A Travellerspoint blog

A note from the present: I'm doing WHAT in India?

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Of course, most people who know me are aware that I'm not currently slogging up mountains in Nepal. They may or may not know that I'm actually on an organic farm near Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, doing something very similar to WOOFing for a week. I apparently seem to still be in the mountains according to my blog because I'm laboriously typing up and editing diary entries written on long train or bus journeys. I don't like doing things out of order, but I would like to write about more immediate things. I'm hoping that I'm at least writing about India by the time I leave! I'm scuppered at the moment as I'm on a farm with only mobile internet available. So no photos from anything other than my rubbish phone camera, and no regular entries for this week.

Today was the first day on the farm. We arrived late last night after a seven hour train journey, and after being swarmed by rickshaw drivers, and then some young guys who wanted to practise their English, we got a tuk tuk that sped us into a dark, chilly night, got slightly lost, and then left us at a mostly pitch-black farm thrumming with inexplicable rave music beneath fantastically glowing stars - with no idea where to go. After ringing the owner, who seemed to have been asleep, a man appeared in the doorway of the nearest building and gestured further down the path. A large thatched hut with a kind of courtyard and several rooms awaited us. In the kitchen we found two WOOFers sat in wicker chairs by a fire in a clay/earthen stove, and a cold dinner of potato curry, dal, rice and chapattis waiting for us in a cupboard. We warmed the chapattis on the stove whilst hearing about the farm (and apparently scream-inducing icy showers) from our companions, both of whom left this morning. They told us that hardly anyone speaks English and that timings are sort of fuzzy - someone would wake us in the morning.

Someone did - one of the WOOFers, later than expected. We had a kind of gruel with curd for breakfast and then started work - raking and carrying away old straw from a hut being demolished, and collecting and passing more for a new one being erected in its place. A gruff old guy in a shirt and dhoti appeared in charge of the arcane process of thatching. It's true - hardly anyone speaks English and we got instructed mainly through sign language. Not sure we helped much - a lot of standing round, waiting to be gestured at.

This evening we ate incredibly spicy mutton curry with the owner, his nephew and his friend, Kri, who spoke more English than anyone. Though of little use, in I'm glad for some smattering of Hindi we learnt in Varanasi. It's good to be able to say 'what is that' even if you can't understand the answer, and to be able to say, 'good food!' Both lunch and dinner we ate the Indian way, entirely with our hands.

I'm glad we are now doing something other than sightsee. If we can't converse with 'real Indians' we can at least work alongside them. And after our week here, our plan is Jaisalmer, followed by Rishikesh and an ashram for me. And then we fly to other shores. The end of our time in India feels too close - hence the sudden plans to not spend ALL our time as complete tourists.

The scheduled mountain programme will resume after I've finished being rural!

Posted by wanderingwolf 00:13 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan farming Comments (0)

More Jaipur: Indians in India??! (Om shanti shanti...)

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View World Wander #1 on wanderingwolf's travel map.

We had our first encounter with the Indian postal service in Jaipur. This crazy three hour experience involved being told to go to the Customs Office on the first floor of the post office. In this dusty and largely unmanned place, seemingly the designated area for hibernation, we at last got the attention of a customs officer who viewed us with surprise, asked us what we wanted to post home, and brusquely told us we didn't need to be there when we gave the vague answer "souvenirs". Back downstairs we joined a sluggish queue before someone told us we needed to fill in a form (no instructions provided) and give it and our package to the post office tailor (no, that's not a typo), who would SEW up our parcel in white cotton and seal the corners with hot wax before attaching the form, rolled up into a scroll, to one corner. Maybe the same system has been in place since the days of the British Raj?

Conventional tourist stuff first...

One Jaipur 'sight' is the Jantir Mantir, an archaic astrological/astronomical observatory built by some historical bigwig. Nowadays it's an opaque collection of what looks like pieces of dull public modern art paired with plaques written by someone who knew a lot about astrology and nothing about writing, and further pair-able with a sickening audio guide ("I'm so excited to know so much about astrology!"). Angles and meridians made me glassy-eyed; starsigns did the same to Rich. Avoid!

