Monday, May 14, 2012

Where NOT to scuba

Varanasi.  Oldest city in India, self proclaimed “oldest living city in the world”, last stop on my Incredible India tour.  At +/-3000 years old, Varanasi is known as the place to die, people from all over coming here for such reason.  It is said that if you die here, you get a free pass into heaven.  Sweet, sign me up for 81 years from now :)  
We’re told you haven’t visited unless you’ve gotten lost :). The gnarly “streets” are narrowly larger than a supermarket aisle, a far cry from orthagonal, with ancient buildings towering up on either side... and of course the intermittent temple thrown in! Cows, stray dogs, chickens, bikes, and tons of excrement trying to share this tiny space. You really could not navigate these without the help of the zillion tiny business shop owners, and kind kids who want to practice their english, like the one who led us out for 5 minutes of zig zagging. We only went thru this once... that was enough!  This city is much like other Indian cities in that it’s crazy: crowded, polluted, noisy, and people everywhere selling things you don’t want to buy....all the while enchanting! It’s big difference though, the main attraction and why it’s worth a visit; is the Ganges river. You can walk continuously along the river’s edge, a funky stroll over all sorts of steps  (called ghats) and promenades. Stop for a chai, watch the kids playing cricket or the water buffalos doing their thing. One morning we learned mantras and practiced meditation w/ 10 yr old hustlers-in-training, and another evening we sat and bs’d with their real adult counterparts :/. I think Varanasi’s best charm though, is to take it all in from the water, on a little row boat. This is wonderful, especially for just $3 each. We did it at sunrise and sunset - both super shanti shanti :)  Quiet, cool breeze, sit back and “just enjoy” says everyone; admire the ancient architecture, the multitudes of ceremonies, and gawk at the 1000’s of people bathing in the 5th most polluted river in the world.  As much as I love morning, I liked the sunset ride better... the moon bright, the pujas vibrant, and it’s easier to imagine the water is clean when you can’t see it :) 

Oldest city in India!

Watching the puja at night from the boat! 

Cricket on the Ghats!

Water buffalo, bathing, laundry, boats= Varanasi! 

Walking all along, at least 10 people will ask if you want a boat ride

Sunrise puja... still pretty great :)

Pretty morning

Getting our hindi on

Our hotel guy says there are three things that happen 24/7 in Varanasi:  haggling the tourists (reaaaalllly really endemic here), river bathing (yep, always) and burning bodies.
Yes, like actually burning dead bodies, publicly, right there on the riverbank, matter-of-factly called the “burning ghat”.  The process is very ritualistic. The ornate cloth-wrapped body is dipped in the river for it’s last bathing, water poured in it’s mouth for it’s last drink, the family then circles the body. It gets placed on a new wood pile, everyone gets their own. After three hours total, only the hip bones of women or chest bone of men remain, and get thrown in the river (how interesting these bones are the only that don’t burn- Hard working men and child bearing women-the strongest parts of each of us? ).  We watched for 15 minutes.  They were bringing a fresh body from the water, and set it down about 6’ from us. They started unwrapping the ornate cloth and I was kindof scared to see. Luckily they left the last cloth layer, but you could easily make out the lax form as they transferred it to it’s final position. Just past this, the cloth had burned off another body, exposing a bare foot. It was intense: the heat, the atmosphere... I was quite neutral though, stoic really.  Not bad or good, just unique. I suppose if I’d seen more than a foot it might be different... good thing it wasn’t because “crying isn’t allowed.. then the dead will forever be sad.” Women of the family are not allowed, for the crying reason, and also because they have a “weak heart”, widows have been known to throw themselves onto the fire of their late husband.  
In a way it was beautiful. It is a common thought/ belief/ saying in India, that “we are not human beings with a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings with a human experience.” I like this. The real person is gone, just the body left behind.  I love the idea of cremation (and will have this) rather than burial, especially having it done outside! Rather than rotting away underground, some of our body flies off in the wind as smoke, traveling who know where... still having adventures :) 

I didn’t see it myself, but I guess there are certain people who don’t get burned (Non-Hindu, children under 10, pregnant women, etc) so their body just gets dumped in the river.  Whoa. Ganges river at Varanasi, #1 place I would NOT want to scuba dive! Eww
There are certain people who don’t get burned (Non-Hindu, children under 10, pregnant women, etc).  so their body just gets dumped in the river.  Whoa. Ganges river at Varanasi, #1 place I would NOT want to scuba dive! Eww


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