31.01.2016 - 16.02.2016 75 °F
By the time I got to bed last night, I had convinced myself that I would not get up at 5:00, to meet in the lobby at 6:00, to walk through the crazy streets of Varanasi down to the river to shiver on a boat for an hour. But for some reason, my internal body clock thought better of that stupid decision and I was wide awake at 4:15. I tried to ignore it, tried to tell myself that it is OK if I want to pass on the opportunity of a lifetime for a bit of rest. “Fuck it” I said and got out of bed.
At 6:00, nine of the twelve of us were in the lobby waiting to brave the psychotic chaos that is the city center. The bus took us as far as it could and we then walked the rest of the way to the ghat that we visited last night. I have not defined “ghat”. A ghat is a stairway from the street down to the river. They are usually very wide and are gathering places (often for rituals). Our walk was so different this morning than the loud mob scene of last night because Varanasi had not yet fully awakened.
We boarded a boat with an oarsman and a flutist. Parveen had asked a professor friend to join us and he explained the daily morning ritual of praising and bathing yourself in “Mother Ganga” as the sun rises. As the oarsman quietly maneuvered the boat upstream, the flutist played classical Indian music in honor of the river and the professor discussed the significance of the rituals being performed. At one point we were each handed little bowls made of leaves, inside of which was a group of marigolds and a small candle made of butter which was lit for us. The professor performed a chant and then told us that we can release our little offerings into the river. It was sooo beautiful. One of the ladies said that it was worth the whole trip to experience that.
Of course, with my macabre sense of humor, I was fascinated by the funeral pyers along the river. We encountered a couple of mounds of smoking ashes from old cremations but no real funeral activity. And I was going to sleep in!!!
The sun was fully up when we disembarked and made our way on foot up through narrow alleyways to our bus. The city was getting busy and the “streets” that we were navigating were no wider than 1½ human wingspans. Yet carts and motorcycles and cows and goats shared the road. We walked by all kinds of little proprietorships selling cream, chai and even marijuana.
As we approached the main thoroughfare (and our bus) we were met with the sound of drivers honking their way to and from. These people cannot drive without honking.
Back at the hotel, we had breakfast and took off for a road trip to Sarnath which is a holy place for Buddhists because it is believed that he performed his first sermon here. The professor accompanied us and discussed the life of Buddha and then lectured on Buddhism while we sat in a parklike setting surrounded by stupas. A stupa is a shrine to Buddha. These were all made of red brick of various sizes. We used them for seats while the professor taught. Another wonderful experience.
Finally! We go to the silk shop which turned out to be a family owned high-end silk weaving factory where they are proud to show you how it’s done, then brag about the quality and then convince you to buy. The nicest ones are wall hangings. I looked. But I rarely see anything in an India motif that I like enough to look at every day. So I made my way back to the hotel gift shop where I could buy silk scarves for ¼ of the price of the others. And I did.
OK – I have some stuff I gotta talk about. First of all, as we were riding home from the Ganges this morning I did not see all those homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. According to Parveen, the government office that tests men for their ability to serve in the military is located nearby and they test every Friday morning. So last night (Thursday night) poor men wanting a “government job” slept on the streets near that office because they cannot afford to sleep elsewhere. Well that explains some of it, but the fact remains that there is horrible poverty here. There is very little begging for all that poverty, though. It is because Hindus do not proactively beg. They wait for those who have food to share some of it.
Another thing I have not discussed is the garbage. You have all heard about it and I bet you are wondering if I have gone blind. To be honest, the situation has not really impacted my experience, but let’s talk some trash: It is horrific by our standards. Everywhere, the gutters are six inches deep in trash and the sidewalks have six inch piles of garbage here and there. Someone does come by from time to time and sweep it into a bin and haul it away, but obviously there are not enough someones. This was true in Delhi as well as here, but here in Varanasi you have the added issue of cow shit everywhere. It is absolutely true that cows are sacred and are allowed to roam the streets. They are everywhere and so is the evidence. I really like cows so I don’t mind making way for one but it is a chore to constantly watch where you’re stepping.
Tomorrow we are relocating and I am going to see the Taj Mahal. Perhaps I’ll pick up a few landscaping ideas.