Put it in a suburban street square and no one would be paying to look at it.

Put it in a suburban street square and no one would be paying to look at it.

Our next stop was Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort, the historic seats of the Rajputs (basically, Rajasthani old-time bigwigs). Running low on time we caught a ride up to Jaigarh Fort, the less publicised of the two but the more interesting. Atmospheric and more obviously military than the Palace below, it glowed orange in the setting sun and was infested with langur monkeys, who gambolled boldly alongside visitors.

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We walked rather impressive battlements guided by a guy in military dress who looked like he'd been installed there in the days of the Raj (for once our volunteer guide was welcome – few explanatory plaques here) and wandered into an armoury to look at sixteenth-century cannons. Jaigarh Fort houses the largest cannon in the world, which you aren't allowed to photograph as apparently it's still 'confidential military information'. ...Right.

Gasp! India has been severely compromised by this photo.

Gasp! India has been severely compromised by this photo.

Amber Palace we rushed through, but there's a lot less to it – impressive facades but little atmosphere, and lots of corridors that looked like the setting for some historical drama in which a central character walks towards the camera and is given information by others emerging from doorways either side. What could a guide have said? "This is where the King and Queen used to perambulate", "this is where the King and Queen brushed their teeth" and "these windows provided light to the King and Queen", perhaps. Go to Jaigarh over Amber!

Yet another palace.

Yet another palace.

Less conventional tourist stuff – we met ACTUAL Indians! In India, as well!

A smiling guy approached us on the street, pleading with us to come and chat with him about our experiences of India in order to help him with a pHD project. He smiled, bowed and insisted that it would take 10 minutes in the nearest coffee shop. At first Jayni noted down our wooden responses to his request for '10 Good and Bad Things about India'. All our most memorable experiences hadn't been great – the delayed train journey, the food poisoning, the aggressive touts. I said something limp about India being colourful, and felt such a tourist. The conversation progressed from there – it became about what he saw as the need for change in India, the continuing influence of caste, and how far away India is from liberal attitudes towards women. He said that "all Indian women do is eat and watch TV and wait for their husbands". He said he wouldn't marry an Indian woman for this reason, but also described how he'd been about to marry a woman once but had been rejected by her family as a 'dirty Arab'. He said only very wealthy Indians could be liberal, and even they still obeyed caste. He explained how lots of people change their names as a way of disguising caste, and that caste continues to have influence because it allows marriages between people with the same ritiuals, food, ways of speaking... I hadn't appreciated the gulfs between castes could run that deep! He also talked about the filth in Varanasi, and how attitudes to waste disposal would take generations to change. He seemed friendly and reasonable, but we became wary when he wanted to book us a rickshaw and take us shopping, and wriggled away. As much as he might have tried to squeeze some commission out of us at the end, it was a genuinely fascinating encounter.

A night later whilst dodging touts down a crowded market street a voice called after us: "Hello? Excuse me?" A floppy-haired, peaceful-looking guy tapped Rich on the shoulder and asked, without any hint of anger, why tourists did not want to speak to locals. We explained that this was not the case, but that because so many were touts just wanting to sell to us it was easier to ignore everything. He invited us to go and drink chai with him in a tiny place crammed with locals who stared at us in surprise. Nitesh represented another side of India, one rarely seen. One of the most relaxed-looking people I've ever met, appearing half-asleep as he sipped chai, he spoke little and in a considered way about how difficult it is to find the spiritual in India. He described how India was changing, becoming more materialistic. He talked of the value of stillness, of meditation, and explained that he was not a Hindu – "I believe all things mean the same thing". At one point he closed his eyes and chanted "ooommm shanti" at us very slowly (we referred to him afterwards as 'Om Shanti'). I asked him how the sadhu lifestyle is viewed – would his family be happy if he became a sadhu? He said they would understand – they would know that he had an especial sense of the divine.

