Saturday, June 28, 2008

stealing part 3: Varanasi

Here and here and here are my posts on Varanasi. And below are big chunks from Alex's and Sarah's.
Sarah: I've officially seen a dead body in the Ganges....

I've officially seen a dead body in the Ganges. We were just talking today about hearing such things and them not being true. But there it was as we were walking along the bank, right at the edge. People were swimming and fishing all along the area. It was nothing unusual.

We walked down to the main cremation ghat and were ushered in by a "guy who volunteers there." We decided that a little information was worth whatever he might be taking us for. I'm not here for a religious experience and I've had nothing near it, but this was pretty cool to witness. There are about 350 cremations burning outdoors at that one ghat- day and night. My eyes burned from the smoke and incense, but I sure was able to see the head burning a few feet from us. Wow. That's a burning head.

Bodies were being carried past as he weaved us through the fires and explained the ritual. We got to go into a death house and watch the cremations from above. The oldest son has his head shaved for the cerimony and lights the fire after circling the body 5 times (for the 5 elements). It was really interesting to watch the whole process. we passed men having their heads shaved in preperation. Then we were hit up for money to help families buy the expensive wood that it takes for the open air cremation. We were assured fabulous karma for giving money at such a holy place. whatever. It was worth it, and donating a little money for wood feels a lot more worthwhile than everything else we are hit up for constantly.

We watched a little bit of a dramatic cerimony with drums and conches, and then decided it was much past our after dark saftey curfew. There were some extremley sketch guys eyeing us and it was raining so we walked out to a rickshaw back. We piled up on laps on a tiny bike rickshaw. These guys work so hard. We agreed on 30 rupees, but after seeing him struggle through the rain, potholes, and detours- hauling 3 people- we decided to bend on our frugalness and give a bit more. He seemed very greatful, which ended the night on a really positive note. I'm really glad we came.

Full Full Full Masala
I got my fortune read in Varanasi! Yesterday was kind of a grumpy, bummer day for all of us. The beggars turned into zombies in Saranath, following us around, hands out, in monotone zombie voices "allo...allo madam. allo. allo madam..." Guys gawked and touts were relentless. We got stuck in some aweful traffic and payed too much for a taxi. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but for some reason all of it was especially annoying to all three of us. At least we're all on the same page. I think it's more efficient that way. Save our good moods for the same time to make one super good mood.

I kind of mentioned the skech guys from the other night briefly, but after we talked about it, pepper spray started sounding like a good idea. Trying to explain pepper spray to Indians is an extremly amusing process for both parties involved. Lots of sign language to no avail. We'll have to come up with something else. But back to the fortune today. I've been wanting to get my palm read in India after reading Holy Cow, but haven't really had the opportunity. I casually mentioned it to the guesthouse owner and he set all of it up in just a few minutes. Even a free ride on the motorbike of our internet shop guy. The astrologer is a high cast brahmin and a professor. He read my chart and my palm. Evidently I will be "blessed in daughters," and if I keep trying I might be lucky enough to get a son. I also "need to enjoy my own mango instead of comparing it to other mangos." I liked that one. Alex video taped it which I am very grateful for because I've already forgotten most of it. He said that my career would be successful around writing and travel. I've secretly always wanted to be a travel writer. But doesn't everyone?

On the way back to the guest house with Previne, Alex and I crammed on his motorbike, we passed a cow being led by a Sadu. The cow had layers of beautiful flowers around it's neck and an extra leg hanging off of it's back. Previne said it was a fortune teller cow. The Sadu is a kind of cow whisperer. He whispers questions to the cow and according to Previne his answers are right 100% of the time. That is my absolute favorite today. I wish we had time to get a picture. It seemed like something that should be in a Wes Anderson movie.

We got up at 5:00 am to take a row boat out on the Ganga for morning baths and cerimonies. I need more interesting descriptive words because cool and beautiful just aren't cutting it anymore. But it was most definitely both of those.

Varanasi is an interesting place. It's disgustingly dirty and polluted. Hasseling by sales people is relentless as soon as you step out of your guesthouse. It's dangerous to be out after dark, and sports some super shady characters. But then you go out to the cremation houses and the Ganga cerimonies with so much tradition and faith, and it kind of out shines everything else. We've also met our most helpful new friend, Previne the internet shop owner. Not only did he set up a cheap astrology session and take me personally with no commision for him, he also searched out Alex's camera lense in the mud and took him back out on his motor bike to buy us a knife and flashlight for the train tonight. He also lent us 120 rupees the other day on faith. There are some genuinly kind people here. They might be hard to find, but they're here.

