We are hijacked by one of the Israeli girls who has yet to have found the markets.  We have been warned about loud, in your face Israelis by others, but have only found chilled sound ones, until now.  When getting off the rickshaw she informs us that Israeli’s get the best deal with everything because of their ace negotiation skills… which is when she launches into a tirade at the man and makes him really defensive. Really, not a good strategy for an easy and effective life in India and probably why they ended up paying twice the amount for the room as we did!  Unlucky!

We disembarked in the same place as we were dropped on the very first time we visited Varanasi and it is amazing how you can lose track of a place. We realised how many other things we have seen and done, by the fact that we are very disorientated and unused to the craziness of Varanasi. This place really is the extreme in every way. There are cows walking all over the place disregarding any rules, the drivers beeping non-stop ignoring any traffic rules, the cyclists veering everywhere.  Rubbish everywhere smelling to the extreme, the heat, humidity and dust hits you more than any other place we have been. There are prayer calls blaring from loudspeakers from all directions, people wearing orange surging towards the ghats shouting “BALL BAUM!”, so it is all go from all angles to the max!

We eventually regained our senses via my broken Hindi and reached the quieter small lanes where our tailors resides and were greeted by the guys from the Golden Lodge where we stayed the first time round. It is good to be recognised and finally have some understanding of a place that was so alien to us just a few months back.  After an hour checking the stitching of all 50 garments and having the knowledge of what is necessary as a good quality shirt we sent 6 back to be redone and went on our way. We wanted to get this all sorted in one day, but the guys needed time to get the restitching done so we had to come back the next day.

The next day came and after breakfast of Laura craving eggs was disappointed at being promised an Israeli delight only to be served some oily onion and overcooked eggs, we headed back to the old town. After drinking the customary chai from the disposable clay cup we got down to business of counting the items, their colours and rechecking everything. The sizing are a bit ‘loose’ lets say, but ultimately it means that every item now has character and we have slight variations on size.  How very Indian! After everything was okayed we decide to go to Golden Lodge for an eggs chips and beans meal that we loved when we stayed.  We managed to swap some books and convinced the guy to give me (against his rules) two books on Yoga, just what I was after.

After a 40 minute food wait, cold food and Laura leaving highly disappointed and feeling “egged out”, but also realising that some things do need to be left as they are remembered and are often not as good second time round when you have expectations (and that applies to everything!), we headed back to the tailors.

We return and are in a rush to get to the post office, but the guys are now tied up and the promise of helping us post the box has fallen through after money exchanged, surprise surprise.  They do however get a boy to carry the box and the 4ft tall tailor to come with us, when the heavens open and storm breaks out. We are in two minds… do we have to return again tomorrow or shall we risk water damaging the goods?

We wrap the box in torn plastic and go for it, winding down the narrow lanes through streams of pilgrims and water, out queer group of 4 making our way to the post office.  The main road is closed, but we pick up a cycle rickshaw to deviate slightly and reach the post office in time.  Ushered suddenly through we are told that the box is 1″ too big for government regulations and it cannot be sent!  BUT “luckily” we could encourage them to mark it down as smaller to get it through and an extra cost might help… we have been in a few situations where we might have needed to backshish someone, but have avoided it until now.  400Rs extra though!? I doubt it.

I hide some cash and begin to raise my voice stating that “the wrapper is government vetted and we only have another 40Rs”… we are ushered through and get away with a bribe of just Rs40, which is not bad on top of a total of around 6000 RS in total.

After a mission of a rickshaw ride back looking at the flash flooding around we get out just in time for the heavens to open again.  In just 20 seconds we are both wet through, running through the lanes back to the guesthouse has turned into the wet and wild water park, but just with cow crap buried in random places turning some areas into a slippery sludge pit.  The guttering juts out at varying lengths over the lanes and so water torrents are pouring from literally both sides, from above and because the rain is so hard is coming from the ground also!  I have never been so wet in such a short space of time, but we were in hysterics when we arrived back to wring ourselves out!

The next day it was gorgeous clear weather again and so we made our way down to the Ghats, vaguely heading to the Hannuman Mandir (Temple), satisfied that our business deal is done and now is time to relax. We sit on Assi Ghat, a truly tranquil place, Sadhus and sellers who are sluggish due to the heat and now give us far less hassle with appropriate responses in Hindi.

The Ganges is now massive, the sand dunes on the far side we saw before has now disappeared with the water level 15 foot higher. The water, once slowly flowing, now pouring with a strong current down the banks carrying undergrowth from upstream.  We gaze at the eagles soaring gracefully overhead, the pigeons puffing up to look attractive and saw the same baby goat we photographed the first time we landed on the Assi Ghat shores on our boat trip.  It all seems familiar now.  We sat for a while in silence taking in the relaxed atmosphere and people sleeping under trees, meditating and doing the same as us. I always wonder who the swamis are amongst the general throng.

Al at the ghats in Varanasi

Al at the ghats in Varanasi

We mosey along Assi Ghat and enjoy just taking in the chilled morning vibe. Assi Ghat is the furthest south it is possible to walk along the Ganges, so we cut down a street in the general direction on the Hannuman Temple. Laura finally gives in to temptation and we fall into a clothes shop. She has a little birthday money left and is keen to enjoy the extremely cheap shopping opportunity! We settle for some green Ali Babba trousers and enjoy a long chat with the shop keepers. It is fun chilling on a padded floor under a fan discussing random things with Varanasi locals. They end up recommending a local place for lunch. Rs20 Re fill Thali…can’t go wrong we decide!