Imagine the reaction in the UK! "Hey everyone, I'm going to give up all my earthly possessions and wander the world searching for the divine, smoking hash along the way." Less light-heartedly, inwardness is not socially acceptable for many 'Westerners'. I can't imagine the horror being much less if I announced I was going to become a nun. It is not visible, it is not rational, it doesn't lead to worldly success. Yet there is a kind of searching that is unanswered by what UK-European-Western society tells us to do, but is admitted in India. I don't simply mean 'searching for God'. I intend it more generally – searching for a point, for some different understanding of yourself in the world that is not a job or relationship. You're permitted to be 'confused about what you will do' but what you will do is one of those things, not anything else. Sadhus may not find the 'answer', but too many people lose their lives in the doing, and can only apprehend another region where they never hunted, even if there may be nothing to be found. Sometimes in bookshops I know I'm doing that searching when I pick up the ones that refer to meditation or yoga or whatever – and then I know I haven't found what I wanted when I see something about chakras or crystals or mantras, and my brain rebels, and I think: not this, not for me. And I keep searching because I want to find a path, I want to read something galvanising - how easy it would be to find something spectacular, to declare yourself a Zen Buddhist, give that searching a name and a direction! I've veered into religion again here, but religion is only one response.

Om Shanti bought us the chai, and departed without trying to sell us anything. And those two meetings – with a progressive India of the future, materialistic but politically aware, agitated and expressive, and a spiritual one, a meditative one, calm, and increasingly rare – stay with me more than any fort.

Whoa, did we get too serious? Here's some interesting Indian restaurant decor for a change of mood. These guys gave us a surprise coming down some stairs.

Whoa, did we get too serious? Here's some interesting Indian restaurant decor for a change of mood. These guys gave us a surprise coming down some stairs.

Posted by wanderingwolf 08:35 Archived in India Tagged india forts jaipur spirituality Comments (0)

Disco palaces and a labyrinth of stares: women + India

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View World Wander #1 on wanderingwolf's travel map.

At last, Rajasthan! The land of elephants and camels, forts and palaces. As soon as we stored at our hotel I felt we were in a different world. We wandered into a reception that resembled the living room of a rich eccentric: the table in the centre displayed magazines several years out of date and was surrounded by chairs with ornate inlays showing Mughals, the walls were festooned with dark furniture and a suit of armour, and another table held about five ancient telephones. It took further wandering to discover our host, who appeared to be similarly old and eccentric (his description of how to get around the surrounding streets was more a descriptive exercise than of practical use).

Weird, eh?

Weird, eh?

In the morning the famous Pink City of Jaipur turned out to be orange. It's appropriate, given the rest of this this entry, that the first thing we saw was the Hawa Mahal, a kind of gilded five-storey mask for the court ladies: a tower of marble lattices and little windows through which they could view the plebs below. My favourite level was 'disco palace', where the window panes were of a lurid, coloured glass.

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Then we fell – okay, I fell – into the clutches of the markets and ended up with part of a sari (gorgeous material, but for me wearing a sari feels like being wrapped up as a Christmas present). After a traumatic experience at a restaurant (Rich discovered that an espresso in Jaipur can mean instant coffee with milk), we ran out of time to do anything else, and resolved to tackle more the next day. This was not to be; as I recovered, Rich was struck down and was in bed most of the day. I ventured out alone to the Pink City to pick up a salwar kameez suit (the long tunic and trousers worn by many Indian women as the light alternative to a sari) I had ordered.

