28 Dec 2008

Varanasi’s Imprint

VaranasiVaranasi seems to be efficient at first. People told me that I need to get into the inner pocket of India to see the real India, otherwise my trip would be incomplete, shortsighted, etc. So I decided to go to Varanasi and Sarnath. The two towns are only 13 km apart from each other, which translates to about 35 minutes ride cutting through the traffic. Varanasi is the oldest holy city in the world and it’s the primary center of Hindu pilgrimage in India. Sarnath is the location of Buddha’s first sermon and he came to Sarnath five weeks after his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, thus Sarnath became the center of Buddhist pilgrimage. Not until the last fifteen years the western world began to understand the significant difference between the two religions, thanks to Richard Gere, The Dalai Lama, Madonna, and Ashtanga Yoga.

It’s almost completely dark when I arrived in Varanasi airport, which barely an airport. There were four rows of people around what seems to be the only baggage claim belt, in a way that if you see your luggage piece you need to yell to the person in the first row so he would pull it off the belt for you. I too, had to do my share of “please-get-that-green-one-for-me!”.  Once my luggage settled in my cart, I had to figure out how to manuever my cart because by now it has been interlocked by four other carts on each side. I too, have been trapped in the center of three carts. So neither I or my cart could wiggle an inch to get out of this human-and-carts woven labyrinth.

The online pictures of the hotel I booked misrepresented reality. The hotel must have had its best years two decades ago, but since then the paint was gone, the plaster has peeled away, the wooden beams were rotten, and the musky smell enveloped the lobby. The smell was stronger in the elevator, and it was even stronger in my room. The hotel and everything about it, including my room, was very depressing. Dust was everywhere and on every furniture in my room, and later I realized dust was everywhere in Varanasi.

I shut down my senses and decided none was going to bother me, because at that moment I was in the center page of a history book, and that was just too cool. I settled my stuff and went for a walk to get some fresh air. I needed to stuff my lung with as much fresh air I could find so I could last the entire night in my musky room. At least that’s the way my logic explained to me how it should work. And I listened, although I realized it’s the paradox of fresh air in Varanasi that makes the whole statement rather comical.

I quickly made an arrangement with the hotel next door for a guide and a driver to take me around Varanasi and Sarnath the next day. I figured if I were to learn the center page of a history book properly, then I need someone knowledgeable to read me the page line by line. I exchanged some dialogues with a young Australian traveler who was part of an adventure travel group and she was absolutely stunned learning that I am on my own for a solid five weeks in India. She thought I was extremely brave and adventurous. Such comment coming from an Aussie means a lot more given that their breed is most known as the brave adventurous travelers themselves. So I am honored and I need to mention it here so if I ever become a center page of a history book, this would be recorded.

The sunrise boat ride along the Ganges and the Artee ritual at the main Ghat at sunset are the two things I was warned not to miss in Varanasi. And that was the plan I set up. I turned in early and I was prepared. I was up at the crack of dawn, about 5 am while it’s still pitch black outside. Within half an hour I have showered, brushed my teeth, wrapped myself in layers of t-shirt, sweater, winter jacket, a scarf, and a shawl. My bag was packed, my camera has been fully charged and I stuffed two extra memory cards in the inside compartments of my camera bag. I was ready and I was at full capacity of over 1,000 frames. At exactly 5:45 I was marching to the hotel next door. I asked the front desk where my driver was, and it’s a long silence with a few ah, uh, and hmm. They didn’t know anything about my arrangement. I got this kick in the stomach. I was so well organized from the night before that I couldn’t find the receipt. I went back to my room and I still couldn’t find it. By then I was dripping with sweat because I was so bundled up and I was so pissed because I might just miss my sunrise. At 6.15 I found my receipt, tucked nicely in my jeans pocket. I called the travel agent and rant my morning chant seeking my driver. He called around, and I called him to bark some more, until my driver showed up at 6.45 and it was completely bright outside. I haven’t been that pissed in my life for a long time I could see smoke coming out of my nostrils and I felt I was transforming into my mythological form of a fire dragon. I was fuming, and I made myself clear about that to the driver and the agent on the phone.

In this last two weeks I learned that traveling alone in India is an exceptional practice. I couldn’t find any local tours that I can join regardless whether I ask a five-star hotel or a starless inn. Apparently everybody is part of a big bus tour group booked months in advance in their respective countries. The answer is always the same: “We can arrange a car and a driver for you, madame. It costs one thousand and two hundred rupees per day. Shall I have the driver by in the morning? What time? How many persons? Just you? Oooohhh… (as if I just marched from a leper colony)” After hearing this for the twenty seventh times, I concluded that a solo traveler is hardly encountered in India, and a female solo traveler is a mutant. I’m typically not a travel-guide-flipper during my travel days and I pride myself in knowing my destinations well before I go in an effort to appear less of a tourist on site. I want to be able to just observe the locals and snap a few candid shots here and there. In India it has been quite difficult, and in Varanasi it has been plain impossible. Children, elders, women, teenage boys with cows, all came straight with an open palm for money. Somehow there must be an ATM stamp on my forehead. Or for those who thought they were a tad more sophisticated, would approach me with a pretend interest to be a friend, and at the end takes their curtain call with the same bow “give-me-some-money”. I couldn’t move an inch of any part of my body, including scratching my armpit, without inviting an open palm. If you think about it, scratching your armpit is one of the most subtle movement you make because it’s the last thing you want people to notice. Now you understand the level of self-inhibition I led myself into.

The next morning I did end up getting on the boat at sunrise and reclaimed my interest in exploring Varanasi. The dark of the night hasn’t washed off when I arrived at Assi Ghat as it’s barely six in the morning. There are a total of 84 Ghats along the Ganges of Benares, from Varuna in the north to Assi in the south, hence the etymology of Varanasi. My boat set off from the Assi Ghat in the eerie dark calm water of the polluted holy river of Ganga. The illuminated rays crept up slowly and I started to catch glimpses of morning rituals and activities along the river. Bathing, pissing, shitting, brushing teeth, washing pots and pans, scrubbing bedsheets and clothes are to name a few sightings. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganga River remits sins and that dying in Kashi ensures release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations. But how about contracting waterborne diseases from the water pollutants? You can’t simply swallow what comes out of you or other living beings and not expecting any side effect, can you?!? It has been the way of life in Varanasi for thousands of years. I confirmed with some researchers in water controls and safety that human body couldn’t build up an immune system towards water pollutants, regardless how many years such lifestyle has been practiced. Cholera, malaria, hepatitis, ringworm, typhoid, diarrhoea, arsenicosis, and scabies top the chart of Varanasi health problems. You do need to hold a strong stomach simply to witness one person is drinking the Ganga river just a mere few steps away from the other person who shat a minute ago at the last step of the ghat.

There is a saying that “religion kills reasons” and that couldn’t be any more true in this context. People are blinded by the myths. A pilgrimage location such as Varanasi holds a very powerful stand against human conscience, and it takes a religious abstinence of the non-believers to bring realization of reality and scientific facts. But who are we to counter the 3,000-years old history? Certainly not me who just arrived yesterday. I haven’t had even the slightest chance to build my credibility to take a stand at the podium.

Mark Twain wrote: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”

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