Thursday, March 7, 2013

Smoked, Choked and Broke

We leave the paradise that is Pashan Garh:

And land in the miasma that is Varanassi.  I'm surprised the plane can descend, the air seems solid.  The city smells of curry, charcoal and cow pies.

A city the size of Chicago (3.5 million people) cooks mostly on charcoal or, for the poorest, dried cow pies mixed with straw.  You see them drying everywhere, brown discs stuck on walls, still bearing the maker's handprint.  Hope she washes her hands before dinner. 

The air is flavored and hazy with burning cow dung, charcoal and incense.  We drive from the airport until the bus can go no further, the streets are too narrow and the traffic harrowing.

We pile into rickshaws...  

Vivek chose them.  Our guy has that ready-for-rehab look.  Or maybe that Too Late For Rehab.  I wouldn't have gotten in an elevator with him, but we trust Viv so we climb in.

The rickshaws are not built for the American body - we call it the Three Cheek Seat.  As we are in pairs, the seat's one cheek short.  You have to hang partly off the seat, brace one foot against the twisted metal seat support, and hang on for dear life.  We all end up slightly bruised.

As we head for the ghats we think the traffic is bad. We are so naive.  We have no idea what really bad traffic is...yet.

The Ganges looks like 30 weight oil that's gone way too long between changes, and all 3.5 million people must be here on the riverbank.  People are waving fire around, bells and gongs are slanging, everyone with a horn is blowing it - the priests have conch shell horns, the cars have loud ones.  The cacophony is numbing. 

We pile into boats - the water is paved with people.  Young boys hop from boat to boat selling bindi (jewels for your forehead), flowers, candles and postcards.  I think about our kids being ferried about, strapped into FDA approved car seats, anchored in giant SUVs. surrounded by air bags.  Parents at home would freak.

Every evening Hindu priests light wicks in a puddle of ghee, and float the lit wicks in a shallow bowls surrounded by flowers down the river, bidding farewell to the sun and thanking the river for another day.  

We each light a wick in a flower-filled cup, make a wish and reach over the side to set them in the water.  Fred accidentally  dips his hand in the water and hollers like a girl (sorry Fred, but you did carry on).  A warning to us all - we are very careful not to touch the water.  There isn't enough hand sanitizer in the world.  My wish came true - I didn't touch the water.


We drift drift down past the cremation fires that burn 24 hours a day.  A wrapped body lies on the stairs, awaiting its turn.

Our wooden boat has a loud rattling engine that the skinny-kid skipper starts occasionally - with a crank.   And a roar.  The engine must be older than my grandmother.

The lights from shore leave long shimmering streaks on the water.  It is magical.

We try to get back to the rickshaws before the ceremony ends, but between the crush of traffic and the twisty lanes and alleys, we miss the window.  By the time we find the rickshaws for the ride home the ceremony is over and we are belly-to-butt in a seething mass of walkers, rickshaws, cars, cows, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, wooden carts and vans.  We follow the bouncing dot of light from Jai’s cellphone held high above his head - our lifeline in the confusion.  It's like a nightmare version of Sing-Along-With-Mitch.  I can’t even get my arms up to take a picture, it’s so crowded.  It makes the afternoon’s traffic look like a Sunday school outing. 

On the way home our rickshaw driver scrapes his way past a white van filled with European tourists, their faces pale and drawn.  They’re trying to look calm and cosmopolitan, not shocked and scared.  Not working.  They look at us like we’re nuts - we return the favor.  When we see them the next morning at breakfast they won't meet our eyes.  

When we finally get back to the hotel and are chattering and laughing and euphoric, someone asks Greg if he’d like to sit.  He says “Actually I prefer to stand, since between the plane ride and the rickshaw, I’ve been in the fetal position for most of the day.”  We crack up.

Back to the ghats tomorrow.

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