Saturday – we were advised last evening that today’s early afternoon flight west to Varanasi had been cancelled, the airline offering us an alternative at 04:30 to Delhi, several hours wait, then a flight all the way back to our intended destination. Or an airline switch that would cost 3000 Rupees (R600/£30) for the pair of us.
Rather than waste an entire day travelling and sitting around, we opted for the relatively small extra and landed in Varanasi mid-morning after an 05:00 wake-up call and a quick transfer to the airport.
International baggage allowances vary, depending on the airline. Most allow 23kg, Emirates 30kg. Both of our cases tipped at the scales at under 20kg when we flew here, but the internal airlines are on the same money-making gig you’ll encounter elsewhere and were very quick to charge us several hundred Rupees extra for our “excess baggage”. I do understand the profit motive; I’ve worked for myself for more than 30 years, but this feels much more like taking the piss because you can.
Rant over. For now – we’ve another flight coming up.
Kolkata had largely proved my photographic choices; small mirrorless cameras (Fuji X100T, Sony NEX-7) and 25/35/50mm lenses. I’d also packed my ancient Leica 135 f2.8 thinking I’d use it around the Taj Mahal for sunrises and sunsets. That has still to come, but given the very limited scope for long lenses so far, I’m beginning to think it would have been better to leave it at home.
In the main, the Fuji shines very brightly. When it hits a critical focus point, the results are as good as with the best of cameras. The autofocus isn’t that quick however and I have definitely lost some images in alleyways and poorly lit buildings that were grabbed en passant. Another second or two and some patience could have delivered a great shot.
The NEX-7 and it’s manual lenses remains a delight, but not for anything other than outright daylight, or situations where there is time to focus properly. Zone focus is a solution, but at ISO800 and f2.8 a daylight exposure value that delivers wonderful focus and sharpness deteriorates to f2.8 and a half second exposure in a heartbeat, as the environment changes from pavement to semi-dark alleyways and the deep gloom of open fronted shops/eating houses.
My new Fuji X-Pro1 and 35mm f1.4 arrives with the rest of the family in a couple of days and I’m hoping that will be a more workable solution.
While I’m being a bit technical, I’m using some different editing techniques on this trip. Fortunately, they’re non-destructive, so if what I’m doing doesn’t fly, I can head back to where I started.
The first change is the use of a 2.39:1 crop – the cinematic ratio, I’m told. I’ve tried several different ratios before, including the usual landscapers’ 2:1, but this one really works for me – especially with the scenes I’ve been shooting. Comments would be helpful…
The second experiment is using VSCO’s plug-ins. I bought Pack 4 (essentially offering Velvia, Provia and some Kodak film emulations) and added it to the free Pack 0 which I use for Tri-X emulation. I’m really enjoying the bright and intense colours, but find it necessary to tone down some of the Velvia renditions, especially with Asian skin tones which quickly head for bright yellow. All-in-all, it’s an experiment worth trying.
So, Varanasi. It’s dry, dusty and much less humid than Kolkata. The traffic is as bad and the willingness to hoot at every piece of paper on the street, shadow, dog, cow, cyclist, pedestrian, or other vehicle within 50m is identical. The hotel, several notches up from Kolkata’s quaint Fairlawn has just served us a passable buffet lunch and we currently await our guide for the afternoon’s exploration.
Collecting us from the airport was Anil; chatterbox of note, he was keen, a mine of information and introduced us both to the concept of rememberisation; some kind of recall one has after visiting Varanasi and joining one of his tours. I hope we’ll remembers this one with great fondness.
Billed as the planet’s oldest city, Varanasi is known for its temples, religious activity and daily gatherings at the ghats along the Ganga (Ganges to us outlanders). Our first guided visit was to walk a bit of the city and end at the Dashaswamedh ghat – a stepped entry down into the Ganga – as darkness fell.
In classic Indian style, the evening ritual was celebrated with a huge crowd, seemingly made up equally of sightseers and worshippers. Bells clanged, hand organs played, tablas bonged and five orange and gold clad priests led the ceremony, chanting, singing and ringing hand bells. The crowd joined in and with the addition of clouds of incense, turned a sundown rite into a spectacular experience.
Sunday morning saw us with another early alarm call, this time to re-visit Dashaswamedh ghat, to climb on board a large rowing boat to see the morning bathing ritual and witness the sunrise over the Ganga. There are few words to describe the experience.
Off the boat, just beyond the cremation area (strictly no photographs), we walked along the various ghats, spectators at a daily ritual critical to India’s Hindu community. If last evening’s ceremony was a great experience, this was truly special – one of the great sights that make India the travel destination it is.
Sunrise witnessed and hundreds of pilgrims seen washing and purifying, we were ushered back to our hotel for a (very) late breakfast, followed by a walking tour of one of the city’s fabric factories, the Islamic market and a the lanes that differentiate this ancient city from so many others.
This morning (Tuesday), another early call heralded departure for Allahabad and Lucknow – in other words, a day in the car, with brief stops at Sangram, the holy confluence of three great rivers and then on to Nehru’s house in Allahabad. Photography in most of these places is forbidden and while the house is magnificently maintained, I managed only a couple of shots. The police are inches thick everywhere and I suspect falling foul of them is not advised.
If you’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance, or Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, you’ll understand.
Before I turn my attentions to Lucknow, I need to say that Varanasi was truly special; the religious pilgrimages surrounded by the Ganga and a city full of ancient buildings, unique. That said, for all its history and appeal to the tourist/photographer, the city is unremittingly dirty. There are dogs and (predictably) cattle everywhere, often asleep in the middle of main roads and alleyways. Their droppings make navigating the litter- and rubble-strewn lanes and roadways almost impossible. Couple that with the unending press of humanity, motor bikes and scooters roaring past and the permanent stench of just about everything you don’t want to imagine and you’ll be well prepared if the you choose to visit.
Sanjiv, our day guide did a fine job of navigating us through the labyrinthine lanes and alleyways, and swatted (not literally) away the endless stream of beggars. If you’re planning to visit Varanasi and need someone to show you the real photographic sights – send me an e-mail and I’ll let you have his details.
Wednesday – Lucknow. Breakfast soon and then our first of two full days in the capital of Uttar Pradesh.