Monday, October 31, 2011

Varanasi: Holy City of Chaos

Marigolds for Diwali
Last time we left you, we were boarding the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi.  We wanted to book a first class cabin, possibly even one for just us, but we ended up with the next class down in a shared, open compartment (no door, just a curtain separating us from the aisle) with a young Indian couple.  And, we had the upper berths which required a gymnastic climb that rewarded us with a thinly padded bunk bed and a tiny sleeping space in which to maneuver.  Anne got almost no sleep in this uncomfortable setting, and Frank was too damn tired to care.  It may be time to give up the overnight train idea, at least in third world countries.  However, in the morning, we had a great conversation with the Indian couple on the other side of the main aisle that helped to offset the discomfort.  Of course, the gent was an engineer like Frank, so this lead to instant bonding between the two.  Spending some time with local people was the main reason we wanted to take the train.
The crazy streets of Varanasi
By the way, practically everyone speaks English here.  The accents sometimes make it hard to decipher, but it is English.  In fact, Frank has been unable to learn much Hindi since nobody speaks it to us.  He asked a waiter at our last hotel how to say something in Hindi, and the man was silent for a moment and then said, “I have been working here for six years and always speaking English that now I forget my Hindi!”  Yes, even a Hindi speaking Indian couldn’t provide an answer for Frank, as he’d forgotten how to say it.
Our handler was waiting for us at the train station in Varanasi (Varanasi is inexplicably called Benares here in India), and he immediately took off at a remarkable pace through the train station with us in tow.  Boy, do these Indians move fast!  We stumbled along behind terrified of losing him in the crowds.
Alleyway in the Old City of Varanasi
We are staying at the Rashmi Guesthouse in the Old City.  We will talk more about the traffic, crowds etc. later, but the Old City makes Delhi’s busy shopping street Chandni Chowk (that we talked about in the last report) look like a walk in the park.  Our hotel is located on a precipice directly overlooking the Ganges, which places us right in the middle of the action.  The room is tiny, but the bed is big and comfortable, and the air conditioning is powerful (but it is so loud that Anne feels as if she is sleeping on the assembly line of some heavy machinery factory!).  The hotel also has an excellent rooftop restaurant where we ate breakfast every morning and also had dinner twice.
By the way, the air conditioning in each hotel room in this country does more than just the obvious cooling; it is great protection from the marauding mosquitos that will inevitably swoop down on you at night and have a feast.  It is good to keep the a/c in operation all night for protection against the flying insects that want a bite out of you.    
Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and believe me, in many ways not much has changed since its inception.  It is considered India’s holiest city, a place that all Hindus hope to see before they die. In fact, many come here with the hope that they will die here. The city has a population of 3 million people with an added influx of 25,000 pilgrims and 1,000 foreign tourists per day.
Trash in the polluted Ganges River
On our first night, we met our Varanasi guide who called himself “Singh”, and he walked us down the steep stone steps, called “ghats” to the Ganges, the most holy river.  By the way, this river is horribly polluted – our Lonely Planet guidebook said to avoid getting even a sprinkle on us!  At first, we thought Singh was a real nonstarter – initially, he was not much of a communicator.  But Frank worked his magic, and soon Singh was sharing all kinds of cynical insights and philosophy.  We really came to appreciate his unabashed frankness and his dry sense of humor.
The plan for this evening was to take a wooden boat ride out on the waters of the Ganges, then attend the celebration of the 7 Brahmin priests called “Ganga Aarti”.  For some reason, Singh chose an older man to row our decrepit boat – this guy must be the worst rower on the Ganges, can’t tell you how many other boats he bumped into (or nearly collided with).  We really thought we might be taking an unintended dip in the Ganges ourselves!  We rode down to the main cremation ghat called “Manikarnika” where the flames of the cremations along the river’s edge flared in the darkness. 
Singh explained that the body is burned as soon after death as possible.  Family members and friends maintain a vigil on the steps for the 3-½ hrs. (roughly) that it takes for the cremation to be completed.  The process is simple:  the body is draped in colorful white & gold material and placed on a stack of wood.  Another layer of wood is placed on the top of the body and then they add ghee (clarified butter) to cover the body, and make it burn well.  The composition of the wood is very important – sandalwood is a key component since it masks the smell of the burning flesh.  Afterwards, the ashes are dumped into the Ganges.   Singh told us that so much wood was being used for cremations, the countryside is slowly becoming deforested.
Cremations along the Ganges
Although most of the bodies cremated here are people from Varanasi, some have their bodies shipped here just to be disposed of in this auspicious place.  Sickly and dying people often come here and stay in guesthouses just waiting to die.
