My preparations for the Mumbai half marathon are well under way. Well, I have bought trainers and have come to the realisation that I am really unfit, so if that is well under way then so be it. I have in the back of my mind the image of Rocky running through Philadelphia, chased by the kids and running up the steps to to the crescendo of that timeless theme. Dada, da, dada, da, dadadadada……or something. However my reality is very different. I am a gangly, sweating mess, breathing heavier than a stalker in a phone box. And my streets, well they are the waterfront, or ghats of Viranasi, India’s holiest of cities. And the things I have to deal with…Mr Rocky sir, well you had it easy.

 

Cow shit. With Holy Cows comes Holy Cow shit. They are everywhere and so is their shit. Take your eyes off the path for a second and you are at risk of a slippery and rather smelly fall or nasty groin injury. Fortunately hordes of children are clearing this shit up and drying it out for burning, recycling at its best.

Click on picture to see the full Noir collection of Varanasi.

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Sadus come at you from all angles with their palms outstretched. Religious holy men who have given up all possessions to walk the earth. Fascinating and colourful characters – however, I can’t help but question how holy are you Mr Holy man? I am sure there are varying degrees of sadus. There are the blatant fake ones that hang around at tourist spots awaiting for some punter to take their photo and then demand money, these sadus are usually really over the top, and probably go home, wash off the ash and sit down in front of their widescreen TVs. Then there are the ones who live in a doorway, mumbling religious verses to themselves, and then there are the dreadlocked groups that hang around by a fire under blue tarpaulin smoking grass. My favourites though are the loin cloth wearing yoga sadus that contort themselves into rediculously impossible positions, I admire them because I know the discipline that it takes to get those positions, and the nerve you have to have to walk around in essentially what is a thong. How many of these sadus are searching enlightenment, how many of them have found it or how many have simply found an easy way out of  a hard day’s toil and discovered an opportunity to make money by doing bugger all. An “idiots guide to Sadus” would be handy. 

 

Dead bodies. Often as I am running along I have to make a swerve to avoid a dead person being carried down to the Ganges. Now if you are going to die, Varanasi is the place to do it. Straight to heaven for you, no stopping at GO. Your body will be immersed in the Ganges and then placed upon a pyre. Watching the burnings at first tweaks the “Is this morbid” conscious in your brain. However it is a big crowd puller. Locals warm themselves on the fire, dogs and goats walk between the pyres eating…….eating what I am not too sure.

 

It is surprising what you get used to – faces peer out of the fire seeming strangely serene, as if they know they are on their way to a better place. The body contorts and twists as muscles contract, an arm or leg may raise and whole bodies have been known to sit up. The air is filled with a slight tinge of burnt hair, but not of burning flesh. The most unnerving thing for me was the sizzling, like a sunny Sunday afternoon’s barbeque. Often though the process gets a little crude. An attendant who is tipped handsomely to ensure the body is properly burnt watches and tends to the fire. This often means beating and poking the body with a stick, snapping thigh bones and breaking the skull and intestines pushed back into the intense heat. After all is done the attendant carefully sifts through the ashes, just in case the deceased had gold teeth. On a busy day, as I run past, I must be careful as the bodies start to pile up along the ghat, awaiting their firey fate. There would be nothing worse to hurdle one, trip over the next and end up face to face with someone’s late auntie Agnus.

 

To add to this, anyone dying of smallpox (does this still exist) is put straight into the river without burning to save upsetting the smallpox goddess (does she really exist), also the same for children who die of a really high fever.

 

Someone told me a story about a tourist that was led into a room of dying people, they were then asked if they could contribute money for the firewood, as the  people could not afford it. Do they have to hang on till enough money has been collected I wonder?

 

Drug dealers – running alongside of me.

 

DD“What do you want – weed, grass, dope, hashish, coke, china white, charlie, extasy, pills man, heroin you want heroin, Afghani, good shit, the best, anything you want”

COL “No I don’t want any drugs”

DD “No, this is not drugs, this is good shit”

COL “Have you got any asprin”

DD “What?”

COL “Then piss off”

DD “Where are you from”

COL “Germany”

DD “Fucking Germans”.

 

 

Children sell you small leaf boats, inside a candle and flowers to send down the river for good karma. I figured that you cannot have too much good karma so I purchased a few for friends and family and sent a flotilla of flowery floating flotsam down the Ganges. I felt it as a lovely sentimental gesture to my loved ones back home, till, about 20 yards away this flotilla came under a barrage of stones from the local oiks. Two candles were sunk instantly, another extinguished, but two made it through the barrage. I was moved by their resilience and vowed to come back with more candles and a greater nautical strategy. I reckon they would take about 3 years to reach the bay of Bengal, where they will probably be eaten by sharks. 

 

Boat men every ten seconds asking if I want a boat as I run past the conversation generally goes “Boat!!”, “No thank you”, “Cheap price”, “No I am running”, “Why are you running when you can have a boat” (Fair point), “No!”, “Boat!!”.

 

Varanasi is nuts. It takes a few days to get into its vibe, its dark lanes and spiritual ways. It is a lot of hastle, as you are a tourist in one of India’s main attractions and the two go hand in hand, but something I like most about it, that even in the most touristy of touristy bits I did not hear Bob Marley being played once. It has survived becoming that generic backbacker centre. The tourist and local exist in a beautiful symbiotic relationship, the city has the strength to survive the leering visitors and respectfully carry on its duties to the deceased.

Varanasi – its a good place to die.

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