Sometimes travelers sign up to go to Africa, Jordan, Turkey, or in this case Varanasi, India, and then friends or family comment that they shouldn't go because it's not safe. A Wildland traveler who recently just signed up to include Varanasi in their trip to India was warned by an Indian citizen in the U.S. not to go because as he put it:
"I don't recommend this Indian experience.It can be quite horrid and unhygienic. There are far better pleasant places to visit. Its a holy place but a holy mess with innumerable holy cows doing their thing wherever and whenever. Monkeys also abound. The less said the better. The
municipal corporation is in a trance or has ascended. Unholy things apparently flock there for their purification, I believe. It's too Indian, even for me. Diarrhoea is a serious possibility.”
Here's what I advised him:
My honest perspective is as a traveler deeply interested in exotic cultures different from our own. I certainly am not looking at this from your friend's perspective as a successful Indian citizen. In fact, when talking about what I do arranging travel to India at social events here in Seattle, I often find myself conversing with Indians who are disgusted about places in their country, especially some ex-pat Indians living here working in various technical professions who appreciate our living standards and lifestyle; some don't even want to return home except out of necessity because of the bureaucracy, chaos, noise, etc.
No doubt Varanasi is intense which is why we try to put it at the end of any itinerary once you've become accustomed to the culture and society, and have learned to appreciate it in so many ways. And, just riding through Varanasi in a rickshaw can be overwhelming with so much humanity (and other living things) walking between town and the river where they go for rituals and funerals. It is where Indians go to absolve themselves of sins or for cremation and final rites of their loved ones. As the major pilgrimage site in North India, it is a very sacred place in that regard with very interesting and deeply meaningful spiritual rituals and religious practices. As a tourist, there's no place more fascinating to see and understand this aspect of Indian belief and culture, not to mention the opportunities for photography. For these reasons, Varanasi is a place unlike any other in India.
It's not true that you need to be more concerned about illness in Varanasi than anywhere else in India, generally speaking. You're staying in lovely accommodations where every aspect of your stay safe, clean and comfortable. I've been to India three times for over 8 weeks and I've never gotten an intestinal illness, only acid stomach due to over consumption of greasy and spicy food for extended times, and then I go continental for a few days for some releif. We take groups to have lunch in local homes in Varanasi and Jodphur and nobody has ever become ill even from eating in a local home.
You won't be touching water in the Ganges, eating anywhere on the street or don't need to dine in local restaurants during your short stay, and you always drink bottled water so you'll have less concern about protecting your health than a normal Indian who may find themselves with family and friends in more "exposed" situations.
It is chaotic. When you are walking from the funeral ghats on the Ganges back to the rickshaws or taxis, you have to be careful and pay attention to cars, cows and motorcycles moving all around you, and indeed, you might even have to walk around a cow in your path, or cow patties too. That's all quintessential India! But, you'll have your own guide looking out for you, making adjustments for your comfort (taking a taxi instead of a rickshaw if you prefer, or going back to the hotel early if anyone so desires, etc). Your guide knows what is challenging, emotionally or physically, for our guests and is there for your needs.
Based on your travel experience, and your obvious interest in India, I think you should go! Varanasi is often the highlight of many traveler's experience in India, because it's so intense and also such a deeply human experience.
Read my previous blog entry sent from Varanasi when I was there in February 2012: Blindingly colorful and unrelentingly chaotic
Keeping it wild,