I arrive at the holy city yesterday morning and it feels truly like a month ago. Not that I know the city, it is a labyrinth. But that you see so much in a short time.
I don’t know if I have told Peter, that my camera batteries (3 of them) all went dead 10 days in. I will have other people’s photos from the group for the last portion of our trek through Tamil Nadu. The last stop a shop keeper leant me his camera as our memory cards matched and he had a charger.
Varanasi is a photographers dream. Everything is worthy of shooting. There is beauty and filth always strung together here, and in photos I am sure it will always look like art. I buy a very cheap camera from a shop and try to take old fashioned photos but it stops working for me, so I have to think of photographing this place in my mind and with words. It is just as well, as everyone wants you to pay them for the privilege of photographing them, even or especially the sadhus, and it also seems to remove me from the fact that I am here, not just for memories sake.
Yesterday, I have a hotel problem upon arrival. Did I mention that when I wrote a month ago? (just kidding). The gist of it was I was booked in a backpackers hotel in the center of the city, where it is most maze like. A sweet old autorickshaw driver came to the railway station form the guest house to pick me up and right away I knew I was in a bit of a pickle. He had no teeth, his rickshaw was barely running. At one point, it would not start and he got very quiet and slumped. I thought the man was having a catatonic episode. I asked him if he was ok and he rose and said “yes mam, I am praying to the lord”. This did not surprise me. People do indeed have so much faith here. And of course the rickshaw came to life and he took me through a harrowing drive through Varanasi towards the hidden guest house. The only reason this place included a pick up is that is the only way anyone could find it.
I was a bit stunned at my situation. I had just traveled from Mahaballipurum to Chennai to Delhi to here. The trains (Delhi to Varanasi), first class, are indeed quite nice in India so that journey 12 hours, was pleasant. I was in a compartment with 3 older, gentile Hindus and they included me in their conversations by speaking English, rather than Hindi, and watching over me. You literally sleep on these trains, the attendants bring bedding and by 10 all of my companions were asleep, in the morning you awake, clean up, go back to sitting formation, have chi, and arrive in Varanasi.
Nonetheless, I was a bit beat and nervous upon arriving in Varanasi and the rickshaw drive and the backpackers hotel was too much for my 40 year old self. So I asked the rickshaw driver to take me to Assi Ghat, the southern most section of the city and designed for those tourists who need some luxury. And now I am staying at the “Palace on the Ganges”. I am literally in the penthouse. A little room on the roof that overlooks the Ganges. I had a large room in the basement last night, very nice but no windows. Today I am the polar opposite, on the roof.
Ok a few thoughts about what I have seen and then I will sign off.
A beautiful gift shop that looks at first like a well-organized shoe box, but has 5 rooms that flow backwards. Each room filled with beautiful items- from clothes, to jewelry, to art, to stationary. You feel swaddled in there, surrounded by pretty handmade things. -an astrological depiction of the business’s fate, given by his gurugi, framed at the entrance for all to see. -stores that have huge futons and pillows, so when you come in you sit and visit. If it looks like a good connection, a young boy is called from the street to get chi or coffee. -The internet cafe/travel agent owner just came and did incense puja and silent mantra recitation in front of the image of a shiva lingum (formless form of shiva shaped well, like a phallus) and then also puja in front of Shiva image and hanuman as well. -I need a tailor; a little boy comes and shows me a card for a tailor. He does not speak, I allow him to guide me wordlessly toward the cards address. He is deaf. We are warned not to follow these boys, but I feel like I can trust him and will go only as far as I feel safe. Everyone along the route knows this boy and I can see their warmth for him. I see the regular people of Varanasi as we walk. We arrive at the tailor shop, it is fine and good. The boy is named Rahul. He is very dear and accepts no money. I see him again today and he takes me a few more places. He makes sure no one cheats me and shows me how things are done at various junctures. I wonder how it must be to live and breathe in this chaotic place and have it be silent.
There is so much more but I should post. I walked the river today, from the south ghat (steps) to perhaps the midway point and saw things that were truly amazing. People all swimming in the Ganges like they are at the beach. Laundry being done in the Ganges and spread out on the steps, how has it come clean, cows, bulls, goats, dogs roaming. Men making cow paddies right below a lovely cafe. little shrines along the way, a very important temple, I sit and listen to live “bhajans” or chanting. A sadhu tells me to sit next to him. At this ghat I go, at the insistence of some little kids to the water and touch my fingers in- move them to my head, third eye, heart. People being burning, funerals going on, but I can’t really see that, the funerals, just the burning. In the end a young man tells me, a mans chest will usually remain as it is the densest bone and a woman’s pelvis. It does not seem morbid or gross. The garbage and filth from living humans is much worse than this.
All for now, love from here, Natasha