Monday, August 1, 2011

Agra to Varanasi

Almost Separated

In Agra, I had bought so many things that when I got to the train station sweat was trickling down my back from the weight of my knapsack. I dumped our stuff on a bench and told Aimee to keep an eye on it while I looked for our compartment, but I walked up and down the platform twice to no avail so when the horn blasted and the train jerked forward, we picked up our stuff and ran to the nearest car. I helped Aimee aboard and went to step up behind her, but my pack was so heavy I fell backwards on to the platform and lay there like a dying cockroach kicking the air. The train is moving! Aimee clung to the rail at the door, terrified. ‘Mommy! M-o-m-m-e-e-e!’ I thought she was going to jump off, and it was quite a ways to the ground, when a man in a brown uniform leaped down, raced over to me and put his hands under my armpits and helped me up. We ran to catch up with the steps to the car and when I wavered again getting aboard, he gave me a tremendous push which pitched me forward on to my stomach, right beside the reeking toilet.

The fellow jumped on board and helped me up again as my daughter stood sobbing beside me. I thanked him profusely, and with sheepish embarrassment, I brushed my filthy clothes off and took Aimee’s hand. The car was filled with young policemen in brown uniforms traveling to Varanasi. Strike one, I thought, as I scanned the aisles filled with men. Two fellows stood up so we could sit down and another pushed our gear into an overhead compartment. I explained to them how I couldn’t find my seat on the train, but they waved away my explanation and said I could stay with them. You’re safer with us anyway, they laughed.

We settled in and we were talking and snacking and Aimee was playing cards with one of the fellows when the train conductor came on board, stopping with a look of surprise when he saw me.

‘Where is your ticket?’ he asked, brusquely. I handed it to him.
‘Why are you in here?’ he said, pointing to the ticket. ‘This is not correct. You are currently in the wrong compartment.’
‘I couldn’t find my seat. Where is that?’ I said, pointing to the number on my ticket. ‘I couldn’t find it and the train was leaving.......’
‘This is not your compartment! You need the correct seating!’
‘Whoa, dude. I told you. I couldn’t find it.’
‘It is not possible for you to remain here!’
‘Well, unless you take me personally to the correct car and the correct seat, I’m not moving. I’m staying right here.’

One of the cops broke in and put his arm around the conductor’s shoulders, telling him it was okay, we could stay there. The conductor snorted and handed me my ticket and stalked off, leaving me to ride all the way to Varanasi with these burly browns. Strike two!

After arriving in Varanasi (the religious center of the world for Hindus), we took a tonga to the ghats on the Ganges River. Early the next morning we hired a rowboat to see the sunrise over the Ganges because I'd heard so much about it. It was amazing. It's the best time to see the Ganges, as that's when pilgrims come down to the river to perform their puja (prayers).

Although it was beautiful to observe in the early morning light, below the surface, the Ganges is one of the most polluted river systems in the world. Knowing that Indians bathed, brushed their teeth and performed puja amongst partially burned dead bodies from the ghats, garbage from the nearby apartments, dead animals tossed in from the streets, excrement from the open sewers, and industrial waste from the nearby factories, made my skin crawl. All household waste seemed to be dumped in the river at will, along with the ubiquitous plastic. Dead holy men were taken out about 100 metres into the center of the Ganges and dumped in the strong current that runs south through the center of the river. People drank this water. It's holy. Here are some truly shocking pictures of what I'm talking about, but don't click on this site if you've just had dinner.

Who really took me by surprise were some German tourists that I had met, who were heading out to perform puja with the Indians early one morning and asked if I'd like to join them. I told them they were insane, but they laughed and ran off into the sunrise.

The main cremation ghat is the Manikarnika, and many funeral processions wind their way through town before ending up at this burning ghat. I walked down the bathing steps to the water to watch as two doms (outcastes) washed an old man's body. He bobbed up and down in the river like a water-logged piece of driftwood, his arms stiff by his side and his old puckered mouth gaping open. They threw water over him and chatted and laughed, as if they were simply prepping a dead fish. They then carried the body back up the bathing stairs and wrapped him in a white shroud before placing him at the top of a funeral pyre of wood, which was then lit. He was now released from the eternal wheel of moksha (death and rebirth).

My daughter and I decided to take a second trip on the water, but walking along the shore above the bathing steps we were constantly hassled by touts hawking small knickknacks and various tours. Five nuns from Bombay were already in a boat when we stepped aboard and headed out for a ride on the Ganges. Out on the river, Aimee reached over the side of the boat and splashed me with water. 'No!' I screeched, cringing as if I'd been hit by carbolic acid. 'Take your hand out of there! Don't do that! It's filthy!'

When we got back to shore I struck up a conversation with a well-educated Indian fellow and asked him what he thought about the cleanliness of the water. 'It's holy water,' he said, 'and although it may be very dirty by the shore, the current in the middle of the river is clean and pure. This is the sacred river for all Indians.' 'Would you drink it?' I asked. 'Yes, I have.'
There it was, belief over common sense and as we stood talking, a dead cow floated by, not twenty feet from where some children were swimming. Strike three!


Our hotel was tucked in amongst the winding alleyways behind the bathing steps. The alleys were splattered in cow shit and once I saw an Indian man get covered with crap as a cow just suddenly let loose. Another time I was stuck behind a cow, who are all owned by somebody and allowed to roam at will, and I had to get somebody to move him. Cows are sacred in India and hardly ever restrained so traffic will sometimes come to a standstill until a cow gets off the road. It's crazy.


Also wandering the narrow alleyways of old Varanasi was this man and his two monkeys, who put on a little skit of a husband and wife battling it out in a rocky marriage. It was hilarious seeing these two little guys going at it, course they weren't hurting each other. But how he taught these two little monkeys to perform!


What happens to the mountain of cow shit everywhere? It gets scooped up by hand by women carrying plastic buckets who then take it to the river where it's shaped and plastered against the walls of the bathing steps. Once dried, it's used as fuel for fire.


One night a few of us were invited to hear Varanasi's great sitar player, although I can't remember his name. He gave music lessons. We sat there mesmerized until, of course, the usual power outage. He didn't skip a beat and played in the dark until someone lit a candle. It was fabulous.


The streets were packed and I had to hold on tight to my daughter's hand so she didn't get caught up.


This little guy was f-a-l-l-i-n-g over.



Not too far from Varanasi is Sarnath. After the Buddha was enlightened he went and gave his first sermon at Sarnath. Read the Footprints of Gautama the Buddha by Marie Beuzeville Byles. It's fantastic.

Asoka Column

Dhamek Stupa

The Ruins


Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone. – The Dhammapada