We stood on the corner of a multi-species crossroads. Holy cows, hybrid street dogs, autos. Frankenstein-inspired cycle-rickshaws creaked along, much to the anguish of their equally seasoned riders.
My girlfriend gave me a shady handshake that concealed a crumpled wad of rupees. I squinted into the unlit corridor next to the wine shop, which should strictly be called an alleyway with a ceiling. I let the sting of shame wash over me like homebrewed spirits and stepped in, leaving the honking and mooing behind.
Running my fingers along the walls might have aided my blind walk, but I was pretty sure my fellow patrons had used them in the past as urinals. In the dank stairwell, I squeezed past a scattered group of drinkers clutching cans like bags of crack. They gave me dodgy knowing looks that made me feel like one of the gang. I wasn’t ecstatic about being accepted into their circle but offered a gracious smile in return.
When I got to the concrete counter and ordered my beers for the evening I realised I hadn’t taken enough money, so I went back out into the street for another roadside handshake and made my way back up the stairwell, passing again my alcoholic brothers in arms.
After leaving the beer den, I felt distinctly like I had just bought a big plastic bag of hard drugs.
It was our second visit to buy booze. On our first mission to score, my two lady friends waited on the other side of the road as I sidestepped my way to the cell-like wine shop. This was more of an ‘I know the dealer so you wait here because he’s paranoid and might freak out’ kind of vibe (my friend Ila suggested it wasn’t appropriate for her and my girlfriend to buy alcohol). The moustachioed wine shop owner extended his stubby barrel of a finger to direct me to his neighbour for beers. Said neighbour quickly dug out six super strong lagers and passed them to me in a conspicuous cardboard box, which ensures you hold your dirty addiction high up where everyone can see it.
Varanasi is Hinduism’s holy city. It holds a special place in Buddhist history too, as it was a city where Siddhartha conducted teachings. It feels like the most visceral confluence of vivid spirituality, abject poverty, of life, and death as a part of it. The burning bodies on the ghats (steps used for prayer and gathering on the riverside) and memorial candles bobbing on the Ganges give Varanasi the atmosphere of a kind of gateway to the afterlife. The Sadhus (Hindu holy men) line the riverbanks draped in dreadlocks and orange cloth, welcoming travellers in to share tales and get mashed on hash pipes and joints.
Weed is readily available on the streets, and in a few restaurants you’re likely to get passed a spliff with your pasta…but have to politely enquire if you can bring in a beer and settle in a dark corner.
Our third and fourth experiences were kind of like opposing moments in Scarface. On the one occasion we were grinding it out, hustling for a beer at a grocery store that was rumoured to sell alcohol. The owner gave in and pedalled off, returning shortly after with a basket of bottles.
The next was more like the pinnacle of Tony Montana’s career. We targeted a hotel called Palace on the Ganges, a ridiculously opulent building puffing its chest out of the body of poverty beneath it. We took a seat at a table on the veranda and entered into negotiations with the reluctant waiters. Finally they came round and brought over a few Kingfisher lagers. It seemed appropriate that we were seated so that the waiter could look down on us as he opened the lid on our dirty habit.
I would advise those fond of a tipple to take their own drink to Varanasi — but then again, if we had we wouldn’t have felt the worlds of alcohol and marijuana get turned upside down; we would have missed out on feeling like crackheads in the holy city.