One of the hardest things about India is how much your gender suddenly matters. You walk through a labyrinth of stares, and learn to seek that gap. You know that reacting to comments will just lead to trouble, that returning a stare is seen as an invitation. Not all the time, of course, but enough of the time to make you wary. You travel to another country and hope to meet people, but the context means you close yourself and walk on, and pretend to be deaf. The stares aren't always flirtatious - they may just be curious, but they are intimating in how relentless they are. To what extent do you change yourself to avoid them? Can you? My guidebook says no to exposing the knees, that vest-tops are risqué. I have only vest-tops so I cover my shoulders with my hippy wrap, a purple thing with wizard sleeves that probably is the social equivalent of parading through town on a giraffe. But it's me.

Hippies in the Hawa Mahal, wizard sleeves and all.

Hippies in the Hawa Mahal, wizard sleeves and all.

Adopting local dress is another technique, and luckily even before I started traveling I looked forward to buying beautiful, colourful salwar kameez (a long tunic with baggy trousers). But does it make any difference? I'm not sure. The stares have been the same, and after a group of Indian women erupted into giggles as I passed by with my sari fragment I suspect it's like a giraffe in drag. I've mentioned the friendlier side of public curiosity as well: the number of people (usually teenage boys but also families) wanting photographs – our rickshaw driver at Agra wanted a snap, and at Agra fort we were so bombarded by people that we had to say no as they were costing us time.

Back at the Taj, wearing a salwar kameez suit.

Back at the Taj, wearing a salwar kameez suit.

Here even the horses keep up appearances.

Here even the horses keep up appearances.

Back to me on my own. The stares were continual as I entered the Pink City. After managing to get lost (impressive as the Pink City is famously built in a grid) I richocheted between various helpful shop-owners (and by the way, did I want to see their wares?) before at last finding the right place. I can totally do this, I thought, and felt very accomplished as I bartered with my guy and said 'no' multiple times. It's refreshing, saying no that many times. Returning I found Rich still 'indisposed', so I decided to grab dinner alone at a restaurant a couple of streets away. Unfortunately this involved crossing a major Indian road – a hectic torrent of rickshaws and motorcyles. The Indian technique of crossing roads is to pretend that you're a vehicle as well. You just walk out. No one slows or anything; they simply behave as though you are another rickshaw, and that you'll continue in roughly the same direction at a consistently crazy speed. When I panic I tend to leap around. Hmmm, I thought.

I waited and waited for the gap that never came, and a rickshaw slowed down beside me and the driver started offering his services. "I just want to cross the road... I'm not paying you to take me across the road!"

Eventually he took pity on me, leapt out of the rickshaw, seized me by one arm and marched me into the flood of traffic. "It's easy," he kept saying; "I die! I die!" I kept saying back. We got across.

In the restaurant I bumped into someone we'd met trekking in Nepal. Whilst chatting, an Indian guy sat down at a table near us and opened the paper. My friend left before finishing as, like everyone else in Jaipur, he wasn't feeling too great. As I ate his leftovers the stranger started speaking to me. At first it was the commonplace: where was I from? Why was I in India? Had I seen Jaipur yet? Had I seen Amber Palace? No, I hadn't? Then: he could take me to Amber Palace. We could watch the sunset there together. He could be my guide in every respect. I had such beautiful eyes. I lamely said something about going around Jaipur tomorrow with my husband, how he was waiting for me at the hotel. Claiming to be married can be an easy way of dealing with some Indian curiosity; the idea of an unmarried couple is quite weird in India, and sometimes we've not had the energy to be ambassadors for Western ideas about liberal lifestyles. So much for independence, I thought bitterly, but no matter – this guy's purpose was not to be blunted. I should leave with him now, we could see the sunset, if I needed ANYTHING I need only ask him, did I want to eat the food from his plate. With this last veer from the merely creepy into the creepy and desperate he finally noticed I'd stopped responding, and that other heads had turned. He sat back and lapsed into silence. Rattled, I ate and paid as quickly as possible before exiting.

