Monday, 12 April 2010

Are you still there? Because we are still here in Varanasi

It seems like an eternity since I last put my thoughts together for sharing with the masses (all 6 of you that bother to read this drivel) and a mountain of things have happened so I guess it’s probably best if I just start back where I left off and gradually bring you up to speed. (Don’t worry I’m going to do it in installments!) You may recall – I left you in Sri Lanka, nervously awaiting word of our Indian visa application status. Clearly, since I am not already back in the real world, that all went to plan and we did indeed secure the required documentation and here we are back in India. It wasn’t an entirely uneventful or un-stressful process, considering that after we had finally got the little sticker pasted in our passports, signed sealed and delivered we actually noticed it was not quite signed, sealed and delivered. It turned out that my visa was perfectly in order – but on close inspection of Darko’s visa we noticed that although all details were correct and the visa had been signed, the issuing authority stamp that was staring back at us in bright green ink on my visa was glaringly obviously missing from Darko’s. Why we hadn’t noticed at the pick up desk of the embassy in Kandy, neither of us could say for sure – but it was probably just an oversight caused by the frenetic energy levels we were experiencing due to the anxiety of uncertainty, followed by the over excitement and release of tension that we felt at finally getting the green light. So we spent the next few days in a mild state of apprehension about whether or not Indian immigration would notice the absence of the aforementioned stamp and turn us back or whether we would happily sail over the final hurdle. It turned out that indeed the worry was all for naught. After several lazy days on the golden sands of Mirissa on the south coast of Sri Lanka and a brief 45 minute flight to deposit us back on Indian soil we were greeted by a thoroughly affable immigration chap who after only a millisecond of hesitation, with his entry stamp poised over the appropriate page in the passport gave us the final go ahead and wished us well on our way. We were in – we were back – phew!

Thus began our mammoth 4-day journey by train from Trivandrum on the southern tip of India to the North Easterly, pilgrim city of Varanasi. One of the holiest cities in India, where millions of pilgrims journey each year to bathe in the river Ganges and be cleansed of all their sins, and where we had arranged to meet with my father and his wife so that we could play tour guide and host to India.

Although 4 days on a train may sound like a living hell – it actually wasn’t all that bad. I’d planned a route that was not quite the most direct but allowed us to break the journey in the middle with a night ‘off’ in Mumbai, and have departure and arrival times at ‘civilized’ hours of the day (to give us the least amount of stress or hassle). Our first overnight went smoothly and on arrival in Mumbai in the late afternoon it was just a simple rickshaw ride to reach the comfortable haven of our good friend, Martin’s apartment, who once again had agreed to allow us to impose upon his hospitality. After a cozy night in, with delivery pizza and a bottle of Indian wine we were refreshed and ready for round two: our second overnight train, and the final leg of our journey to reach Varanasi. Although we pulled in to the station a couple of hours late, our hotel man was happily awaiting us there on the platform, ready to escort us to our final destination. Weaving in and out of the cars, rickshaws, scooter, bicycles and cows on our way towards the old city I realized that it actually felt good to be back in the mayhem of India and I was excited to show Darko why I had first fallen in love with this place. Varanasi had been my first experience of India all those years ago; where I had originally been bitten by the ‘India bug’, and it felt good to be back. Our rickshaw could only take us so far before it was time to get out and walk the final few minutes.

Varanasi has actually been described by many as the oldest city on the planet and has been around in one form or another for centuries and so the oldest part of the city is a maze of incredibly narrow and random pathways and alley that could be appropriately compared to a rabbit warren of concrete and brick.

The cobbled streets are invariably covered in cow poo or other unidentifiable piles of crapola and every so often one is likely to come across the creator of one of those aromatic puddles of muck

or be greeted by the honking of a scooter, impossibly trying to weave and wend through the maze, and it’s easy to feel like you have entered an alternate universe.

Varanasi truly is like no other place on earth and the moment you enter those alleys you have the sense that you are being whisked away to another dimension.

For our stay here I had chosen a relatively simple (but slightly better than our usual grade since we were expecting company) hotel, conveniently located on the bank of the river, close to the main Ghat (steps leading down to the river) of the city where all the action on the river takes place.

It was a perfect location to view the goings on of the river without being completely in the thick of it. On our first stroll along the Ghats I had the chance to show Darko what ‘spiritual’ India is really all about and was overjoyed to find that he too took pleasure in the sights and sounds of Varanasi.

I finally felt vindicated for all those days and weeks of suffering that we had endured throughout our time in India.

Time after time we had both sat, after a long day of struggle and asked ourselves what on earth we thought we were doing here in India – but then, just when you think you’ve had enough and can’t possible take another day of the madness, a gem of wonderment appears to keep you open to the possibilities and the joy of breathing in the stench! And that is Varanasi. It is dirty and smelly and perhaps even more covered in cow crap than any other part of India – but is simply oozing with a sense of the mystic and the mind-blowing.

In a very small stretch of ground you can observe pretty much each and every behavior and function of mankind unfolding. There are the basics of life: washing and bathing, eating and drinking.

There’s the recreational: games of cricket and children playing.