I've also realized that while we work so hard at not getting ripped off, we might not see that the person trying to work his way into our wallet is also very likely being ripped off. We watched as our boat rower had his payment for our 3 hour ride taken by his very undesirable looking boss right in front of us. Poor little guy. We felt bad for not giving him the extra 100 on the side. I'm not sure if he'll see any of it.

Alex: A Boat Ride in Varanasi

The Varansi airport is really small and reminded me of the one on The Darjeeling Limited. It's also quite a ways outside of the city, so the taxi to our hotel was not cheap (500 rs/ about $12.50). The cab drivers weren't as competitive with eachother as we had seen everywhere else, so we got an impression that this was a more peaceful city than other Indian cities we've been to.

The cab driver started off by welcoming us to the city as ancient as the soul, and telling us that it's a peaceful religous capital for Hindus. When we got in the car, I joked with him that I would drive, and he said no problem. Neither I nor the girls really wanted me to drive, but I was suprised by the driver's reaction. About halfway to the city, he stopped to get some "pan," which is a blend of chewing tobacco and spices. He offered to get me some as well, but I had already experienced the burn of Indian chewing tobacco in Jaipur and didn't feel the need to try it again. He answered a phone call talking funnily with a mouthful of tobacco, and told us that a friend had spotted a cobra and wanted him to contact a cobra-catcher for him. Apparently, cobra-catcher is a common profession, and they pay people about 500 rs to call them when they see one. During his phone calls, he couldn't shift his car. Being in the front left seat with the stick to my right, I naturally offered to shift, and weakly satisfied my adrenaline rush to drive the crazy streets of India. It really wouldn't have been too bad to drive in the rural area between the airport and city. I would just have to remember to use the horn every time we pass people or see anyone on the road.

Our hotel, Sahi River View Guesthouse, is accessible only by small cow-poop-filled alleys, but it's a nice and affordable place. We opted for the non-AC double room for 550 rs (about $13), and shared the bed between the 3 of us. Right outside our door is a nice lounge area with a great view of the Ganges. It feels a bit like a beach with the humid climate and wide river. After settling in, we went down to the river and hired a boat to take us to the main ghat for the nightly ceremony (100-150rs each way).

With the soft sunset light comming through the clouds and ancient-looking buildings lining the shore, the trip down the river seemed a little dreamlike, and was exactly how I had seen it in pictures. The place has the same majestic and surreal feeling that the Taj Mahal has. Even though I'd seen hundreds of pictures of both places, they didn't seem like they were really on the same planet as what I've experienced. The ceremony was worth the trip, but a little bit commercialized (probably because it's the same one they show every night).

The way back upstream took longer (about an hour), and we felt kind of sorry for the boatman who rowed us home. It really was a tough job (I tried to do it for a couple minutes), and he got paid only a cut (after the boat owner gets his) out of the relatively small amount that we paid. At the hotel, we ordered some biriyani (rice w/ veggies), chapati (tortilla-like flatbread), some fried potatoes, and noodles. After washing a 3" parasite-looking worm from the bathroom floor to the drain, I had a nice shower and hit the hay hard.

A floating Corpse and many burning bodies.

Today we got to sleep in for once (7:30 for me and about 10 for the girls). We laid around for a few hours after a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, lassi, and fresh fruit. We spent a couple more hours at an internet cafe just outside of our hotel before walking down to the main ghat. The walk took about 20 minutes.

On the way, we passed through a small cremation ghat and saw the dead body of a middle-aged man floating on the riverbank. He was floating face-down. At first, I thought he was just holding his breath and bathing, but his head was moving very loosely with the waves and after about a minute, we realized the truth. Nobody seemed to care, but we were intrigued as to who the man was, and why he wasn't burned. We did not understand the process at this point, but later we found a possible explanation.

Next, we walked through the Varanasi bazaar. The first thing we saw was a snake charmer sitting by the road playing a flute thing to a cobra in a basket. We had briefly seen this before in Delhi, but it was still exciting. It was a really dirty market with a muddy dirt road. There was an overwhelming amount of fabric and shoe shops, and not much in the way of souvenirs. We weren't looking to buy anything anyways (except maybe a replacement pocketknife).

I was hoping to get more of a spiritual experience out of my trip to India and Nepal, and walking through markets was such a draining experience, that I was starting to get semi-dissapointed. So far, we had spent most of our free time walking around dizzying markets and in two of the holiest cities of India, Haridwar and Varanasi, we had only experienced pretty commercialized ceremonies with large audiences (and priests that try to get as much money from you as they can in Haridwar and even at Yamunotri Shrine).

