There was only one time in our journey around India that I didn’t feel entirely safe, one moment where I thought to myself, “Ah, this is potentially a dangerous situation” and took measures accordingly. That was in my first hour in Varanasi.
We arrived on the train from Bodh Gaya relaxed and ready for more adventure.
It was a dark night and, unlike the Buddhist Centre, the large city of Varanasi was busy even at this time of year, so we joined the hordes at the station exit trying to find transport. The Tuk Tuk drivers descended on us travellers like raptors and the experience soon became a walk amongst shouting voices all vying for our attention. Over the top of the throng I could make out a government taxi ticket booth. These large booths sell fixed price tickets to people wanting transport into the city proper and are the only way to avoid being totally fleeced by the touts. It was only when I approached the counter and saw two policemen armed with sub machineguns standing behind the ticket seller that I started to get a feeling that this might not be the safest place. Indeed in my time in Varanasi I was to see more armed policemen than in all the other cities put together and I don’t mean with pistols, I mean with large rifles, assault rifles and Stirling sub machineguns. We bought a fare to our hotel at the far end of the strip running along the Ganges. It was a good price, slightly higher than one would want, but fixed – and that is worth paying a premium for. We jumped in the first Tuk Tuk, which had two men in the front, one driving and another along for the ride, and handed him our ticket. He immediately pulled off onto the road and started pootling along.
“Where do you want to go?” He asked with a thick accent placing a heavy emphasis on the ‘o’ in ‘go’ so it sounded like ‘Gohhh’
To the “Anami Lodge please.”
He shook his head, “No sir, that not good hotel.”
“Just take us there please.”
“Yes sir, but please this not a good hotel, very bad. I can show you a better hotel. It’s on the way no problem. You need a guide to the city?”
“No, we’re fine thanks.”
“Sir, please let me tell you, I am a government sponsored guide, I can show you the whole city for a fixed price.”
“No thanks” I was starting to get a little tension creep into my voice and Cesca cut in.
“We just want to go to our hotel.” She insisted.
“Ok madam, sir. Sorry, I just wanted to show you the other hotel, very good rate with breakfast included, much better room. Please sir, look at this.”
He took a small book from the dashboard and passed it back. I took it from his and regarded it. I had seen them before. It was a small lined exercise book, the sort a schoolboy would have. In it was page after page of “recommendations” from happy tourists saying that this man was one of the very best guides in the whole of India and that we had really fallen on our feet by being in his Tuk Tuk. Surely, the book told me, we should take advantage of this great fortune and let this wise and friendly man be our guide to this big city. On almost every page was a photo pasted in. Sometimes just a Polaroid, sometimes smaller like a photo-booth shot. Each one had a happy smiling tourist, often girls, grinning and making peace signs or giving thumbs up. The names were all western and signed in different pens; I was greeted by “Lisa” and “Tiffany from Texas”.
Over my time in multiple Tuk Tuks in the last month I had been handed many of these books. The names were all similar, the writing familiar and the photos just as jolly and happy. The clue is in the detail; not one of the photos had this man in the shot.
“But surely!” You might say, “he may have been the one taking the photos!”
Perhaps, but I think not. We had so bad experiences with drivers using these books to gouge and pray on us that I began to suspect that there is a company somewhere in India that makes these books, writes the names, copies the photos off the Internet and pastes them in. Why? Because of the Westerners fear of the unknown.
Psychology is an interesting science. Its central tenant is that human beings need filters. There is so much information, so much data, coming into our eyes and ears at any one time that the brain has trouble processing it all. Therefore it looks for patterns amongst that information that it can use to categorise the data into known types. So, a man can look at a forest and see the leopard in the tree. It is a way of making sure that he grabs the branch he leaps for, catches the fish he darts after and hits the target he shoots at. This skill has consequences for society as we actively look for these patterns and when we are worried, such as when we are in a new and very foreign place, we find comfort in them.
How can a Tuk Tuk driver be trusted? Surely by reputation above other indicators. We look for something, anything that gives us the ability to trust this man. Is it his English good? Is he well dressed? If we are female, do we find him rakishly handsome? These are all indicators, but should they fail then he pulls out the “big gun”; the Great Book of Recommendations that is full of such indicators, such known patterns, and they are an attempt to disarm us from listening to our senses. To invite our rational side to override our instinct.
It didn’t work on me.
“Thanks, but just take us where we want to go.”
He shared a look with the man hanging on the front of the Tuk Tuk and drove on in silence. Eventually we arrived at a busy looking road where he pulled into the pavement.
“Over there is the hotel I wanted to show you,” he said pointing over the road.
“And where is my hotel?” I asked.
“Down there.” He pointed to our left where there was a large and dark alley. “You will have to carry your bags down there”. The driver sighed, “Come I will show you.” He got out of the Tuk Tuk.
I eyed the darkness and turned to Cesca,
“Stay here, watch the bags, I will check it out.”
“Are you sure?” she asked looking worried; the alley was pitch-black.
“Yep. Just wait.”
