Christine and I rub the sleep from our tired eyes, sit up inside the shiny Honda and reanimate with a lung full of frigid A/C. Our friend parks on the shady side of Shivala street, which is jam packed with market stalls. Slumping over the steering wheel he rejoices, “We are here!”
We step out into the haze of heat amidst the bustling marketplace, it’s only 9.30 in the morning and I’m beginning to sweat, an Indian Summer indeed!
Our driver takes us to his friend’s guesthouse and we are met with a smug, balding man with red, angry eyes who insists his place is the best in town. The crummy conditions, high prices, and stench of his arrogance drives us away quickly and I pray that we are guided to the right place.
On the way out, a porter tells us of a better guesthouse close by. I follow him into an alley that leads toward the Ganges river and arrive at ‘Singh Guesthouse‘.
Stepping into a lush, gardened courtyard enclosed by tall cream walls bordered in red, I walk around a small water feature feeling refreshed already. Inside the lobby, two old men are enthralled by an intense indian soap opera.
The first man who stands to greet us is ‘Diamond’ who has lived in Varanasi his whole life. His blue eyes sparkle against his dark face, greying hair and sturdy physique. It doesn’t take long for us to connect and I like his kind, wise and fatherly approach.
His friend reluctantly tears himself away from the show and heaves his bulging frame to join us at the check-in desk. Above us is a rickety fan and a framed picture of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a beloved Indian sage who is a guiding light in my life.
Thank you, this is the place.
It’s already noon by the time we drop off our bags, say goodbye to our marathon driver, and sit down for a snack and a deeper chat with Diamond.
We share our experiences in India as he listens intently, especially as the conversation turns to spiritual matters. “People come to Varanasi to be purified by the Ganges. To ‘learn and burn’ by the Grace of Lord Shiva” Diamond explains. “The river runs deep here, just like the current of Life”.
Many people come to Varanasi to experience this healing power, but with temperatures soaring at 46 degrees, the tourism is scarce. We listen to his welcomed insight while sweltering in the perpetual sauna.
A cleansing bath in the Ganges is more appealing than ever.
When the furnace cools off a little, Christine and I sit on the steps of the Holy river and meditate to the sound of the flowing water. Happy and immersed in the moment, we watch the setting sun cast its orange rays over the shimmering waters.
Later on, we drink chai as the boatmen row, people wash, and fires burn. Diamond’s words ring true as we listen to Bhajans and the drumming of cremation festivities happening along the river. My soul is filled with love and gratitude to be in India’s holiest and oldest city which is a focal point for both Hindus and Buddhists worldwide.
Over the next two days, Diamond shows us around town and makes sure we are in safe hands. Inside the mystical temple of Lord Shiva, we give offerings to the many brahmins and deities draped in marigold flowers (see cover photo).The hallways are thick with the sweet smoke of incense, and adorned with beautiful murals, intricate carvings, and the vibrating power of prayer.
We also visit the sacred garden of Buddha’s first teaching in Sarnath. The tranquil garden, lined with lily pads and pink lotus flowers, allows a welcomed mediation inside the fragrant serenity of this hallowed ground.
By the end of the second day, the Varanasi bake house is still uncomfortable, especially for Christine as she has developed a fever. It’s so hot we take multiple cold showers throughout the day to avoid sautéed organs. We need a break from the furnace, so we book a ticket to Darjeeling for a rest in the mountains before catching our flight out of Kolkata to Bali.
We bid our dear friends and the holy city farewell as our loaded rickshaw sputters to life and we set off on our evening voyage across the Varanasi bridge to the train station.
Off we go!