The Worst Place I Ever Stayed Twice

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The Worst Place I Ever Stayed Twice

It was a photo that drew me back to the Vishnu Rest House. I didn’t remember the name of the hotel or its location but I did remember taking a photo there of several adorable kids eleven years before. So when I arrived in Varanasi and happened to recognize the building, I knew I had to stay again.

My girlfriend and I had spent a few nights there in 1999 and my memories of the stay weren’t especially pleasant. Our relationship was already crumbling when we’d left home and the stress and strain of traveling in India was putting a fine polish on our mutual anger and growing dislike.

I’d also fallen victim to a nasty bout of food poisoning while there, from a stuffed pepper that I’d eaten at a backpacker cafe — despite thinking at the time that it “looked a little funny”. Eight hours of vomiting in a smelly squat toilet revised my personal definition of Hell and is something I never want to experience again.

I watched as a dead body floated downriver and realized that I was, indeed, in a different world.

Of the hotel itself, all I could recall was that it was cheap and right above the ghats, with a great view of the Ganges. Sitting on the patio and drinking chai my first morning there, I watched as a dead body floated downriver and realized that I was, indeed, in a different world. It appeared to be an old man and he rested in the river as if he was sitting in a recliner — head, hands and knees protruding from the coffee-tinted water as he made his final ride. It was a sobering moment and, unfortunately, fit my mood perfectly.

But there was one bright spot — as I was taking photos from a rooftop balcony, I heard a squeak behind me and turned to find a young Indian girl staring at me with wide eyes. She turned and ran — thinking I’d somehow scared her, I went back to taking photos of the river. Moments later, she reappeared wearing a fancy, ruffled dress and giving me a big smile. She wanted her photo taken.

I, of course, was happy to oblige and motioned for her to stand by the wall in the shade. Before I could take the photo, her brothers and sisters noticed what was happening and insisted on joining in the fun, much to her chagrin. Seconds after taking the shot, they all ran away giggling.

When I had the photo developed (remember those days?) upon returning home, it proved to be my favorite shot of the trip. To find such a moment of joy and innocence in the midst of such a personally-trying period somehow gave me hope that anything was possible in this crazy world.

So I was delighted to learn, now, that there was a room available at the Vishnu, one with a queen-sized bed and a bathroom with a ‘hot shower’. The man at the desk quoted me 300 rupees a night, but agreed to a 10% discount if I stayed 5 days (he would later try to renege on this agreement). For $7 a day, I had a place with a great view of the river that was only a few minutes walk from the busiest ghats in Varanasi. I was quite pleased with myself.

For $7 a day, I had a place with a great view that was only a few minutes from the busiest ghats in Varanasi.

The room itself wasn’t much to brag about — it was dark, cramped and very basic. The toilet was a squat and the shower wasn’t hot at all — there wasn’t even a hot water tap. The mattress was only about an inch thick but still managed to be lumpy, while the pillow seemed to have recently housed someone’s fart collection. I crammed my fleece jacket into a stuff sack each night and slept with that instead.

They were repainting the hotel bright blue and the paint never seemed to dry, staining my skin and clothes blue every time I brushed against the wall. I looked like the world’s tallest Smurf by the end of my stay.

The Vishnu got a lot of tourist traffic, but it wasn’t a backpacker hotel by any means — quite a few Indians stayed there as well, either in the smaller rooms or in the dorm. Many seemed to be Hindu pilgrims visiting the Ganges as part of a pilgrimage. I’ve stayed in such places quite a few times and have found that there are good and bad points.

The upside is that you’re getting an authentic Indian experience, sharing the space with normal, everyday people. The downside is that you’re getting an authentic Indian experience. Indian families can be rather loud, I’ve found, and having a high-decibel conversation in the hall at 1am is a normal event.

You’re getting an authentic Indian experience, sharing the space with normal, everyday people.

I found the early-morning retching to be the most difficult to deal with. I’d noticed this all over India — every morning men will snort and hack and hawk several times as part of their morning routine.

I believe it’s an ayurvedic technique to keep the throat and sinuses healthy and I’m sure it’s good for them, but hearing a loud “chhhrrrraaaaaaaaawwwkkkkkk!” several times each morning at 6am can really test my Buddha nature.

