Varanasi, known as India's most spiritual city, was our next stop. With a population equivalent to Agra (1.2 million), it felt much more chaotic, dirty and alive.
Our train ride here was rather interesting. We had not been able to get confirmed seats, but were waitlisted. Countless Indians told us it was 100% sure we could get a seat/bed if we only got on the train, talked to the conductor, and offered some baksheesh (a bribe). Well, it didn't exactly play out that way... Instead, the train was crammed full of people with no possibility of a seat. We stood in the hallway near the toilets for a good 4 hours (this was a 17-20 hour trip). We met some nice Indians who tried to keep us company while working with the conductor (to no avail) to try to find us a bed. They fed us, gave us some whiskey and tried to encourage us to dance to BollyWood tunes in the cramped train vestibule. Eventually, a very nice university student offered to share a bed with her friend and to give her seat/bed to us to share. We reluctantly accepted and eventually got some rest.
We did (eventually) arrive in Varanasi. We spent five days here walking through the old city and observing life (and death) along the holy Ganges river, where everything is on display in a way unlike we've seen anywhere else. Dying in this holy Hindu city and then being burned and sent into the Ganges river is considered very lucky. There are several burning ghats along the river where open-air cremations take place. It is not unusual to see the bodies of the recently deceased being carried through the narrow lanes of the old city to the river to be cremated. Untold numbers of Hindu pilgrims also come for ritual bathing in the river, for many this is a once in a lifetime trip. Meanwhile, local people bathe, wash their laundry and empty their trash and bowels into this very busy riverside. We took several boat rides while here, and were lucky one day to spot the Ganges dolphin. It's amazing anything can live in this polluted river, but there it was!
Our timing was lucky for our visit as the festival of lights (Diwali) was being celebrated. From a boat at night, we were able to observe ceremonies, celebrations and see floating candles being released onto the river. It was a bit like Christmas, 4th of July and Mardi Gras combined into one crazy holiday.