My time in Nepal was at an end. I had an amazing time in the seemingly short month riding my Enfield to places you really shouldn’t, catching up with old friends and making new ones. With my new 6 month Indian visa in my passport I made my way to the Sunauli border and crossed into India. The border was frantic on the Indian side as it was a hindu festival, there were masses of people everywhere blocking the road. One of the officials tried to to fleece me for some money saying I did not have the receipt for my bike tax so needed to pay a fine. I did however have the full complete form proving I had paid for the full month. But he was insistent on me paying the fine. After riding for most of the day to the border I was not in the mood for being ripped off and knowing he was trying it on with me I told him where to shove his bloody fine.
When I eventually got through the crowds I managed to make some distance on the road towards Varanasi. I knew it was going to take another full day of riding before I would eventually make it to Varanasi and with the sun going down I looked for a place to put my tent up. The road I was on kept going from one town to another with no adequate places to make a camp. I made the decision to leave the road taking a small lane into a vast expanse of fields that turned out to be rice paddies. This really was not a good place but with the light dimming by the second I had to make do.
I put the bike and tent on one of the paths between the water filled paddies. The ground was soft and my bikes stand was sinking into it making it impossible to stand up. Knowing I could not win against the forces of gravity and this boggy ground. I lay the bike on its side. The crash bars and luggage rack meant that the bike itself was OK. Then the mosquitos began to swarm in their millions all around me. In the distance I could here loud music playing, it was the locals celebrating the hindu festival. I was shattered after the days riding and arguing with border officials so figured I would just get my head down and set off early in the morning.
I was soon woken up by some locals who had somehow spotted my tent and bike in the complete darkness in the middle of the paddies. They were all drunk and talking at me in hindi. I initially thought they were going to tell me to go but they were trying to drag me off to the village to drink with them. Feeling tired and not really wanting to leave all my stuff in the middle of a field to then try and find it again all pissed up I declined their offer and tried to sleep again. However word had gotten around and I was receiving uninvited guests every 15 minutes. I did eventually manage to get some shut eye.
In the morning the paddies were draped in fog with morning dew covering every leaf and spider web, the place looked magical. I just wish I had taken a photo of it. At the time though I was to busy trying my hardest to load a motorbike with luggage on ground that resembled plasticine. Once the battle was won I then made my way back towards the road and set off in the direction of Varanasi. The bike was desperately low on fuel and I had not yet managed to get any Indian rupees. Spotting an ATM I got the much needed cash and at the next fuel station completely filled my tank. This is where the nightmare begins.
Soon after filling the bike I noticed it was having trouble, it had lost pick up. When I would give the bike throttle whilst over taking a truck for example it would lose all power and I could hear that it was miss firing. Then the bike just gave up and lost all power. Now this has happened to me in the past. That time it was the CDI unit. I had a spare CDI unit with me just incase this ever happened to me again. So at the side of the road convinced that this was the problem I took my full fuel tank off to get to the CDI unit underneath. I replaced the unit and using my adjustable spanner went to put the tank bolts back in. However the little part that makes the spanner adjustable had fell out!So the spanner was completely useless I tried looking in the grass that was around the bike but could not see it anywhere. So I just shoved the bolts in and tightened them the best I could with my hands.
Thinking I had the problem solved I went to kick the bike over and nothing the bastard would not start. It was hot as hell and I was now dripping in sweat and frustrated. The ever growing crowd of people around me were making things worse as every new person would ask me ‘whats the problem.’ Now if I knew the fucking problem I wouldn’t be stuck at the side of the road with a bike that won’t go! I decided there was only one thing to do. Push the bastard until I reached the next town and hopefully a mechanic. After 10 minutes of pushing I thought I would give it a try and kicked it over and it started! After wasting so much time I didn’t ask any questions and just pushed on for Varnasi.
The bike still had pick up issues and after a few hours it came to a stop just like it did before. So I go through the whole process of taking the tank off and swapping over the CDI units. Again it would not start. Frustrated I walked to the nearest shop and buy some cigarettes. I smoked one after another trying to figure out what it was. I checked the plug was sparking and cleaned the jets of the carburettor but I was stumped. So again I push and try to start it again and boom it starts, but it was evident it was not going to last long at all. Luckily when the bike did come to the predictable chugging holt it was right next to a guy who was a mechanic.
Where I had stopped was right in the middle of a small town and it seamed like the whole of the town had come to gawp at what was going on. Me the bike and the mechanic were surrounded by an ever increasing and encroaching ring of people. He spent ages doing all the things that I had done but with the language barrier it was impossible to explain this to him. He tried a new spark plug but it was still not right. In the end he did find out what was wrong. The fuel I had bought and completely filled my tank with had been mixed with something. It had essentially been watered down so the robing bastards could make more money. Unfortunately it had been watered down so much that the fuel didn’t properly combust anymore.
So I had to empty out all the fuel and fill up again with what would hopefully be untainted fuel. After the many hours wasted it was now late afternoon and I knew I wouldn’t arrive in Varanasi until late in the evening. I made it about 5 kilometres before I got a flat tire! I then had to turn round and head back in the direction I had just come from to try and find a tyre wallah. As usual this was not as easy as it should be. Every person I asked pointed me back in the direction I had come from and every tyre wallah I asked said they could not do it. Eventually I arrived back at the same guy who had just helped me with the bike and luckily he was able to change the tube for me and I was back on my way again.
