It did not matter that we have been traveling for more than 12 hours then. When we got to Varanasi that day, despite feeling exhausted and dizzy from all the chaos going about, we wanted to go out and start exploring. The thing with Varanasi is that, everything that is shocking and rattling about India, it's ten times more in Varanasi. The streets are busier with people and cars and rickshaws. The alleyways, which they call gali, are more pungent with all the trash, cow manure, incense, and flowers for the dead.
Varanasi is the picture you have of India where people descend down a wide staircase, which they call ghat, to bathe, wash and go about their daily business right at the banks of the most sacred river in all of Hinduism, the River Ganges. Thus, more importantly, Varanasi is where, in keeping with Hindu practice, they burn their dearly departed and let whatever charred remains there is flow down the river.
(More photos from Varanasi here: Photos from the Holiest of Holiest Places in India)
The cremations aren't done with an oven or even inside a building, as they are in the rest of the world. No, the cremations are done in an open fire, held in full view of the public, 24 hours a day, non-stop. They do this at the burning ghat, the staircase dedicated solely for cremation. I read in a guidebook that it was forbidden to take pictures of that specific ghat as a sign of respect to the dead there. For some reason, I neglected to remember this piece of information. Big mistake.
Without so much as a single second passing after I clicked on my camera, a set of cold, clammy fingers grabbed my arm. The man is a resident, and I presume, a worker in the ghat. He had bloodshot eyes, the heady smell of smoke and ash, and a face too old and wrinkled for his body. He was in hysterics, telling on me, threatening to take me to the police for violating this unwritten rule.
"God gave you eyes," he said.
I was panicking at this point. Even the people whom I came with, who also had taken a shot or two of the burning ghat, had panic written all over their faces. The man was physically dragging me by my arm. He was shouting and creating as much riot as he can. He will not leave us alone, unless, he says, we give him money.
And there it was.
He first asked for 10,000 Rupees (about 200 USD), which apparently is the current fee for film crews wanting to shoot at the burning ghat. I told him I did not have that kind of money, not even in my hotel room. That is just too much to carry with me at any time. A few more exchanges transpired until he was satisfied that he has pried all the cash I have in my wallet. In total, he was able to extort a couple thousand Rupees. He walked away knowing that he has rattled and perhaps duped another hapless tourist.
Right there and then, a thought came to my mind: India is almost not worth it. I admit, it was my fault for not respecting the local customs, perhaps the most important of all local customs. It is me who is in their country, after all. But to extort people like that? People who came to your city to learn more about you and your culture? I found it offensive and abhorrent, especially when I find out that same night that tourist groups aboard their boats on the river, take photos freely, with flashes on, at the burning ghats without any consequences whatsoever.
With India, it's like you pay such a huge price for a travel experience that might not even be worth it in the end. I hated that I felt that way. India is an amazing country and I should feel lucky that I got the chance to experience it first-hand. So I take back what I thought back then, especially now as I look back on it. It is true what they say about India. You only get to enjoy it six months after.
Do you have your own travel horror story? Do share. I would really love to hear about them. Perhaps avoid them myself should the situation come up.