Khajuraho had shown us the peaceful and spiritual side of India, and helped me understand why so many people fall in love with the India. Varanasi couldn’t be more different. It was like Delhi on crack. More cows, goats and dogs to dodge than Delhi, with more horns and cars trying to avoid them. There are streams of Hare Krishna parades and political demonstrations, which is the only thing that makes the traffic stop.
I dumped my bag at the hostel and went out in search of a spiritual awakening on the banks of the Ganges… The monsoon rains that had made the waterfalls of Khajuraho look so spectacular had also flooded the Ganges. The water had risen above the iconic steps and was encroaching on the riverside buildings. This meant that instead of a peaceful stroll you had to double back on yourself every block, dipping in and out of the chaotic alleyways every time.
One passage was so dark we almost tripped over the men sleeping on the ground. This is standard all around India, so I wasn’t too worried until I passed one whose eyes were wide open and didn’t appear to be breathing. It was a dead body. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. A traditional funeral ceremony includes floating the body down the river in a burning raft, which not everyone can afford. Apparently some older people travel to Varanasi knowing that their days are numbered and the government will take care of their funeral.
As the light at the end of tunnel appeared we got our first proper look at the Ganges. It is absolutely filthy. It makes the Thames look like the French Riviera. Many Indians feel privileged to bathe in the sacred water whereas I was concerned for families bathing in the sewage system of the city and where dead bodies are burned.
I had arranged to volunteer at a local school and turned up expecting to sign in and possibly pick up a visitor pass. Not so much. I was handed vats of rice and dahl and directed to a small room where the children were sitting (but mostly jumping around) waiting for their grub. After lunch I was told that there would be games and a dance class, but it was mostly just noisy pandemonium. Much like the rest of Varanasi but in school uniforms. The teachers seemed to take their lunch at the same time so the children were unsupervised. After half an hour of battering each other and spinning each other into cupboards, it was time for dance class with Suraz.
Volunteering as part of your travels can be a brilliant way to get to know a country, warts and all, as well as connecting with local people. Personally, I try to look for opportunities where I can add value instead of providing a service that a local person could and should be paid to do. Also be questioning of organisations that request a fee for you to volunteer. Is the money going to the people you are helping or is it paying for inflated salaries in HQ? Are you providing a service that should be provided by a qualified professional? Is this service sustainable? Are you giving away products eg. mosquito nets that could be purchased from a local supplier to benefit the local economy? There is definitely a need out there so make sure your output has an overall net benefit.
I’m still learning about this as I go and I’m definitely open to opinions and advice about it, so feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments!