Sunday, February 27, 2011

Morning on the Ganges

We set our alarms early and wake up in the grey gloaming before dawn. The sky is a murky ash blue. The sun has not yet risen, nor have most of the people. It is a rare moment of quiet in the world's oldest city.

A young boy sells us small wreaths woven from orange and yellow marigolds, in the center of which burn white candles. We are to set these fiery marigolds upon the water. They are for saying prayers or securing family health or wealth or whatever might encourage us to part with a few rupees and buy a candle. I whisper a wish into mine and watch as it drifts away.

The candles make tiny pinpricks of light as they float atop the still dark water. There are dozens of them bobbing on the Ganges this morning. I like our young boatman because, whether by luck or design, his oars never knock into any of them.

The sun rises over Mother Ganga. It is like every other sunrise, unique onto the day.

Even the water is quiet, its stillness disturbed only by passage of the small boats upon it.

Varanasi is beautiful this time of day, seems to glow from within as the sun casts its light upon it. A light turquoise sky, with a ruffle of foamy white clouds, appears.

We witness the city as it slowly awakens. Women are washing laundry in the river, beating cloths against the rocks and then spreading them across the steep steps of the ghats to dry. A bright rainbow of wet sarees gleam in the sunlight. Elsewhere, a girl dunks under the water and bubbles back up. A younger boy, her brother perhaps, splashes her and then flops full body into the water himself. Opposite the city bank of the Ganges, fishing men stand in their skiffs, bending and gathering their nets from the river. Moving slowly among these scenes is like opening up the pages of a National Geographic and stepping inside.

Katie and I take our photos in front of an old, reddish palace on the Ganges. It is dilapidated and beautiful.

"The king of Varanasi used to live there," our boat rower tells us.

The ghat in this area, with the large pink pillars, is where special ceremonies are held the first two nights after our arrival in Varanasi. One night we walk there, to a stage with five raised platforms. At the center of each platform is a man wearing maroon and dark gold clothing. All the men repeat the same motions synchronistically, ringing bells as they swing them in a circular motion above their heads, taking large silver holders that gleam with candle flame and waving them in a slow circular motion as well, and -- most lovely -- taking handfuls of marigold petals and scattering them so that the air briefly seems to be raining golden petals. All the while, people chant and pull on strings that jiggle a line of bells strung high above the edge of the Ganges.

But also, people are dying. Varanasi is where the old and infirm gather before death. The Ganges' water is considered holy, and bathing in the waters here is the best way to prepare the soul. All the people who come anticipating death live -- until that time -- in group homes that correspond with their cities of birth.

We pass by the burning ghats in our boat. It is the largest of several cremation sites along the Ganges. I take no photos of this, but we do leave the boat and walk through the area while keeping a respectful distance. The dead are wrapped in white cloth and decorated with marigolds. The bodies are then carried through the city, above men's heads, and taken into the river, where they are dunked three times for purifying. Next, the bodies are laid on bonfires and burned as their families watch. This can take many hours.

The timber used for burning is giant black logs that are piled in nearly every corner of these particular ghats. Nearby, crackles the fire used to start all the fires. It is called the eternal flame. This must not extinguished for as long as the world exists. Heavy coils of grey smoke rise from the burning log piles and float into the sky. The air smells like burning flesh. Two puppies, romping in an endearingly clumsy manner, catch my attention. They seem to be tussling over something. If it's a bone, it's best not to consider the source.

The Indians we speak to don't view these deaths as sad. The people who died there have spent their final moments in India's oldest and holiest city. It is a triumph, a time to quietly rejoice.

We return to the Ganpati and take our breakfast: warm chocolate and cocoanut pancakes. We eat them at a little table on the rooftop overlooking the Ganges. I order tea made of freshly crushed mint leaves, to which I add several scoops of coarse-grained sugar. I lean over the edge of the rooftop, look back at the river and burning ghats from which we've just returned. I have never felt so alive.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Being Brave. Ish.

"How do you spell 'terrifying,'?" Katie asks, as we both sprawl across our beds at the Ganpati and write in our journals.

"Just a sec," I reply, flipping the page back in my own diary. "Let me see how I spelled it."