An old man at the Vishnu liked to do this every morning at 5:30 sharp, just about ten feet from my window. And while most people do it three or four times, he seemed to be training for a competition, with at least a dozen repetitions. He’d then quietly pray at a small shrine and loudly ring a large brass bell when he was finished. On the bright side, I didn’t oversleep once while I was there.

It was an odd scene at the Vishnu. There were always a handful of Indian men hanging around the terrace, eager to engage the tourists in conversation and I quickly realized that they were all on the make. Two of them were working the astrology angle, aways trying to talk you into paying for a horoscope. One, the brother of the owner, was smooth and low key. A younger guy tried to copy his pitch, but stuttered and spoke so quickly that I couldn’t understand him. He’d pause every few minutes to take a breath and wipe spittle from the corner of his mouth, then plunge back into his spiel. It got old fast.

One young man offered to play tour guide, then another whispered that he could sell me hashish if I liked. There were only about 5,000 other touts in town who would make the same offer, but I guess it was nice to have a back-up plan.

Even the manager, Ajay, got in on the action, offering to show me some clothing he had for sale in his room. The old, bent man who swept up and cleaned the tables would look over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching, then hiss “baksheesh, baksheesh!” with a grin. I gave him twenty rupees the first time and he was back ten minutes later, asking for more.

As the days flowed by, I found myself examining the young men who worked there, wondering if they might be one of the kids from the photo. I had yet to show anyone the shot but I already had it worked out in my mind how things would happen. I’d show the photo to the owner and he’d cry with joy. His kids would be grown now and maybe one of them had run off to join the circus and this would be the only photo of him ever taken. I even knew which one it’d be: the one in the middle with the crazy eyes. He had a rebellious streak, I could tell.

I’d have a print made, frame it and present it to the family while they thanked me and slapped me on the back. Maybe we’d get another photo of all of the now-grown kids with their children. It was going to be an amazing experience. What a story!

So I was pretty excited when I got the chance to explain to Ajay that I had a photo I’d taken here long ago that I wanted to show him. I pulled it up onscreen, turned the laptop so that he could see and waited.

He looked at it, then looked at me. After a pause, he said “Cute kids.”

“Oh… ummm… I hoped maybe they still lived here.”

“No, I think those are the old manager’s kids. He quit working here six or seven years ago. I recognize her,” he said, pointing to the girl in the dress. “She’s grown now and has a baby.”

“Ah… I see…” I said, feeling a bit deflated. “No circus, then…”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” I closed the laptop.

Sensing my disappointment, Ajay tried to cheer me up. “You want to buy a suit? I can get you a good price.”

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon O'Donnell February 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Wes, I adore your storytelling. And that photo is captivating; even if you didn’t get that full circle moment, you captured a moment, feeling, and memory in your own life story with that photo. :)

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wes February 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Thanks, Shannon!

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Joseph February 11, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Pepper is the devil – I’m allergic to it in the means that my stomach involuntarily sends it back (can’t even stand the smell of the pepper)…the floating bodies, the retching and the rats are the reasons I’m not to keen on seeing India any time soon…yes, I know there are plenty of reasons to see it but I’ll see how it goes…sorry the circus story didn’t materialize :( – thanks for sharing another real face of India :)

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wes February 11, 2011 at 4:14 pm

India is not for everyone. As for pepper, I think the problem with this one is that it had been sitting around a day or two…

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Theodora February 11, 2011 at 4:02 pm

This really brings the place to life, in all its seedy glory. No wonder India was a challenge for you… I love the picture, too. Thank you for that.
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wes February 11, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Thanks a bunch! :)

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Lisa Rose-Reynolds February 11, 2011 at 9:40 pm

That was hilarious Wes! I too am disappointed that the family was not still there….that would have been very cool! ….I think you should go find them!
Lisa

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

Ha! That might take some work ;)

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Fran February 11, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Love this. It’s SO India :-)

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:17 am

Thanks, Fran.

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Henrique Santos February 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Wonderful story, India is an incredible place, although its not for the faint at heart. I’m passionate about traveling and I’ve done my far share of travels around the world, to keep up with the travel bug while I’m at home I follow loads of travel blogs, and I’ve to tell you, Wes you make a diference, you’re a true traveler and an extremely down to earth person, you share real experiences and you give in so much of yourself, unlike others that all they try do its monetize their travel blog, writing the same old thing over and over. I recently discovered your blog and right now all that i can say is: YOU’RE THE BEST.

