Harrowing drive, insipid hotel, mind-blowing transformation – Varanasi 2018

As part of our ShikshaDaan Yatra in May, we went from Allahabad to Varanasi on the 15th of May. First, getting out of Allahabad was a nightmare as we got into the market area where the already narrow road became even more narrower due to the pushcart vendors. I kept cursing as people drove recklessly, with no regard for rules and little to no driving sense. We have sworn off driving to Allahabad till its remade fully and the only way we will visit Allahabad till then is by flight or in a cab :).

Once you get onto NH19, the road gets better, but the driving doesn’t and even on NH19 there are too many diversions as the six laning work is ongoing. A sample video that Krishnan recorded of the road conditions in a relatively better stretch of the road just around Sitamarhi –

We took the turn off into Varanasi and suddenly the road was wide with nearly four lanes on each side … and we were thrilled. Our happiness though was short-lived as our dear Google maps asked us to take a turn into a cobblestoned lane which looked wide enough at the start but soon narrowed into single lane. We were horrified but kept going as there was no way to turn back. If we had stopped anywhere in this lane, none of us could have opened the doors – we were boxed in with just enough space for a two wheeler to pass us by. It was 3.5 kms of pure driving hell. We finally reached a railway gate crossing and asked an auto driver if we were close to the hotel. He said we just had about 100 metres of this lane after crossing the gate and then we were onto a regular road. He also assured us that we were really close and he was wondering who directed us into this lane!!!

We reached Hotel Rivatas without any further drama. There was no parking available except the open parking in front of the hotel, so we took out all the luggage and then parked the car in the open parking. Our room was still getting ready at 3 pm and it took nearly 30 minutes to get our room. The suite was really spacious but poorly designed with just one bathroom and a tiny TV. Anyway we quickly organised the space, got Amma’s bed put in and ate some lunch before crashing out for the day.

Hotel Rivatas turned out to be quite insipid and rather dowdy – the breakfast spread was huge but there was a musty smell in the restaurant that made the food unappetising. Non-Veg and veg were kept in close proximity and the smells intermingled to make it difficult for us to eat. The fruits were of really poor quality and the fruit juice seemed like it was fresh a few days back :(. We ate just once and refused to eat there again. Yes, we were spoilt rotten by Hyatt Lucknow and the fresh food that we got there but any hotel must serve fresh food…. The other strange thing was the wifi password. We had to write the card number on a register and sign for it, really ??? And only one device could be connected, huh? In this day and age, making wifi available is like making drinking water available, there is really no choice and it better be a strong connection to which multiple devices can be connected. One of the days suddenly we heard hammering and the sound wouldn’t stop for nearly an hour. When I called the reception I was told there is renovation work happening and that’s that. No apology no offer to change the room, nothing – “this is what is happening and just deal with it”, wowwww. Customer service anyone? The housekeeping staff is nice and they clean up the room quite regularly. They would fill the RO water anytime we wanted and were generally the silver lining in a rather dark cloud. We were happy to leave Hotel Rivatas and I don’t think we will stay there again.

The city of Varanasi has transformed. The last time we visited was in 2011. The ghats were filthy, the roads were filthier and we were put off completely. In 2018, there is a serious attempt to keep the city clean, we went for a morning walk everyday. Since we were in the cantonment area, there were inspiring placards that spoke of the valour of our soldiers like these –

The following pictures were taken as we drove through the traffic filled roads of the city on our way to Kiran Village, an outstanding NGO that’s on the outskirts of Varanasi. In each of these pics, please note the level of cleanliness. Is it spotless, no, but is it filthy, NO. The other outstanding thing that has been done is to put the entire electrical cabling underground – suddenly the city looks a lot cleaner. Every road has several public toilets that are clean and we didn’t find even a single person pissing in public on some wall. The Modi-haters will find one spot that has filth and say nothing has been done by our PM, but anyone who can keep the hatred aside and view the city neutrally, will see the mind-blowing transformation.

We went to the famous Dashashvamedha Ghat by walk … because we wanted to confirm if the ghats have been cleaned up. People were sitting on the steps and we had to search for paan stains. The cows still jostled for space on the same road, but the road was clean enough to walk. The drains are still open in a many places but overall the cleanliness has improved significantly.

The Dashashvamedha Ghat – the 2011 picture is from a boat and the 2018 picture is from the steps. One can clearly see the Swachh Bharat campaign working unless one chooses to be blind.

Everywhere we drank juice or ate chaat, there were dustbins to put the waste into. Clearly people were keen to keep their city clean. We ate at the famous Kashi Chaat Bhandar. The chaat was awesome and the place was clean.

Two sisters came and sat down with their children to eat Chaat in the bench opposite ours. One of the sisters asked if there was a toilet in the tiny restaurant. The server immediately got a young boy to take her nearby to a public toilet and she said it was clean to use ! I cannot imagine hearing that pre-2015 and pre-Swachh Bharat.

Krishnan and I are hugely impressed with the change in Varanasi and am sure anyone would be. There is no cure for hatred and the jaundice that it induces, so Modi-haters can continue their tirade against him. Mr. Modi deserves atleast two more terms for the magic he has done in Varanasi. Remember its one man’s dream and his ability to inspire a complete change in attitude. A big round of applause to Temsutula Imsong, a young woman from Nagaland who got the Prabhu ghat cleaned up in Varanasi and set the cleaning of all the ghats in motion. Her work has indeed paid off and it also teaches us an important lesson – the Prime Minister cannot clean every street. He has made cleanliness a national issue … its we the people who need to do our bit to clean up our city, our surroundings and make India Swachh, just talking about how dirty some place is won’t help.

Jai Hind.

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