Singh pointed out a man standing in the Ganges with water up to his waist in front of the cremation ghat. The man was holding a basket of wet ashes that he was sifting thru, looking for something.  Singh said that the man’s wife had probably died and he was searching through her ashes to retrieve valuables; i.e., the jewel that she would have worn in her nose, her toe ring, and/or other piercings.  The line between the pious and the practical is very thin here.
Singh also told us that wives no longer jump on their husband’s funeral pyres – in fact, it is a crime to do so.  Singh said that, in the past, most of the wives did not go voluntarily to their fiery demise, but were pushed onto the pyre by family members (who probably did not want to have to support a surviving widow), and who actually blamed the wife for their husband’s death.  (Don’t you love the way it is always the woman’s fault?) 
The celebration of Ganga Aarti along the Ganges
Being a woman in India can still be dangerous in spite of attempts to be more enlightened.  Anne has been reading the English language newspaper “The Hindustan Times,” a daily news rag about life in India.  A one-paragraph article described the death of a woman in one of the villages.  She was a married woman who had eloped with a man of the Untouchable Caste.  As the article states: “Her neighbors beat her to death, hung her body from a tree, and burnt her.”  The article made no mention of any arrests or charges to be made.
The faithful bathe in the polluted Ganges
After the cremation ghat, we watched the nightly “ganga aarti” ceremony on the largest ghat, one with a large platform area perfect for the performance.  Seven young Brahmin priests waved around flaming candelabras (what is it with these people and fire?) welcoming the god Shiva, while a chorus of the faithful danced and maintained a chanting rhythm in the background.
Just our luck, we got the
worst rower on the Ganges!
The next morning, we rejoined Singh on the ghats for a morning boat ride to see the sun rise on the Ganges.  This was an even better experience than the ride on the river the night before.  We had high hopes for a younger, more able rower, but Singh is a loyal guy and soon we were bumping our way up the river with the worst rower on the Ganges once again – the same old man we had last night!
Old lady brushing her teeth in
 the holy waters of the Ganges
The ghats were overflowing with the faithful preparing to greet the sun.  Varanasi faces toward the east by design so that the rising sun can purify the people of the city each day. Women wade into the waters fully dressed while the men strip down to just a loin cloth (and sometimes nothing at all).  Some people dive in while others use a cup to pour the river water over their heads.  People also come to the river for morning bathing; we observed one old woman industriously brushing her teeth with her finger.  The characters along the river are simply mind-boggling: thousands descending into the waters, cross-legged people meditating on the steps, religious types smearing themselves with ashes as they greet the day, Brahmin priests sitting in front of the temples protected by large, mushroom-like umbrellas, and laundry boys washing clothes in the filthy water.  (We are definitely sticking with hand washing in our hotel sink while we are here.)
Holy man smears himself in ashes as he mediatates
 by the Ganges
Frank spotted one of the coolest things – boys throwing strings out into the river as if they were casting a line for fishing (We knew that couldn’t be it because God knows nothing could live in this fetid water!)  Turns out, the string has a magnet on the end, and the boys are “fishing” for the steel coins that the pilgrims toss into the Ganges for good luck.  As Frank says, “Even the Hindus are capitalists at heart!”
The ghats along the Ganges
And the noise from the ghats – this is not some somber, respectful affair.  The air clatters with an incredible cacophony of racket.  Every pilgrim who enters one of the temples along the ghats rings a bell, believing that the vibration of the bell will send their wish to the gods.  (Singh said the gods must be very busy trying to sort out which of all these wishes to honor!)  At any rate, bells clang non-stop from every direction.
Sunrise on the holy Ganges River 
Soon the sun rises like a perfect red ball across the hazy, smoggy expanse of the Ganges, and the people of Varanasi proceed on their merry way to do the chores of daily life.  And tomorrow, this whole rigmarole will repeat itself as it has day after day for thousands of years. 
"Gods for sale" everywhere!
We retreated to our hotel to eat breakfast (and to try to process this whole overwhelming assault on our senses).  Then, Singh took us on a city tour.  A walk thru the dark, narrow alleyways of the Old City is just as mesmerizing as the ghats.  This is where residents live and work in dank hovels made of stone.  Shops offer all kinds of trinkets including small statues of Shiva and other Hindu deities – as Singh sarcastically says, “Gods for sale.”  Everything is dark and dirty – you have to watch where you step at all times because the sacred cows roam freely through here and leave their deposits everywhere.  And you also have to listen for the motorcycles that careen through streets that are only wide enough for a couple of pedestrians.
