TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Thirteen

“What the fuck. Seriously, what the fuck?!”

That’s all Peace has managed to utter, over and over again, ever since we nabbed a taxi at Varanasi airport half an hour ago. We’re in the midst of complete and utter chaos, bumping our way past rickety street stalls made out of blue tarpaulins and old crate wood piled high with colourful fabrics, mountains of garlic and gleaming stacks of silver pots and pans. There are cows, people, chickens and goats, all listlessly wandering in the stifling heat. There are small mountains of reeking garbage dotted along the sides of the roads and fly-kissed, naked babies screaming their little hearts out. Above the sounds of the babies there’s the shrill sound of women’s voices in dispute, and the thick noise of a radio booming crackly Bollywood tracks in the background. And there, a small child is crouched on the side of the road, bare bottom hovering high in the air, a small pile of poo gathering slowly like a soft serve underneath.

“What the fuck!” Peace says once again. We turn towards each other and start giggling hysterically, then continue gawking at the chaos unfolding before us.

It’s not until we get to our hotel room just as dusk is settling in that Peace manages a slightly more sophisticated phrase. “This place is fucking insane,” she says as we throw our suitcases on to the incy wincy double bed. “It’s kinda like, way more disgusting than I thought it would be, but in a really beautiful way. Know what I mean?” Peace gestures with a bony, silver-ringed hand.

“Totally. My first impression is that it’s the most gorgeous, mind-blowing shithole I’ve ever seen,” I say with a laugh.

“Mrs. Kirke, I think you may have just hit the nail on the head,” she says as she rummages distractedly in her embroidered bag.

The mention of my married name sends my tummy flip-flopping all over the place and I’m no longer in the mood to joke around. I slump onto the bed and curl up into the foetal position.

“Hey, you ok babe?” Peace asks as she sits down on the bed next to me. As I look at my oldest friend, the calculated nonchalance I had so carefully tried to uphold the entire way here disappears.

“No, P, I’m not ok. But I don’t really want to talk about it right now.’ I shut my eyes tight and hug my knees to my chest. “I think I just need to have a little…” I trail off as Peace rubs my back. And, despite it only being just after 6pm, I drift straight into a deep and dreamless sleep.

***

Sometime later (has it been minutes, hours, days even?) I groggily swim out of my slumber. The room is pitch black but I can hear Peace next to me sucking in the deep, whistly breaths of sleep. My body feels like it’s under wet cement but my head is fizzing with energy, so I pad across the room and fumble about in my bag until I find my phone. I push the screen and it lights up: 4.30am. Jesus, I’ve been asleep for almost 12 hours. I can’t turn on the lights and wake Peace up yet so I throw on some clothes and head down to reception to check my emails. Maybe Ryan’s written to me, to apologise for not being more supportive of me during this quarter-life crisis of mine. But as I open the door to our room I see the sky has started to lighten to a soft grey, with the slightest hint of pink on the horizon. I’ve always been a sucker for a sunrise and this one looks like it’ll be a ripper, so I head out on to the street.

Immediately I’m struck by how busy everything is already. The little street stalls are hawking prayer beads, chai tea and little pots of bright orange chalk, and there are loads of withered-looking dudes with long dreadlocks, turbans and sarong-thingames standing around praying to the golden orb of the sun as it peeks over the horizon, now streaked with shades of apricot and lemon. A little kid comes over and annoyingly starts tugging on the bottom of my Isabel Marant embroidered shirt, trying to get me to buy one of the little paper plates he’s selling filled with marigolds and a tiny candle. He’s the sweetest looking thing, all sparkly brown eyes, floppy black hair and a bright swipe of a smile, but I have no idea what the plates are even for so I shake my head and try to move away. Suddenly, the boy grabs my hand and pulls me down some steps, onto some dark, dirty sand that’s littered with all kinds of skanky rubbish, and down to the shores of the River Ganges. I read in the Air India in-flight magazine that this is meant to be the world’s most holy river that people come from all around the world just to touch, but right now all I can see is a bloated, dead dog floating by in front of me in water the colour of chocolate milk, and there’s a stench invading my nostrils that’s so bad I’m starting to dry retch. The little boy doesn’t notice my heaving, or perhaps he’s just ignoring it, and hands me one of his little plates.

