A look back at my first trip to Varanasi, when Modi sprung Demonetisation and Trump won the presidency.
There we were, settled in at the hotel for our first of four nights in Varanasi. My friend Mitch was talking to his wife back in Scotland. I was enjoying my overpriced beer buzz. Then I got a strange call from my wife.
This was was late evening on November 7.
“They are going to take the 500 and 1,000 notes out of circulation. They’re useless as of midnight. Get to an ATM and deposit all your cash!”
“Where did you hear this?” I asked, sublimely bewildered.
“It’s a stupid hoax,” I said. “What’s the actual source?”
She sent me half-a-dozen stories from the mainstream media.
Reality gently strangled the rest of my high. The next two weeks on the road were going to be trouble. But we first had to deal with this first “WTF moment” in Varanasi.
I think that a WTF moment isn’t as extreme as philosophy’s absurd moment, that is, a moment in which we seek meaning and ultimately fail in the attempt. A WTF moment for me is more like Salvador Dali stepping out from one of his wonderfully surreal paintings and slapping me across the cheek with his glove – and challenging me to a duel to the death with unloaded pistols.
Such is what Modi’s demonitisation meant for two middle class foreigners traveling through a largely cash-based society in northern India. But for many Indians, of course, we’ve come to learn that those same pistols were fatally loaded.
Enter Varanasi along the Ganges, where antiquity has slowly stutter-stepped into the 21st Century. WTF moments abound!
The young white man who pissed himself, passed-out among one of the ghats on the river, but still somehow managing to wear a smile in his drug-induced coma.
All those undercover masseuses, who approach you offering an innocent handshake – and expertly flip it into a martial arts move culminating in the best upper body massage ever but then try to stick you with a 500 rupee fee after initially telling you “pay only what your heart desires.” I can tell you, that for literally two minutes of massage, my heart could only muster 50.
Or that WTF moment when I realized that I had torn the front of my shorts out while taking a giant step up to detour one of the ghat’s mud-logged zones. And then catching the keen eye of one of the many “silk factory” merchants, who offered me a new pair of pants so I wouldn’t be shamed on the long walk back to the hotel.
WTF moments were aplenty in Varanasi. What I learned was that you roll with these moments the best you can. Then you start looking forward to the next one!
Maybe I learned this after I embarrassingly ripped my shorts. Because I didn’t take up the merchant’s offer of replacing them. Instead, I decided to brave the walk back, shame be damned. Not as dramatic as say Cersei’s walk of shame on Game of Thrones, mind you – the coverage was still better than Adam and Eve’s fig leaf debacle – but I was expecting a few laughs and pointing at my expense along the way.
Turns out, it wasn’t so bad. It must have been that other tourists exploring Varanasi were distracted with their own WTF moments? And I think very few of us were prepared for the real big – and orange-plumed – whopper-of-a-WTF moment that was about to unfold a couple days later: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
My political opinions aside, I couldn’t care less who the next president of the United States was going to be at the time. But I had to admit that the grandest WTF moment in Varanasi occurred while the election results were coming in live.
Mitch and I were in our favorite cafe, nestled within Varanasi’s famous lanes, drinking black-market beer (they wrapped the cans in newspaper and shut the shutters of our windows so the cops couldn’t see us) and enjoying lunch. After Clinton’s initial slim, early lead, Trump began winning key battleground states and we determined Trump would be president before they officially announced it.
A fellow American in the cafe was watching the numbers on the television. We gave him our own analysis that Trump already had it wrapped up.
“I can’t believe it. I’m not going back!” he said as he transitioned from denial to anger – with only bargaining, depression and acceptance remaining on his time line of grief.
“Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it's in my basement... let me go upstairs and check.” - M.C. Escher
Maybe there’s something to be said for those who can embrace the absurd and move on with a savvy and apathetic grace?
I'll include here what Mitch thought of Varanasi, as I don't think I could have expressed my first visit any better:
“Varanasi was full of the drama and imagery I expected. However, I had no idea how I would react and how it would feel abut it. I was overwhelmed with the amount of religious tradition, mythology, holiness and mysticism in the city, not to mention the Sadhus, tenacious vendors, large / small mammals, open temples and burning ghats immediately at out feet the minute we walked out of the back door of our hotel. The art, hustle and magic of Varanasi was palpable weather we were contemplating the river banks, or getting lost through its seemingly endless maze of alleyways. I left having learnt, and more importantly, feeling as though I had experienced Hinduism at its rawest, in all it's mystique, earthiness and passion, right at street level and right in our faces.”