Before arriving in India, I was content in the delusion that, on the whole, I was a brave person. Sure, there are some things in life I’ve always found frightening -- heights (or, more specifically, activities in which one might fall from a great height), tornadoes (ever since I raced one home along empty, rain-slick back roads in Ohio), and casseroles (you just never know what might be inside one) -- but these are universal concerns, I reckon. It isn’t actually until I am in Varanasi that I can fully appreciate the unique depth and breadth of my fears. As it turns out, I am also afraid of:

1. Cows

As someone who grew up in rural Ohio, cows should not be a big deal to me. But in India, they are a ubiquitous presence on the streets, by the temples, grazing on garbage just outside the shops. I even see a couple of cows slowly walking sideways down a steep flight of steps to the Ganges.

Now generally, cattle are docile creatures, leading placid lives dedicated to the fine arts of eating and pooping. However, at one point during our time in Varanasi, Katie and I turn down the very narrow lane leading to our guesthouse only to encounter three cows running toward us. They have long, pointed horns. Perhaps they are bulls. We don’t stop to check.

"I think we can find another way to the guesthouse," Katie gasps, and we quickly turn and run back down the alley. It is like our own, low-budget version of Pamplona's running of the bulls.

2. Monkeys

At the Monkey Temple, there must be hundreds of monkeys running about. They look absolutely adorable. Except for the ones that attack people.

“What if a monkey bites me?” I’d asked a young Indian man before setting out for the temple.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “The monkeys can see if you have a pure heart and will not harm you.”

While Katie and I walk through the temple grounds, one of the larger monkeys voraciously consumes a necklace strung with bright orange marigolds, an offering someone had left on the temple’s altar. I walk a few steps closer to get a better look.

“How cute!” I coo.

The monkey snarls, showing a set of small, pointy teeth, and fakes a lunge at me.

“You have evil in your heart,” Katie chastises.

As we are leaving the temple, we witness another monkey throwing itself onto the silky folds of a woman’s sari. She shakes her skirts and dances, but it hisses and refuses to relinquish its grasp. That is the moment I know: Monkeys are scary, those damn dirty apes.

3. Beggars

In the Delhi airport, just before customs, is a wall which showcases a row of giant copper hands that have been beautifully molded into a variety of mudras, gestures used in traditional Indian dance. A more accurate representation of India, from my experience, would be a row of empty hands reaching out for money.

It seems there is always someone in India coming towards us with an outstretched hand. “Karma!” some of them angrily demand. But they all scare me and I refuse to give them money. I imagine this is not such a problem for people who actually live in India or visit less touristy places, but in Varanasi, Katie and I may as well have our foreheads tattooed with “Many Rupees.” One man, upset we didn’t give him money, protests by saying, “But you’re American. You’re rich.”

In contrast, we notice that the multitude of Korean tourists in India is routinely ignored by beggars and touts. Whenever I tell people I live in Korea, they respond with slight patronage: “Oh, it’s nice for a developing nation.” The wages Katie and I get from our workplaces in Korea put us in the same economic range as well-educated Koreans. But in India, everyone is adamant that Americans are rich and Koreans are poor.

Katie ponders buying a novelty t-shirt that reads, “No tour guide, No one rupee, No come to my shop.”

“Do you think it will work?” she asks hopefully.

4. Traffic

The traffic in India is amazing, in a sort of terrifying way. Katie sometimes closes her eyes as our rickshaw lurches down the street. We’re in the back of a two person bicycle rickshaw, but the problem is that it was really designed for two very skinny people, such as two small children, or maybe one medium-sized child and a puppy. At any rate, it fits us in a one-and-a-half person sort of way, and every time the rickshaw falls into and bounces out of a pothole, we partially levitate from the seat. Besides the danger of potential ejection from the rickshaw, there are cars, trucks, electric rickshaws, more bicycle rickshaws, pedestrians, cows, and dogs bearing down on us from every imaginable side and angle. I watch in fascinated horror. How are we not dead yet?

“How can you stand to watch?” Katie asks.

“It’s exciting, like an amusement park ride . . . one that might kill you,” I explain.

5. Everyone in India Over the Age of 12

Varanasi is a pushing, pulling mass of people, the majority of whom constantly demand money, attention, a visit to their shops. Also, everywhere we go, no matter how modest our dress, men stare at us with blank, unreadable faces. When we sit across from them on the trains, they watch us like we are a movie. During one overnight train ride, Katie claims that the man in the bunk across from her is watching her the entire night. Every time she wakes up and looks around, he is already awake and staring at her.