“Shoes off”, he instructs in a squeak of a voice.

“Oh no, these are…” I’m about to tell him that my sandals are Marni and that they won’t be coming off thankyouverymuch, but then realize with a sigh that there’s absolutely no point. Some things, I understand already, will simply be lost in translation.

I reluctantly pull them off and lay them down carefully on top of a half-eroded plastic bag. The boy nods and hands me a plate, then lights the candle for me with a worn out lighter that his tiny hand expertly flicks on.

“Walk in water”. He bobbles his head in the direction of the river, and for some reason I go right ahead and do it, without hesitation but certainly not without realizing that even just putting my feet in this muck could land me with typhoid at worst, severe diarrhea at best.

Just don’t look down
, I tell myself as my feet sink into splodgy silt and slide over sticks, stones, plastic bottles and other objects I don’t even dare attempt to name.

“Now pray”, says the boy.

“But, err… I’m not sure what…” I trail off, suddenly embarrassed to be confessing to a six-year-old boy that I haven’t got the faintest idea how to pray, what to pray for, or even who to pray to. I look down into my flickering flame, so faint in the now bright morning light, and decide to give it a shot anyway.

Dear Buddha,
I say to myself, eyes squeezed tight.

No, that doesn’t sound right.

Hey Buddha!
I try.

Hmm, maybe it’s the name rather than the greeting that’s not sitting with me quite right.

Dear God…
Ooph, that sounds really weird.

Time’s ticking away and I can feel the little boy’s eyes on me so I decide to stop thinking so much and just go for it.

Oh mother Ganges. Umm, please help me to see clearly. I want to feel inspired again, to feel happy again. Please help me to make things right with my husband. Please help me to find my dad, and for him to be happy to see me. And please help me be, umm, just a better person in general. Amen
.

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the right way to end it but it’ll do. My eyes shoot open and I find myself smiling down at the little boy eagerly, awaiting his approval. He furrows his brow at me.

“Now put in water,” he says, throwing his head in the direction of my little plate. I lean down and do just that, but it doesn’t get very far before it’s entangled in a flotilla of rubbish. Oh well I’m sure it still works. And besides, I’m ready to get my freshly manicured tootsies the hell out of this muck.

As I’m wading out, his little brown hand slips beneath my gaze.

“Hundred pipty rupees, madam.” Oops, I’d almost forgotten to pay.

“Sorry little man,” I say as I fish some notes out of my pocket. “Actually what’s your name?” But as soon as his hands are on the cash he’s off, scampering back up the steps in search of his next customer.

I shake the water off my feet but my feet are now filthy so I just pick my Marnis up and carry them.

I’m not 10 metres up the beach – in inverted commas – before there’s another tug on my shirt. This time it’s a full-grown man in a worn once-white wife-beater singlet and a dirty sarong, his beer belly oozing over his waistline and an alarming amount of hair sprouting from his incredibly large ears. He doesn’t say a word, just tosses his head in the direction of the steps where a bit of a crowd’s now gathered. There are guys with nothing but loincloths on, completely covered with chalk or ash or something, women in vibrant saris and sparkly jewels and bindis, and dudes using their masses of dreadlocks as turbans, all just sitting around and acting like their epic getups ain’t no thang. I have no idea what they’re all waiting for but, with so much time to kill, I gingerly pick my way through the mob and plonk myself down next to a sweet looking young girl who smiles at me politely. I look over at old Chesty Bond and he nods his approval.

I sit. I wait.

I sit. And I wait.

Fifteen minutes later and still nothing except a slightly larger crowd, and a slightly more awkward vibe. It’s 5.30am now, the sky’s as bright as if it were midday and I’m getting very over this. But then just as I make up my mind to slip away, three peculiarly beautiful boys wrapped in pale pink and cream silks walk up to a small raised platform at the bottom of the stairs which, covered in Persian rugs, looks a bit like a futon. They light a mass of incense, then my little boy with the marigold plates suddenly reappears, this time with an enormous bucket full of flowers that he places on the edge of the futon.

A haunting chant start emanating from a crackly speaker overhead and the beautiful boys start to move in unison, ever so slowly and precisely, the incense sticks in their hands trailing mystical wafts of pungent smoke behind their every move.