The main shopping street is even crazier with a mass of humanity like none we have ever seen.  It just so happens that we are here in Varanasi on the infamous Indian holiday called “Diwali”, the festival of lights. It is also one of the biggest shopping days of the year.  The street is packed with Hindu women in their finest silk garments and holiday saris, haggard pilgrims dressed in sackcloth leaning on wooden walking staffs looking like Old Testament prophets (it feels like the set of a Hollywood Biblical epic movie, but this is REAL), and beggars of all description, some with hideous deformities.
As we crossed the main street, a leper with bulbous lumps all over her face and neck startles Anne by grabbing her arm and begging for some money.  Meanwhile, another beggar lady with an infant child suckling on her breast puts her hand out to Frank for money, and utters something in Hindi in a most pathetic way.  We are heartbroken for these indigent, but we know we can do nothing for them that will alleviate their immediate suffering. The government requests that you give nothing to the beggars because it will only incite more begging.
Streets of Varanasi
We literally dive into our waiting vehicle, a classic Hindustan model, and drive away from the craziness of the Old City.  We visit one of the famous universities – Singh says, “Varanasi is about learning and burning.”  And then we drive to the Durga Temple, a blood red temple where animal sacrifices were performed not long ago (now banned).  The temple honors Durga, the consort of Shiva. 
Hindus worship hundreds of gods and each one has dozens of names (Shiva is known by 1008 alternate names) and is recognized by specific accoutrements making it absurdly confusing.  Just to give you a taste: Shiva carries a trident, rides on a bull and sits on a tiger skin to get re-energized by the tiger’s power (Singh says it’s like recharging a cell phone!).  Hinduism seems to be a remarkably flexible religion.  According to Singh, Hinduism is a very personal religion with no hard and fast rules – you decide which parts of it you want to follow (or not).
Diwali is sort of like Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one.  It is the biggest celebration on the Indian calendar. On the night before Diwali, firecrackers were exploding all over the city.  On  Diwali day, everything is decorated with orange marigolds (our hotel lobby was covered with them) and small clay pots filled with oil to provide a small flickering light in every doorway.  Our hotel had no “live” clay pots – instead they had a string of miniature Christmas-like lights sitting in plastic pots.  Modern technology!  On the night of Diwali, the sky was filled with fireworks going off all over the city.
Singh described another aspect of Diwali.  He said people make a wish for wealth on Diwali and many spend the holiday gambling for that wealth, some even end up bankrupted.  In fact, the Hindu word for bankrupt is diwala!  So, the Hindu people often say that “Diwali turns to Diwala”.
Local sitar player
There are so many simple issues in this country that make daily life more difficult than it has to be.  Some of you may probably know already, this is a society that thrives on tips for survival.  Everybody wants to be tipped for services rendered, and even for services not rendered (it seems).  Problem is, from our prospective, there is a fine line between “extra services rendered”, and “just doing your job.”  We have come to the conclusion, that after many days in India, we still don’t know squat about who gets tipped and who doesn’t.  When you stay at a hotel, everyone seems to want to be your friend; and, when you leave the hotel, you can just bet that everybody who even smiled at you will be standing around conveniently available to be handed some money. Everyone seems to have their hands out even when they do nothing.  In one instance, Frank failed to tip an old villager man who just happened to walk up to us (who we still feel did not deserve to be tipped), and he became irate as we exited his airspace; he walked with us saying stuff in Hindi that we did not understand, but his body language was clearly hostile and his less than friendly demeanor spoke volumes.  So, who do you tip, as well as how much?  It’s really something we need to explore, and perhaps when this trip is done, we can give you a better ‘tip’ on tips.  Or not.
We are so glad to have you following our adventures – thanks for traveling with us and Happy Diwali!
P.S.  Our friend Don Brown who also follows our travels,  sent us this comment that we absolutely love, regarding our last report.  He said, “I think you could visit hell and make it sound like heaven.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dizzy in Delhi

Anne goes Hindu down at the local temple
Some people say that the acronym India stands for “I’ll never do it again.”  And we can understand why they might feel this way.  India is messy – crowded, dirty, and frenetic.  But it is also vibrant, colorful, and so different from anywhere we have ever been.  On the one hand, India is a modern society, but on the other, it seems as if things haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.  In India, so many people still wear traditional clothes (all the time) and continue to follow ancient traditions.  It’s like we are in some kind of a time warp, and we are loving it – it’s even wilder and more unexpected than we thought.