The rickshaw driver had waited for me. "I can drive you back to your hotel," he announced. "Look, I just want to cross the road, my hotel's really near," I said, and stared hopelessly at the ongoing stream of tuk-tuks, bikes, cycle-rickshaws, dust, so on. "Ten rupees, and I'll take you across!" "I'm not paying you to take me across a road." "I'll take you across for FREE!" "For free? Okay!" I leapt in, and he performed a casual U-turn in the centre of the maelstrom. "Ten rupees and I'll take you to your hotel," he shouted as I jumped out. "No," I bellowed back.

"Ooh la la!" he called after me, sounding more amused than annoyed. "OOH LA LA!"

I'm thinking the sari fragment counted as my 'disco palace'... So much for the 'New Woman', whatever that's meant to be, anyway (I wish I could link to a relevant post about gender binaries, but in this context we're pretty much time travellers).

Posted by wanderingwolf 08:07 Archived in India Tagged india women jaipur Comments (0)

Agra in 3 Days: "it is not allowed to paint the Taj Mahal"

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View World Wander #1 on wanderingwolf's travel map.

Finally, Agra - a place where we'd been told to 'be careful' as people would rob us in the street, a setting that I feared would be tourist-crazy, an ugly picture frame for spectators. We stayed in a hostel near the Taj... surely the worst place for that? I arrived with my gut twisting with the same awful feeling it had in Varanasi. I wondered, will I ever eat rich curries and spicy parathas again?

And outside the Taj loomed in the night, and emerged from the morning mist like a fairy thing, something created overnight that could vanish any minute. A huge mythic thing, just up the road...

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On our first day we sought lesser wonders, and visited Fatehpur Sikri – the short-lived capital of the Mughal Empire before Akbar changed his mind. After an over-long bus journey we had lunch at a hotel whose grounds were swarming with yellow miniature hornets (I asked if they were dangerous as they were prevalent around the toilets, and was given a wide-eyed 'not really' and ushered into the nearest empty hotel room to do my business), and then had a minor mission to get out money (broken ATM, twiddling of thumbs in a bank). We then accidentally went to the nearby Muslim divine's tomb rather than the main palace complex – nonetheless beautiful, a white marble building with screen walls – marble that had had millions of chunks removed to create intricate patterns – sat in the centre of a huge square, the entrances of which are dominated by the many teardrop archways one thinks of as stereotypically Arabian (never mind this is India!). Because of our bus and bank shenanigans we were short on time, and so didn't resist when a boy appeared and assumed the role of guide. It was a whirlwind tour, fun and partially incomprehensible; he babbled about separate tombs for men and women as we stepped between the stones, about how the screens were one piece of marble, etc, ushered us, heads covered, into the tomb, told us to make a wish – and then led us to his family's 'marble' stall, and successfully sold us probably alabaster or soapstone candlestick holders and ornaments. It was worth the sight of Rich sighing and saying 'oh all right' when one for 450 became two for 600 and then three for something else. We reached the palace complex and had a nice if confusing wander before starting back.

One of said marble screens.

One of said marble screens.

Where the hell are we?

Where the hell are we?

Agra was unexpectedly full-on for senses other than vision. In the late afternoon some gigantic speakers appeared on our street, and almost comically large megaphones encrusted a couple of lamp posts. Ear-splittingly loud music poured out of these, as well as the incoherent screaming of a man with a microphone. It did not initially sound too bad or too loud – we ate out at a rooftop restaurant, and in a somewhat subdued mood – Rich latterly for the very concrete reason that the waiter forgot his order, and I for a combination of things – for being ill and having to eat dull food, and because of the Russian girls filming themselves dancing to music on their phones at the next table, and drinking beer, and attracting the attention of a 'photographer' in a rather clichéd manner (all right, so I was kind of jealous of the mindless fun they were having). Then as we got back to our room we realised how loud and awful the sound had become – catering to little or no audience, and rattling our windows with its volume-distorted blare. This continued all night long. Tired and irate, we asked the hotel manager about it, and he explained that it was a small section of the city's Shi'ites mourning the death of Hussain in a way that most people disagreed with.