It’s spellbinding.

Soon their incense sticks are replaced with silver bells, which they ding dong to the chanting while waving their hands effeminately. I’m trying my best to let the chants take me away and bring me some peace, really I am, but all I can think about is how I’ve got to get me some of those fabulous bells to take home for the house. I can just see them sitting on our sideboard in the lounge room; I’ll be able to ding them at dinner parties when the food’s ready, and maybe I’ll even have another one by my bed for when I’m sick and needs refills of Panadol and hot soup.

I shake my head, falling out of my decorating fantasy just as the ritual’s finishing up. Everyone’s lined up next to the futon for something. All it takes is a slight confused tilt of my head and a stranger’s grabbed hold of my hand and is pulling me to the front of the line. No one seems to mind that I’m pushing in, in fact I get quite a few encouraging nods, and in a few seconds I’m in front of one of the dancers.

“Your performance was amazing, really just so lovely,” I say, just as I realize we’re not here to congratulate. The dancer holds a teeny tiny ladle filled with water out to me.

“Put on head,” comes a high, raspy voice from behind me. I spin around to see my little friend, still holding his tray of paper plates. I offer my cupped hands to the dancer. He suddenly looks horrified and disgusted all at the same time.

“No no no!”, shouts my little helper, pulling my left hand away. For a moment I’m confused, until I see the dancer staring aghast at the sandals still dangling from my left wrist. Must be some kind of faux pas. Shit.

I throw them down on the ground and let the dancer fill my cupped hands with the water, trying to block out the thought that even just a drop of this rancid liquid could land me in hospital, and throw it over my hair – also attempting to forget about the pre-flight blow-dry I managed to squeeze in at the airport that I was hoping would last me at least another three days. The dancer dips his index finger in a little pot of orange chalk and presses it between my eyes where a bindi might go, then grabs some flowers from the bucket and scatters them into my hands. I press them between my palms, give him my best “Namaste”, drop 20 rupees into the donation bowl before I’m prompted and walk away feeling like I just aced an HSC exam.

“What are you looking so chuffed about?”

I spin around to find Peace right behind me, looking spiritual-chic in some lavender harem pants with gold embroidery, a white tank top and some enormous chandelier earrings peeking out the bottom of her afro.

“Well you probably wouldn’t understand, having slept through the most mystical part of the day and all, but I just experienced a beautiful little singing ceremony and prayed to the river and was blessed,” I say, breaking into a self-satisfied smile.

“Well excuse me oh holy one, but I believe what you just experienced was morning puja. And if you’d done even the slightest bit of research on this adventure we’re having then you’d know that it’s something that happens every single morning so I don’t care that I missed it.” Peace sticks her tongue out at me and we giggle like schoolgirls. She weaves her dark, slender forearm through mine and we start strolling down the sidewalk. There are steep stone steps on our right leading down to the water, and steps on our left leading up to some imposing-looking buildings.

“So these little alcoves are called ghats,” says Peace. “There are over a hundred of them and they go all the way along the river front; each of them has their own vibe, their own name, their own little community.”

“Well they’re sure decorated well,” I say, pointing to a collection of psychedelic murals painted on the side of the buildings at the top of the steps. What we worship we shall become, reads a speech bubble curling up from a purple, blue and yellow six-armed fairy-like creature emerging from an enormous pink lotus. A few metres along there’s a black and white Aztec-looking design with Good Morning Varanasi written above it, then right next to that a huge white outline of a god with an enormous trident in his hand, which Peace tells me is the god of destruction, Shiva.

“They’re really ama…” Suddenly, my feet slip out from under me and I’m flat on my back. I can feel something warm and slimy oozing through the back of my pants.

“Oh my God Mags, I think you just slipped over in sewage!” I turn my head to the right and see the bright green, mossy puddle we’ve been unknowingly walking through and realize that yes, it probably is sewage. Ohmyfuckinggod.

“Well don’t just stand there, help me up P!” She reaches down and grabs my slippery hand in between fits of giggles and hoists me up to a sitting position. I look down at my cream pants and see they’re covered in streaks of brown and mossy green. I try drowning them in the remains of the bottle of water Peace hands me, but it only makes things worse. I now not only look as though I’ve messed myself, but the whole of Varanasi can see my knickers too.

