Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Diwali from Varanasi!

Since my last interaction with this forum, Missy and I have been up to our usual act of galavanting around this great country, getting ourselves into interesting situations.  Of course, this sort of behavior in turn, provides me with the material I am able to so haphazardly provide here on Gypsyjuice.  In 72 hours, we have taken a 15 hour, horribly over packed sleeper train from Rishikesh to Varanasi; experienced the Hindu celebration of Diwali; witnessed the beauty and despair of the burning ghats; felt our first real inkling of near exasperation brought on by the copious amounts of filth, hassling from vendors, and inappropriate gestures from men that all presented themselves to us in this particular city as this particular time; devoured the entirety of Greg Mortensen’s second novel, Stones into Schools, which left me completely dumbfounded and moved to tears; listened to beautiful Indian classical sitar and tabla music for a whopping $2; and fell victim to a 12 hour long train delay last night, which left us sleeping on a tarp on the ground outside the train station.  Yup…life in this neck of the woods is quite entertaining and I would not have it any other way at the present moment.  

                                                            (Cricket game on the ghat)

I will first address our train excursion from Rishikesh to Varanasi, which just so happened to take place on the eve of Diwali, the most celebrated holiday on the Hindu calendar.  In other words, everyone in this overpopulated country was traveling that evening…and I mean everyone.  To paint a clear picture, there were hundreds of Indians sleeping, while sitting up, on the floors of the train cars and in the spaces between each car, which happen to house the restrooms and sinks.  At 3:00am, I woke up with an urgent need to visit the little girls room (which is really just a hole in the floor that leads directly to the train tracks), but when I looked down from my ceiling bunk, I saw that the only way to reach the restroom feasibly would be to quite literally crowd surf.  After a very brief internal pep talk, I peeled myself from my “bed”, stepped on several innocent peoples’ hands and faces, probably severed a few limbs on the way; and was eventually able to reach the bathroom with little trauma inflicted.   Thanks to Tibetan brown bread and peanut butter, an endless source of excellent and cheap reading material, and just overall awesome attitudes, Missy and I have gotten quite good at the actual “travel part” of traveling.  If I may be so bold to declare, we are true descendants of Into the Wild.

What is Diwali all about?  From the outside, it looks like a disheveled, chaotic, mess of countless people, vibrant colors, small street fires, and temple celebrations.  However, once you see past the insanity, there lies a deeply inspiring Hindu faith, an unreal sense of Indian culture, and a side of India I have not yet truly seen: the party people.  What struck me most were the very distinct differences between the Hindu New Year celebration and Christmas, what I would deem as the Catholic New Year celebration.  For me, Christmas Eve as a child boasted an intimate family gathering at my grandparents’ home, a letter writing session to Santa, followed by an 8pm bed time.  As I looked around me at 8pm on Diwali, there were goats roaming the streets wearing men’s button-up shirts, Indian music blasting on every street, and very young children who had hardly learned to walk were running around setting off what looked like miniature NASA rockets.  We saw one old woman’s hair almost catch on fire due to a two year playing unsupervised with a sparkler.  Experiencing Diwali in Varanasi, the oldest and most spiritual Hindu city that exists on earth, was a cross between standing in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve and being caught in a real life game of toddler laser tag.  Needless to say, we had fun.  I am considering putting in a formal request to my family to incorporate explosives into our Christmas Eve traditions this year.  I think there is a time slot available right before we all sit down to eat caramel popcorn balls, drink spiked fruit punch, and watch six hours of the action packed Christmas thriller, Moses.  

The main reason so many Indian pilgrims and International travelers visit the city of Varanasi is not because many believe it to be one of the oldest cities in the world, or because of the romantic gondola rides that can be taken down the Ganges River for a mere 50 rupees; but for the deeply moving showcases of spirituality, sadness, and humility witnessed at the burning ghats.  Hindus from all over the country bring their deceased loved ones to Varanasi, to cremate them in the very public fires along the Ganges River.  It is believed that in doing so, these souls go straight to the sky.  The reason for this belief involves a long, interesting story having to do with a certain king and the god Shiva, and you can Google this story at your own leisure if you would like to educate yourself further, because I cannot recall the details at the present moment.  I was extremely apprehensive about visiting the burning ghats.  First of all, I have never in my life witnessed a cremation before and I had no idea how it would make me feel.  Secondly, in my culture, this is a very private practice reserved for close family and friends.  And lastly, it felt extremely foreign and intrusive to be witnessing such an event.  However, after speaking with several Indians regarding the ancient practice, I learned that in India, the ceremony at the burning ghats in Varanasi is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow on a family member.  The combination of the heartfelt loss that was painstakingly visible on the faces of each family member and the presence of a calm celebration in light of the soul moving on from this life was extremely powerful.  

As for feeling utterly exasperated from the Diwali crowds, relentless heckling from street vendors, and the filth that results from a lack of garbage cans and cow poop that happens to be EVERYWHERE; let’s just say that this is the first time we have really felt at wits end in India, which is highly commendable given the fact that we have been here for two months.  On a side note, on our last day in Varanasi, as Missy snoozed on a cushion on a restaurant terrace, I spent a good 45 minutes watching a very slow moving, old man walk up and down the main ghat, collecting cow droppings in a bag, and then turning them into cow dung patties, which he stacked in rows.  He did this all day…with his bare hands.  I realize that Indians can make use of the cow droppings as fuel for fires, but at the time I was watching him thinking: “What in the Sam hill is that crazy old man doing?”

