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Dante's Inferno - Varanasi, India

When we last left off we were still in India, 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 pretty 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 Westerners were frantically trying to think of the words to the Lord's Prayer. Scary to say, we arrived two hours early in Delhi. 

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 get urine on my socks." We look over and this young child 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. 

The 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 thing 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 took 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, FINALLY, 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 it 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 night, and very grumpy! You just had to laugh...

Doug 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 one 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 the train station, it started to downpour, also typical of Varanasi in the monsoon season. 

But, 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 Hindus, 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 daylight. 

 

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 its finest. 

However, the river holds secrets to the uninitiated. 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 cremated and has their ashes thrown into the water, their soul will achieve instant liberation, as they return to the source of life. As such, people throughout India flock to Varanasi as they are nearing the end of their 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 India seems to be. Perhaps one sight we wish we had not seen, but impossible as our little boat floated past. On occasion, certain types of people not allowed to be cremated, 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 ready to leave, but mother India would not let us out of her 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 violence, 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 had 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 and 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 our 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 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 destination. 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. Nepali logic. Our things were soaked, but the only real casualty was a few books. Toward nightfall, we finally pulled into the bus station at Pokhara, a small town set at the foot of the Himalayas. VIVA NEPAL!

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. Our 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 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 anonymous person once wrote..." it is the chaos from which Life is churned out in all its glorious variety. 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, somehow, somewhere, whoever you are and wherever you came from. India, because it is heaven and hell together, in one earthy mixture.

Goodbye India,

Over and out

Ann and Doug

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