“Madame, madame!” comes a voice from the ether. I look around but I can’t see where it’s coming from.

“Are you ok, madame?” Finally a very short, very skinny guy wrapped in a pale apricot sheet with a matching turban haphazardly tied around a mass of brown dreadlocks, appears in front me. He reaches out his hand to help me up.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say as I clamber to my feet.

“You fall over, not good walking place here. Toilet place here,” he says, shaking his head and waggling a bony finger at the mossy sewage. “You have paining, madame?”

I have to think about it for a moment: my butt’s actually aching a little but apart from that I don’t seem to have done any serious damage.

“I think I’m ok, thanks for your concern.” I start to walk away but Peace grabs my arm.

“Actually,” she purrs, eyeing the little dude off as though he were lunch, “You might be able to help us out with something. What’s your name, darling?”

“A sadhu has no name,” he replies, bowing his head a little and bringing his hands into a Namaste in the centre of his chest.

“A sah-what?” I whisper to Peace.

“A sadhu, Mags, a holy man,” she whispers back impatiently, before turning back to the little man.

“Okidoke! Well my name’s Peace, this is Margaux, and we’re actually here looking for someone. His name’s David Oakfield and…” she pauses and turns to me, her hand outstretched. “C’mon Mags, you’ve got the picture, right?”

“As if this guy’s gonna know who he is, don’t be ridiculous!” I whisper to her tersely.

“It’s worth a shot Mags. Just give it to me, it can’t hurt.” But the truth is, I’ve been worrying that it might. Hurt, I mean. This has all happened so quickly and unexpectedly, and I’m just not sure I’m ready for it. Then again, this little guy’s not likely to have any idea. Plus I’ve never been great at saying no to Peace, who’s just staring at me menacingly with her hand outstretched, so I reach into my bag, pull the tattered photo out of my wallet, and hand it over. Peace grabs it and thrusts it into the man’s face.

“It’s a little old and he’s probably changed a lot, we know, but we thought maybe…” She trails off, looking at the little sadhu hopefully. He takes the photo in his hands, putting it right up to his eyes so it touches his nose.

“Madame,” he says, slowly shaking his head. “This man I not know.”

“No need to be sorry, it was a long shot!” I say as I pull the photo out of his hands. “It’s totally fine, we’ll just get going then.” Phew. Dodged a bullet there. I start hurrying away but the sadhu grabs my arm.

“But madame, I take you to someone who help you find. Yes?” I look at him, then look at Peace, whose brow is knotting ever so slightly – well, as much as her latest Botox injection will allow.

“Who? Who will you take us to?” she asks suspiciously as she wipes her sweat-beaded forehead with a slender hand. It’s really goddam hot, so early in the morning and probably 40 degrees already.

“To a man who knows all of people in Varanasi, madame. He very old, he know all people.” He nods his head encouragingly. “Come come.”

He starts walking and motions for us to follow, but I’m not so sure I want to.

“What’s up Mags?” Peace asks me in a whisper. “Sorry, just a sec,” she yells to the sadhu with an apologetic smile.

“I’m just not sure this guy’s legit. I mean, what if he’s taking us to some sex den and his whole sadhu get-up is just part of an elaborate hoax?”

“Umm, and what about if you’re just totally paranoid? Look if it starts to feel dodgy we’ll just leave, ok? But by the sounds of it this old dude he’s talking about might be able to help, so I’d say it’s worth a shot.”

I’m not convinced. But then again we’re only here for a couple of days so…

“Alright, let’s do it,” I say, nervously pushing my hair behind my ears. We walk over to the little sadhu who’s now patiently sitting on the stone steps, staring out at the river.

“Sorry for making you wait,” I say as we reach him.

“No matter madame, a sadhu has nothing to do,” he says as we start walking slowly through the ghats. “We have important mantra here in Varanasi. It says, ‘nothing is to be done.’ In the modern world, we always like to feel very busy. Very important, we think if we are very busy. But the truth, most of time, is that nothing is to be done.”

“Wouldn’t you love to see Vicki’s face if you told her that?!” Peace says with a laugh.