After walking for awhile, we went back to the river and found a rooftop cafe to have dinner. On the bright side, after more than a month here, we have still not eaten a bad meal, and this restaurant was no exception.

After dinner, we went to the main cremation ghat and a man who said he worked there took us on a small tour and explained the cremation process. There were 6 or 7 fires burning in the darkening evening and each had the remains of a body in the middle. In one fire, a burning skull seared itself into my memory. Many older people come to this ghat and stay in the death houses, waiting for death and their chance to be washed and cremated on the banks of the river at Varanasi. When they die, the eldest son will get his head and face shaved, get a death certificate from the government, and present the certificate at the ghat. At this point, the family will pay for enough wood to burn the body (min 200 kilos, max 300). The wood and incense used prevents the terrible smell of burning flesh and hair, but costs a lot (somewhere around 180 Rs or $4+/ kilo according to the guide). Sandalwood is better than the wood they were using, but only the richest can afford it. Because it is considered good karma to help buy wood for others' cremations, some of the money is raised from friends of the family, etc.

Our guide wanted us to contribute money for wood, and said that we could write our names on a piece of paper and the old people waiting to die would pray for us in the morning so we would have long and happy lives. This may or may not have been true, but we decided to make a small contribution if just for the information the guide gave us.

Sunrise on the Ganges/Astrology Session

This morning we forced ourselves out of bed to catch a sunrise boatride on the Ganges. We found our boat friend and set out on the river at 5:20AM. It was pretty light out already, and many people were already out and about. On the shore of Assi Ghat where we are staying, there was a morning fire ceremony happening and some people bathing and praying. The shore was lined with people bathing, praying, brushing teeth, washing clothes, singing, swimming, drinking Ganga jal, and fishing. A few other boats of tourists were out as well.

The sky was overcast, so there was not a good sunrise, but the point was to catch all the life on the water at dawn. There were a few ceremonies with music and prayer that we caught on our way downstream. We floated past the cremation ghat, where fires were blazing as vigorously as they had two nights ago. There are 350-400 bodies burned daily at this ghat, so there are non-stop cremations taking place. The thick black smoke of a fresh fire sort of upsets your stomach when you think about what you are breathing, but it also gives the place its spiritual and ancient feel.

At home, we are faced with human death maybe a few times in our lives, but here, the eternally-burning fires serve as a constant reminder of the temporality of life. Maybe that's why the place seems so ancient.

After breakfast and a nap at the hotel, I went with Sarah to an astrologer Mr. Sahi, the hotel owner, hooked us up with. I didn't intend to get my palm read or astrology done, but after recording Sarah's for her, I decided it was worth the 12 dollars (discounted price from $100-200 for foreigners). The world famous astrologer teaches at Benares Hindu University, the biggest university in Asia (according to our guide yesterday). After pulling up my chart, he started out by talking about my older brother and comparing us, before I had spoken a word to him about myself or family. What he said was true and something that I have thought about in the past as something that has had a big effect on my life. He told me what my biggest problem is, which was really not so bad (focusing too much on what I've lost when I make a choice), what a succesful relationship would be for me according to my personality, some career suggestions, etc. Really, everything he said was pretty accurate and more specific than I expected. He explained that he reads the chart to get an idea of personality, then is guided by God as to what advice he gives.

On the way back to the hotel [on the back of Praveen's scooter (the awesome guy who runs the internet cafe next door)], we saw a cow with an extra leg growing out of his back. He was being led by a sadu down the road and had lays on his neck. Praveen told us that the cow had special powers. If someone were to ask the cow a question such as "who took my money?", the sadu would whisper it into the cow's ear and the cow would walk right to the guy that took it. Praveen said that the cow was "right 100% of the time!"

Praveen was very helpful. He told us about the future of India's economy one night while we were using his computers (which are the fastest in town), took us on his scooter to see the astrologist and found my lense cap after I dropped it on the way, put good indian music on for us while we blogged, and sent his driver to take me to the market for a pocket knife and a flashlight. He tries hard to keep the kind of hospitality that Indians "should" give to their guests amidst the westernization and fast-paced life that is affecting the culture. The hotel owner, Mr. Sahi, also tries to make his guests feel like family. I am greatful to have a break from all the hustlers, beggers, and scam artists that we interact with here most of the time, just trying to get our money.

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