Jun 12, 2008

Varanasi trekking

Imagine a labyrinth of narrow Venetianesque alleyways (galis) that would be impossible to navigate if it weren’t for arrowed signs painted on the cracking corner building walls leading you this way and that way to the popular guesthouses and German bakeries. For some reason in India and Nepal the locals got the idea that all bakeries should be deemed a “German” bakery. Alternatively, men offer to lead you to your destination with the hope that you’ll then check out their shop. The usual line is “I saw you yesterday. Remember me? You come look at my shop now.” Ariella and I chose a guesthouse that happened to be next door to the “burning ghat.” The ghats are the steps leading up from the Ganges that you see in all the classic images of people bathing, doing laundry and giving morning "puja" to the sun god in the river. The burning ghat is the holy holy ghat where Hindus come to cremate their relatives who have made a pilgrimage to Varanasi to die. The bodies are ceremoniously carried on stretchers down to the ghat, bodies covered by a sheet with colorful gold and red decorations. The bodies are cleansed in the river and burned under a pile of wood (the type of wood and size of the pile depends on how much a family can afford). The cremations go 5-6 at a time, 24/7. Relatives get their heads shaved in respect for the dead so there are lots of barbers sitting around to do the job. No photographs allowed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was quite a sight to walk by every time we came and went from our hotel (and quite a smell).

Speaking of smells, the crowded alleyways are covered with trash and feces (often of unknown origin – cow, dog, cat, human?) and the stench of urine is hard to escape. But in addition to this, they are full of life. Compared to privacy-seeking westerners, street life abounds – food and chai stalls, buying/selling of every sort, worship, cows, beggars & hawkers, casual conversations and so much more. I don’t observe there to be such thing as personal space in India. Understandably so, with over a billion people living in a land mass 1/3 the size of the US.

We didn’t realize upon leaving the Nepal Himalayas that we’d be back to trekking in Varanasi, but we got quite a workout going up and down and up stairs. Let me remind you that May is the hottest year of the month in a country that gets hot hot hot. We knew this going into it, but sure enough it was too hot to be outside doing much of anything between the hours of 9am and 7pm. So after early morning boat rides or just walking the ghats to watch the morning activities & rituals, we’d find a café with at least a fan or an internet café or splurge on a day at a hotel pool.

Varanasi is quintessential India, unlike anything I’d seen on my last journey to this amazing country. Like a sign I saw, the "Ganga (Ganges) is the life line of Indian culture" - I take this to be spiritual, symbolic and geographic life line - and you can feel it. Just don’t go in May. But do go, do go.

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