Northern India – orphanage to the fog‏

September 2nd, 2009 | 1 Comment

December 31, 2008

The journey across Northern India has been a wonderfully entertaining and exhausting symbiosis. This just means that the recaps are fewer and father between. Expect 2 lengthy ones in short order. We left our protagonists in Bodhgaya, affected by both the Bodhi Tree and a local orphanage. After hitting ‘send’ on the last email, a Canadian contingent went back to the orphanage to try and make a difference. The boys’ rooms had mattresses and blankets, however the girls’ rooms consisted of wooden bed frames, and over 20 girls per small room. We have been steadily increasing our knowledge of the serious discrepancy between the sexes in India, which includes the understanding of how girls eat last in a household, and are therefore the most likely to be malnourished. Our attempt to balance the scales in our minuscule way was to buy 10 mattresses just for the girls, along with 2kg of carrots, 2 kg of potatoes, 1 kg of eggplant, 2 kg of apples, and 40 bananas. Pam and Tarik deserve the credit for leading the charge here, collecting donations from our entire group, and delivering the goods in person.

Meeting the children in the orphanage. This is their kitchen & classroom

Meeting the children in the orphanage. This is their kitchen & classroom

Christmas Eve we made the trek by train to Varanasi. Part of the old silk route, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The old city is centered on the Ghats, or steps, to the holy Ganges River. Three of us stayed in Assi Ghat at the south end, while the rest of our friends all stayed in the much busier north end. We all gathered for a leisurely dinner and exchanged our secret Santa gifts. What a fantastic group of people.

Christmas morning in Varanasi. After a 20-hour day the day before, we decided to sleep in. With all of the news and photos from home, Chelah spent the morning singing “Let It Snow”. We were in t-shirts at the time.

It’s amazing how small you can make yourself when you need to. A cat uses its whiskers to judge if it can fit through a small space. I had a diminutive Indian boy (about the size of my arm), who was driving the motorcycle I was on the back of through the narrow streets of Varanasi. If he could fit through the needle’s eye of cows, tuk-tuks, cars and people at high speeds, then I was going to have to. This was the trade-off I agreed to in order to go back to the hotel and get my credit card to complete purchases made with the 69-year-old silk shopkeeper that regaled us with stories of his triumphs and headaches. 5 of us sat for a long time, completely engaged by him. He said that he had already made his money, and now he just wanted to talk with customers. Of course in the end, 4 of us fell hook, line and sinker and made sizable purchases.

He was the perfect counterbalance to our walk along the Burning Ghat, where men stoke the funeral pyres of deceased loved ones. Women are deemed too emotional, and are not allowed to attend family funerals (a few instances of wives throwing themselves on the lit pyres of their husbands ruined it for everyone). We watched silently as an eldest son, dressed in white robes and head freshly shaven, lit the fires around his mother’s wrapped body. We were told that taking photos was the ultimate act of disrespect, which forced us to experience, rather than simply document. The only photo we were allowed to take was of the eternal flame, from which all of the fires are lit. It is intriguing to witness the wide uses of the Ganges – a burial, people bathing, and still others doing their laundry – all within the same 50 feet of shore.

Varanasi by boat affords a mystical experience, not so tangible in the complete immersion into its crowded streets. Endless solicitations for rickshaws, boats, and drugs can be very draining, except when so over the line that they are entertaining in their absurdity. The drug dealers come at you from the sides, so that there is no direct eye contact if the approach yields a negative response. This one guy came up behind us and in a deep gravely voice delivered “You want to flyyy in de skyyyy? You want de good haaaaaaaaaash”. I love a good human cartoon. By contracts, viewing the ghats from the water is serene and contemplative. We took a night cruise on Christmas Day, and another at dawn 2 days later. Each time we offered a ceremonial candle, surrounded by flowers on a floating leaf plate, to the Ganges, and the darkness. That night 7 of us had Christmas dinner on a rooftop overlooking the lights along the river for $20 Canadian (including tip). 

Making an offering on the Ganges, in Varanasi

Making an offering on the Ganges, in Varanasi

Near our hotel we found a place to mail home some of the excess weight added to our bags (in the form of books and gifts). I went in search one afternoon for a metal box to ship everything in. You know those roads you find yourself on where you have the suspicion that if anything happened to you, no one would every find you? Well down that road in Varanasi, I found a shop that sells these metal boxes. I look forward to seeing that 20kg of goodies in about 6 weeks.

I started reading The Alchemist while in the ashram, and finished it in Varanasi. The parallels between the lessons and journeys of the main character, and my own, were striking and empowering. I only wished there were additional chapters to map out our journey towards Rajastan.

We hired a car and driver in Varanasi for the remainder of our trip overland. Santos is 25, about 5 feet tall, and exceedingly polite. He hardly says a word, and it was a battle of wills and politeness as to who will actually do something selfishly. Melissa took up the back seat directly behind him, which effectively meant that she never had to open a car door. I think he was actually disappointed that he wasn’t quick enough to race around and get Chelah’s door each time as well. The drive from Varanasi to Agra was 11 hours. Our total stops equaled maybe 20 minutes. However our comforts increased in small steps. The last hotel had hot water, and the one in Agra had hot water AND a shower curtain. Baby steps.

Refrigeration is almost non-existent along much of our route. Therefore meals always take a long time, as the restaurants do not know how many customers they will have, so everything is made to order from scratch. The welcome trade off to the slow service is that the food is fresh, and most often very good.

Agra is the worst of both worlds – abject roadside poverty and a Western shopping mall. The town exists to take advantage of the draw of the Taj Mahal. Period. The level of greed there was disarming. On our first day in town we did see the Taj in the distance from the Red Fort. Among other things, it acted as the prison for the man that commissioned the Taj Mahal. His son had him imprisoned there for spending too much money on the Taj. From his cell he could gaze upon the monument to his wife, who died in childbirth after bearing their 14th child. The Taj itself was visited at dawn the next morning. However it wasn’t until much later that the dense fog lifted and we actually saw the structure. We literally bumped into it. So much for a grand entrance. The fog did lift long enough for a series of close-up photos, but we were not able to capture much of the larger surrounding grounds. This means our photos will be unique, right? It truly is one of the most breathtaking structures in the world, when it is not completely obscured. 

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Reminiscing on Varanasi one evening, that city was the highlight for much of our group, as well as many former travelers of India who have written from home. For me, I still felt a strong pull to Bodhgaya. Varanasi is definitely a feast for all of the senses, but the emanation from the grounds surrounding the Bodhi Tree skipped past my senses and spoke directly to my soul. One night while sitting alone in the white tablecloth lobby restaurant of our hotel, having ordered yet another Malai Kofta, I was tempted to turn back to Bodhgaya. Doing so would have created expectations, however. Perhaps I am meant to have left the party early so that I can become a proponent of it. Everything is perfection, and I am meant to continue on to Rajastan.



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May 24, 2011

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