“I think maybe you not serious madame,” says the Sadhu to Peace, cocking his head slightly. “You think maybe it is not possible to do nothing. But this is the life of a sadhu, and there is great bliss in doing nothing.” He places his hands in prayer position, touching them lightly to his forehead.

We spend the next ten minutes walking in silence with the little tripper, watching the ghats unfold before us and staring in disbelief at all the men, women and children bathing in the festering, polluted waters of the river. On the way we pass a group of grey monkeys with long tails and cheeky black faces playing in a tree, a group of women walking in beautiful flowing silk saris in every colour of the rainbow, and sadhus chanting their sing-songy mantras in Hindi. Accompanying it all is the smell of urine and faeces combined with the sickly smell of perfumed incense. It’s either heaven or hell, I haven’t quite decided which yet, but at least it’s all distracting me from thinking about Ryan, and about my dad.

At some point the sadhu guides us up to the top of the steep steps on our left and suddenly we’re no longer by the water, but in a maze of impossibly windy lanes not more than a metre wide. There are gorgeous little shawl shops selling vibrant fabrics stacked all the way from floor to ceiling, fragrant oil shops with shelves crammed full of teeny tiny bottles of hand labelled perfume and stacks of colourful incense, a shop selling nothing but huge red tins full of tea from Darjeeling, Kashmir, Assam and Nilgiri. I want it, all of it, but there’s no time to stop. The sadhu is going full steam ahead.

Peace and I are covered in a slick, grimy layer of sweat by the time we halt in front of a burgundy coloured doorway with a huge gold symbol painted in the middle of it.

“Wait here,” instructs the sadhu. He pushes the door open and walks inside, leaving us standing outside on the steps.

Ten long, sweltering minutes later – minutes in which I try not to lose my shit completely thinking about what I’ll do if this guy actually can help us find my dad – his head pops around the door. Peace gives him her bitchiest, most over it look. He doesn’t seem to notice.

“Come come.” He beckons us with his small bony hand, which I now notice is capped with long, yellowed fingernails. Clearly manis aren’t too high up on these sadhu’s priority lists.

I’m still staring at the hideous nails when we walk inside, so for a few seconds the utter fabulousness of the interiors doesn’t hit me. The fuchsia walls are completely covered in deliciously kitsch gold-framed images of Hindu gods, each one draped with its own fresh yellow and gold marigold garland. The doors and alcoves are bright blue with, rather bizarrely, small fuchsia swastikas painted around them, while the ceiling is candy striped in blue and gold. White velvet cushions cover the floor, and one entire wall is lined with glass shelves heaving with chunks of twinkling crystal in all shapes, colours and sizes. This is ashram chic at its very, very best. The Sydney Buddhist Centre could really use some design tips from this place.

“Yeees?” The word comes from a giant shadow melted into the dingy corner. I have to squint to make out its owner, and as my eyes adjust to the dim light I see that he’s incredibly old and incredibly rotund, with features that seem to huddle in the middle of his face. He’s lazing back on a stack of pillows and has a multicoloured striped silk shawl draped over a white singlet that’s doing a terrible job of covering his potbelly. A grey moustache perches on top of his plump, wet lips and he has three orange lines painted across his forehead with a big red splodge sitting between his eyes. He’s shiny bald on top with a couple of grey tufts on the sides, but that doesn’t stop him from looking like a total pimp in the best possible way.

“Oh, hello there!” I squeak, immediately wondering why my voice has suddenly gone all high-pitched and silly sounding. Peace gives me a look that says she’s wondering the same thing.

“Yeah so my name’s Peace, this is Margaux,” she butts in. “We’re here because Margaux’s looking for someone.” She points at the sadhu. “This guy said you might know him?” Then she walks up to the old man and thrusts the crumpled photo of my dad up to his face, so it’s almost touching his squidgy nose. The twist in my stomach squishes into a double knot.

Slowly, and ever so calmly, the man pushes Peace’s hand and the photograph away from his face. He closes his eyes, places his hands in his lap and takes a long, deep breath. Just as Peace starts to back away, his beady eyes snap open and he points a stubby finger at me.

“You,” he croaks in a rough, sandpapery voice.

“Me?”