First things first.  Our neighbor Joan Sayer was kind enough to take us over to Lehigh Valley International (LVI) Airport in Allentown, where we began our trip.  We had an uneventful ride on the Continental bus from LVI to Newark (much better than driving ourselves) and then a direct flight to Delhi.  We had our favorite seats in the last row of the Boeing 777, where no one was behind us to kick our seats, and where for some reason, only two seats share a space normally given to three.  It’s almost roomy!  And, it’s just a quick hop to the bathroom right around the corner.
For this trip, we are using a Travel Company called “Legends and Palaces”.  We will have a private tour with drivers and tour guides arranged by the owner, Mr. Singh.  Mr. Singh had his contact waiting for us at the Delhi Airport after our 13 hour flight from Newark; Delhi airport is quite new and modern.  Actually, we had three people waiting for us when we arrived: the spotter inside the airport, the assistant who met us as soon as we stepped outside, and our driver.  Seems like a lot of individuals for two little travelers, but this is how they do it (everybody has his rice bowl, I guess).  At least, we are being well-looked after by Mr. Singh.
We are staying at a lovely hotel in a very quiet residential neighborhood called “Amarya Haveli”.  The place has French owners (Anne was smitten immediately), and it has exceptional amenities.  We have a large room on a quiet side of the building, an outside patio with table and chairs, simple but great food (including made to order omelets and crepes for breakfast!), and a staff that goes out of their way to be friendly and helpful.
Temple ruins at Hauz Khas Village in Delhi
We arrived late on the evening of the 21st in Delhi, the capital city of India, so we took it easy the next day to recover from the long flight.  At least that was our plan.  An artsy shopping village near some ancient temples was only a 20 minute walk away so we decided to stroll over.  Who would ever guess how challenging a “short walk” could be.  We walked along a main road that ran near our hotel; it was congested beyond belief with vehicles such as: cars, busses, 3-wheeled motorcycle-like devices (like the tuk-tuks of Thailand), tricycles, and bicycles -- all of them jammed together and not a single one of them in their own lane.  Sometimes, It was hard to decipher what was going on; and then to confuse the eye even further, Indians drive (are supposed to drive) on the left side of the road.  It was total chaos out there.
A haircut out on the streets Delhi-style
We were also accosted by beggars everywhere; a little beggar girl walked up to us and motioned that she needed food, and then looked at us pathetically, as she rubbed her stomach in gestures of small circular motions, as tho she were starving; we watched some young entrepreneurs operate their clothes ironing business right there along the street under a tent-like covering supported by makeshift bamboo poles, and cracked up to see a barber set up under a tree with a single chair on a median strip – cutting hair as traffic whizzed blindly by.  Talk about low overhead.  All his “barber shop” had out there on that dirt patch alongside the busy highway was a stool, a mirror on a small table, a pair of scissors, a towel conveniently draped over the low-slung electrical wire hanging above his head, and a queue of customers standing around waiting their turn. 
Our goal, the Hauz Khas Village, was worth the trouble, and actually our little jaunt was a great introduction to India.  The walk itself was the best part, but the temples (and the locals hanging out there) were fascinating, and Anne got a taste of the fantastic shopping in store for her.
A cobra on every corner
That night, Mr. Singh took us out to dinner where we got into some amazing discussions.  We talked about the history of India, and the politics here, but we were most interested to learn more about the religions of India, and his religion as a Sikh.  Since religion integrates itself so deeply into the Indian life and economy, we thought it important to understand some of the raw basics.  
Mr. Singh wears an immaculately folded pink turban over his head at all times in public, and with his bearded face, he can be instantly spotted from a long distance away.  Later, we found out that many of these turbans are merely glorified hats, and can be slipped on already pre-folded.  Sikhs are immediately recognizable because all the men wear the recognizable large turban.  The Sikhs are an offshoot of the Hindus, and were originally formed as a group of warriors to fight the Muslims.  Today, they are a totally separate religion with a more open outlook than the Hindus.
Traffic in Delhi - and it isn't even rush hour!
A couple other interesting tidbits:  Hinduism is one religion that you cannot convert to – you must be born a Hindu or have a family history of having been Hindu at one time.  Well you can imagine Frank’s disappointment when his dream of becoming a Brahmin priest was shattered!  The caste system and dowries are now illegal in India although both continue in some forms.  He told us that marrying outside your caste is possible but hardly ever done.  In theory, the Untouchables (the lowest caste) have the same opportunities as anyone else, but the economic reality is that a higher caste child is much more likely to get a good education, and have the career he chooses, rather than the one he would be forced to otherwise accept.
Typical overhead rat's nest of electrical wiring
found on every street here in Delhi.