It was already completely dark and Varanasi was still 140 Kilometres away. I was hell bent on arriving in Varanasi as it was Diwali the following day and I wanted to be there to see the celebrations. I did eventually make it and instantly got lost in the maze of streets in the old town. A kid overheard me asking the direction of Shanti Guesthouse and jumped on the back of my bike shouting out the directions but soon he too got us more lost. With a little help we managed to find the place and pulled up outside around 11pm. I was completely covered in dirt and grime but before I even contemplated a shower I headed to the rooftop restaurant that had just closed. The guys took pity on me and made me some food anyway which I ate with 5 cans of 6% larger.
So after the nightmare it was time to enjoy the craziest and most enigmatic city in India and enjoy the fireworks and madness of Diwali. Whilst here my plan was to get some nice portraits of the holy men and babas that are found all along the ghats on the banks of the river ganges. I needed to find a local who spoke some english who was willing to help me out. This was not a problem as the next morning I met a nice guy called Babu who was an unofficial guide. He seamed genuine enough and didn’t ask for any money. He invited me to join him and his friends to celebrate their friend Raj’s birthday on the other side of the ganges where there is a beach.
That evening we all met at the side of Manikarnika Ghat which is the main burning ghat and stocked up on booze before jumping aboard Messe’s boat and heading out into the darkness across the Ganga. Out on the water we could look back at the ancient city with the colourful explosions filling the nights sky above it. The booze flowed and fireworks continued through the night. By the end of the night it was obvious that Babu, Raj and me would be seeing a lot of each other. They were great guys and made me feel incredibly welcome in Varanasi.
The next morning, well almost afternoon I met a very hungover Raj. Indians cannot start the day without a chai so we headed to a specific chai wallah. There are many chai wallah in Varanasi but the one we were going to apparently served the best and served it the traditional way in clay cups made from Ganga mud. Once you have finished your delicious brew you throw the cup on the floor and it eventually ends up back in the Ganges. Pretty cool hey. Recycling at its most primitive.
We eventually met Babu when he surfaced and the impromptu tour began while we looked for some much needed comfort food. These guys knew everything about Varanasi and all the cool little places that would simply be impossible to find without them. By evening I knew where all the best chai wallah’s were, where to find the best thali and who made the best parathas. We met up again later at the Manikarnika Ghat. The Manikarnika Ghat was where Raj, Babu and their friends would hang out it was kind of like their street corner. You would always find them here working the area chatting to the tourists trying to earn commission by selling weed and taking people to silk shops. I found it strange that they never tried this with me. Maybe after the first day they just figured out I am not one of those people.
We were sitting at the Manikarnika Ghat watching another body being prepared for cremation amongst the already flaming corpses when Babu suggest buying some whisky. Well hair of the dog I thought. I was still a feeling a bit rough and a little whisky would take the edge off. So I chipped in some cash towards a bottle. Raj pulls up on his scooter and asks me to come with him to the whisky shop. Riding like a mad man he zooms down the very narrow streets with his thumb constantly pressing the horn narrowly missing the crowds of people with me clinging on for dear life! Back at the Manikarnika Ghat it felt a little strange sipping on whiskey whilst staring into the flames of a funeral pyre.
In Varanasi there is always a festival of some sort happening and they seam to overlap each other. Diwali had just finished and now the story of Rama, Sita and Hanuman began. It was played out every evening in an almost pantomime style just next to the Manikarnika Ghat. As this was where we spent most of our time I was able to see the show almost every evening. A bit like old school panto all the characters are played by males. Over the passing days I had become a familiar face in the area of Manikarnika. This helped me to get closer to the Asray family. The Father was playing the role of Hanuman, the eldest brother was playing Rama, the middle brother was playing Lakshman and the youngest was playing Sita. I would pass their home everyday. In the Evening I would see them all getting ready for the show putting their make up and costumes on. So one evening I asked to photograph them as they transformed themselves into the legendary Hindu gods. The results I got were beautiful and photographing them was a joy as they were so relaxed with me being amongst them.
In the days leading up to Dev Diwali which is the final day of the Diwali period and the end of the story of Rama. I was wandering the streets of the old city when the sound of banging drums caught my attention. I followed the sound and turned a corner to find a train of camels! The drummers were in amongst the camels and the parade was making its way deep into the old city streets in the direction of Ganga. I joined the crowd and followed them. Then came a band of pretty scary characters wearing ornate red costumes and big brass masks wielding swords.The drums began to bang a rhythm and the sword wielders began to dance spinning themselves and their swords. Then they covered the swords in some sort of flammable liquid and set them on fire! This was amazing and I began to get some shots. In the small crowded streets there was no room to move and the swords were spinning perilously close. When looking through the lens of the camera you don’t realise how close you really are. I now have a ding on the side of my camera from one of the swords.
On Dev Diwali hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the ghats of Ganga setting off more fireworks and lighting more than a million butter lamps under the full moon in honour of Ganga. As the sun begins to rise in the morning they take to the water to bathe and make offerings of milk and fruit to the gods. It is an incredible sight to see and a bit of an endurance as to see it properly you have to stay up for the full 24 hours.
Once Dev Diwali was over I was able to focus on my Baba project. During my time in Varanasi I had spotted some nice locations to photograph along the ghats and found some very interesting Babas. One of which I recognised as being photographed by Joey L. A baba called Baba Vijay Nund. With Raj’s linguistic help I would arrange to photograph a baba the following morning just as the sun began to rise. So every morning at 5 am I would meet with Raj and the baba and drink several chai teas before setting off to one of the locations I had previously scouted out. I did this for about a week. I would of done it for longer however I could see the early mornings were taking their toll on Raj. He liked to drink pretty much every evening and the 5 am starts were killing him.