During one of India’s greatest festivals I embarked on a River Ganges adventure to Varanasi in a little wooden boat…with a goat and three chickens.
By Chris Raven
It’s a beautiful day in St Tropez and I’m relaxing on the deck of my luxury Benetti super yacht named Serenity. Today sees the last regatta of the season on the French Riviera and I have a sneaky suspicion it will kick off in style this year. Les Voiles d’Automne is a demanding, high level competition for ultra talented sailors so I will be a very skilled spectator.
My girlfriend Cinderella appears carrying a small tray of fresh bread, cheese and a bottle of Romanée Conti red wine from Cote de Nuits in Burgundy. A former Playboy bunny and successful model from St Tropez, Cinderella’s striking features resembles that of a young Brigitte Bardot. I noticed her three days ago at the opening of the new restaurant at Le Byblos, while I was eating Bouillabaisse and talking travel with a bearded man from Aruba. It was love at first…
…my eyes flick open. I’m lying on a bed fully clothed in a dark room in Allahabad. The sweet smell of apple molasses is heavy in the air and I can hear the busy street life outside the window.
‘Time to go!’ My brother Simon sings, throwing his rucksack over his shoulder.
‘Go where?’ I mumble, rubbing my tired eyes.
‘To find a boat. To row to Varanasi!’
I sit up and rest my head against the wall. I feel nauseous after the McDowell’s No.1 whiskey drinking session last night. I swing my legs off the bed and look over at Darell, my good friend and fellow photographer, who is sat in an old armchair. He puffs on a hookah pipe and smiles from across the room before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.
We exit the hotel and stumble through the streets of Allahabad; a city in the north Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. A bony cow munches on newspaper outside a row of shops selling pretty much everything you can imagine, from glass bangles to Bollywood movies and jeans. Rickshaws, cars, horse and carts and bicycles zip past at speed and colourful blue, yellow and orange saris glow bright against the shabby walls. There is no space to stop and study a map. In fact, you need eyes in the back of your head and a sixth sense to dodge the traffic, the hawkers, the cattle and the crowds.
We bundle into a rickshaw and travel at speed to the Yamuna River and the towering Yamuna Bridge, with its cable-stayed four lane road stretching out into the distance. From the road we can see a group of wooden boats moored up. A guy wearing a red jumper immediately spots us and runs up the bank. He introduces himself as Arnav and immediately begins to promote tours of the Ganges. I interrupt him halfway through and ask if he has a boat for sale.
‘You want to buy a boat?’ he replies, surprised by my question.
‘We sure do.’
Arnav forces a huge grin. ‘Yes, yes, please follow me.’
We race after him down to the river’s edge where we are shown a seven metre long wooden rowing boat. Arnav invites us to hop aboard. A makeshift tarpaulin roof shields us from the burning sun and a green flag dances vigorously from the stern.
‘So, what’s the price tag?’ I ask.
Arnav dives into conversation with a group of men that have crowded around the boat. He then fires a random figure of 29,000 rupees. Racking our brains, we quickly work out the exchange rate with the dollar. It’s around $600. We attempt to barter him down, but Arnav shakes his head and holds his price. After much discussion, we agree to buy this wooden vessel before we lose our nerve. Handing over the cash, we ask Arnav for a receipt as proof of purchase along with his contact details and a mobile number. He fishes a scrap of paper out of his back pocket and reluctantly carries out our request.
With all of the paperwork done and dusted, we head off to the market to buy supplies. Simon goes in search of chicken, while Darell and I focus on cooking equipment and a goat. We hire a cycle rickshaw to take us to the livestock market. The guy peddling is painfully thin, and is wearing a thick brown cardigan and a scarf tied around his neck. Showing no signs of heat exhaustion, the strong guy turns a sharp left and we zip down a bumpy track covered in straw and weave effortlessly around a row of wooden carts beside a pen full of livestock. It truly feels biblical. The cycle rickshaw driver pulls up outside an old brick building, and points to a pot-bellied gentleman standing in the doorway with bloodstained hands. Within seconds, we re-emerge, slightly traumatized from the horrors of the slaughter house, accompanied by a cross-eyed goat on a rope. We name him Bruce. Making a pit stop at a local grocery store on our return, we purchase water, spices, rice, samsoas, sticky Jalebi, a butcher’s knife and a large aluminium cooking pot. Simon is waiting patiently by the boat. He looks stressed and is clutching three scrawny featherless chickens that are bound together by their feet.
Before heading off on our voyage into the unknown, we take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the oars and, basically, provide light entertainment for the crowd that has gathered on the riverbank. Darell was in the Sea Cadets, so he has some experience of sailing and Simon claims to know how to tie a reef knot. I, on the other hand, have zero knowledge of boats, with the exception of spending one sunny afternoon on a boating lake in Berlin drinking a bottle of wine in an inflatable rubber dingy. After rowing around for an hour we all agree that it is time to set sail for Varanasi, despite being unprepared. But I guess this is a journey, an adventure, and sometimes there is no need to prepare for anything – just go with the flow.
‘Ship Ahoy!’ I bellow, waving goodbye to Arnav and the crowd of amused spectators.
Simon and Darell grab the wooden oars like Vikings on a dragon-ship and set to work at propelling us through the water. Struggling to manoeuvre the large rowing boat in a straight line, we pass beneath the enormous Yamuna Bridge and laugh hysterically as we are spun around in a circle. Feeling like Marco Polo, I stand with my hands on my hips and look proudly to the horizon. As Mark Twain once said, “Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbou Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
‘Sit down, you idiot!” Si laughs. “You’re rocking the boat!’.
