Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fear and loathing in Mother India

Lately I have felt that I need to jot down the final legs of our journey. This blog ended rather abruptly with our conquest of the Himalayas in Nepal. Sadly for me, the trip lost its luster the moment I topped out on Gokyo Ri and pun definitely intended, everything was downhill from there for me.

I could not wait to get down from the mountain. Deep in my subconscious the whole trip was really about getting to that place and although I had deeply experienced the rest of the trip, I was finally ready to move forward and see what my new life had in store for me on the Big Island of Hawaii. I just had to get through the next few weeks and those were the weeks I was deftly afraid of.

In Nepal, we had attempted to forecast how long our money would last before we needed to finish our trip. We decided that it was almost time to go home so in Kathmandu we bought an onward ticket for the 18th of October with a destination of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The cost to fly to our new home from Kathmandu was insane and so we needed cheaper jumping off point. The new plan was that we would travel through northern India and leave from the chaotic city of New Delhi.

For years, Indian subcontinent was a place I swore I never wanted to visit. It also a place I knew my travel ego would eventually have lead me to, whether I felt I was ready to conquer it or not. Cindy and I had often talked about my unfounded fears of this country, and even now having survived the experience of travelling about in only a small part of it, the thought of returning causes me to constrict in unimaginable places. It’s weird I know. I'm a semi seasoned traveler. I have been to numerous places all over the world with no safety net. Most of my best travel memories are from developing countries and if you have been one of the few foolhardy enough to have read much of this blog over the years, you would know I have even attempted to live in eastern Africa. But the thought of traveling in this place, this country, this enormouse sub-continent, I was afraid of. Irrational I know, but still I was afraid. Worst of all, was the whopper of a lie I had told both Cindy and myself when we initially planned the trip. I had assured both of us that I was finally feeling ready to tackle my phobia of the place and would be willing to spend some time there. Now there was no going back. The only way home was to head south.

The process to secure our tourist visas took numerous mind numbing trips to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. While we waited for the endless beaurocracy of paperwork to wend its way to India and back, we escaped the din of Kat by staying outside of town with a mildly interesting, mostly annoying stay at a wannabe yogi's retreat outside of town. A week later, Visa's finally in hand, we decided to fly to Varanasi instead of working our way to it over land. For me, it did not help that our landing place was known to illicit nasty repose from even the most hardy of travelers. Mark Twain once described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. “ I was over my head before I even boarded the plane in Kathmandu. Flying straight to Varanasi was a lot like learning to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool and I was dead wrong about how I would react when the full force of mother India hit me square in the face.

Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC and is the center of the Hindu universe. Anyone who dies in Varanasi attains instant Moksha or enlightenment and hence breaks the cycle of having to be reborn again. It is a city of death where old people come to spend their final days. It’s a city of pilgrims who come to the waterfront flights of steps, called Ghats, to bath in the Ganges polluted waters for their daily ablutions. Hindus consider the water of the Ganges the elixir of life. In reality it is heavily polluted with toxic waste and heavy metals from the factories upstream. Add to the mix human body parts and I think you will see why I was a bit sheepish about going too near the water.

We arrived in the late afternoon and were met by a driver from the guesthouse that I had booked a reservation with a few days before. It was situated on the banks of the Ganges river and cars were not allowed in the area so we were dropped off about ½ a mile from our destination. We were then led by foot through a warren of streets and back alleys. Fighting the crush of people and trying not to slip on the sidewalks filled with cow shit and other semi viscous fluids, I tried to ignore where I was and not get too anxious about the place. Right. Like that was going to happen. That night Cindy and I ventured out into the streets in search of a cash machine and I panicked. I found the crush of humanity too overwhelming and could not wait to get back to the compared stillness of our lodging. I’m sure I would have cried in my pillow if I had not found it so distasteful and vile smelling.

The whole next day I never left the guest house. I breakfasted, whiled away too much time of the surprisingly fast internet, and spent an obscene amount of time sitting on the public balcony outside our room watching the world unfold below me. I sat for hours. Not participating. Just watching. Finally, ever so slowly I started to accept where I was. Cindy, in her natural element had ventured out on her own that morning and returned in the evening full of stories and encouragement. By late that evening, I started to emerge from my shell, and felt that I would be ready to again face the bedlam in the morning.

The next morning I ventured out on my own to a spot just down from our Guesthouse that Cindy had visited the day before. Just passed the holy men, the beggars and the rotting hulks of abandoned boats was another Ghat . A Ghat where bodies were cremated. Smoke from the fires is was thick in the air and added to the pollution of the city. Much to my relief it only smelled of burning wood and not roasting meat and flesh. Cords of wood were stacked anywhere that there was room. On the steps of the Ghat, in floating barges, next to the buildings and anywhere else there was free space. Some of the logs were as thick as a man and others just the size of small kindling. The poor can only afford a small amount of wood to help finish off their loved ones and their fires were small and wispy. The rich are wealthy enough to buy large amounts of wood to completely surround the wrapped corpse in a voluminous blaze of flame.

It was an incredible and strange scene like so many things I saw in India. Cows were warming themselves by the funeral pyres, dogs and goats wandered around looking for scraps to eat, and poor men having finished washing themselves in the river attempted to dry their clothes near the embers of other dying and abandoned fires. Affluent looking men, the sons of the deceased, stood by the fires looking out of place in all the smoke and debris. They were often bald because tradition dictates that they shave their heads except for a small tuft of hair left near the top. As the oldest son in the family, their job would be finish the burial ceremony after the bodies are turned to ash, by tipping the remains into the river.

I idled around for a while taking it all in and realized that I wasn't as quite addled about my surrounding as I was the night before. I returned to the guest house and to Cindy and let her know that although still apprehensive, I was ready to take in more of the city. A week later we decided to fly to Delhi instead of taking the train because I knew that I was not ready to tackle that beast. We spent another week taking in the sights around New-Delhi and even rented a driver for a day to take us down to see the Taj Mahal and then back again.

A year later, looking back at the whole experience I can even say that I enjoyed parts of quick trip in India but I'm not sure if I will ever go back. Only time will tell.