Trip Start Jun 25, 2007
Trip End Aug 17, 2007

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

We have finished our first day in Varanasi.  To get here, we flew Jet Airways; which will give any airline in the US a run for the money.  From the very nice domestic airport in New Delhi to the impeccable service on the plane, we were excited to continue our expedition here in India.  The plane ride gave everyone a chance for some ipods and "alone" time, even if just for a few hours.  The date was 07/07/07, an auspicious day.  I knew it anyway, but when my ipod first song on the plane came up as Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and we ended with Holst's "The Planets:  Jupiter" I knew nothing could go wrong.
Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, and we began our stay here (as usual) with lectures about the city and its primary religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.  The city takes great pride in being a welcoming place for all beliefs.  The downside is abject poverty - what we saw in New Delhi was bad, but this seems worse, although we are not being stared at like in New Delhi (a stare quickly turns into a smile and often a wave from the youngsters) - maybe because Varanasi's a pilgrimage site and locals are used to many kinds of people.  I feel like I am getting to understand in a very personal and meaningful and uncomfortable way what the third world is dealing with - too many people, too little space, too few services, and millennia of history that goes to the heart of the people and their places.  The '60s model of US urban renewal is just not possible, nor desirable.  But what little urban improvement we see is but a drop in the bucket of an overwhleming problem.
The cacophony of horn blaring only subsided late last night when it was replaced with the drum beats and brass from a very high end Indian wedding here at the hotel.  We saw about a half dozen weddings on the 7th!  While this is a Taj Hotel, it is older and more tired than the Taj in New Delhi, and it has only 2 small elevators (although their lobby doors are patterned brass and quite beautiful).  I say that because the size and number of elevators mattered yesterday when hundreds of wedding guests of all ages, the women in all their colorful sarees and jewelry, were competing with us for elevators.   We returned home from the Ganges and were welcomed to the wedding - literally!  We watched from afar as the groom on his horse slowly proceeded in from the street, accompanied by huge fireworks, the band, dancing and revelry.  Men were in saffrom orange headdress.  We woke this morning at 4 am and had to be on the bus at 4:30, and there were still dozens of wedding guests on the grounds.
Now, about getting to the Ganges.  Our bus can't make it through the old town streets, so we were put in bike rickshaws and carted down almost through the river; about a 15 minute ride.  On the way home, one of our group's rickshaw drivers ran into a car, and our friends Kevin and Anita were thrown, but not hurt.  A quick swap of vehicles was made (there are thousands here), and on we went.  Kevin and Anita now have a great story to tell!   Once we got off the rickshaws, and consistently when we've been out of the hotel, we were besieged by insistent, rude young boys and men who invade our personal space and harass us to buy souvenirs.  It's much worse for the women, I've noted, and I will probably leave Varanasi with no purchases at all because I can't stand the idea of giving them any money.  "No, thank you," was said about a dozen times.  Then, "No. Please," another dozen.  Then just "No."  By this morning when I was sleep deprived and couldn't stand another "Please I wait for you.  I call you Julie.  I love you.  You remember me.  I give you good deal," etc.  I just adopted, Go Away!"  But of course that only made me feel better.  It changed their behavior and proximity (too close) not at all!  By later in the day I had learned to ignore them and raise my hand with the palm out in that disdainful way we see portratyed by young girls in US media.  We had the hawkers everywhere we went, and they exhausted me.  So here I sit, hiding and regenerating, writing to you!
Now for the serious stuff.  We attended the evening prayer on a ghat (a set of stairs to the Ganges River, one of 80 in Varanasi, and the biggest).  Somehow (a monetary payoff?) we were seated on one of the platforms that are permanently placed before the small areas in which the Brahmin performs the ceremony.  This ghat had 7 Brahmins, dressed in a sort of saree that has been wrapped to give it legs. 
The hours-long prayers, music, incense, bells, drums and hundreds of people chanting all worked to set me and all of us at a blissful peace.  It was transcendental, and I was moved to tears in the awareness that I was at a ghat on the Ganges River, Mother Ganga.  Never in my wildest dreams had I ever put myself there, even in the planning of the trip.  I knew the pictures and stories, but being there, a site with 5,000 years of history, was worth all the beggars and hawkers and annoyance.  This morning we went back to the River and went on a boat ride at dawn.  We saw hundreds of people bathing, praying, some washing clothes, several bodies being cremated, one wrapped body floating (sort of) and, of course the inevitable hawkers on boats who pulled up beside us to sell.  Our walk through the old city was claustrophobic, dirty, invading privacy (I thought) and I couldn't get out soon enough.  But I'm so glad we went!  Everything here is completely juxtaposed - everyone takes great care with their own body and space, and cleanliness has a high value, in spite of the seeming impossibility of achieving it, but trash and garbage is scattered everywhere, too, along with animal droppings.  Men urinate on walls (but we saw none of that near the Ganges, interestingly enough).
As a last note, I've seen these animals roaming freely among people here in Varanasi:  chickens, pigs (huge!), macaques, cows and water buffalo, goats, donkeys and dogs.  I may have left something out...
The power only went out once in the hour I've been writing, but this being the Taj, the generator took over and my work was not lost.  Several friends have gone into town to use the internet cafes, only to lose everything when the lights go out. 

It's India!
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