Friday, February 25, 2005

Life and death in Varnassi

This is my third try at this blog entry - the other two vanished into cyberspace!
Varanasi continues to enthrall me. The ghats (stairs leading down to the Ganges) are busy all day with a variety of activities - people bathing, praying, washing clothes, going to the toilet!!!, all kinds of animals bathing/drinking and then a whole host of related stuff like food vendors, boat trip operators, etc...
The city seems really old - definitely the "oldest" feeling place I have visited in India. The back alleys are quite something. They are very narrow and wind all over the place seemingly at random. I have been exploring them quite a bit and , although I get lost a lot, it is a lot of fun to see what is around each corner. I have encountered several cows jams - where some cows and usually a motorcycle or vendor pushing a wide cart - get all tangled and traffic grinds to a halt. I am pretty amazed, but people actually drive motorcycles down these alleys while pedestrians, animals and cyclists have to jump to the side to let them past. At first I was a little hesitant to go too far a field from my hotel, but people are super friendly and the alleys have way less hassles for tourists than the ghats - which are where more tourists tend to go.
Speaking of ghats - I have watched several crematory ceremonies so far. They are very moving and I can sit for hours and watch all that goes on around them. There are quite a few steps from the time someone dies till they are cremated. The cremations happen 24/7 and to is rare to go there and not see something happening. I have also seen a few children's bodies deposited straight into the Ganges. They row out to the middle and drop the body weighed down with rocks into the river. Children, pregnant women, holy men, and diseased bodies are not cremated - cremation is supposed to purify the body and for various reasons these categories do not need to be cleansed. Women are not present when the cremation happens - I have been told this is because 1) women are very emotional and they feel crying and such would disturb the dead soul 2) some women (on their own or after being forced) have jumped on funeral pyres to die with their husband. The gov't has made this illegal - although I have read it still happens to some extent. Hindus believe dying in Varanasi means and end to cycle of reincarnation and direct access to heaven - so there are a lot of older people here waiting to die.
On my second day here I was given a room with a balcony facing the Ganges. It was smaller than the first room, but I figured the balcony was worth it. It was nice to sit and have some privacy (a luxury in India!!) while watching the action below. However, there was an ugly side to balcony life - there are large monkeys in the banyan tree nearby and a large aggressive one came onto my balcony and tried to get into my room twice! I had to use a chair to push him out the second time and he was not at all scared of me. This meant I had to keep the balcony door closed all the time and since the room was small that made it hot and stuffy in there. I told the hotel manager I was moving back to my old room and he offered to give me a bamboo stick to fight off the monkey with, but I declined.
My room is quite nice - it is large and there are no mozzies...=-) It is on the same floor as the room top terrace - so although I don't have a balcony I can go sit on the terrace anytime I want. The only down side is that it is quite noisy at night until the restaurant closes and then later the monkeys go crazy all night throwing around furniture and knocking over crates of empty bottles. In the morning the terrace restaurant looks like a battle went on - and it did!!! Mostly I can sleep through it all - better the monkeys are fighting each other than me...=-)
On a sad note there was an explosion here on one of the main ghats where I hang out a fair bit killing several Indians and tourists. A gas cylinder rolled into a fire near a chai stand and it exploded. I was 300m away and thought it was a very loud firework (not uncommon) - it was not till that evening I heard what actually happened. I was regularly going to a particular dosa stand to fill my dosa cravings and was shocked to find out the owner had been killed in the explosion. It is sad when I walk past his now empty stand. The city was a bit subdued for a couple days while they cleaned up the mess and held some services for the victims. 10 people were killed and quite a few injured.
My time in Varanasi & India is growing short now. Only 3 more days here and 8 more days in India. Time flies! I will definitely miss India, but I am really looking forward to getting into the desert backpacking. Two things I am craving at the moment are 1) tacos! 2) some peaceful solitude.


Blogger Jeff said...

So did you get your tacos, senor? The people want to know!! ;)
P.S. Hope you found your peaceful solitude too.

March 11, 2005 at 9:57 PM  

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