The boat moves smoothly through the water and we look in awe at the millions of people on the bank of the river celebrating Magh Mela. The alignment of stars dictates six specific days when followers of the Hindu faith can wash away their sins, freeing themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. Large grey canvas tents cover a vast floodplain, and thousands of people walk in a line across a network of floating pontoons. Up ahead, the Yamuna River and the Ganges meet and the colour of the water changes from muddy orange to blue. A river confluence is a sacred place for Hindus, and here at Triveni Sangam three rivers meet – the Yamuna, Ganges and the mythological Sarasvati, which is considered by Hindus to exist in a metaphysical form. We drift away from the crowds and mayhem of the festival and watch in stunned silence as a dolphin arches out of the water, its grey body glistening in the sunshine. Before coming to India I had read that river dolphins lived in the heavily polluted waters of the Ganges, but I never imagined we would actually see one so close to the festival.
As the city of Allahabad and the magnificent spectacle of the Magh Mela disappear out of sight, it grows eerily quiet. We drift on the current and watch vultures feasting on a swollen water buffalo’s decaying corpse. A black object floats towards the boat. At first we think it is the head of a cow or a charred piece of wood, but when it reaches us we soon realize it is the bloated decomposing body of a young boy. His mouth is wide open and there are two gaping black holes from where his eyes used to be. It looks like the poor kid is screaming. In our culture a dead boy floating in a river would be headline news, but not in this region of India.
Before long, my lousy navigation skills land us in trouble again when we drift out of the current and get stuck on a muddy sandbank. We try to rock the boat free, but it is too heavy to move. Stranded on the Ganges in the middle of nowhere, the disturbing image of the dead boy’s face weighs heavily on my mind. I curse at my arrogance for thinking we could navigate this river without a guide. I turn to Bruce, but he just looks up at me with his big watery eyes and floppy ears, completely unaware of the nightmare situation we are in. He sneezes and returns to eating the boat.
A group of kids playing at the riverside see us and swim over. They laugh excitedly and begin to boisterously rock the boat from side-to-side. We laugh nervously as water sloshes backwards and forwards beneath our feet. On the riverbank, a man in rags steps out of a makeshift shelter. He is closely followed by two men, who look equally dishevelled. They stare at us and I instinctively sense they are not about to offer us a helping hand. The first guy, wearing trousers that hang loosely from his bony hips, wades through the long reeds and upon reaching the boat he interrogates us with bloodshot eyes. His face is drawn and weather-beaten and he seems to be intoxicated or high on drugs. He shouts what I think sounds like, “Danikka! Danikka!”, but we have no idea what that means. The kids splashing around the boat stop laughing. The guy seems extremely agitated and continues to scream at the top of his voice, “Danikka!” he repeats. He pounds the boat hard with his clenched fist and grinds his rotten teeth.
I feel immediately trapped and incredibly vulnerable. Simon and Darell look equally in shock. My mind races as I try to figure out what to do. He doesn’t appear to have a weapon, so maybe we should politely instruct this freak to move aside! He shouts over to the two men standing on the bank and then orders one of the older kids to go and fetch something. He then mimes cutting our throats and points across the water at the corpse of the boy, as if to suggest that if we don’t do what he says that is where we will end up. His chapped lips are seeping blood and a string of saliva hangs from the corner of his mouth. He stares at me with intimidating yellow eyes. I jab my fingers into my pocket and pull out a five hundred rupee note, approximately ten US dollars. I cautiously offer him the note and he snatches it out of my hand. He points at Darell and Simon, and they too empty their wallets and hand over their cash. The psychopath mutters something before wading off through the water. I feel the urge to run after him and knock him hard to the ground, but my instincts hold me back. It isn’t worth the risk of getting stabbed or shot over such a small amount of money.
The polluted Ganges is far from Darell’s mind, and he leaps over the side and heroically tries to free the boat from the sandbank. Waist deep in water, we drag the boat upstream in the direction of the corpse of the young boy and into the main flow. Much to our relief, we are carried by a strong current towards a large wooden vessel moored up on the opposite side of the river. We ask the captain for his help and he eventually agrees to tow us to the nearest town. Predictably, he seems surprised to see three European tourists alone in a rowing boat with a goat and three chickens.
Once their work for the government has been completed, using sonar to measure the depth of the water, the captain raises the anchor and they tow us down river. We stand on deck and watch a dramatic sunset over the mighty River Ganges. With the sky ablaze, the captain yells to us from the stern and we see three silhouetted dolphins arching out of the water.
In the fading light, the boat draws up alongside a number of makeshift huts. A group of men sitting around a roaring fire, look over and smile. In a bid to cancel out the negativity of being robbed, we agree to offer the boat to these local people living on the river. It seems like a crazy amount of money to lose in one day, but we feel relieved that we did not come to any harm, and too ashamed in that moment to return to Arnav, admit defeat and plead for our money back. The captain had warned us that the people living in this region are incredibly poor and to attempt our journey without an experienced guide, or armed security was a huge risk. Untying the boat, we bid farewell to Bruce and the three chickens. In a strange way they had begun to feel like old friends.
We arrive at a remote pier in the dead of night somewhere south of Allahabad. The captain drives us to a nearby bus station that is buzzing with religious pilgrims. He kindly invites us for chai, before presenting us with his contact details and insisting we contact him if we have any further problems while travelling in India. We thank him kindly and struggle to express our gratitude. Boarding a bus bound for Varanasi I look out of the window and think back to our time on the boat. Our quest to row the Ganges has been a complete and utter disaster. We were unprepared and naive, but by going with the flow we had experienced karma, both bad and good, at first hand on opposite banks of one of the holiest rivers in the world.