Stepping out of my guesthouse and into the narrow alley ways was …. well, it was a bit of a shock. Glad I had been to India before! It took me a few minutes to get my bearings and to remember to ignore or just say no to so many of the requests coming my way (music lessons? tea? silk? hashish? boat ride? see the cremations? see my store, no you don’t need to buy? where you from, madame? how are you today? need a male companion?)
I got directions from my guesthouse to head down to the Ganges – and there I headed. I got turned around in the many alley ways and ended up on the main road – full of stores. It was a pretty insane re-introduction to India, though it got me on my feet pretty quickly. I was followed for a short distance – though as soon as I stood next to the police (which seem to be at a lot of the intersections) he disappeared. I guess it pays to not be super friendly sometimes! 🙂
I tried to make my way down to the Ganges – but got stymied by a procession of people (which I later discovered — when I saw the beginning of the procession — was a typical procession of people headed down to the Ganges with a body to be cremated). But eventually I made it down there — and then spent my time wandering the ghats –there is a total of 80 of these bathing steps that go into the Ganges. Here is where a lot of the propositioning came about while I walked along the river.
My best moment though was when two young girls called me over to talk — we talked about school (their favorite class is english… and science.. and math…. and all of them! when asked which class they did not like? none of them! um…. something tells me they weren’t telling me the truth! 🙂 and we took some pictures. they were very cute. And I thought that they were going to be my first interaction that did not have an ulterior motive — but no, one of them called over their dad to see if I wanted a boat ride. But – none-the-less, they were pretty great! I told them I would share their picture and their names with my students!
Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India for Hindus. They pilgrimmage here to wash away their sins or cremate their loved ones. I saw lots of people washing in the water (who knew Indian men liked tiny tighty-whiteys so much?!), doing their laundry and of course – cremations. Also, you can take a boat ride out on the Ganges – which I hope to do during morning time.
Turns out that I am here during a big festival, the Ganga Mahotsav. Last night was a large event – a musical concert and then a large puja on the river front. I was sitting alone on these stairs trying to figure out what was happening – and a family came and sat next to me. Mom offered me a cookie (though Lonely Planet has me all paranoid about accepting food from people b/c of some folks were drugged on trains and all their stuff was stolen) and the son told me about the festival. They had traveled 3 days to get here with the goal of bathing once in the Ghanges. They were perplexed why I would be traveling alone – but were happy enough to sit with me and tell me about the puja that would begin.
The actual ceremony was pretty amazing — full of lights and chanting and bells and incense. I would say there were thousands of people there — out in boats or up on the stairs. I found a seat right below where the puja was happening (that was after I was totally ripped off by some lady to put a diya (earthen lamp – candle with marigold in a banana leaf – i think….) in the water. She then proceeded to do the same with every tourist in the area…. but the upside was she lead us to a river front seat). in a few nights, there is the culminating event – which will have thousands of diyas floating down the river and chants and incense — the program says that it will ‘make you believe that you are in heaven, witnessing a celestial happening’ – definitely something to look forward to.
Today was spent taking care of business — found an ATM that worked (well with the help of my new buddy, a security guy at the bank who laughed at me ‘reading’ hindi (which is what happens when you see the same screen in english and in hindi OVER and OVER again!), got a new SIM card for my phone and spent 4 frustrating hours trying to figure out trains and the rest of my trip (so much for doing with the flow! who knew, in a country of a billion people, you should make your train reservations WELL in advance! like 3 months in advance…. not quite sure what will happen since i am waitlisted for every possible train I wanted to take….)
I picked up a great book today that i cannot wait to sit on the steps of one of the ghats and read tomorrow – called The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I can already tell it is one of those books I want to read slowly so that it will not end. But — I will leave you with this image about the Mother Ganga (ghanges):
“No – I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.”
Oh, India – where else would that be one of the holiest sites?