Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 49
Babu Khan, the autorickshaw driver of yesterday offered to come with a four wheeled vehicle to transport me and the gear to edge of the river. He promptly did, as promised, at nine in the morning. I was a little troubled by the rate he charged, but he had been good to me yesterday and it was ok by me to pay him an exaggerated rate for the short ride to Assi Ghat.
We started loading up and even though I tried suggesting a way by which the canoe would fit inside the boot, he insisted that half the canoe sticking out from the back was perfect and that he would tie it all up. He would not listen to me when I told him that I have done this many times. Anyway, all loaded up, we moved on. Halfway into the journey, the car was stopped by cops and he was booked for having the boot open. What he earned from me was less than the fine he ended up paying. Karmic justice?
Everywhere I have launched from, I have had the distinct pleasure of many friendly hands, willing to lug the canoe and gear to and from where I desired. At Assi Ghat, a couple of locals had to be pleaded with to do the needful and they insisted I pay them way more than I was prepared to. Things were becoming a little negative today. However, as is often the case, as I was inflating the canoe a small crowd gathered, and some of them wanted to inflate the canoe for the sheer experience of it. I was glad to oblige. A cup of spicy tea happened, selfies taken with some people, gear was loaded and I was pushed out into the waters of the Ganges, on the banks of the ancient city of Varanasi.
I do not regret not having taken the boat ride yesterday by paying an arm and a leg. I was seeing everything that I would have seen yesterday. All the ghats, all the boats, all the pilgrims and all the tourists. The Varanasi riverside looks truly spectacular. Most of the eighty four ghats were built by the kings and princes of old, but most of them have been converted into hotels and guest houses. Many have also lost their old world charm, with modernity having replaced their ancient facades.
As I crossed Manikarnika Ghat, a fresh line of corpses were lined up to be cremated. It is here that passage to Heaven is guaranteed. This is the most famous cremation spot in all of Hinduism. The pyres here are lit twenty fours a day, three sixty five days a year. I looked around for Rahul, my new friend from yesterday, but could not see him. I paddled on.
What was particularly gratifying was that despite all the paraphernalia that are a part of the cremation process, including about two hundred kilogrammes of wood, the river was surprisingly devoid of debris. True enough, there was a lot of stuff ... flowers, clothes, etc ... in the area in and around the cremation ground itself, but the river was very clean. The people who man and run the ghat are carrying on a concerted effort to keep the river clean. It might not take more than a couple of days for the river to get choked, if the cleanliness drive is not carried out on a constant basis.
A little further downstream, I saw a special boat that was picking on any trash that was seen floating about in the river. Even the water testing I conducted at Varanasi, did not show any significant spike. I am impressed. Almost everyone I talk to agree that the Ganges is cleaner today than it has been for a long time. At the same time, many also state that for the amount of money that has supposedly spent by the Government in the name of cleaning the Ganges, the results are not commensurate to that spending. Nevertheless, I have been sufficiently impressed at the cleanliness I have seen. Once again, I am talking about visible, floating trash, not the chemicals that might be mixed up in the waters, making it toxic.
The wind started picking up quite substantially and it was a head wind. The ripples turned to waves, rocking the canoe somewhat violently. The passing streamers did not help. I went below the bridge that spans the river, and it was becoming very difficult not only to paddle, but also to keep the boat go forward. Every paddle kind of resulted in the boat moving backward ... or so I thought. I was certainly not moving forward to any significant extent. I tried, I put my still developing biceps, triceps and forceps to the task. Then I heard my shoulder pop. It has popped a few times in the past, but this time it was quite loud. It did not come out of the socket or anything, but I did not like the sound of the pop.
I paddled over to the bank, wanting to rest a bit, and waiting for the wind to die out a fair bit. This was just shy of ten kilometres from Assi Ghat, from where I started today. It turned out to be a cremation ghat and as I was there, three or four corpses arrived for the last rites. Along with the corpses came their relations and other mourners. Many of them left the mourning at the site of an inflatable canoe, manned by a wizened old fellow, wearing a colourful life jacket, and a Clint Eastwood hat reminiscent of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. There were conversations about whether it was a camera or a binocular. What was the boat made of? Who was I? Where was I going? Why was I going where I was going? The questions continued. I could here honks from vehicles, a couple of hundred metres from where I was.