Finding the Thali place wasn’t difficult, but we were too early for lunch, so continue towards locating the Hannuman Temple. Our attention is distracted with an advertisement for Indian cooking lessons. We check it out, and it doesn’t sound like a bad deal. Tempted we continue our journey to the temple telling the cooking teacher that we will think about it. We somehow took a bit of a wrong turn and found ourselves in a maze of houses, a very local area. Fascinating, but boiling with the sun getting more and more intense as it encroaches 12 midday, Laura is keen to find shade of the temple and escape from the illogical winding maze. Being ace with my sense of direction, I come to the rescue and locate the temple. Sorted.

The temple is shady and cool. It had many paintings, but weren’t that impressive. By now we have seen a fair few temples, so it is easy to become critical! On the plus, holy men were at the gate entrance chanting and playing the tablas, which definitely made it worth while. Meanwhile, inside the temple, more holy men were in deep discussion about their food. We could just about get the jist of their conversation, as we understood the ‘Kanna’ (food) and ‘kitni ka?’ (how much)?

Then Thali time! Flies and all. What a great recommendation it really was. Authentic Thali, only Indian locals eating there.  I was in heaven as it was as much as you like. Sweeet. We feel like we fit in as I am wearing my sarong to cope with the heat and manage to use my broken Hindi to ask for more.

We decided to go for the cooking class, so go back and arrange it for the following day. We had a fresh coffee (a rarity in India) which was served in a stove perculator. The restaurant manager was convinced that this addition justified him charging Rs50 for 1 pot coffee (which only made 1 cup)! We told him we didn’t care how the coffee was served and gave him Rs30. This did trigger doubt in my mind on how much value for money we would be getting at the cooking class…but hey ho, got to try these things sometimes!   With full belly’s and a strong coffee topping us up, we begin to roll back to Assi Ghat with the sun really pounding down now. Laura finds herself in another shop and picks up some really nice tops and a skirt which I manage to haggle down to a great price. All of her shopping adds up to 5 quid!

On our tired but happy stagger back along the Ganges to the guesthouse we pick up a a chai and pass some men constructing a wooden boat. What skill. Really interesting just sitting and watching the world go by before we finally retire on the guesthouse roof terrace for the evening. Before long the heat and humidity crescendo and clouds balloon until one almighty cloudburst. The tin roof of the terrace leaks pretty badly and it is impossible to hear yourself think. Really intense- but that’s how I like my weather! The weather manages to calm down enough for us to nip around the corner with a Welsh and American guy we have met in the guesthouse to watch an Indian music concert. It was great.

The tablas, Sitar, flute and some singing made a great end to a really enjoyable day. The 2 guys had consumed a Bang Lassi along with some dodgy chocolate they had bought- so it was quite amusing watching them absorb themselves in the music.

Our last full day in Varanasi started by us finding a little alcove along a small Ghat near our guesthouse. We wanted to enjoy the ‘cool’ morning reading and meditating looking out over the Ganges. It is so shanty down at the Ghats, we really love chilling out there. Our alcove is next to where a sadhu is sleeping in the shade. It really is a special place. Laura and I agree how much we enjoy Varanasi.  Only it isn’t actually very cool this morning, it is rather baking. After an hour or so we retreat back to the shade of the guesthouse terrace until it is time for our cooking lesson.

The cooking lesson was an experience let’ s say! The teacher/restaurant manager is one of those lazy Indians who really doesn’t have the best work ethic in the world.

It become apparent early on that we are really going to have to push him to give us a satisfactory lesson. I am constantly asking him questions and drilling him on his ‘knowledge’. We spend the first hour of our 2hr lesson sat at a table as he explains how to cook Cheese Kofta, Vegetable Jal Frazy and Missi Roti. At one point he was drawing pictures of carrots and tomatoes. Laura was concentrating more at keeping a straight face than how to make bases to the curry dishes! Anyway, we finally got into the kitchen. It was what you would expect of an Indian restaurant kitchen. FILTHY. FLIES. Spring to mind. We put on out aprons and filth goggles and get down to business. Oh. he has prepared almost everything already. So the lesson was pretty quick and as he only has one stove we had to leave each dish on the side going cool as we cooked the next one. All in all, it wasn’t the best lesson in the world, but we did pick up some good tips and learn what goes into the base of most curry dishes- something we  experiment with back in the UK. Unfortunately, down the line it transpired that Laura also picked up a stomach upset from our lesson too…..but that is another story.

That evening, we opt for street food with the Welsh and American people and have a chilled last night with a beer of the terrace. We crash early as checkout is at 10am the following day and we want to get some sleep in before the next mammoth train journey to Bhopal.

Checking out and getting out of Varanasi was pretty hassle free. We needed to get more cash out to pay for guesthouse bill. Laura was lucky enough to get a ride on the back of a motorbike to the nearest ATM with a guy that worked at the guesthouse. She came back exhilarated as she had enjoyed whizzing through the chaos and dust of Varanasi we had only encountered on foot or in rickshaw until now! Having settled up, we make our way to Varanasi Junction Station for the last time. Our train is on time. Woo! We are shocked, this is the second train in 4 months that has departed on time…what a difference that makes to our experience. It feels weird to leave Varanasi as it means we are beginning our descent south and feels like our trip in India is quickly coming to an end now. But with Bhopal and Omkareshwar on the horizons, there is still much to look forward to and be excited about!

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