My fear expands from simply being afraid of beggars to being afraid of everyone over the age of 12. The children, however, with their dark, bright eyes and ready smiles, charm me.

I tell Katie how to spell “terrifying.” I then confess to all the things which I find terrifying.

“Still braver than me,” Katie responds. “I’m also afraid of the kids.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Arrival in India

The pungent acidity of urine bows down the air; the flowering smoke of incense blesses it. Scattered across the train platform are men wearing turbans and women clad in bright, glittering saris, many of which have sequins flaring from them or a myriad of tiny mirrors sewn into their rainbow-hued fabric. Almost invisible in the crowd, in the night, are a few Muslim women wearing shapeless black burquas which cover every inch of their bodies except for their hands and a thin slit across their heavily-veiled faces so that only their dark eyes peer through. A man in a formal, Western-style business suit walks past. A large, blood-red tikka dots his forehead. At the end seat in the waiting room rests a legless man whose plastic legs are companionably propped up on the wall next to him. Rich notes from a Bollywood tune spill from someone's radio, almost shimmering like gold through the air.

I am in India.

Immense in both beauty and poverty, it is a country of extremes. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground in India, or in people's reactions to it. Half the travelers who visit India love it. The other half hate it. I made up my mind ahead of time that I would love it -- and I do. Nonetheless, it frightens me. Also, it is impossible to see limbless men crawling through the dirt (those amputees not even fortunate enough to have cheap prosthetics) and not feel bad -- sorrow for their sad state, and also guilt for having been born into vastly better conditions. One of these men erratically yells as we walk past, trying to scare us, I suppose. I don't even blame him. There is nothing redeeming about his situation, just poverty and pain. Still. In spite of its negatives, India fascinates me. Whatever else it may or may not be, it certainly is not dull.

In order to give you a better glimpse into my first impression of this country that is a world unto itself, here's my first diary entry copied verbatim (except for tidying the grammar and mechanics, of course).

January 22, 2011

I'm waiting at the train station in Old Delhi. As an aside, the New Delhi train station is located in Old Delhi. There are other train stations as well, but I'm not sure where those are. This train station resides in an impressive red and white brick building. The inside, though, is rather poor, even the interior of the 2nd "upper class" waiting room. The loud speakers blare an endless succession of announcements about delayed trains, canceled trains, and "the course of inconvenience," whatever that might mean. Katie and I have a wait of 5 hours due to our early plane arrival and delayed train departure.

As we first flew into the city, the plane, for a while, flies level with the tawny sunset. Then the wings dip and we lower into a cloud bank. Then the plane dips further still and we descend into darkness.

From the airplane, the city of Delhi below appears as fluid streams of amber lights -- traffic. As Katie and I discover on our taxi ride from New Delhi to Old Delhi, the traffic here is amazing. Anything with the potential for mobility is on the road. There are taxis, personal cars, buses, pedal bikes, motorcycles, pedal rickshaws, and little green-and-yellow vehicles that I first thought were golf carts (but turned out to be electric rickshaws), and a parade of religious floats that is at a complete standstill on the road, causing all the other traffic to back into a jam. Add to all this mix an endless succession of pedestrians jaywalking (really no point for them to cross at an intersection since none of the drivers stop there anyways), road lines that are viewed as the merest suggestions, intersections where as many as 12 lanes of traffic converge without any signals (or apparently any rules), and random cows that step into the chaos unconcerned, along with the sound of every driver lightly honking, and there you have the streets of Delhi.

Oh, I should also mention the families that ride motorcycles. The first one I saw had a man driving it with a woman in a red sari riding sidesaddle behind him and grasping a young girl in a turquoise and pink sari. The girl didn't seem to have any direct contact with the motorcycle itself, just attached by the strength of her mother's grip.

Now at the train station, I am eating butter masala. It's a hot, doughy bread filled with peppers, potatoes, and garlic cloves. I eat it by tearing off bites with my right hand and dipping them in sauce. There's an ochre-coloured spiced sauce and a white, yogurty-looking one that is cool and refreshing.

Everyone here looks at us, especially the men. They stare in a sort of locked gaze, without smiling. I've brought a large, floral scarf with me, which I use to cover my hair. My blue eyes and snowy skin are harder to hide. A lot of times, I like getting extra attention for looking different. It makes me feel special. Here, I'm scared. I talk to Katie in a quiet voice and try not to make eye contact with strangers. Katie feels scared, too. What have I gotten us into?