The immigration official behind the counter continued to scrutinize my visa. I was wondering if I should mention that I have the FRO certificate with me. He didn’t seem very interested in the fact that my visa was about to expire during my imminent stay in Hong Kong, and that I had a return ticket to India a few days after that. On the other hand, neglecting to hand over documents when you’re supposed to has a tendency to come back and bite you in the ass, regardless of if the mistake was by me or an official.
So I pointed it out to him. Zero response. He just pointed to the camera, indicating that I should face it while he takes a snapshot for their archives. With a familiar sounding thump he gave the page in the passport the coup de grâce – the last stamp to go on that visa; no more entires into the country with that one.
So, wait, what did I need to do that foreigners registration for again?
Originally, and according to my contract, I was supposed to return to Finland at the end of March. However, due to some bureaucratic details my employment visa was handed to me with an expiry date of March 17th – half a month earlier than planned.
This poses the question: do I leave on the 17th, or do I attempt to extend my stay? Both Sidd and me felt that March could be a tad too early, so we went through some options. The most obvious one is to apply for a visa extension, but considering my recent troubles with the FRO and yet again the amount of red tape involved, we came to the conclusion that that wouldn’t work.
So, what I’m going to do, is I’m going to do a visa run: I’m going to leave the country, let the visa expire during my absence, return a few days later and apply for an on-arrival tourist visa. This should give me an additional 30 days, which sets my final return date to April 17th.
I’m thinking Hong Kong sounds like a good destination.
It was nine days, but packed the punch of twenty and passed by in what felt like just a few. Our journey – or the East India Express as me and Lauri called it – started in Delhi, proceeded South to Agra, from there East to Varanasi and finally to Kolkata, the nation’s former capital. Our method of transportation was by train.
We came up with the idea for this trip back in Helsinki, over a few cold ones nine months ago. Varanasi, that ancient and often mentioned city by the holy river, was instantly agreed as a must-see. And what a place it was: we’ve walked down narrow alleys, on broad marble courtyards, deep in crowded bazaars and along river banks.
As with my other journeys during my stay in India I’ll have to let this one simmer for a while. Let the impressions settle a bit and find their rightful place. But rest assured, there are stories to tell and photos to show – all in good time.
While exploring the alleys and narrow sidestreets of old Varanasi, we were going down this particularly quiet street. Almost no one around – some footsteps could be heard somewhere further down.
We walked by this modest bakery. Behind the low counter, on the floor in the dimly lit interior, sat an old man. He was calmly preparing pastries and pieces of paneer. He was in no hurry – in fact he had an air about him of dignified deliberation.
As we were passing by my sixth sense started tingling: photo opportunity. I slowed down and asked Lauri to wait. I didn’t want to be blunt and just go up in the baker’s face, wielding a camera. So I decided to work my way into the situation, find my place in that bubble.
I walked up and said hello, asked him what he was preparing. He didn’t speak English, but we understood each other. There were pieces of paneer floating in one bowl, and in another I could spot some galub jamun. That’s my route. So I asked for two, and a cookie to boot. I was handed a styrofoam cup and a wooden spoon, and the baker fished out a couple from their sugary bath.
We sat down on a wooden bench across the alley and I dug in. The gulab jamun was saturated with syrup, I swear it was sweeter than pure sugar. Almost too much to bear. As I was struggling with the stuff I told Lauri about my plan, that I’d ask the man for a photo if I survive the sugary shock. He’d get a few too.
I hope you appreciate this, I said to him, I’m taking one for the team here. I’m going to get diabetes from these, so make your shots count.
After I was done I thanked the man, pointed to my camera and asked if it was ok if I took a few. He straightened up just a little bit and gave a slight nod. I took two photos, showed them to him and told him he looked handsome in them. We had a laugh about it and shook hands.
After Lauri got his we waved goodbye and continued down the street – one of us maniacally wide-eyed on a sugar high for the next half hour, but happy with the result.
Although Varanasi is a city that features many spiritual aspects, I think one of the first that comes to people’s mind is its way to handle death: few places are so open and direct with seeing a life come to an end.
In the past the deceased were sent floating down the Ganges river. However, since this resulted in high contamination levels in the water and remains washing up on shores, the practice became – for most – to burn the bodies and spread the ashes in the water. This sacred ritual is done on cremation sites, also known as burning ghats.
