I slept very poorly last night. Besides being cramped it was very cold and I was shivering most of the night. At about four thirty most of the people on the train got off (at Lucknow) and most of the people getting on didn't seem interested in sleeping. At around seven I gave up and got up as we were supposed to get it in just over an hour anyway - at least there is plenty of room to sit then. I sat and talked with a group of medical students from the university in Lucknow, studied the train timetables to figure out how they worked, and read. Finally the train got to Varanasi at noon - 15 hours after leaving Agra. I dealt with the nightmare tuktuk drivers - they can't get to the central river ghats due to streets being closed due to a festival so they won't get a commission, hence they don't want to take me to the guest house I want to go to. Finally got one of them to drop me off near where I wanted and his friend showed me the way through the maze of little streets to the guesthouse. I got the last room they had. It's not as nice as the one in Agra and it's more more expensive, but it's still better than I expected (hot water!), and still cheap - and I think it will be a lot quieter - plus it's right above the Gangas (Ganges) River with an incredible view from the roof.
As I hadn't eaten anything yet I set off to get something to eat at a recommended guest house nearby, but I couldn't find it, and just ended up walking all the ghats. I walked for nearly four hours total. I first headed down the river along all the ghats (foundations for platforms and building on the river - most with stairs leading down to the water). I saw lots of people bathing, praying, playing, and even doing laundry. It was all very colorful and fascinating - like something out of a movie. On the way back I couldn't decide if I was disappointed about not seeing any funeral pyres - I didn't really want to, but on the other hand it's something I so strongly associate with the Ganges. Back in front of the guest house I put off eating again and continued up river. Maybe fifty meters further on and I saw piles of wood and smoke. Despite my thought train minutes before it didn't even occur to me what it was until a body was carried by me, then another, and another. There were at least six fires going at all times, and they were all in use every time I walked by (at least six times) I don't know how long the fire burns for each funeral, but there seemed to be a constant stream of bodies coming in - even the last time I walked by at 9pm - I wonder if it goes on around the clock? In a country of over 800 million Hindus - all of which would be cremated on the Gangas if they could afford it, I'd guess it might go on around the clock.
I ran into a festival further up the river on Dr. Rajendra Prasad Ghat. There were yellow and orange flags, tons of people and flowers - even the cows had garlands draped over them. Back at the guest house I took a well needed shower - I tried not to think about the ash that ends up on everything - but still was desperate for a shower. Then I headed out to get something to eat - again. Back at the cremation ghat I got distracted it was very surreal - like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie - the ancient bricks of the ghat lit by the gruesome fires surrounded by crowds of people dressed much like they would have been many hundreds of years ago. Eerie, scary, repulsive, but fascinating.
I was finally distracted by a few tiny lights out on the river - candles. I walked back down to the festival to watch the floating candles and flowers get launched. Once I was down there I found a huge ceremony consisting of five (six?) men on podiums dancing, chanting and waving fire around while what sounded like hundreds of bells were ringing - Obviously I stayed to watch. More Indiana Jones type sets - the fires were in large metal bowls shaped like a coiled cobra and the men were swinging them over their heads. There were less candles floated than I'd imagined - tens instead of thousands, but it was still magical and the ceremony certainly made up for it. I finally stopped at a random guest house to eat - and had horrible food. Back at my guest house I read and drank water.