“Yooou.” He closes his eyes again. “Yooou are a person who want to be loved. You not think this. You think you strong, like Viking. But is truth. This become problem for you, maybe nooot now but,” he suddenly straightens up as though someone’s stuck their thumb up his bottom, “future times this problem. You need to learn to looove youself, then you will stop wanting from others. You will be complete.”

I lurch forward, index finger raised, ready to tell this batty old man he’s got it all wrong, but he doesn’t let me.

“You!” The old man’s eyes finally snap open and he points at Peace. “Bebies. You have bebies coming.”

I can’t help it; I start to giggle. Peace is hands down the last person on the planet who’d ever even think about having kids. In actual fact, she hates them.

“Ahh sorry mate, wrong again,” Peace gives me a sideways smirk.

“No laughing!” he barks suddenly. “Bebies are coming, the universe want for you.” And just like that he drops his hands into his lap and his eyes flutter closed again.

“Ahh, thanks for that?” She pinches me on my arm. “But like I said before, we were actually hoping you could tell us about this man?” She jabs the photo with her bejeweled index finger. Another ten seconds of silence. “So do you know him? Excuse me?”

Almost a whole minute of awkward silence passes, the old man just sitting there, sleeping I guess, until the little sadhu slopes back into the room.

“Ahh yes, babaji gone now madame, time for go. You put 1000 rupee donation here.” He holds out a small copper bowl and stares at us unblinkingly.

“Umm, excuse me?” Peace’s afro is quivering ever so slightly. I’m annoyed, but not half as annoyed as she seems to be. She didn’t really think this was going to work, did she?

“That is so not ok! First of all, you never mentioned this ridiculously over-inflated donation. Second of all, this dude didn’t tell us anything about the guy we’re looking for. And third of all, we never asked for him to tell us our fortunes, or whatever the hell that just was – if anything, he should be paying us for having to listen to all that bullshit he just served us!”

“Oh madame,” says the sadhu shaking his head. “Please do not swear in front of the great babaji, he is very respected astrologer here in Varanasi, no good disrespect.”

“I don’t care what the hell he calls himself, he’s a fake and a phony and we’re not giving him a goddamn thing!” And with that she storms out of the room, leaving me standing there speechless. I agree that this has been a total heist but really, what can we do? I can’t see us getting out of here without parting with some cash and I don’t want to mess with my karma just as I’ve started to cleanse it. With a sigh, I pull a 500 rupee bill out of my wallet.

“Babaji has been dishonest,” I say to the sadhu, looking him right in his watery, bloodshot eyes. “I give this to babaji because he deserves respect, like we all do, but you know as well as we do that this is too much already so this is all you will get.” His lips tighten. He wobbles his head in disappointment, clicks his tongue a couple of times, but eventually takes the cash and motions for me to leave. I decide to do the Zen thing and say no more.

Outside, Peace is pacing the sidewalk and muttering to herself.

“Well that was just a big bloody waste of time now wasn’t it? Rip-off merchants.” She’s looking kind of wild eyed. She always has been so protective of me. “Anyway, let’s not let it upset us. I reckon we just forget all about this shyster and keep looking, yeah?”

“P I dunno, I’m actually kind of tired now…” I trail off, not quite knowing what else to say. The truth is, I can’t stop thinking about Ryan. About what he might be thinking, about whether he’s even upset that I’m gone, about how scared I actually am to find out. I just need to be by myself for a little bit so I can clear my mind.

“Ok Mags.” I see her afro wilt just a little as she says those words. “It’s been a big day already I know, and I’m sure we’re both still jetlagged. But hey, how about I stay on the case for you? I mean, I just don’t think we can afford to lose any more time…”

I find myself agreeing, even though I know I’m a horrible person for letting her go off on my mission on her own. Peace gives me a sweaty hug. “You go back to the hotel and get some rest! Promise!” she yells over her shoulder as she walks off down the dusty alleyway.

“Ok! Promise!” I yell back. I wait until she’s disappeared around the corner. Then I start heading off in the direction of those gorgeous stalls we passed earlier. I was crossing my fingers behind my back the whole time. Of course I’m not going back to the hotel; I’m going shopping. What I need, I’ve suddenly realised, is some serious retail therapy.