- Varanasi, India
When we last left off we were still in
and heading to Varanasi, the Holiest City of India, on the banks
of the Ganges River.
But first, we had to get there.
It began with a
hairy ride out of the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Thundering down
single lane roads, honking to warn on-coming traffic,
and nothing but headlights to guide the way through
the twisty windy roads. As we were leaving Dharamsala,
the Tibetan enclave, there were quite a few monks
aboard. You know it's bad when they take out their
prayer wheels and spin them madly, while us
were frantically trying to think of the words to the
Lord's Prayer. Scary to say, we arrived two hours
There we transferred to a train heading to
Varanasi. It was an eighteen hour journey and we
settled into our second class compartment opposite a
very nice looking middle class Indian family. There
was the husband, wife, young boy and of course, the
stern mother-in-law. Our day passed uneventfully and
as night approached, we had thoughts of turning in.
All of sudden, T jumps up and quickly puts on his
hiking boots, as we were all lounging in our socks. I
turned, puzzled, and he answers "I don't want to
urine on my socks." We look over and this young
has decided to leave a large puddle of urine right
in the middle of the aisle. Now this is a small, very
crowded compartment and the puddle is smack in the
middle of the only aisle through the train car.
actual act is not altogether shocking, things happen esp with children. What did stop me in my tracks was that the parents didn't do a
to clean it up or even to contain the flow. It was as
if it was perfectly natural to have a residual store of urine
handy at your feet. I immediately thought of
our backpacks stowed under the seat. If the train
a sudden incline, the puddle would flow directly over
our luggage. We sat there in shock. The mother then
takes out some newspapers, and we're thinking,
something to soak it up. But NO, they proceeded to hand out dinner. Then, thankfully, the
train tilted downward and the puddle went the other
direction. Everyone in the immediate area knew what
was and they all took care to step over it, but soon
enough, people from other compartments began to step
through it and we watched as the puddle began to meld
with all the other filth on the aisle floor. After awhile, it was gone. Thankfully, there was
no distinct odor, at least that we could decipher.. What to do?? Go to
sleep, I guess. And wouldn't you know it, in all our
shock and confusion, we missed our stop in Varanasi,
and went on to Patna, four hours past. In all, after
finally catching a train back, our journey of over
three days finally landed us in Varanasi late at
and very grumpy! You just had to laugh...
whooping it up with some school kids in Varanasi
Our first impression of the city
was that we had landed in HELL, as described by Dante. The town was having
of it's frequent power outages (several a day) and
in the early twilight, the town was lit only through
numerous bonfires across the city. The eerie shadows
cast by the moonlight on the sacred waters of the
Ganges River were matched only by the billowing soot
from the bonfires. And of course, just as we exited
train station, it started to downpour, also typical
of Varanasi in the monsoon season.
once you were within reach of the placid waters of the Ganges, the city
begins to redeem itself. The city itself is
considered the holiest city in all of India to
because of the sacred waters of the Ganges River.
The banks of the river are lined with steps that
descend to the water all along the river. At dawn, the view of
Varanasi's grandeur spreading off in the distance along the water is
transcendental. No wonder pilgrims have flocked here for ages. People are
drawn to the Ganges to bath in
the purifying waters, to drink it, and to praise it through puja,
a form of ritual worship. They perform puja at dawn to welcome the sun god as it comes to bathe them in warmth and
One morning we took a boatride
before dawn to enjoy the spectacle of Indian life
coming alive. The banks were so colorful, with the
women in their beautiful saris, setting afloat small
lotus candle boats to carry their prayers away. The
men bathing and swimming in the water. The sadhus
(holy men) performing blessings. Religion so thoroughly
intertwined with the daily life as to enrich and uplift the profane to
sacred status. It is Varanasi at
However, the river holds secrets to the uninitiated.will achieve instant liberation, as they
The theology is complex and developed over thousands of years. In
short and with due respect, in Hinduism, they believe that everyone reincarnates
until they finally achieve moksha which is liberation
from the cycle of rebirth-similar to the concept of
nirvana in the Buddhist faith. Well, as the Ganges is
considered the source of all life, one who is
and has their ashes thrown into the water, their soul
the source of life. As such, people throughout India
flock to Varanasi as they are nearing the end of
current life. The air is thick with the stench of death, hanging
over the hollowed building housing some of the poor to come to wait out
their last days. Some of the ghats are known as burning
ghats, because on these holy spots, people are
cremated aside the river, and their bones thrown in.