That next day we got an all-day rickshaw to take us around everything that wasn't the Taj – as there ARE apparently other things in Agra! We began with Agra Fort, its walls a vibrant, glowing red, and a part of its insides an exquisite white marble. As with Fatehpur Sikri, not much was signposted and we had trouble working out where one of the Shahs had sat and watched elephants fight, etc (did I mention the ludo board where Akbar apparently played with live dancing girls at Fatehpur Sikri?).

Shah Jahan's elephant fight seat...

Shah Jahan's elephant fight seat...

...And Akbar's ludo board for dancing girls...

...And Akbar's ludo board for dancing girls...

Afterwards we went to the Friday Mosque not far away, a large red impressive building, the neighbourhood of which our Hindu driver was reluctant to wait in for long (afterwards he spoke about there having been violence and trouble in that district). We had delicious thalis at a small, dingy, very local-looking place, whose owners broke into grins when I tried out my Hindi – “aachar kana hay!” In trying to find the entrance to the mosque we stumbled through a dense covered market filled with locals buying textiles – until almost the last stall no one tried to sell to us!'. Unfortunately as soon as we entered the mosque, a man who paraded as a devout appointed himself a guide and demanded a large tip. We escaped to our driver, and then went and saw the Baby Taj (again, extremely beautiful... again, white marble...) and then the tomb of Shah Jahan's vizier, where green parrots fought and picked off the remains of the blue stones covering the outside to dash them on the ground. Throughout all this we were repeatedly approached by Indians wanting to have photographs with us, and who all seemed embarrassed when asked why.

The 'Baby Taj'

The 'Baby Taj'

We then drove to the bank opposite the Taj to watch the sun go down. There was, though not as obviously as promised, a subtle play of colour from white to yellow to grey, as the sun sank into the fuggy twilight seemingly endemic to Indian cities.

Rehearsing traditional 'Taj stance'.

Rehearsing traditional 'Taj stance'.

That evening we went to Joney's Place, eating delicious food produced in the smallest kitchen I've ever seen.

Seriously, this was the kitchen...

Seriously, this was the kitchen...

We slept in peace, and got up at some crazy hour to have breakfast in the same place with some other tourists before joining the already sizeable queue. The time had come to see the Sight, the spectacle that outshone all the others.

Yes, it's real.

Yes, it's real.

People go on about seeing the sunrise at the Taj, but the doors don't open until then. It didn't matter. The Taj was... actually fantastic. Increasingly magnificent as the sun climbed, a fabulous yellow tinged white, it was so vast that we seemed to walk towards it forever without it appearing any closer, as though we faced some vast optical illusion. The inside was elaborate but nowhere near as impressive as the outside. I thought, I can't believe I'm here, and I'm glad I did it, I made it. I remained for a long time, and tried an unsuccessful sketch that drew much attention. Too much attention – I found myself in a circle of guys, posing for a photographer who unwisely leapt onto the grass and drew the guards, who then informed me that I “wasn't allowed to paint the Taj Mahal”. (How bizarre...)

"You can't paint the Taj Mahal" would have been more apt. I've become more and more annoyed at being a spectator in India, a voyeur-tourist who looks but does not connect. The Taj Mahal is an exception, maybe the only hypnotic exception. It will not allow the snapshot-and-then-away treatment. Stand and stare. Really, do!

Posted by wanderingwolf 06:04 Archived in India Tagged india mahal taj agra Comments (0)

Benares: City of Light

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View World Wander #1 on wanderingwolf's travel map.

"Varanasi... oh I LOVED Varanasi!" That's a common response. How can it be so, after all this filth and poverty and stress I've gone on about?