The wind continued to blow, the ripples that had become waves continued to roll across the river. I was tired. The road next to where I was beckoned me. One thing led to another, and soon enough I decided to take the second break from the expedition. I would go back to Delhi, rest for a week or ten days and then resume the journey.
This would result in two good outcomes. My anniversary falls on Dec 05, and it will be nice to be home with the woman, instead of being camped out somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Secondly, I can time my third phase of the expedition to end at Sagar Island to coincide with the Ganga Sagar Mela, the second largest religious congregation of pilgrims anywhere in the world. A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES is scheduled to conclude at Sagar Island, the venue of the Ganga Sagar Mela, and it will be nice to end the effort on the day the Mela is scheduled to take place. Moreover, there is a saying in Hinduism that goes, “Har teerth baar baar, Ganga Sagar ek bar.” Loosely translated, it means, one can visit every other pilgrimage site many times, but for Ganga Sagar, a single visit is good enough.
The decision was made and the effort to locate a transport to take me to the Railway Station commenced. An autorickshaw was requisitioned for the purpose. The boat was deflated, to the utter amazement of everyone who was witness to the process, and the luggage was carried with the help of the many good folks there, up the steep embankment, to the road where the autorickshaw was parked. I proceeded to the Railway Station. Which turned out to be an old, disused one, without any trains or parcel office where I could book my stuff. By this time the electric powered autorickshaw had run out of charge, and another one had to be found. Which was done and I then proceeded to a second Railway Station, ten kilometres away.
I reached the parcel office where some touts guided me to where all the formalities could be completed. I looked a sight, and the luggage was different. My fatigue and urge to reach back home once the decision was made, ensured that I was fleeced by these touts. I think I was charged more than double what should be the actual charge, but anyway. There still remained the matter of booking my return ticket. A visit to a booking office told me that there were no train tickets available, thanks to the people returning from the Chhat Pooja festival. I decided to book a bus ticket.
I have problems sitting in a bus for long distances due to the fact that most such buses do not have adequate foot space. I need space to stretch my foot since I cannot bend it at the knee. Usually, I book two adjacent seats. This time there was an option of a sleeper coach, meaning there was a bed I could lie down in. I chose that option. I had to travel a few kilometres to the spot from where the bus would depart, and that left about four hours to while away time before the departure time came about, which happened soon enough.
Once inside the bus, I found that the bed that was allotted to me was all of five feet long and three feet wide ... for two people. There was no way I could be comfortable, particularly with another gentleman next to me who was more than twice my girth. Anyway, the choice was made, and the journey commenced. I was fatigued enough to be able to sleep for a couple of hours, before I was woken up with a very rude jolt. My “bed” was right at the end of the bus and the potholes ensured rude shocks. What woke me up was the bus going over a pothole that the driver possibly missed. I was lying on my side at the time. I was lifted a few inches off the bed and when I landed my arm came between the bed and my ribs. I screamed in pain. Something had gone horribly wrong. There was nothing I could do except to grin and bear it.
As the minutes ticked by, the pain increased, as did the swelling. Sleep became increasingly difficult as the pain increased. By the time morning happened, I was almost certain that I had cracked a rib. I was worried that I would not be able to take my luggage, unload it from the bus, load it onto another transport on the way home. Somehow I managed it and reached home.
A couple of hours later I received a call from the parcel tout in Varanasi informing me that my luggage had arrived and that I could go and pick it up. After freshening up and a meal later, I went to the parcel office to find my luggage. I could not take my car to the parcel office due to a religious procession in progress and had to park a couple of kilometres away. The search for some kind of transport to take the luggage from the parcel office to where the car was parked, took more than a couple of hours. Finally, I was home with everything that was my possession for the expedition.
I had not informed my folks that I was coming home, and they were quite pleasantly surprised. By this time, they have realised that I am stubborn as a mule and that I was only home for a few days. When I leave again is as yet undecided, but it will be after Dec 05.