Friday, October 30, 2009

Varanasi

“India is a very funny country.” Thus we were informed by a friendly young local just minutes after crossing the border from Nepal into India, as we argued heatedly with a jeep driver who kept trying to cram more people into our already overcrowded vehicle. We succeeded in limiting the number of passengers to 10, but our ride was hardly uneventful. About an hour and a half in, midway between the border and Gorakhpur, where we were to catch a train to Varanasi, our driver stopped the vehicle in a remote area and refused to move another inch until all the foreign passengers forked over money for gas. We finally relented, and soon thereafter he sat down to a lengthy dinner while we waited, and waited...

On the train, Ali slept peacefully in a spot by the window despite developing two small but very itchy rashes and patches of fifteen or so strange bites on her neck, shoulder, and shin, while Jeremy talked politics with a pharmaceutical salesman who disapproved of American foreign policy vis-a-vis India and Pakistan and, more generally, of Pakistan as a whole. It was a mellow night, relatively speaking, but things picked up again once in Varanasi, an extremely holy Hindu city on the Ganges river. Since arriving here, we have spent a good deal of time warding off rickshaw drivers and old men offering 10 rupee hand massages (they greet you with a handshake, but then refuse to let go and begin rubbing and squeezing vigorously while saying, yes, hand massage, very nice, very cheap). We have also observed (and smelled) public cremations from ten feet away, seen a tiny dead baby floating in the river just feet from where people were bathing, taken a boat ride at dawn to see an astoundingly beautiful sunrise amidst many burning candles set on lotus flowers in the water, and attended a hypnotic sitar concert.

To top it all off, Ali developed a painful blister on the roof of her mouth from eating spicy street food at a stand popular with locals, and, on the way back to our hotel, was on the losing end of an inadvertent showdown with a large and horned water-buffalo, resulting in a headbutt and a sizable bruise on her arm. The next day she got very sick. India, it turns out, is not a very nice place to feel nauseous. A mixture of cow poop, human urine, masala curry spice, sweet fried milk treats, sandalwood incense, rotting fruit and worse in piles of trash, motorcycle exhaust, and burning fires from the ghats assails the senses at every step. Luckily she was eventually able to sleep it off and hold down some food with the help of the British Digestive biscuits Jeremy hunted down.

Despite all this, we like Varanasi—enough that we decided to spend ten days here—and both of us feel the happiest and most excited to be traveling we have since beginning the journey. India, after all, is a funny country.

The first thing that strikes you about the “oldest city in the world” is how natural life processes are constantly on display. Public cremations take place continuously throughout the day and the bodies unfit for burning (people who died of snake bites, holy men, sadhus, children under eighteen, and pregnant women) float wrapped (and occasionally unwrapped) down the river intermingling with people washing themselves and their clothes, or just taking a dip in the holy waters. We have been surprised at how casually and frequently people bring up their own death in conversation and at the crowds that gather to watch the cremations because they are so “peaceful.” Indeed, strangely, they are.

Our confidence as travelers is increasing in part because we are finding our traveling pace and partnership more and more and also because we recently purchased new Indian-style outfits (photos to come).

Much Love,

A and J

p.s. We finally uploaded the rest of the Nepal pictures, click here to see them. Varanasi pictures to come.

3 comments:

Cindy Pincus said...

ENVY! More to come later but I am still at work...in Colorado. We don't cremate our dead here but I have a sudden strong yearning to see a peaceful burning.

Love to both. Jeremy especially for taking care of Ali with biscuits.

JoshF said...

Awesome post guys, keep em coming.

Sound like an amazing adventure.

Feel better Ali!

Best
Josh

Ari said...

Looks like amazing traveling so far! Ali are you always this prone to injury, illness, water buffaloes?!? Hope you feel better!

-Ari