And it all happens in full view, as everything in
seems to be. Perhaps one sight we wish we had not
seen, but impossible as our little boat floated past. On
certain types of people not allowed to be
such as priests, children, smallpox victims and lepers will be
wrapped and placed in the waters bodily. So endth the lesson.
At this point, we had finally had enough and were
to leave, but mother India would not let us out of
grasp. The elections which have repeatedly plagued us
throughout our journeys were coming to conclusion at
the exact time we were in Varanasi - Note: in a
country of a billion, it takes a month to have an
election. Well, as elections tend to bring on
we were yet again subjected to curfews and no alcohol
policies. Worse, they shut down the buses to avoid
potential violence on the roads. Food is short, stores close at
sundown and the streets take on the feel of a warzone. So we bunkered
ourselves into a quiet out-of-the-way hotel and sat it out til the
first available bus to Nepal.
We left in the evening,
aboard a so-called tourist bus, I guess because it
some semblance of seats. We were just so happy to
finally be leaving. Not more than twenty minutes into
the journey, a loud BANG came from one side of the
bus. A flat! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
We pulled over at a gas station and waited two hours,
because they didn't have a spare and had to get one
brought to the bus. Then we finally headed off and
were excited about putting some distance between us
Varanasi. About twenty minutes after leaving the gas
station, our driver decides he's hungry and we pull
over at a reststop for a meal. The driver ate while
a bunch of very grumpy tourist furiously smoked and
spoke in hushed sharp tones. I decided that if you
can't beat em, join em and we had a bite to eat.
Once finally back on the road again and moving at a
fast pace, we realized that our window had no pane.
Before, moving slower, we didn't actually notice the
breeze, but once we were roaring away, the vortex was
unbearable. All the other seats were taken and we
were miserable. Our final solution: we jerryrigged
stolen KLM blanket over the window and that was just
enough to cut down the wind to a tolerable level, and
we settled into a very restless sleep.
At the border, we crossed into Nepal and switched set at the foot of the Himalayas. VIVA NEPAL!
buses. If you can believe it, the bus was even worse.
The seats seemed to be spring loaded, as evidenced by
banging our heads on the roof quite a few times. But,
the scenary was spectacular, and our spirits began to
lift. Until, BANG! Another flat tire. This time, T
pitched in to help. Anything to reach our
Then it began to rain. We were all thinking of our
backpacks on the roof, in the open. And finally after
the rain became a downpour, the driver pulled out a
tarp and climbed on the roof to cover our bags.
logic. Our things were soaked, but the only real
casualty was a few books. Toward nightfall, we
pulled into the bus station at Pokhara, a small town
But wait, there's more. We descended from the bus to
the usual mob of touts. T, in no mood to deal, found a taxi and said in
so many words, to take us directly to the hotel of our choice, do not
pass go, do not collect $200. He obliged but not without taking his
friend along for the ride. We set off into town, and as we drove away, we noticed a very
familiar feeling, the car lurching on one side.
driver pulled over, and we thought in despair, not
another flat. As it turned out, it was worse, a bent
axle. But our driver didn't seem to really mind, and
we slowly limped into town.
We will save Nepal for the next email, and end with a anonymous person
once wrote..." it is the chaos from
few parting comments on our time in India. It is
definately not for faint-hearted. We don't think T
enjoyed his time there, and that might be putting it
lightly but all said, it is something to be
experienced, mind and body.
You look one way and you see the most amazing site in your life, and
then you look the other way, and you will see the most tragic scene. .India is absolutely mind-altering.
It confronts you and forces you to contemplate such contradictions.
Challenges you to face all your preconceptions. India touches you
as if it were a finger, because, as one
which Life is churned out in all its glorious
India, because it knows how to celebrate both
enlightenment and darkness.
India, because it has all the beginnings without end.
India, because there you will find you belong,
somewhere, whoever you are and wherever you came
India, because it is heaven and hell together, in one
earthy mixture. "
Over and out
Ann and Doug
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