Starting small: you see and hear crazy, amazing, ridiculous things in Varanasi. A mother monkey supervising her squealing child outside the window... A boy on a ladder, beginning to paint a deity on a tower to match the elaborate one already shown opposite. The baby goat with outsize ears living on one of the quieter ghats, along with an older, bearded one Rich nicknamed 'sadhu'... An orange-robed human sadhu with white paint on his face and an impressive grey bush of a beard standing by himself at one ghat, doing nothing but stand and look bewildered... The grinning sitar and tabla players who posed happily for a picture with their instruments in the low-tabled, cushioned music room of the Brown Bread Bakery... Tourist Godaulia in the evening becomes a sea of warm, candle-lit, incense-smelling nests above the polluted streets, like candles launched onto the Ganges. I fondly remember the monkey couple we surprised one day over a doorway: I stopped, pointed, and we gaped at them, and one of them, distracted from picking nits out of his sleeping companion, sat up, and his mouth dropped open in the same astonishment: won't you look at them!

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Not all who wander are lost?

Not all who wander are lost?

Real superstars <img class='img' src='http://www.travellerspoint.com/img/emoticons/icon_smile.gif' width='15' height='15' alt=':)' title='' />

Real superstars :)

For every seven touts you want to strangle, there's a kind word, even a kind person. Near our lodge was Fuji Ganga Restaurant, whose affable owner created our first great Indian curries (vegetarian palak, or spinach, goodness), and who stands outside his shop not selling or pressing, just offering advice. I've said that the owner of the Brown Bread Bakery runs a school; we also met Somit, the eager and smiling owner of the Saraswati Education Centre, a charity helping to care and educate street children. He seemed a cheerful, irrepressible guy, undaunted by the scale of the city's problems. Having taken us up one of Varanasi's crazily tall, many-storeyed buildings, Somit sat us down and revealed some very Indian ingenuity: we could potentially volunteer at the charity school, we could eat at Bowl of Compassion, a small in-house cafe offering meals cooked by street children, we could do yoga, we could learn massage, Hindi, meditation, sitar and tabla, Indian cookery, anything. This last we took him up on and through him spent an evening helping, but mainly watching, a local mother and daughter cook us a delicious meal (ah, Indian food!! In Varanasi, hampered by my digestive system, we discovered a whole new flavoursome world of vegetarian curries based on palak, alu (potatoes), gobhi (cauliflower), [/i]channa [/i](chickpeas), etc. Damn you, intestine!).

Our teachers, in the process of showing us to make Indian masala chai, alu gobhi (yummy potato and cauliflower curry, dry and spicy) and alu paratha (chapattis stuffed with spicy mashed potato), seemed to me to represent the rapid, crazy change this place is going through. The mother spoke very little English; her daughter explained that she was a housewife, and that was that. The daughter, meanwhile, spoke perfect English and had studied at Benares University - something media-related, something that made me think of 'the future', whatever that means. We ate the Indian way - scooping up the curry with the paratha with our hands.

But my favourite person in Varanasi is Raju, who teaches Hindi through his business, Pragati Hindi. We had only two classes with him in the end thanks to being so ill, but I loved them, and I loved the language. A kind, careful teacher, he cracked jokes and was generally funny (gesturing and saying "what the hell?" when a screw fell out of his wall fan) and helpful. He warned us to be careful in Agra, told us that "Uttar Pradesh is the worst state after Bihar" and that Rajasthan would be wonderful. He spoke persuasively of Deep Diwali, due to occur a week later, with the Ganges a liquid gold from floating candles and the city alive with an all-night music concert... but that meant staying in Varanasi for longer. And, as Raju laughingly taught us, "Varanasi saf nahi hay" ("Varanasi is not clean").

All year round there is indeed 'life and death' to see on the ghats - a special vision of life and death. Wandering down them we found children trying to sell us postcards, men washing bulls, strange elaborate graffiti that encompassed poetry and gods, and smiling, silent sadhus. The sadhus I saw didn't seem to be the money-grabbing type encountered at Muktinath, and at one point we were tempted to talk to them, to find out about this section of Indian society that has no accepted counterpart at home... but it was such an isolated stretch that we didn't, unsure about how to disentangle themselves. (If I'm there again I WILL try, no matter how much 'karma' it might cost me). Spirituality is the metaphorical heads of the Varanasi rupee, if you're at all interested - and I was and am.

