I knew I had about had my fill of India when my first reaction on arriving in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi was "wow, this place is a shithole" (excuse the profanity, but that's what I thought). However, I also knew that that feeling was tempered a great deal by the fact that that I'd just gotten off a sixteen hour overnight train ride, and that India had caught up with my intestines shortly before that train had left the station in Agra. It had been a long night.
The good news is that once we made it out of the parking lot of the train station, and I had lunch (plain rice) and a nap, my outlook greatly improved and I was able to enjoy and appreciate Varanasi for all it is worth. But first, the train. The one piece of advice I heard repeatedly, both from Indian friends and others who had travelled there, was that travelling by rail was fine, but to make sure we got tickets in "first class". However, when we went to book our tickets in Mumbai, the conversation went something like this:
Ticket Booth Attendent: "There is no first class - only second class"
Me: "Is second class ok?"
Ticket Booth Attendent: "Yes, its better than first class"
So we agreed that yes, second class would be fine - and she went ahead and booked all three of our trips in sleeper class. The only thing is, we didn't realize that until we got to the first train from Udaipur to Jaipur. Apparently, sleeper class is where second class cars go to die. Luckily, for the first two legs we had been able to find the conductor at the station and pay the difference to switch into second class. On the train to Varanasi, we weren't so lucky. Below is a picture of a compartment of the train. While I realize that it does look a little bit like a prison cell in the picture, it actually wasn't that bad, with one exception. See the benefit of being in second class is that not only are the windows sealed, but they also give you a blanket and pillow. In sleeper class this is not the same. And we were going through the mountains, in the middle of winter, at night. If you're an Indian you know to bring a blanket with you - but otherwise, you're on your own.
Needless to say, it was a long night - but thanks to a mixture of immodium, ambien and a scarf I'd bought in Jaipur that became my blanket, I made it through the night. All this to say that I mean no disrespect to India with my first impression of Varanasi - I was just in a shitty mood (pun intended - and apologies to my grandmother and my roommate's father and anyone else reading this who I may have just offended with my language. Please be forewarned I will have to do it one more time in this post - but with good cause).
But on to Varanasi. Varanasi, which sits on the River Ganges in the Northeast of India is one of the oldest living cities in the world, and has maintained its religious life since the 6th century B.C. As Mark Twain once said, Varanasi is "Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Varanais is believed to be the center of the Hindu universe, and anyone who dies here attains instant enlightenment, so many people come here to die, and many Indians (and non-Indians) aspire to visit at least once in their lives. It is also where many are brought to be creamated on funeral pyers on the shores of the Ganges.
Stone steps, called ghats, line the shore of the river, and much of life is carried out on or near its waters. The Ganges is also considered the elixir of life, so in addition to living off its waters, many come just to bathe in its waters. (Unfortunately, this probably hastens their deaths, as the waters are extremely toxic, not only from the trash and burning bodies, but also from the chemical plants upstream).
The 'old city' is made up of tiny alleyways lined with shops - some so narrow its hard to get through with a backpack on. Cars and rickshaws aren't let in the passageways, but motorcycles and cows are fair game - and it only takes one cow to cause a serious cow jam!
Every night a puja (prayer) ceremony takes place on one of the main ghats, and tourists and pilgrims alike gather on the steps to participate in the ritual. Everyone gets blessed (and asked for a contribution of course) and in addition to a beautiful ceremony, it makes for some pretty good people watching.
Luckily, in Varanasi people didn't seem to be as interested in taking my picture like they were in Rajastan, but everyone wanted to give Daniel a shave (and to their credit, he needed one). Its fairly common to see men getting a shave on the streets throughout India, and when we first saw it in Mumbai I'd thought it would make for a great photo op (on Daniel, not me) - but on further consideration we both realized that an open blade and his throat were not a good combination. For whatever reason, it was an extremely popular offering in Varanasi, and everytime he turned them down he was then offered a head or hand massage - he learned the hard way not to shake people's hands because they immediately started trying to give him a hand massage.
One of the highlights of the trip was when a man approached me on the street and asked if I wanted to see his "shit enterprises". I thought at first that I had misunderstood, and that perhaps he was saying silk enterprises (silk being quite the commodity in this region). But then he went on to say "I have all kinds of shit - elephant shit, camel shit, cow shit - anything you want, made of shit. Other people will tell you they have fair prices, but my prices are all bullshit." He then asked me if I wanted to come see his shit, and when I politely declined, he said, not surprisingly "Oh shit!", and walked away. It was hilarious.