Most of the numerous ghats in Varanasi are places where people go to bathe, in the Ganges river. But a few of them are burning ghats – the largest of which is the Manikarnika Ghat, pictured above. Throughout the ghat enormous piles of wood lay stacked, constantly being fed into the several fires. The firewood is of a special kind and therefore expensive, and for the people who are there to send off the deceased it’s usually a big investment – not only an emotional one but a monetary one as well.
One thing that is good to know before I go on, and this is something everyone entering Varanasi are told: taking photos of the cremation sites is strictly forbidden. You could get into serious trouble, not with the nonexistent law enforcement, but with the relatives and workers at the ghat.
So as we entered the premises of the Manikarnika Ghat we politely put our cameras away. Immediately a few locals approached us, claiming to be some kind of authorities in the area and wanted to show us around. We let them know that we weren’t interested and would rather just walk around and mind our own business. They were persistent; Lauri got fed up with them and went off to the perimeter to find things by himself. Meanwhile I was stuck with the two guys, one of which proceeded to inform me that he’s also into selling opium. Not really my cup of tea, so no thanks.
I turned to the other guy, who claimed to be a foreman for the firewood workers. He told me there’s a place where I could get a good look over the area, if I wanted to. I assessed the situation and decided to follow him. A few corners later we came out to a ledge, close to the river bank, overlooking the cremation site.
People were offloading firewood from boats, carrying it up to the fires. By the water others were going through ashes and remains, looking for jewelry. Off to one side a fire was burning, at the last stages of the cremation process. Next to it a few bodies were lined up, wrapped in orange cloth and waiting for their turn.
Taking in the scene, we talked about the price of firewood, and how that’s something one could donate to. Sensing an opportunity I asked if there are any ways a tourist might be allowed to take a few photos; if the foreman carried enough weight in the community to permit that, and it actually being ok with all parties. Well, as it turned out, that was probably exactly what he had in mind, and after some negotiations we agreed that for 500 rupees I was allowed to take two photos. Being high up on the ledge, in plain sight of everyone, I knew this wasn’t going to be a few snapshots off the hip. Everyone was going to see what I was about to do, and I wanted to make sure they also see the foreman standing next to me. If it was a sanctioned exploit perhaps my intrusion would be forgiven.
I took out my camera and was as discreet as I could about it. Point, click, pan, click – done. Camera away. Gave 500 rupees to the guy and started doing a retreat while I could.
Another guy rushed up to the ledge. Hey, you took photos, we need to go see the boss now, he said in a firm tone.
I told him of my agreement with the foreman, who was still standing next to me, and told him that whatever issue he had he could take it up with him. They started arguing between each other, in hindi, which indicated that either one or possibly both were pretending to have authority that they didn’t possess. The new guy said ok, we could solve this between us if I gave him 500 rupees too. I told him he can split the money with the foreman, I wasn’t having any of this. But they were persuasive, and I had no desire to escalate this over such a relatively small amount of money, so I handed the new guy 500 as well, and started walking.
This is where things got a bit sticky. The two guys ran after me and blocked my exit – an aggressive move that I hadn’t come across with the previous miscreants. They wanted more money. I told them no. We had an agreement and I already paid more than that, so they were just going to have to accept it. They started pleading, saying there were many ways to solve this – this being the nice way. They insinuated what the other way meant: tourists had been robbed and assaulted over these matters, cameras had been thrown into fires and such. If I paid them 500 rupees extra, each, that would make the problem go away.
Now, in a situation like this there are several options: I could give in and cough up the money, and possibly feel tricked. Or I could call their bluff and just force my way out. But the thing is, I didn’t know the nature of the community I was in, and what role they played in it. If the community’s attitude towards photographers was as unforgiving as I had understood, and these guys were some sort of leaders in it, I could get into serious trouble if I got on the wrong side of them. Or they could be just scoundrels who had no backup from the others whatsoever. I couldn’t know.
So the bottom line was I had more to loose on this than they had. Reluctantly I paid them the additional money and shoved my way through before they could come up with more bullshit. Met up with Lauri a way down the street and had a laugh about it – admittedly a little relieved.
In the end though, I got to document a sacred area and situation – a rarity that relatively few have access to. Granted, it cost me 2000 rupees, but I can live with that.