Monday – Varanasi
Today is a ‘free day’ in our itinerary which we intend to spend purchasing fabric, and sending it, and other goods, home. Varanasi is famous for Benares silk, (Benares the old name for the city) so there seems no place better to buy. And there is no shortage of retail options. However we are taking the advice of our (female) guide of the previous two days, and going to the store where she has bought her saris, as she trusts him.
When we arrive, lunchtime Monday, the store is closed and there is no sign of life. A voice comes from below telling us he is coming. It is not the shop owner however, but someone else, who offers to take us to his sari shop. We follow. But rather than his sari shop we appear to be approaching various sari shops to see who wants our business. None of the the first three allow us into their store! Finally the fourth store (more accurately, stall) lets us in.
Confusion follows between cotton versus silk, and what colour is purple, or burgundy, or even pink. But we get there in the end as the shop keeper unrolls sari after sari after sari. During this process there is a sudden tropical downpour which appears to dump plenty of rain, but goes as quickly as it arrived. Fabrics selected (and trust me, it took much more time than me to type this, or you to read it) we are presented with the price, which is more cash than we collectively carry. I say “Visa ATM” and the man who led us to the sari stall, takes me in the direction of the nearest State Bank of India ATM.
A quick word about ATMs here. There is no real shortage of them, but they can be a bit hard to find, and they are all enclosed in a ‘secure’ room, some have guards outside, others have guards inside. There is always a queue. And the maximum single withdrawal is 10,000 Rupees (about $200).
Whilst I have been securing the money, the other half of IndianInterlude has been enticed by a display of scarves, and talk of Australian cricketers. Kerry parts with our strategic weapon (cricket cards) for the shop owner’s son. Our extensive grasp of Hindi, gleaned from a dedication to Bollywood movies, and the fact that India have at last beaten Australia, has us saying ‘Chake de India’, roughly ‘Go India’, bringing howls of laughter from those assembled. They reply ‘Chake de Australia’, and we all leave happy.
We head back to the riverbank using the ghats as our landmarks to search for the parcel packing and forwarding business. As we reach the riverbank a man reaches out to shake hands and offer a Namaste, (not an unusual occurrence) and soon he is massaging my hand and dragging me to his massage spot. I have been caught out, and agree to go. We offer to pay, but he says, no, pay later, and I proceed to be massaged. Actually, it’s not a lot different from any of those Chinese massage places in your local shopping centre. And neither is the price he asks at the end! Truthfully we can show our empty wallets contain only half of his asking price, and that is all he gets.
On to the parcel service, at the far end of this stretch of the river. We pass cricket games, cows, cow dung, and various hawkers and touts. At the Assi Ghat we stop to buy water at a stall and to check our destination. We are going in the right direction, and it will be just around the corner. Our new challenge is to find another ATM, for the parcel company no doubt deals in cash, and we have none. The next ATM is ten minutes walk we are told – we go left and right, and left again until we find something resembling a main road, ask another stall holder about the ATM who assures us is just ten minutes walk away. Auto-rickshaws slow down looking for our business, but it seems that without cash we’re in no position to negotiate a transport price. Finally we arrive at the ATM, naturally for the journey back there is not an auto-rickshaw to be had for love, nor our fresh money.
We reach the parcel packing business, and proceed with our transaction. This takes no small time, as the young man front of house has his telephone earpiece in, and is constantly talking. When his other mobile phone rings he gives it to his back of house assistant. In between times, other foreigners have crowded in to buy postcards or note books. If we have noticed one other nationality most, it is the French. And for those of you anticipating a postcard – they are remarkably difficult to find in India – although it could be us who cannot find them.
We walk back the two kilometres to our hotel, with the now usual sights and sounds and smells. However a new offer comes our way, chillum, hash, and a smorgasbord of other illicit delights are offered by Michael, a most unlikely name for an Indian. Still, the fact that he is peddling his wares suggests the disguise is working for him.
On another note, there are a small but noticeable number of white westerners, and Orientals who appear to have consumed the Kool-Aid, tuned in, turned on, and dropped out.