Keep up the good work and keep on traveling with the true spirit of vagabonding, after all there is life besides superbowl and keeping in touch with corporate america albeit location free, keep on mingling :D
Henrique

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:17 am

Wow, Henrique… thanks so much for that. That really warms my heart and makes my day. :)

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JustTravelous February 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Enjoyed reading this post a lot! Love the picture and laughed out loud at “fart collection”. Never been to India but I really would love to. Yes, it would have been great if you met the kids now as grown-ups and could have take another picture. Actually I was hoping to see this pic at the end of the post. But hey: “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.”
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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:16 am

Heh, I almost edited ‘fart collection’ out but it seems to be everyone’s favorite bit. Go figure…

Love the quote! Reminds me of Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

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Tracy February 12, 2011 at 12:43 am

This brings me back to India (the good and the bad), I love the way you tell the story!

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:15 am

India is all about good vs bad, isn’t it? :)

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Melanie February 12, 2011 at 3:23 am

Wes, I’m loving your stories — you have a gift for finding the perfect words.

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

Thank you, Melanie. I was pretty happy with this piece.

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paula February 12, 2011 at 5:19 am

While I learned quickly not to eat while reading your blog; I absolutely LOVE how you paint a realistic picture of a place.

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wes February 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

Thanks, Paula!

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Lisa @chickybus February 12, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Wow….another great story re: India. Loved it! The pillow, though…oh god. Sounds awful. And the retching thing. Yikes. But I love that pic and think it would be awesome to meet locals like them. Your descriptions are priceless and put me right there…thanks for the vicarious journey to a country I’ve yet to visit!
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wes February 13, 2011 at 10:22 am

That pillow was terrible. Hard as a rock, too. Woof!

Thanks for the kind words.

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Raji February 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Good story Wes. Even i thought there wud be a pic of now grown up kids or the gild with her baby now:) Never mind. It was still an interesting read. I appreciate the in between humor you have always.

As for India, Its my country and good or bad, it definitely doesn’t feel good to read some things.

I am not rich but still i dont go and stay at such place. Why do you if it is worst?
Strangely, foreigners like to see such things only in India i guess.

Could you pls post one nice post for India showing Joseph the better side of it?

Thanks
Your blog’s fan.

P.S. : And remember my dinner invitation to you still stands and that will show you a normal urban middle class side of Indians which is not loud for sure :)

No hard feelings pls.

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wes February 13, 2011 at 10:18 am

Thanks for the honest comment, Raji. No hard feelings at all.

As for why I stayed at the Vishnu, there were three reasons: it was half the price of the place I had stayed the night before, it had an amazing view, and I wanted to find out how the story ended (re: the photo). And as is always the case, I got what I paid for. I’m not saying it was a terrible experience — if I hated it, I would have gone somewhere else. But I also have to be honest about my experiences. I don’t feel like I was being unfair or overly critical — that was what I experienced. To me, the minor discomforts were worth it.

Looking over my posts from India, I think I’ve been very positive and honest about my experiences in your country. It’s an incredible place and I’ve met some of the sweetest and friendliest people there. As an example: you — you don’t even know me and you’ve invited me to share a meal :)

But as a tourist, I’ve also be subjected to more hassles, ripoffs and scams in India than I have anywhere else in the world. You probably don’t see this because you live there, but I promise you that traveling as a foreigner can be a very frustrating experience at times. And I think I owe it to my readers and myself to be honest about that.

I love India and I love the Indian people. But it is a frustrating place to travel at times.

Thanks again for speaking up. Hope to make it back soon and take you up on the dinner offer :)

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ayngelina February 12, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Great photo Wes, I have also stayed at a few places that weren’t the nicest but the people were so wonderful I couldn’t bear to leave.
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Pirate63 February 13, 2011 at 6:20 am

Great post Wes.

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Laura February 13, 2011 at 11:27 am

What a cool photo and story to go along with it! Too bad you couldn’t track down any of the kids, but it’s rare that we get to return to a place. Although that place sounds pretty rough; it makes me wonder how bad a hostel has to be for you to NOT return! Posts like these confirm that I am just not quite ready for India yet.

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wes February 13, 2011 at 11:39 am

Don’t be toooo scared. There are very nice hotels all over India and they’re still fairly inexpensive. I stayed in one of the nicest guesthouses I’ve seen while I was in Pushakr and it cost $9 a night.