Missy and I both just finished reading Greg Mortenson’s, Stones into Schools. His first novel, Three Cups of Tea, which relayed his seriously inspiring story of how his life changed after stumbling upon a remote Pakistani village, after a failed attempt at climbing K2, was an International phenomenon.  This simple and ordinary man has single handedly launched a powerful initiative within the U.S. to promote the dire need for female education in war torn countries.  The 130+ schools that his NGO has miraculously built in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban infested areas; has been one of the largest movements in combating long-term threats from militant Islamic groups to date.  He and his colleagues have dedicated their lives to the reality that the education of children is a vital part of not only stabilizing war torn countries, but eventually turning them into peaceful, prospering nations.  His collaboration with the most remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as his work with U.S. armed forces truly is awe-inspiring.  I finished the novel feeling extremely proud of our soldiers for the work they are doing in these communities.  So much of the American media is focused on the exorbitant funds our government spends every day on weapons and machinery, but tends to overlook the importance of highlighting the positive impacts our soldiers are having on Afghan communities, for the American public.  Greg Mortenson really focuses on the changes our soldiers are making on a daily basis through interaction and education.  My apologies for the sermon, but this is what happens when I connect with a novel.  

For the past few weeks Missy and I have been keeping our eyes and ears open for a fortune teller.  It’s just one of those odd practices that seemed incredibly enticing at the time.  So, you can imagine our excitement when a crazy old man (there seems to be a lot of those in Varanasi) walked right up to us and announced that for 300 rupees he could look at our hands and faces, and tell each of us our fortunes.  We negotiated the price to 50% off, and followed the man to his secret lair, which was really just a seat on the most crowded place on the Ganges River.  After ten minutes of hocus pocus talk, I learned that I will be married at the age of 29, have a son when I am 32, and a daughter when I am 36.  On January 7 of next year, I will begin the golden period of my life…our friend did not elaborate as to what this means, but it sounds good to me.  Also, he told me to be careful of any boyfriends because they could be using me for my money or as a fling, and not my heart.  This was amusing to me since: 1) I am currently squandering a chunk of my savings in India, and 2) I recently started dating my best friend and childhood sweetheart again.  I’ll have to look into these speculations further when I get home (insert wink face here).  The best part of our fortunes is that Missy and I will each live to be at least 85, so we have many trips ahead of us!

And finally, probably the most local experience we have had to date; sleeping on the ground outside the Varanasi train station.  Upon arrival to the station yesterday evening, we quickly stumbled upon “the other white people” that were quizzically meandering around the place, trying to figure out where to go.  We quickly united and formed a cohesive traveling dream team.  After inquiring about our train several times, I began to feel like I was back in an American airport dealing with Delta Airlines, and actually experienced a severe case of déjà vu.  “One hour delay”.  “Two hour delay”.  “Your train will not come until 4:00 am”.  “Your train will come at 7:30am”.  At 9:00am this morning, we boarded the train that was scheduled to depart at 10:00pm last night.  So, what did we do with 11 hours of free time?  We bought a tarp for 10 rupees, spread it on the ground, polished off a bag of Ritz crackers, and had a little sleepover picnic with hundreds of Indians and several dozen cows outside of the train station.  I would like to say we slept under the stars, but the dust was so heavy in Varanasi, that you could barely see a streetlight.  This morning I brushed my teeth in the parking lot and peed in a hole in the floor, just like everyone else.  Like I said in a previous post, we are survivors, Missy and I.

At the present moment, we are on another long and arduous train journey to Darjeeling, one of our most anticipated stops.  After a 16 hour train ride, we are going to rent a van with our new train station friends; Jennifer, Jenny, and Craig from England; and eventually get to Darjeeling sometime this week.  We will spend three nights in town admiring the beauty of the mountains and tea plantations, and then we are off to spend two nights at Makaibari Tea Estates, an Indian home stay 90 minutes from Darjeeling.  The Washington Post just printed an excellent write up on Makaibari, and apparently all of our meals are homemade and we pick our own tea leaves for our morning tea.  A nice travel agent in Varanasi declared to us one day; “When you are in Darjeeling, you will think you are in heaven.”  I’ll take two please…

p.s. - For pretty pictures of our adventures, check out Missy's blog: http://heremethere.wordpress.com/.  The pictures on my blog serve simply as illustrations.  I do not have the knack, nor the artistic talent for picture taking that Missy possesses.  They are fantastic!


  1. <3 it! I wish I was finding myself :)

  2. It is ludacris that you are not a journalist/novelist. Get that sorted out upon your return. Funny funny. And for the record you guys are hardcore/fearless travellors akin to Christopher McCandless....just stick to the tea leaves and the lassis.

  3. India has an almost endless variety of cultures, landscapes, monuments and places to explore. For more to know about please logon to http://travelmemo.com/asia/best-season-travel-asia-india-thailand-singapore-hong-kong