There’s business of course: selling and shaving, laundering and boat rowing. There’s the spiritual: the burning of incense and offering of lighted garlands,

as well as rites and rituals, ceremonial and personal, as Sadhu’s and civilians alike immerse themselves in the holy waters of the river.

And then there’s you; watching it all from the distant perspective of a boat being rowed down the slow moving flow of the Ganges or there’s you immersing yourself in it all as you stroll down the Ghats and observe the fray as if in a mystical dream.

And as you breath it all in, that burning orb of energy transitions across the sky and slowly begins to melt and transform into the golden oranges and then burning reds of a setting sun which imbue it all with a rosy hue that sets each detail on fire in your soul further still.

As night fell on our first evening in Varanasi we decided to continue our stroll along the Ghats towards the more earthly glow coming out of the darkness ahead. We were heading towards the real flames and fire of the main burning Ghat, where the dead are brought to be released from the earthly shackles of their body and transcend to the spirit world where they will be free to choose a new shell for rebirth. One might expect the atmosphere at this place to be morbid or morose but in fact this is very far from the truth. Families bring their loved ones here within hours of their final breath and although there is surely sadness felt on one level or another, during the rites and rituals of a burning ceremony there is only a calm, quiet watchfulness, almost a matter-of-factness about it all.

This time is more of a moment for celebration than for commiseration by those with a true faith in the beliefs offered by the Hindu tradition. As an outsider, one might expect that you would be unwelcome, and your attention unwanted – but in many cases it often seems the opposite. There is usually a family member or friend of the deceased eager to greet you and explain the principles behind the practice of cremation. Of course, as one so unused to this emotional detachment about death it is for some a difficult experience, but I simply found myself fascinated by it all and not in the least bit put off by the sight of the fire tenders stoking the fires and prodding and probing the burning limbs and bones ensconced within the flames to ensure a proper burning. My honey on the other hand, was not quite prepared for that much gruesome detail and so after a few minutes observing it all we made our retreat, back to the shelter of a hotel that offered nutella pancakes and hot chocolate to nurture our stunned and exploded souls!

Now, for day two in Varanasi there was a completely different ‘new beginning’ than the one the soul looks for through reincarnation! This was the start of yet another dimension of our adventure in India. It was time to play tour guide to it all, as this was the day of the arrival of our new companions. Believe it or not, my brave, if slightly unaware and ill-prepared father and his wife had decided to tag along for a short stint of our travels here in India, and I had figured, what better place to start them off and give them a real taste of India than Varanasi? Just watching their faces and sensing their shock at the newness of it all was well worth the taxi fare from the airport when we went to greet them. But I was quite relieved to see that they were taking it all in with equal parts shock, amazement and wonder. It was foreign and yet they were fascinating, it was fearsome and yet they were full of fiery admiration. Instantly I felt confident that they would cope with it all, as long as we were there to shield them from the pitfalls of India.
So, over the course of the next two days we took boats trips down the river for sunrise and sunset, we strolled along the Ghats,

we sat above the crowds in a ‘bandstand’ to watch the sunset fire Pooja Ceremony,

we got lost in the alleys of the old city, we ate tasty curries to the soundtrack of live Indian Tabla and vocals and inhaled the fumes of burning bodies and sandalwood. Of course there are countless details and funny moments that I could share – like the very first moment of our meeting at the airport when I observed that, contrary to my advice my father had indeed decided to bring far too much excess luggage with them, including a huge piece of ‘wheely’ hand luggage that was completely impractical for the ‘backpacking’ itinerary we had prepared – not to mention for dragging through the cow poo filled alleys and stairways of Varanasi– no matter – they had 2 personal porters that would be carrying what they could not (that would be Darko and me!!). Or the time that we all dodged and dashed down the narrow alleys of the old city to avoid (or not) a barrage of water bombs falling from the sky that were being lobed by over zealous kids getting an early start on the mayhem of Holi (a Hindu festival that happens once a year, when colored powder and water bombs are aimed and fired at any and all passing targets in the name of religious frolicking for some purpose or other of spiritual frivolity).

And on I could go. But I won’t…….(I hear you all breathing a sigh of relief)…..because there’s still so much more to tell.

Our departure from Varanasi was by night train to Agra, which gave our eager newbie’s a chance to taste a little more of authentic India – an overnight train ride is of course one of the defining experiences of India (even in the ‘comfort’ of a 2AC carriage). Now my dad and his wife could really say they’d been ‘backpacking in India’. Another moment springs to mind: the sound of my father’s voice angrily ordering the train conductor to switch the bloody light off and stop running in and out of the carriage disturbing everyone – since this was after all supposed to be a f(*&*g sleeper car……hilarious!! Let’s just say it wasn’t a good night’s sleep for the newbie’s – but they handled it with grace and in the wee hours of the morning we carted ourselves and everything including the kitchen sink that they’d brought in their packs and bags onto Agra City Station Platform for the next leg of our journey and the chance to view one of the great man made wonders of the world. And view it we would… style……but more of that in my next installment.

1 comment:

  1. Another great read kid! Amazing shots as per usual, but who is that long haired hippie with glasses?