Flooded streets and cremation scams
Mis à jour : 3 déc 2019
I arrived in Varanasi early in the morning. I wouldn't stay very long, because I wanted to be back in Delhi in time to apply for the Chinese visa. I had prepared everything meticulously. Still, I wanted to enjoy my day. As I left the train, it was pouring rain. The air was warm, so the rain didn't bother me that much. I embraced the humidity and walked through the small alleys of the holy city. When I had breakfast, I charged my phone and changed into some more waterproof clothes. I took my time to enjoy the food and talked to some locals. When I wanted to pay for my meal, I realized it had already been paid for by the guys I had just been talking to. They insisted on doing good and I couldn't refuse.
The locals had told me which were the best temples to see and I started heading towards my recommended destination. As I got closer to the Hindu temples and the holy Ganges river, the rain fell harder. The unavoidable puddles of water became bigger and bigger. On some occasions I had no choice but to get my feet wet and walk through. I didn't mind because I was already wet and wet shoes during hiking was a phenomenon I had dealt with more than once. When some puddles became as big as 10 meters across the street I had already stopped caring and walked happily through the water, just as everybody else. When the water became ankle deep, I hesitated for a second, but decided it was the only way. Bicycles, motorcycles and cars waded through the water as well. Locals were looking at me as I continued, determined to make it till the temple. I smiled at them and wondered if it would get worse. Soon my answer came when I saw parked motorcycles almost completely disappear into the water. Cars got stuck and needed pushing or pulling by several men. The place was flooded and the rain kept on pouring. As I took in my surroundings and saw the people dealing with the unforgiving water, I noticed water was now reaching my knees and it seemed that with each step I took, I strolled into deeper waters. Everything was wet, literally everything. It took me some time to realize that my journal, book, electronics and visa documents were humid or soaked as well. Still, I continued approaching the river where thousands of pilgrims came to bathe in the holy water. Several devoted Hindus came to Varanasi, this holy city, when they sensed their death was near. They would have their bodies burned by eternal fire and their ashes thrown into the Ganges. Around 200 people are cremated here everyday and I was about to witness it. All these pilgrims were walking besides me through the water when it reached our hips. The water was full of garbage, floating around. It did not look hygienic at all. There was no other way, so I just kept on going, wading through the flooded streets.
At the end of the long street I saw the Ganges, where several people were bathing in the holy river. Seeing the sewerage and garbage in that same holy river made me wonder about possible diseases and infections. I stayed a while to take in the experience and I visited some temples. Time was ticking so I really had to hurry to have enough time to experience the cremation. I made my way through the rubble of destroyed houses to find the spot. A local told me the houses had been demolished to provide better access to the river and that there were plans for more destruction in the future. Google maps was not helping me find the spot and I felt like I was walking in circles. I spotted other tourists, two Chinese girls, who were also looking for the spot. We decided to go together. A young boy spotted us and told us to follow him. As we walked to the cremation spot, I told the girls about a scam I had read about on wikitravel. I had vaguely read something about people trying to make you buy firewood for the families which would be pocketed by the guy himself. I didn't know the details, but I wanted to warn them.
The young boy brought us to a man, who acted as a guide and as if the only way to enter was with him. When he started eloquently talking about the tradition, the firewood and the tourists paying 10€ per kg, I realized we had arrived at the scammer. I, politely explained I would not pay but still be respectful for the families. I had not done too much research about the scam, except for wikitravel, so I preferred not to argue too much. The guy was not pleased. He started talking about bad karma and disrespecting Hindu religion. He put us in a very uncomfortable position. Still, I refused to give in and buy several kilos of firewood as he suggested. He started attacking the wealth of Western society and how 10€ per kilo is nothing for us. It would be an insult not to pay. The way he was talking was offensive yet still as smooth as a sales man. I did not trust him and preferred not to go at all. The two girls told me to just go without promising to actually pay the scam. We followed our guide and witnessed several bodies burning with mourning families aside. It felt a bit lurid to be so close to the fire and the Ganges in the pouring rain. When I looked at the time, I realized I had to leave for my train. The smooth scammer led us away from the grieving families and asked once more how many kilos we wanted to buy. I rejected his offer once more, but this time he started to raise his voice, telling me I was disrespecting his culture. It was dreadful. My intuition told me it was the scam I had read about, but a voice in my head wondered if the guy was right. Maybe I was the bad guy in the story. As these questions entered my mind, I turned around and started walking towards the train station. The man got really mad and started hurling insults me. I hurried to the train with a bad feeling. I just kept on walking. When I arrived at the station, the first thing I wanted to do was check the internet about the scam. The relief was huge as I found hundreds of stories about the scam. The money never went to the actual families and the guides mostly focused on convincing people through guilt. Even though it was not easy to turn around, I was very glad to have walked away from a dishonest scam. I will never know if the two Chinese girls were 'guilted' into paying, since they didn't follow me.