The following day, Mr. Singh along with our driver Anil took us out to see the sights of Delhi.  We began our tour in Old Delhi on the main shopping street called “Chandni Chowk”.  Now this was the India we had come to see.  We took a rickshaw ride and our heads were spinning around trying to take in all the frenetic and strange new sights.  The street was a menagerie of small ramshackle shops, most with goods or deliveries heaped out on the sidewalks: nuts, spices, material to sew saris, posters of Hindu gods, woks with strange foods a-cooking, etc.  Overhead electrical wiring was a rats-nest of code violations, and tracing any one wire to its source or destination would be a magic trick for Houdini.
Carrying 50 plus boxes of shoes
 can give you a real migraine
The sidewalks were teeming with shoppers (Hindu women in flashy- colored saris), carpenters and painters (squatting on the corner waiting for work), deliveries arriving via bicycle (we saw one cyclist carrying 2 huge Sanyo 50-inch (?) TV boxes, some crates stacked quite high in carts pulled by oxen, plus several delivery men carrying about over 50 boxes of shoes on their heads!  (You can’t make this stuff up.)  And all this activity was whirling around a street clogged with more people and vehicles of all types than you can possibly imagine.  We were worn out just trying to take it all in (as you are probably exhausted just reading about it LOL)
Other highlights included:  New Delhi which has a totally different feel and look to it; that’s because this is British Delhi with the President’s Palace, government buildings (where monkeys break in and destroy documents – no kidding, this is a serious problem), and the India Gate – a huge structure (like an oversized Arc de Triomphe) which was built to impress the Indians with the might of the British Empire. 
Anne and Mr. Singh get that oldtime religion
down at the Sikh Mosque.
And a visit to a Sikh Temple – we had to enter barefooted, and Anne had to cover her head with a scarf, but other than that, we could wander all around and take pictures anywhere we liked.  This was quite an unusual experience surrounded by men wearing turbans accompanied by the strangest guttural-sounding hymns played to a bongo beat.  And yet, it still had a mystical feeling to it.

At the Qtub Tower
On our last day in Delhi, we visited Qtub Minar, home of the first mosque erected in India and an incredibly beautiful 12th c. tower 73 m. high  -- another attempt to impress the subjugated, this time built by the conquering Muslims.  The tower’s 5 babel-like stories soar into the sky decorated in graceful Persian writings and encircled by several almost frilly balconies.  The site also holds a strange iron pillar that is even older than the tower and has scientists baffled as to how ancient technology could have produced iron so pure that it has never rusted in over 2,000 years.  The technology to prevent rusting did not exist 2000 years ago; or did it?
Hindu women examine the mysterious 
2,000-year old rust-free Iron Pillar
This stop also gave us a chance to observe a number of Muslims, men starkly identifiable by white tunics, pants and skull caps, and the women they accompanied, always wearing full-length black burkas.  Who knows how these women can stand to be totally shrouded in black garb which would only serve to amplify the heat by nature of its heat-absorbing color.  Here in India, you can sure tell a lot about a person just by their clothing.

Gandhi's last walk; he was assasinated
 at the end of this path.

Our next stop was one of our favorites: Gandhi Smriti (the Ghandi memorial).  This site includes a museum filled with photos, descriptions of Gandhi’s life, and many profound quotes from this amazing man.  He lived here during the last 144 days of his life, and his room is just as he left it: sparsely furnished with a mattress on the floor, a small table, and his spinning machine.  His walking stick leans against the wall with two pairs of sandals.  A glass display case shows his meager possessions at the time of his death: eyeglasses, a watch, and a few pieces of silverware.  Outside, a monument commemorates his last steps on a pathway with raised footprints that leads to the place where he was murdered.  The site is a fitting tribute -- simple but powerfully moving.

Porter carrying our baggage - aprox. 70 lbs.

We left Delhi on an overnight train to Varanasi, and we will cover that part of the trip in our Varanasi report.  But, we want to leave you with this incredible event at the New Delhi Train station.  Our driver pulled into the parking lot, and a man in a red shirt ran over to get our bags.  He placed a coiled rope-like cloth on his head which seemed odd to us, but what happened next defies description.  He grabbed Anne’s 30 lb. L.L. Bean bag and flipped it up on his head.  Then with an assist from our tour guide Dilip, the porter added Frank’s 38 lb. L.L. Bean on top of Anne’s bag!  Yes, with almost 70 pounds of unbalanced baggage on his head, this “porter” scooted across the parking lot so quickly towards the train station that Frank and Anne had to chase after him, just to keep up with his pace. He walked up (and down) 2 stories of steps, and delivered our bags to the inside of our sleeping car without ever dropping a single bag. We were stunned, to say the least.  Frank kept saying, “This is impossible.”  Dilip just smiled and said, “In India, all things are possible!”