Today was uneventful… more perfataping at the Mills Place. Cleaning. Laundry. Dishes. Teaching.
Pretty much standard life… but nothing inspired me today.
And then I remembered. My cousin. Cousin Robb. This guy is younger than me. Though I never can remember how much! Most of my cousins were either a lot older or a lot younger, or I just never really saw the others that were my age… Actually, I could probably count the times we’ve actually been face to face. He is one of those guys I just have a connection with… like best friends kept apart. We mesh quite well. Our dads were brothers. I think we share that sense of humor. Here he is…
Cousin Robb by profession is an accountant. He tells me he thinks in numbers. Believe me, the last thing I think in is numbers! He tends towards workaholicism. (I just created that word.) However… he isn’t working now. He works like a dog for years. Saves his money. Invests. Does everything you’re supposed to do with money. And then… he quits his job. Brushes the dust off his passport and his backpack. Says goodbye to his mom and brother and the rest of us who care about him. He leaves the country and travels to where the winds take him. He travels alone for the most part. He teams up with some tourists if he feels like it. He stays away from tours or anything premeditated. He makes me jealous. He sees all the places I studied about getting my archaeology degree or the places I’ve read about and dreamed about.
Once in a great while we get an email from him. Telling us a story. Sharing a picture. Giving us the tiniest peek at the worlds that exist outside of the good ol’ USA. I asked him if I could share… since he refuses to write his own blog, I guess I’m designated publicist. A computer or cell phone would just be too much of a hindrance, so we wait until he gets to a big enough town to email us the latest.
I find this fascinating. I hope you do too. From now on, his adventures will be labeled Out of Scope… seeing as how it has NOTHING to do with ranchlife. He is the person who is really “out of pocket”… but let’s not confuse things here!
Here’s his first installment:
The Arm….seeing the arm, floating in the current, handless and charred-loose below the shoulder could only end this surreal day in the maybe the oldest and holiest city in the world…..
At 3am I broke out of my feverish delirium; it had broken as fast as it arrived the day before. I remember little of the last 12 hours on the train from Delhi to Varanasi and I still had five hours to go… My clothes were drenched, I had not eaten in 24 hours and finding the hole in the train floor they call a toilet was like a death march.
But Alas! Landing in Varanasi at 7am brought new hope as this may be the oldest living city in the world and holiest place on the planet (only comparing to Mecca). This is the end of pilgrimage for hundreds of millions around the world – to pray and bath in Ganges. And as I arrive in the spiritual center of Hinduism, it is Dawali, one of the biggest festivals of the year – fireworks, parades and more prayers seen in an hour than most would see in a lifetime.
If fact, if it were not for the “tourist quotas” on the train system, there is no way I would be here. One Indian died in the same train station the day before from the crush of people trying to get on the trains. I myself had fallen into a crush of human bodies going down the stairs to the train platform two days before. Boarding most second-class trains becomes a fight for every square-foot each day as hundreds crowd into cars that should hold a fraction – and this is like traveling at Christmas time. It was scary and depressing to see, who I think are some of the happiest, most patient and proudest people on Earth have to risk their health and pride just to visit relatives. There are no “personal bubbles” in this country – hot, sweaty, smelly human bodies mold together on most forms of transportation. Don’t get me wrong – even the poorest of Indians are extremely dedicated to hygiene and cleanliness (more than the foreigner travelers), but four to 14 hours in a crush of hot human bodies is an experience that must be gotten use to – not to mention the mixture of extracted air coming from humans that consume the spices and hot foods of this country. My experiences on the trains, buses, taxis and rickshaws, both wonderful and excruciating, are an integral part of any developing country experience and I would not trade any of them.
The Indian people are more friendly, welcoming and helpful than any country I have visited. Their tolerance is fascinating – Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jainism and all their off-shoots – living with surprising patience. The poverty is as surprising – 40% of 1.2 billion live on less than $1 per day. But it may be difficult to spot the rich from the poor, as pride in appearance is brilliant. This country is one of the most spiritual in the world because their people have a light within them that few outsiders will ever find.
With my fever instantly gone, I’m excited upon arrival. Of course, I still have draw-backs. For the first time in a month I also have “Delhi Belly.” Only in India can you sit across from a beautiful French Canadian (an African and Nepalese guide who lives and works in the Yukon) and discuss how much we have in common, our mutual interests and the details of our mutual diarrhea! How Romantic! It’s different here, ya know. If they actual had many western toilets, you’d need a seat belt to curb the force of the butane emissions….enough said, I presume? Karma was with me; however, as the owner of my guest house was a doctor (I didn’t bother to ask what kind). He wrote down a cocktail of drugs I will never understand; but after a trip to the dusty pharmacist with dirt floors, I spent $2.10 on antibiotics and other strange pills that worked wonders within hours! Time to explore!