The driver led me into the gloom. It was very dark in this long alley and my senses immediately went into overdrive. As we walked along I noticed shapes along the floor; people lying on the path and the unmistakable smell of human excrement. I realised that I may be about to get mugged. I have walked down dark alleys in many cities from Rio to Barcelona, but this one had a palpable air of danger. Like that part in a horror movie where the victim does something stupid and you find yourself screaming, “Don’t go down that alley! Are you nuts?” As the gloom enveloped me I reached into my trouser pocket and silently took out my folding knife and held it against my leg. The man led me down three or four winding and dark alleys and after another narrow alley full of cows I began to wonder if he knew where to go. Eventually I gave up trying to remember the route and then we came to what looked like the back end of a large building.
“There,” he said. “There is the hotel, up those stairs.”
I walked up the staircase, more a fire escape, and around a bend. At the top was a glass door and I knocked, very conscious of the silence. The door opened and a smartly dressed young man stood in the doorway.
“May I help you?” He said.
“I have a reservation.” I said.
I relaxed. “Yes?”
“Come in sir! We have been awaiting your arrival!” He said happily with an Indian head wiggle.
I entered and found myself in a very smartly converted large townhouse. It was home to an entire family running the hotel part as a business venture where they live on-site. I counted five members of the same family, three girls and two men, who all welcomed me in with genuine smiles. I had a vision of what I must look like to them; a tall strange white man looking like Jack Bauer having a rough day. I tried to lower the shields and relax.
“May I see the room?” I asked as politely as I could.
“Of course!” The man led me up a few flights of stairs and showed me our room. It was one of the best room I saw in the entirely of India; large and welcoming. It looked over the Ganges and had a small balcony set outside high windows.
“Brilliant” I said. “But, I must ask, why is it so hard to get here?”
“What do you mean?”
I explained how the Tuk Tuk driver had led me through all those dark alleys to this place. The man was shocked and shook his head.
“Why didn’t you just park outside?” He asked, pulling back the curtain and showing me the road right outside the front of the hotel. Clearly I had been led in the back way.
“Thank you, we will.”
He took me back down and I left to return to Cesca. At the bottom of the stairs was the driver. He looked up at me and I gave him 100% of “The Look”.
The Look is something you need to practice to be able to pull off. It doesn’t matter who you are, what size you are, or your age, The Look is almost magical. It is one of practiced pure malevolence.
It is The Man With No Name pissed off,
“You gonna draw those pistols or whistle Dixy?”
Kaiser Sosa being in a line up,
“Hand me the keys you f*cking cock sucker”
Butch being called “paunchy”,
“What did you just say?”
My wife knows it as “my killing look”
I gave him the look and he had the good graces to shudder slightly and bow his head in shame. In silence we walked back through the alleys to my, now worried, Cesca. She visibly sighed in relief when I came out of the shadows.
“You were gone ages! What is it like?” she asked.
“It’s excellent, and this bastard has been mucking us around. The road goes right there, right outside.”
“This other guy has been trying to talk me into the other hotel,” she said, “amongst other things…”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Jade Goody. He thinks she’s great.”
“An amazing women!” Exclaimed the man hanging on the side of the Tuk Tuk. This was the first time that I had heard of the late Jade Goody outside of the UK and I was a bit shocked. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about her “visit” to India in the wake of the “bullying” allegations on Big Brother. Whatever she did here, it worked. I now suspect that a lot of Indians never liked Shilpa Shetty anyway. I shook my head to clear out of the madness and maintain my righteous anger. I turned to the driver.
“Take us to the front of the hotel right now.”
“Cost extra” He answered sourly.
Cesca made to complain but I stopped her with a raised hand.
“Just do it!”
He started up the Tuk Tuk and we pulled back onto the road. About 25 meters ahead the road curved to the left and we wheeled around it towards the river. Another 25 meters and we pulled left again and there was the hotel on my left. It was right around the corner!
“You’re kidding!” Said Cesca flabbergasted.
“Now,” the driver said, “pay extra, parking here cost me money.”
“To come down here I have to pay those guys over there.” He pointed at a group of men lounging at one end of the street.
I turned to Cesca, “Baby, lets pay these guys and forget about them.”
“But, we already paid! She protested.”
“Come on” I insisted. We got out of the Tuk Tuk and I extracted a small note and gave it to the driver. “Now go away” I told him.
He went without comment and we entered the hotel.
And that was my first hour in Varanasi. Not the most auspicious of beginnings and I wondered if he hadn’t made a mistake incoming here.
Our experience is not uncommon all over India and indeed all over Asia, but here there was something else, some sense of menace in the atmosphere, in the air of the driver. Something was pulling at my senses and demanding that I pay attention. It was saying to me to be on my guard, not rely on the pattern recognition response that could lead so easily astray and be manipulated.
I decided to listen, and in a strange way that is probably why Varanasi was to touch me so deeply. Because I was listening to my senses, paying attention to all that was around me; not simply matching it to a type and filing it away.
In Varanasi I was awake. I needed to be: I was to witness my first dead body the next morning.