Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 55
Cracked rib, busted car, a couple of weddings, celebrations of a wedding conducted thirty one years ago, and finally I am back on the river again. And this time with a reality reminiscent of the time when the expedition started. I have a road support team. Chandrasekar Sambasivam from Chennai and his old friend Raghu Thakur from Manali have joined me as the road support team. I have known Chandrasekar, or Chandru as he is known to his friends, for a few years now. But this is the first time we have met. He has been a Facebook friend for a while. Also, he has been an ardent supporter of A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES since it started, and even before. When he heard that I was looking for someone to volunteer as a road support, he immediately volunteered, and it was more than welcome. He co-opted his friend Raghu, and finally the team was completed once again. After Sam and Tara in the first stages of the expedition, it is now Chandru and Raghu.
Raghu came to Delhi from Manali in an overnight bus. I picked him up from tne Interstate Bus Terminus (ISBT) a little after six in the morning and we together drove down to Varanasi. Chandru joined us the next day, and we picked him up from the airport as his flight from Hyderabad arrived. We stayed in a quaint little hotel/motel in Sarnath, three of us in a single room, complete with running hot and cold water, a television that we never switched on, and blankets that were of the kind that are donated to the homeless by the more privileged. Life was good.
The plan originally was to hit the water on Dec 27, the day after Chandru arrived, but I pushed it by a day. There is a learning curve to being a road support, and I wanted to give it a shot before having to be called on to conduct the duties. Early morning on Dec 27 the three of us took a drive to the put-in point at Jau Vinayak Temple and then to Kaithi which was to be the destination for the day. Jau Vinayak Temple was peaceful, with a flight of stairs going down to the edge of the river, less than a hundred yards away. Kaithi offered a couple of options. There was the temple itself, the Markandey Mahadev temple, which was a camping option. Then there was the confluence of the Gomti and Ganges rivers. And then there was the ghat. After looking at all of them, I decided to finish the day’s journey at the ghat. We found a shack owner, Golu, who kindly offered his shack as the place where we could camp out. Perfect.
Chandru had carried some offerings for the Lord Vishwanath all the way from Chennai. His task of the day was to make the pilgrimage to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and complete the necessary formalities. Raghu joined him. Me, not being the religious kinds chose to avoid this part of the journey of the day, went back to Sarnath and spent a couple of hours walking around the Buddhist ruins and temples. I then joined Chandru and Raghu at the Dashashwamedh Ghat to witness the spectacular evening arati ... yet again.
All tasks for the day completed. we came back to Sarnath and spent the rest of the evening in the company of the Old Monk.
Today, Dec 28, dawned early, it was nippy, and it was time to hit the water and continue down the Ganges. Bags were packed, the car was loaded, and we drove down to the Jau Vinayak temple. The temple priest was expecting us, and soon enough a crowd gathered around us as the gear was unloaded and the boat started to take shape.
The Ganges at the Jau Vinayak Temple was dirty, the water was positively black in colour, and there was a distinct smell in the air. It was not what I have witnessed so far on the Ganges. The water reminded me of the Yamuna River in Delhi. It was quite sad, really.
Anyway, we pushed off, Raghu as a co-paddler, Chandru having taken up driving duties. There was a slight tailwind in the initial couple of kilometres and the paddling was good. Raghu went through a learning curve, and despite the right noises that he was making, I doubt he was enjoying it all that much. He lives in Manali, conducts treks in the region, is into bouldering and canyoning. He is a mountain person and he wanted to find out what A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES was all about. He is definitely not a water person, but he was brave enough to give it a go.
Being on the river on an expedition like this requires a mindset that likes solitude. Being for hours paddling with not a soul in sight requires one to be at complete peace with oneself. Coupled with the physical activity that is paddling, the demands of an expedition like this can be quite demanding. Nevertheless, Raghu and me paddled on down the Ganges.
The wind that started off being a tailwind, soon enough became a headwind. As we paddled on, the breeze took on a more violent form. The ripples did not remain ripples anymore and started resembling waves. A little over twenty four kilometres into the journey from Varanasi, the wavelets took on a whole different form and became almost two feet high. The headwind was strong and touched the twenty kilometres per hour mark. Paddling was becoming tricky with the rolling waves, and difficult with the strong headwind.
Raghu wanted to stop to relieve himself, and we beached the boat. Almost instantaneously he proclaimed, “I am done.” His one major worry is that he does not know how to swim. I suspect the waves,the rolling boat, the wind into our faces, and the physical demands, had taken a toll. He gave up, called up Chandru to come and pick him up. We were right under a bridge, hence there was a road that could come almost all the way to the edge of the river. He pressed on towards the bridge, while I got back on the boat to complete the balance fifteen odd kilometres that were left of today’s target distance to Kaithi.
As I started paddling after dropping off Raghu, not only did the wind pick up, but the waves to became taller. I was riding waves that were almost three feet high, many of them white caps. The waves were easy enough to negotiate, even though I had to be constantly on guard, lest a nasty wave hit the boat broadside, resulting in a capsize. Wave riding was fun and this was giving me some much needed initiation of what might be expected closer to the Bay of Bengal, as I headed to a conclusion of the expedition at Sagar Island. But the wind was playing havoc. I paddled on, using almost all my strength, and after about forty minutes had covered less than a hundred metres. As soon as I would stop paddling, the river, waves and wind promptly took me back. At a fair clip. There was no way I was reaching anywhere if this went on, not with me going backwards towards Varanasi with every paddlestroke.
I decided to join Raghu as he hitched a ride to Kaithi. I was hoping that he and Chandru had not already met up and began their ride to Kaithi. Fortunately they had not and Chandru was still on his way. Bingo. I beached the boat and waiting for my ride.
As Chandru came down from the roadhead to come closer to where I was, he managed to get the car stuck in sand. A tractor was summoned to pull the car out, more than enough money was exchanged, and he managed to reach me. By this time I had lugged the boat to where the car could safely reach, deflated the boat, and was all ready to roll. All with a lot of help from the friendly people who arrived to have a chat with me and discuss my mission.
We reached Kaithi after about an half hour drive and before we headed to Golu’s shack, we stopped for a cup of tea ... it turned out to be two cups for me ... and some samosas. Golu’s shack has electricity, and more importantly a plug point. All electronics were plugged in for charging, sleeping bags laid out, I got into the chore of transferring the day’s footage, all in the company of the Monk. The it was time for dinner and we headed to the shack where we had had tea and samosas a while ago. A filling meal later, it was back to the shack.
Chandru and Raghu tucked in for the night, and I went into writing my post of the day. A few minutes into the post I heard a group of people singling somewhere close by. On asking Golu, he said there were some sadhus who were indulging in the revelry. The sounds were inviting and I wanted to be a part of that. Chandru was snoring, but Raghu was still up. He however declined the invitation to join me. So the ownsome lonesome me trudged on a few metres away from the shack to where the sounds were coming from. I found a smoke filled tin shed, with about a dozen people sitting inside. I peeked in, and invited myself in. I was gladly welcomed into the room and at my request, the group broke in another round of song. They were already as high as a kite, with intoxicants of all kinds doing the rounds. I gracefully managed to decline their efforts to have me join them, but could not decline their offer of food. My second round of dinner happened. A few minutes later, after they had managed to get from me a promise of coming back soon, I got back to resume the post.
The main sadhu around which the other people had congregated was a aghori sadhu, (in)famous for their way of life. For me, it was yet another experience to the many I am having going down the holy river. This is truly a memorable experience.