I arrive in Varanasi slightly dazed from the 12hr train ride and find lodgings at the Shanti Guest House. Not easily, I hasten to add - it's down near the ghats; the steps down to the Ganges used for a variety of activities, from washing and bathing to burning the dead. Shanti GH is near Manikarnika Ghat, the biggest of the cremation ghats, and getting there requires navigation through a labyrinth of markets and side streets that are teaming with cockroaches, touts, stray dogs, cows and shops; littered with rubbish, paan splotches, various animals' crap and an ominous, viscous black sludge that slides down the gutters. Corpses pass by on the streets, carried on stretchers by small, chanting processions.
After a much needed shower I head to the rooftop restaurant. The view is incredible and the atmosphere charged - great boulders of thunder roll over the Ganges and around the ghats, eyes stinging from the pyres' smoke. I go for a wander around the backstreets and see some of the ghats. Then I'm directed to a music shop and school by a friendly drug dealer ('I sell everything'), and end up taking a tabla lesson right there and then, and book a bunch more.
The Jolly Music House is run by the genial Jolly, who seems to spend most of his time sitting drinking chai, getting jolly, and generally smiling a lot. He also has a nice turn of phrase and puts things in ways that only non-native English speakers can, and we have some interesting conversations. Also play a few times with him and my teacher Om, in which I'm hilariously out-drummed but that are fun nonetheless.
It's a very Indian city, and despite the superficial reservations it's easy to have about the place, it has a great atmosphere and I like it here, as do most visitors. After a few weeks of pleasant sameyness, I head back to Delhi to catch some of the madness that is The Commonwealth Games.
Rant time! The metro system in Delhi during The Games would've been better organised had it been designed by a one-year-old going nuts with some crayons. At the entrance to the New Delhi metro station, there's ONE body scanner and ONE bag scanner. This is one of the busiest metro stations in Delhi, next to the biggest and busiest train station, and the way into the city from the airport. And the hundreds of thousands who use the metro daily are let in one at a time. I just saw (and promptly left) a queue about 300m long and 4 people wide - so perhaps 2000 people - and the queue was getting longer. One at a time. The incompetence involved in designing such a system is staggering. Then there's the free metro tickets that come with the event tickets. Each one has a code that has to be manually recorded every time you enter or exit the metro station. So come the end of an event - thousands of people trying to get home - not only are they let in or out one at a time, but everyone's shouting numbers and thrusting tickets slips all over the place, one guy frantically trying to write down long strings of numbers in a huge ledger. Complete mayhem. I can't fathom how anyone in the world, ever, would think this was a good idea. Or even a vaguely passable idea.
Ok, rant over. In comparison to the other methods of city travel it's actually a pretty good service (or at least a much needed one), despite all its faults - it's just that seeing a system that a moderately intelligent monkey could improve upon annoys the hell out of me.
The Games themselves are great (again, the infrastructural elements are woefully inadequate and under prepared, but I'll refrain from more ranting) and the events that have Indian competitors inevitably lead to the crowd going completely bonkers which can be very entertaining.
I'd meant to head to Mumbai next, but the trains are booked up for weeks in advance, so instead I book a ticket to Ahmedabad, and intend to head to Diu. It's a seaside resort-type town on the southern tip of the Gujarat peninsula, and I figure possibly a nice base to head off for some biking around the bulbous coastline. Looks like my plan to head down the western coast and end up in Kerala may not come off as planned. But plans in India are made to be broken it seems...