#2: My first 24 hours in India

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December 30th 2011
Published: December 31st 2011
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My first 24 hours in India….

I’ve always been nervous about traveling in India. Stories of crushing crowds, filth, scams, and numerous transportation accidents have kept me away. Finally, lured by the colors, the culture, the food, as well as the fairly short flight from Southeast Asia, I decided it was time to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I decided to not ease into the experience, but to dive right into the deep end. I started my journey in Varanasi – known as the spiritual and cultural heart of India….

Varanasi is touted as one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. It is also accepted as the founding place of Buddhism and Jainism. Add to these two distinctions that it sits along the river Ganges, which Hindus believe to be sacred, and you have a destination for all sorts of spiritual shenanigans. Hindus believe that if they bathe in the river, their sins will be washed away. If they die in Varanasi, they will reach Nirvana – the end of the cycle of birth and rebirth. There are hospitals here that cater to those who come here specifically to live out their final days in the most holy of Indian cities.

So, after a day of travel, I arrive in Varanasi in the evening. I immediately discover that my plan of pre-hiring a driver to take me to my guesthouse, while overpriced at about $14, is a very smart plan. I see lowly backpackers being swarmed by as many as 10 drivers begging for their business. I, on the other hand, am whisked away to my waiting “limousine”, a beat up white Toyota that I am extremely grateful for. The next hour is a series of swerves, near misses, and traffic jams that are navigated like a frightening game of chicken. The streets are teeming with the famous, sacred cows that wander free, but also plenty of seemingly less sacred goats, chickens, dogs and the occasional pig. I just keep thinking how much these creatures would probably prefer an expanse of green field, but alas, there was no green to be seen anywhere.

I arrive at Rahul Guesthouse, which is located on a quieter section of the river, away from the central hubbub. The owner tells me that I should settle into my room and go up to the rooftop restaurant for a welcome tea, then we’ll talk about what there is to see in the city. How civilized! My room is a small cell with a hard bed, covered with only a scratchy wool blanket. But it has its own bathroom the owner promises me that it will be quiet, so I think I can make it work. The tea they serve me is actually chai – a combination of tea, milk, and spices. I immediately decide it is the most delicious drink I have ever had and that I will be giving up my beloved coffee for the next 10 days. I also order some palak paneer (spinach with cottage cheese) and naan, which costs me about $1.50. It is all delicious! I weigh the caloric damage that will be done by eating naan at every meal and make a mental note to work in plenty of exercise and limit my portion sizes. Foregoing bread on this trip does not seem like a viable option to consider. I turn in early, wrapped in my thin, scratchy blanket, and prepare for the next day’s adventure.

I wake early and head to the roof for a breakfast of chai (and plenty of it) and an omelet. The first thing I notice is that the air is filled with a heavy smokiness. A young Swiss man that comes here every year to study music tells me that it is fog. It might be, but judging by the brownish color and the number of open fires that I saw the previous night, I have my doubts. Either way, I can hardly see across the river. But, it is a nice, sunny day with slightly cool temperatures and I’m happy to spend the morning sitting on the roof, catching up on the business that falls by the wayside when I’m traveling.

Around noon, it is time to venture out see the ghats – the steep steps that lead down to the river. There are around 100 ghats that are designated for bathing, and 2 that are reserved for cremations. Seeing these final two is not something I’m anxious for, but more on that later. I immediately discover that the town is a warren of twisted streets and alleyways. I guess they didn’t have much city planning back in 800 BC. I find my way to the river and it is a truly a collection of sights! Varanasi doesn’t have any major tourist attractions, per se. There are many temples and some small museums, but the real sight to see is the juxtaposition of life and death. There are yogis, swamis, and various holy men everywhere. One of my guidebooks actually recommends going for a swim in the river. But this same guide warns that there are submerged corpses in these waters and the diseases that go with rotting flesh. I also saw about 15 cows swimming by (I didn’t even know cows could swim) and I don’t want to think about what they’re putting into the river. So, I think I’ll skip the dip and any other contact with these sacred waters. But, there are plenty of people bathing in the river. I even saw one man brushing his teeth. I see the water marks high up on the surrounding walls and I’m glad I’m not here in the summer when the river level is about 4 to 5 meters higher, covering the steps I’m standing on and a good portion of the ancient buildings that sit along the river.

I spend the next few hours wandering the streets, watching the people and marveling at the action around me. I smell the amalgamation of odors, including delicious food, smoke, multiple varieties of human and animal excrement, river water, and things I cannot identify. I am constantly dodging cars, bicycles, motorbikes, and rickshaws, all the while watching carefully where I step. When I try to avoid these dangers by turning down a small alley, there is usually a giant cow with menacing horns blocking my passage. I finally discover the cows will pretty much ignore me and opt for that route. I return to my guesthouse in the evening, just in time for to see the river by rowboat.

There are 5 of us on the boat – two Czech women, two Japanese women and me. The oarsman rows us along the river at sunset, showing the ghats from a distance. They look wonderful and ancient. Still trying to get a handle on the age of the city, I point to a building and ask how old it is. I am told “very old”. A few minutes later I ask about another building and am told it was a palace. I ask when it was built and I am told “a long time ago”. I’m still trying to work it out.

The main reason for the trip down the river was to see a nightly ceremony, which is performed to honor the sacrificing of ten horses so that the god Shiva could return from a period of banishment. Ten young men on wooden platforms performed a ritual involving bells, fire, and flower petals for about 1 hour. Observers line the river bank and watch from a logjam of small boats. It was a moving spectacle and worth seeing, however, not the thing I would remember from this evening.

The thing that will stay with me long after this trip is the sight of the burning ghat – the place where cremations are performed. In our western world, we put our dead in a box in the ground. Although I’ve always thought cremation was a better option, when we do cremate, we don’t actually watch the burning of our loved ones. However, at the burning ghat, there are piles of wood on the steps, on an alter, and right along the river, each containing one corpse. The fire keeps burning until the body is ash, sometimes 9 or 10 hours. On this night, I saw 5 pyres along the banks of the river. I was told that the cremations continue 24 hours a day, as people are always dying in Varanasi. The fee to be cremated at this ghat is about 5000 rupees (around $100), but some families struggle to pay this fee. This makes me wonder how many of life’s basic needs they will have to sacrifice to protect the eternal soul of the deceased. Unfortunately, asking tourists to help (and who wouldn’t?) is one of the most common scams in town. I buy a small flower and candle basket from a boy in a tiny rowboat to release into the river. It is suppose to improve my karma, which I like to keep in fairly shiny condition, but I am also thinking of 5 souls within those flames when I float this little memorial down the sacred river.

In the dark of night, we row the small boat back to the guesthouse. It has been a strange and interesting 24 hours, indeed. I have seen people who have come to Varanasi to embrace life and I have seen people who have experienced the death of their choosing. That’s what I call a full day! I decide I’m not really hungry and skip dinner, even though one more piece of naan is calling to me. I do, however, ask for another blanket as it is quite chilly compared to the warmth of Jakarta. They go in the back room and find me a brand new, soft, fluffy blanket. As I lie down, I think of the families that I walked by that day, living in one cement room that would make prison seem luxurious. Suddenly, wrapped in my soft blanket, my little cell of a room feels quite warm and comfortable. I fall asleep wondering what the next 9 days will bring….


31st December 2011

First 24 Hours in India
I'll say it again, you are an excellent writer! Very interesting blog, complete descriptions, humor thrown in, i.e., spiritual shenanigans, whisked away to waiting "limo", chai, cows swimming, very old bldg., karma. I enjoyed reading every word.

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