On a much more sober note, we also stumbled, quite by accident, on the burning ghats. I'd read in the guide book that it was possible to see them, and so had a vague notion that it was something you could visit, but we we were quite surprised when we set out on our second day for a walk along the water and came upon many stacks of burning wood just around the bend from our hotel. We were quickly approached by someone who wanted to explain the ritual to us, and while it felt obscenely voyeuristic to watch the process, it was fascinating at the same time - and my guilt was assuaged to some degree by knowing that at the end of the "tour" we would be asked for a very large "donation" to help familes pay for the wood.
Basically people come from around the country to lay their loved ones to rest on the Ganges. When the father dies, it is the responsibility of the oldest son to carry out the ceremony (and the youngest son in the case of the mother). The body is wrapped in gold cloth on a wooden stretcher and carried by whatever means to the river (we saw one coming through town on the top of a bus). First the body is washed in the river to purify the soul, and then laid on a pile of wood. The son walks around the body five times to symbolize the five elements that make up the body - earth, air, water, fire and spirit - and then he lights the fire. The fire lasts for several hours until just the chest cavity is left (in the case of men, for women its the pelvis) - and then that is returned to the river. Women do not come to the ceremony because they are too emotional, and it is believed that tears block the passage of the soul (it is also to prevent new widows from jumping on the fires of their burning husband, as used to be tradition). I'm sure there is much more to the process - but this is the basic explanation that we got. It was fascinating and sobering to watch - and so different from any other funeral ceremony I've seen.
After that the rest of Varanasi almost pales in comparison - though we did go to a very small silk producing workshop and got to see the entire process, from silk cocoon threads, to the loom, to the finished product.
After that, we had one day in Delhi before we said goodbye to India. I'll have to admit, our visit to Delhi was cursory at best - by the time we got there our minds were already thinking of home, and we didn't have much energy left for the city. We did venture out to a bar down the street from our hotel which was part local India dive bar, part backpacker hangout (which meant that I was one of three women in the entire two story restaurant). It was the kind of crowded place where they squeezed whoever would fit into your table, so we met quite a series of characters. We started with three Brits - one who lives in Delhi and two who were on their way home. Then a group of seven tried to join us despite the fact there was only room for three - but that was shortlived. Next we had two young journalists who shared with us the latest state of Indian media and politics. And finally, a local politician and his cousin/bodyguard. They were the first men in all of India who made Daniel look small (at six' four" he's been quite the giant throughout the whole trip) - and definitely were not guys you wanted to mess around with. They brought their own whiskey bottle (benefit of knowing the owner) and we had quite the spirited conversation. As the whiskey bottle quickly dwindled, the bodyguard/cousin quickly became my new best friend. First he insisted on sharing his chicken with me - which was a little bit of an issue as we'd read that day on the plane that the bird flu outbreak in West Bengal had spread to Delhi - and thus and decided to stear clear of chicken - but when a man twice your size tells you to eat the chicken - you eat the chicken(I will say, it was really good!). Then he wanted to share his whiskey. Now those who know me well know I'm not one to turn down a glass of whiskey, and I thought I was up to the challenge until he dropped several pieces of ice in the glass as well! After three and a half weeks of avoiding ice, water and fresh fruit and vegetables, I was sure that I had met my demise. While I couldn't turn the drink down entirely, I did manage to fend off several requests to "bottom's up" - and luckily before long the rest of the bottle (now empty) caught up with the senior politico and they both had to leave - and I was off the hook from finishing the rest of the drink. I got off easy - and if there was anything in the ice, it must have been killed off by the whiskey, as my stomach survived as well.
We did take in a few sites, including the largest mosque in India, and picked up some souveneirs (mental note for anyone travelling to India - don't wait to Delhi to buy your gifts - the things you find in the cities along the way are much better). We also had a final terrifying rickshaw ride with the craziest driver in all of India - but somehow survived.
And now I'm back in New York - with the Spring semester looming just a few days away. I never thought I'd say this, but in comparison to India - New York is strangely quite. I'd been prepared for the amazing quantity of people in India. And, people had told us about the non-stop barrage of smells - from rich aromas and spices, to raw sewage, to the marigolds adorning all the temples, to the overall smell of 1.12 billion people in a country that's half the size of the U.S. But noone told us about the constant noise - families singing on the train, endless horns honking, the daily prayer calls from the local mosques, the sound of the 79 other people on your train car snoring, the dump truck unloading at 6 am outside your hotel, the continual "excuse me, you look my shop"?, and on, and on. You never realize how loud silence can be until you go without it for a month. Its part of what makes India India - I just hadn't known to expect it - and now that its gone the quiet might take some getting used to.
(Btw, if you're interested in seeing more pics, you can see all 547 of them at:
Or the abridged 90 picture version at http://nyu.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37191&l=40a1b&id=720270850 and