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Priyank February 13, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Hi Wes,
I am a fan of your writing and its very interesting reading about your perspectives of the places you visit. Your India posts especially offer a perspective that I either don’t get to see or don’t notice. It’s all drenched in humor and fun to read but the key messages are quite strong. Thank you so much for that and keep writing!
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wes February 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Thanks so much — I really appreciate that :)

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Odysseus February 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I LOVE this story. Brilliantly funny. My hotel in Varanasi was much better, except for the mattress, which also was an inch thick and lumpy.
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wes February 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Oh, you missed out on the fart pillow ;)

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Rease February 21, 2011 at 7:41 am

Fun story. I still think it’s beautiful that you went back. It’s always surreal to return to a faraway place. I think you should make up your own stories about what happened to the kids!
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wes February 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

Ha! I love that idea :)

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Joe Le Merou February 22, 2011 at 1:05 am

Great story !
I love the way it’s written.
And i actually felt for you.
The beginning looks like every photographer’s dream (the coming back part i mean ;) )
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wes February 23, 2011 at 8:18 am

Thanks, Joe. I was *convinced* I was going to get a follow-up shot, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

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Twangy Pearl February 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Holy cow, (pun intended) I almost peed my pants reading this post, especially “The upside is that you’re getting an authentic Indian experience, sharing the space with normal, everyday people. The downside is that you’re getting an authentic Indian experience.” My husband and I travel to India every year (we just got back from my sixth and his eighth trip) and despite having made many friends, and having found many havens, we always end up with a story similar to yours each trip. Except this trip was the first time I in six trips that I didn’t wind up violently puking in a crappy hotel room – I didn’t blog about it until I got home so as to not jinx myself.

Anyway, thanks for the post. Your blog is interesting and inspiring as I’ve just started writing mine this past year.

Cheers,
Jana

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Marti (Wrabbit) April 18, 2011 at 4:21 am

Your story and style made me laugh aloud (in a positive way, not in a derisive way!) I read this post, then scrolled back up and made my husband pause his hockey game so I could read it aloud to him as well. He was wondering why I had been chuckling, so he let me. Now that’s a big deal: when Joey pauses the hockey game. You should be proud. I myself love to travel and try to always look at the positive – traveling can lend itself to many awkward or unpleasant situations, and you can either let those moments ruin your trip, or blossom into wonderful and amusing stories. I have a travel blog too, but my writing is much less detailed than yours. You have inspired me to kick it up a notch and write with more humor, personality, and rich detail – thansk! Check it out and if you have constructive comments, please feel free! http://downthewrabbithole.blogspot.com/

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Sonya May 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Wow, this is an amazing story and photography.
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GRRRL TRAVELER June 3, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Great story Wes! Truthfully, I wanted the feel-good ending– too bad. Glad you took the venture to try to see the kids again.

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Kevi Naleo Mor May 14, 2012 at 5:52 am

Hmnnn quite an experience huh!! I can imagine the smell of your pillow and especially the early morning chwaaaaaaarrrkk .

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Johanna June 3, 2012 at 10:19 am

This story recalled beautiful memories. I stayed in the same guesthouse in september 2010. I somehow came across your blog and this article and the name of the guesthouse sounded familiar. When i came to the point of being covered in blue colour all day it gave me a huge smile as i remeber waking up every morning there being all blue from the walls. Thanks for bringing those memories up and all the best for your trip!

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wes June 5, 2012 at 11:55 am

Oh cool! You’re the second person I’ve heard from who stayed there. Varanasi is an incredible place, yes?

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Sheryl October 10, 2012 at 2:12 am

You’re my idol! love how you describe your travel experiences.. great story teller! i love and envy you at the same time hahaha

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Celle October 10, 2012 at 3:27 am

OMG! your story is so good and i may say that you are so gifted to have the talent to tell a story that interests us-the readers. I’m also planning to go there (India), to explore. =) Keep up the good work my dear. You are too good!

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Bhakti Sharma March 2, 2013 at 1:44 am

i dont deny..India is a bit filthy and the people here lack etiquette and mannerisms
i agree we are loud too but the point is that you are criticizing the hotel for which you paid just $7 per night. in US..a decent meal costs much more than that.
So what were you thinking? Also if you compare the cheapest hotel in US then it can match up to our 3 star properties at least tariff-wise. So why did you not opt to spend a few more bucks and get a decent stay (especially when you were going through a rough patch with your girlfriend). So next time try getting a better accommodation rather than just criticizing a place.

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