Food and drink at the heart of many travelller's tales from around the world.
Like many English people, I find something very reassuring about a good cup of tea. Tea is not a panacea to all of life's trials and challenges but it is a companion through many of them. It is a clichÃ© but many people still 'put the kettle on' before talking about their day.
The English owe their tea drinking habit to India. Early colonialists brought back tea to England where it was soon to become a national institution. Even the English habit of drinking tea with milk and sugar surely has its origins in the sweet, spicy, milky version of tea which the Indian people call 'chai.'
It was in India one afternoon that I sat down to have a nice cup of chai and reflect upon a fascinating day. The tea seller was plying his trade on the banks of the great river Ganges in the holy city of Varanassi. I sat down on a step with my piping hot cup of tea and spen tan hour watching life go by.
Life in Varanassi revolves around the river and the ghats which line it. It is a holy city built on the banks of the holiest river in India and millions of people make a pilgrimage there every year, or at least once in their life, to bathe in the holy waters and cleanse their souls.
It is extraordinary to watch and listen to thousands of people bathing in the river at dawn and dusk. The best way to watch the spectacle is from the river itself. There, you have a wonderful view of a colourful mass of humanity washing on the steps that lead into the river against the backdrop of the architecturally magnificent ghats. From the boat you can also see the bloated carcasses of dead animals floating by and occasionally glimpse the tragic corpse of a baby that has been wrapped in swaddling clothes for its final journey.
Varanassi is not the only a place where millions choose to bathe, it is also where if they can, millions choose to die or at least be cremated. There is something very matter of fact about death in Varanassi. The cremations are carried out throughout the day and anyone can witness them. You can watch as the body is set alight on a funeral pyre. You can listen to human fat sizzling and bones warping and cracking in the heat of the fire. The corpses are then unceremoniously bludgeoned with heavy wooden poles so that the skeleton breaks up and burns more thoroughly. The ashes which inevitably still contain a few larger bone remnants are then scattered in the river, only a few feet away from people who are washing in the same water.
Varanassi is an extraordinary city with a unique atmosphere. It was this special atmosphere that I was trying to soak up one afternoon with a cup of tea in my hand. I watched women pass me in beautiful brightly coloured saris. I watched them wash, fully clothed, in the filthy river water, and wondered if they ever thought about the rotting animal corpses that floated by or the cremated ashes that turned the river water to a greyish colour.
Then I watched my cheerful tea seller pop down to the waters edge with his kettle. I noticed how he submerged it completely in the Ganges, filled it up and placed it back on the stove in readiness for the next brew. Naively, I asked the man if he thought the water was clean. " It is holy !" he replied enthusiastically with a sincere look on his face. He smiled proudly and I smiled back at him.
I looked at the river. I looked at the kettle and then I looked at my empty cup. On this occasion I didn't find my cup of tea quite so reassuring after all.