The Ganges River meets Varanasi along miles of Ghats, which are dozens of buildings with long concrete steps that descend into the river where anyone can walk. From these steps, LIFE, in every form and fashion, both spiritual and secular, plays out a scene that would captivate anyone. If you saw a “picture book” of life, it would be like seeing the whole book on one page, one picture.
During my first hour of walking along the Ghat:
Pilgrims from around the world bathing, praying, crying and laughing;
Children, naked and clothed, laughing and jumping into the river;
Women wildly beating the soiled clothes into clean submission against rocks in the water (400 million people live along the Ganges – that’s lot of dirty clothes);
Men washing their buffalo (with both species using this as a holy toilet);
Monks, holy men and others mediating and chanting;
Children of all kinds: begging, playing, sitting my lap, trying to steal my stuff, practicing their English, running to get me a drink;
People practicing yoga; Tourist snapping their cameras;
The touts trying to sell wears, including: ear-cleaning, messages, boat rides, hashish, pot, Chinese opium, floating candles (for good karma), post cards, bottle water, art work, etc….
(Sidebar: from our US view of cleanliness, the figures are appalling – samples of the river show the water has 1,500,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml (a couple of cups). Water safe for bathing (not close to drinking standards) is 3,000 times less, or about 500 per 100ml. And although it’s septic, many locals drink from it like it was Aquafina….)
And then there are the burning Ghats…..
“The magical but sometimes overwhelming city is where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public view of the city’s Ghats.”
After all my travels, few things compare to the burning Ghats I experienced this day – where a fortunate few Hindus (250+ per day) are cremated – in full public view! Having your loved one expire by pyre here offers liberation (moksha) from the circle of life and death. First, you see the funeral processions, many of them, the bodies in tight fabric on bamboo stretchers, threading through the narrow streets to the Ghat. The bodies are then doused in the Ganges. Foreigners are afforded a balcony view of the Ghat as not to disturb the families. The view is nothing less than extraordinary – seeing at least a dozen naked bodies being burned – each in a different phase and overseen by outcasts known as doms. As the cost of the funeral is based on the type and amount of wood used, the doms are constantly twisting, beating, turning and poking the bodies with long bamboo poles, with instructions being yelled from family members standing or squatting nearby. The view, smells and colors of smoke initially bring nothing but speechless disbelief. Nothing compares to the effect on senses and emotions as standing over this scene.
Other interesting side notes: Only males are allowed – as the women are too emotional for such a ceremony. The doms salaries are paid by sifting the river for gold teeth, jewelry and the like that the families wish to leave on the bodies. This sifting is going on simultaneously with the funerals, as this is a 24/7 production. The pyres are ignited from a holy, eternal flame that has been burning continually for 3,500 years….showing the true youth of our own culture.
I later hired a boat, at night, to take me near the burning Ghat. Although this is a spiritual Hindu experience for a lucky view….no horror movie backdrop could ever touch the eeriness of the fire, smoke and shadows of burning bodies. The boat had a very low freeboard with the water only arms-length away. As it was late and my physical and mental states were in complete question, I saw the arm…floating in the current, handless and charred-loose below the shoulder…..I could have reached over and touched it. And in my mind, I did.
As I returned to the guest house, I meet others on the steps to watch and listen to the literally millions of fireworks exploding in the city. It’s 11pm and without sleep and food for days, combined with the emotionally consuming experiences of the Ghats, I can barely move…or so I thought. We, in our daze, watched a man across the street light a HUGE bottle rocket. We’d seen them all day, but never from this angle. As the fuse reached the rocket emitting loads of sparks, it hurled straight at us faster than our reflexes could react. It flew by my head so fast that I felt the sparks on my head before I was on my feet. As I turn around, it had hit my friend standing behind me in the head, turned 180 degrees and missed me again my inches. It exploded close enough to feel the percussion wave. My friend, Sterling, who had only come out of the local hospital the day before with food poisoning, was bleeding from the forehead. After the shock wore off, and the local man brought alms to the hotel owner for his shame, did we laugh until our sides hurt….because twenty hours after my story began, it was the only emotion left.