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On an early morning boat ride we saw, at one ghat, hundreds of Indians in vibrant colours pouring milk into the Ganges, bathing, and lastly standing rapt until the sun rose (a dull copper coin emerging from a film of low cloud), and then crying out in jubilation, laughing with joy as though it didn't happen every day. And on the ghat next to them, the Burning Ghat, people huddled silently beside the 24-hour funeral pyres.

Sunrise plays to a large audience in Varanasi.

Sunrise plays to a large audience in Varanasi.

On an evening boat-trip we watched people - so many people - bathing, pouring, even play-fighting in the Ganges, and when the sun departed we launched small candles on beds of paper and orange flowers, before watching the evening puja ceremony performed by the brahmins (the priest caste) on the main ghat. From the river these strange white figures could be seen, making waving motions with incense and pots of fire, in a sequence and ceremony totally opaque, and from our huddle with other boats any sense of spiritual meaning congealed largely from the combination of music and light on water.

So much smoke and mirrors?

So much smoke and mirrors?

But another evening we saw the same ritual on the ghat itself, wedged between Indians and camera-happy tourists. The white figures became solemn-faced boy-men with the otherworldly expressions of stained-glass windows, dressed in elaborate costumes of gold shirts with white sashes and trimmed wrappings beneath, who performed their gestures in front of small gold tables laden with mysterious objects. The waving remained as opaque as before, though this time we could see their faces as they spun to face the different corners of the crowd, see the petals fall after they'd flung flowers into the air, observe that the pots of fire were intricate affairs where the flame appeared as the target or produce of a graven serpent's head. Spectacle still, just more visible. Then we reached the point where our boat had turned around the previous evening and cut our observation short. After more arm-waving and flourishing and dramatically picturesque kneeling, foreheads to the floor, the brahmins picked up small conches from the gold tables, cupped them to their mouths, and blew. The line of young brahmins stood, aligned, all blowing at the same time. And in that, in that strange trumpet-like regal call, something changed - I felt something, in a second imagined how long they'd been doing it, however many hundreds, even thousands of years here, at Varanasi.

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On another wander along the ghats I saw a Westerner ahead of us coming the other way, dressed in a beautiful salwar kameez. I realised that we were approaching the lesser burning ghat, the quieter and less tout-infested of the city's cremation ghats. There are no ominous towers there - nothing but the steps down to the water and the piles of wood and their supervisors. I considered whether it would be inappropriate to ask where she had got the salwar kameez from but didn't see any bodies, so I intercepted her. She seemed a little flustered andblurted "Goa" before walking rapidly away. I saw that Rich had drawn on and was waiting for me, looking uncomfortable. Then I spotted the slack foot poking out of the further fire. I walked on and did not stare, but I did look - and I saw the corpses's head: hairless, eyes closed, teeth shining through the blackened skin of the right cheek. It looked like a model from a documentary about Egyptian mummies - unreal, too strange to be frightening. Afterwards I writhed a little - surely only I could do something as ridiculous as ask someone about frivolities like clothing whilst standing next to a dead body! On reflection that discomfort is a Western, European import. Above that same body sat a group of old men on the steps above, chatting, clearly not feeling anything amiss.

Ye kya hay?! What IS that?? In Varanasi - or Benares, as it's known locally - you will ask that a hundred times a day, whether at another's sunset or at people neck-deep in water that might kill them, or at old men who have decided to search for their gods on the streets... and especially of the spirituality that survives it all. What the hell, you might say. Ye kya HAY?

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Posted by wanderingwolf 07:01 Archived in India Tagged india varanasi spirituality hindi curries Comments (1)

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