Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Varanasi - Local Culture, Aarti, Stuffed Pancake Recipe

We were somewhat skeptical about Varanasi after our bad experience in Mathura, and indeed the day started off poorly when our tuk-tuk driver, after agreeing to take us to the Golden Temple for 20 rupees and driving us away from the train station, told us that he could not take us to the Golden Temple and wanted to know what hotel to take us to (tuk-tuk drivers generally extract "referral" commissions from hotels, even if you were planning to stay there anyway, and this translates to a higher room rate--they do it everywhere in India, but especially badly in Varanasi according to Lonely Planet). After arguing with him for a while, we got out and managed to find a cycle-rickshaw pretty quickly, which was a relief since we had no clue where we were. I am starting to hate tuk-tuk drivers with a passion.

Along the Ganges from Drop Box

We wondered along the Ganges for a little while trying to find the backpacker part of town. We dropped in at one hotel with rates posted in US dollars, for $125/night. Wow. We declined to actually look at the room as our packs were heavy and Mary needed to pee (having declined to do so on the night train or at the station). Also looked at a couple places that seemed of questionable value. One was 400 Rs with shared squat bathroom, and another with so much shit in the entryway we didn't ask to see rooms. By this time we were starting to see signs for the Brown Bread German Bakery, which we knew from Lonely Planet to be a branch of a Western charity, which also has a guest house with basic cheap rooms (proceeds benefit local schools). We dropped in for a few minutes and got directions to the guesthouse, which we were told was probably full, and set off. The guesthouse was indeed full, so we tried next door at Shankeri Tourist Lodge, where we talked the owner down from 300 Rs to 120 Rs on a very basic room with no screens and a shared Indian bathroom. We are increasingly finding the squat toilets to be okay. Actually, a dirty squatty is vastly superior to a dirty Western toilet, as the only part of you that touches it is the bottoms of your shoes.

Entrance to Our Hotel from Drop Box

We had breakfast there, deposited our laundry, and heard a lot from the owner about Holi, Varanasi, his friend's silk shop, and various things to do in the city that he could arrange for us for a fee. He was a little pushier than we would have liked, but the fees he was suggesting sounded reasonable, and I do appreciate hearing the available options... once. Mary really liked the stuffed "pancakes" (actually parantha). We also talked about family planning--we keep getting asked if we are on our honeymoon, and then how long we have been married. It seems to be absolutely mild boggling to people here that we have been married going on 5 years and don't have any children yet. He told us that in India you must have a baby within 1-2 years, but after that it is socially acceptable to use contraceptives, and have as many or as few additional children as you want, and wait as long or as short as you like to have them.

After breakfast we departed along the Ganges taking in the sights. It was really hot. And there was little to no shade. We stopped for a break near what turned out to be one of the burning ghats, where we saw a small funeral procession and the preparation of a funeral pyre that didn't look big enough (no photos allowed of the funerals). We decided to move on before they lit it. We moved away from the river and into the city for more shade. Josh also bought some sunglasses, having lost the ones he brought from home. We proceeded southward with the intention of going to a museum at the university before lunch, then one with an extensive weapons collection across the river after lunch. We ended up only doing the first museum because we were so tired, and after some difficulty caught a tuk-tuk back to our hotel area, where we purchased a few silk ("silk"?) scarves and a cheap basic daypack (having decided we were sorry we didn't bring one).

Mini Painting at the Museum from Drop Box

We had a very late lunch (3-4pm) at the Brown Bread German Bakery. It was pretty expensive and rich, but also very good. We had fondue and a very cheesy spinach lasagna. The restaurant was, as I said above, part of a Western charity, and it was also a total hippie joint, full of white hippies and supposedly all organic fair trade food. We enjoyed relaxing, stretched out on pillows on the floor at low tables. It's also the first place we've been in India where Lonely Planet suggests that you can get your water bottle refilled with safe-to-drink water, which we did.

After, we went to our hotel room to relax for a while, then went out to see the Aarti ceremony at sunset. It turns out that the lighting and placing of candles on the river is only the smallest part of this ceremony, and there were not that many candles put afloat. The rest for the ceremony, until we got bored, there was a lot of singing, dancing, and drumming by the priests, and a lot of mosquito slapping by the tourists. The whole thing didn't sit quite right with us, I think largely due to being in entirely the wrong mood, having arrived early and spent like a half hour with people trying to sell us candles and boat rides. Can you imagine showing up for Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral and spending the first half hour having the alter boys try to sell you votive candles or a pew with a better view?

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

When we got back to our hotel, we chatted with a couple other tourists, a student from Australia and another from Seattle. For dessert (we weren't really hungry again after that lunch), Josh got lassi and Mary got more of the fantastic "pancakes" which the woman of the house allowed her to help make. She used the same parantha dough that we saw in Delhi, ~2 parts wholewheat flour to 1 part water (she just keeps some made up all the time in a closed container). A golf-ball-sized amount was then flattened to about 3 inches across. She stuffed this with broken up Indian Sweet* and sugar (around 1/2 tablespoon each), folded the dough around it, dipped in whole wheat flour and flattened to parantha-size (5 or 6 inches across) and fried in a little bit on oil on a flat pan. Mary didn't use enough oil on hers and they kept trying to inflate like chipati! *Indian Sweet, at least as used here, is made of condensed milk (think Carnation canned stuff), which has been further condensed until it forms a candy which had be readily smashed into a soft powder. Meanwhile, Josh was learning about making curd from fresh raw milk.

Our bed that night was kind of funky, only cots with two thick blankets, sheeted as if we were supposed to just sleep on top of both of them and bring our own blanket to keep warm. Josh found it warm enough to sleep in just his silk travel sack all night, while Mary moved between the blankets in the middle of the night, and found the bed more comfortable that way, the bottom blanket being less lumpy than the top. We also used our bug net, but thanks to being on the 3rd floor, it didn't seem to be needed even without screens in the windows. In spite of the funkiness of the room, I would recommend the establishment on account of liking our hosts so much. Varanasi itself didn't do much for us, but between the bakery, the friendly folk at our hotel, and the stuffed "pancake" recipe it was a good day.

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