Stumbling Through Varanasi’s Darkened Streets

VARANASI, India — The train from Gaya arrived in Varanasi after nightfall, followed by a taxi ride to the edge of the old city.

My Alka Hotel room key. At top, Hindu deities perched on a building. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

My hotel was down the alley, the driver said upon stopping at the edge of a warren of streets too narrow for a Bajaj three-wheeler, much less a full-size Ambassador.

On my train ride, I had struck up a conversation between Sharad, a Varanasi resident in his early 20s, and his father, who told me a little about life in the city outside of the touristy areas. But no one had mentioned walking the tangle of unnamed, poorly-lighted walkways leading to Meer Ghat.

Merchants at shop stalls along the winding, cobblestoned canyons provided vague directions, along with a head wobble. I should walk toward the Ganga, they suggested, though all I saw old stone and concrete buildings, shadowy, in every direction. Too dark even to take photos on a moonless night in which only the occasional white fluorescent lightbulb from a fruit wallah’s storefront.

Tired yet alert enough to be startled by the sudden dash of a cat or a goat on the walkways, I eventually came to large painted sign on a wall, advertising the Alka Hotel‘s general direction with a big arrow. A couple of signs later, I arrived, checked in, found my room and laid down for the night.

In a few hours, I would see Hinduism’s holiest river — the Ganga.

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