“You meet people along the way that you know are important. They’re important so you keep them. The rest, you leave for someone else to find. I choose to be picky. It’s the best choice I can make, and I make it each day.”
She spoke with years of discerning sensibility, reflecting knowledge built up on experience. One day, perhaps I will approach life with this same sensibility. For now, I will listen and learn.
After saying goodbye to our newfound friends, another traveler and I began our journey onward in a taxicab aimed for New Delhi. She had a plane to catch home and I had the next week to plan out. We stopped only twice: once at our request and once at the request of our driver. Barely speaking English, he had made small partitioned conversations as we drove, and was proud to share an elongated view of each temple we passed. Our requested stop was made so that we might scoop up some final tastings of dal masala and chai. Cabby willingly complied and waited in his car while we sat in the sunny field of one of the few roadside restaurants. Before leaving, I ran to the restroom to prepare for the ride ahead and a sweet lady handing out paper towels turned into a toll booth, as she refused to let me leave without a fee. Weighing the options, do I refuse and stay forever in a washroom, or hand over a couple rupees? I of course, chose to stay and now write this from the confines of a washroom somewhere between Jaipur and Delhi.
That or I sucked it up and tipped her a few rupees. Though it seems like such a mundane incident, the ability to access clean toilets when traveling can make or break the day. In countries across Europe and Asia, the bathrooms range from gorgeous white marble spaces smelling of lilacs to the dirties grungiest rooms you’v ever seen, leaving you feeling sorry for the shoes that just walked on those floors and thankful for your breath-holding skills. Traveling, you grow accustomed to carrying a few extra coins in your pouch for easy access for times like this, when the alternative to handing over a few is far less than ideal.
After paying the walking toll, my car mate and I returned back to the plush seats of our taxicab chariot and began again to creep north toward our day’s goal. We gazed out the window, watching families working in fields, children biking on graveled roads, and chuckled at camels and cows traipsing together in awkward gallops.
Cabby, a devout Hindi, pulled over as we neared New Delhi. He hadn’t said much for a while, but had motioned at the yellow fruits as the car slowed, and pointed at his watch to indicate it would be a brief stop. He got out and we followed, using this as a stretch stop. The trees above us were swaying and bowing. Hundreds of monkeys crawled and whined within the grove, and as soon as Cabby walked toward the car with a handful of gold, they leapt to the ground and screamed in excitement. Cabby tossed bananas all around, and the lucky ones grabbed their present, some cradling it like a true treasure and others dangling it in front of their peers. Sweet temptation.
Returning to the car, he explained to us the sacred powers monkeys hold and the respect they garner within the Hindi religion. He spoke of Hanuman, the Monkey God whose orange statue stands proudly near our Delhi home base. Driving that road and passing the fruit stand on a regular basis, stopping to feed the monkeys was part of his devotional practice.
The road became a blur of greens and browns, hypnotizing us with its repetitive field-forest-field display. Like witnessing a mirage in the desert, we wiped our eyes as figures appeared before us. Cabby slowed a bit, but not enough to let our gawking eyes stare as much as we would’ve liked. Rightfully so, as staring in full force would’ve been extremely disrespectful to the men whose naked bodies walked in silence alongside us. A few men carried walking sticks and small leather sacks, but this was all they had with besides bare flesh and wiry hair. Unsure of whether the walkers were real bodies or hallucinations, we asked Cabby about the site. He quickly ended the conversation saying it was none of his business and therefore none of our business. Soon after, we passed more men in matching form, the cool winter sun soaking into their tanned skins and pebbled streets providing little relief to the naturally leathered soles of their naked feet. Pure.
Delhi came and went, and the next day I arrived on the banks of the Ganges. Stories had been shared in yoga classes of instructors cleaning their bodies from the outside in and inside out within the waters of the Ganges River. The most holy river in the world, the Ganges is a spiritual powerhouse, a symbol of life and of the afterlife in the Hindu religion. Many cities breathe its vitality, including the Holy City of India: Varanasi.
What drew me to Varanasi? Well, as with most destinations, when I come across a little tidbit of information that catches my eye, I go with it. When examining a map of India and researching some of the must-sees, one name stood out to my playful eyes: Manikarnika. Do you see it? mANIKArnika. Without researching the meaning or being of Manikarnika Ghat, I decided a trip to Varanasi to see the ghat with my own eyes.
Never did I expect it to be so otherworldly.
The city itself was packed from wall to nonexistent wall with homes temples. So narrow are the cobblestone roads that cars are not able to drive, and wandering cows were often the cause of pedestrian traffic jams. Shouts for lassi and chai were echoed with harmonious chants and families chatting through opened doorways. Arriving after dark, I walked toward the direction of the hostel-like guesthouse I’d be staying in. Many locals offered to lead me to the guesthouse, each with a goal of parting ways in the same toll-road-like manner as the woman in restroom had the previous day. Only this time, a map could do the same good and in the night’s darkness made me feel more confident than a stranger would.
It goes without saying that in those final December days, my bones were frozen all the way through and I spent the night buried once again in the depths of woolen blankets. Cutting my first night’s sleep short, a rapping noise woke me in the early morning hours. With eyes half open, I threw the blankets around my shoulders, stuffed my socked feet into the fashionable loafers I’d purchased at Kuwait’s Souk just for this trip (Side note: Fashionable is a huge overstatement. Not an ounce of fashion in those things, but they were perfect for stepping over and through Varanasi’s poo-filled streets!)
As I waddled to the door and unlocked its many latches, I prepared a smile to greet who I assumed would be one of the others staying at the eclectic guesthouse. Instead, darkness. No one was in the living room and only a faint light shone from the staircase. Excited to be back on the plank-like mattress and under layers of warmth, I returned to bed. The rapping started up again just as I’d covered my head, and continued incessantly until I called out in an elevated whisper, “Just a minute!”
Again, I stood, unhooked the latches, and opened the door to darkness. Then I realized the rapping was coming from outside my window. My third-story window. I peered under the wooden shutters and noticed shadows dancing across the sill. The rapping continued, and as I opened the window’s shutters, two large eyes stared directly into mine. A five-fingered hand reached through the bars and I quickly stepped back, a laughter of both amusement and shock escaping my heart. The hand retreated, and my little perpetuator quickly turned from fearless to fearful. He turned his back on me, and checked left then checked right before jumping to a nearby roof. Soon after, his perch was again occupied, this time by his larger brother. The chase was on. The two monkeys, playing a game of cat and mouse, following each other across neighboring porches and roofs, were my early morning source of entertainment.
Throughout the day, I did my best to get acquainted with Varanasi. Orange temples strewn throughout the city became more familiar, vendors pointed the way toward sought-after places, and I was able to put an order to the Ghats lined up along the River Ganges. These steps leading to the water each have a unique identifier. Some of the Ghats were wide open, clear of any obstructions save the occasional cow or group of children playing with kites. Other Ghats seemed more spiritual, allowing worshipers to bathe in the waters and to send remembrances of large leafs decorated in marigolds and tiny pink flowers into the river. Men bathed in their skivvies and prayed on cement slabs. Holy Cows lazed on the warm cement floors.
One of my favorite sites when touring is to see into barbershop windows. As a little girl I was intrigued by the candy-striped spirals rotating outside barbershops, reminiscent of eras gone by. Moving to the Middle East, I was shocked at the small one-roomed businesses found throughout even the smallest of cities, each offering a large windowed view into a line of leather chairs balanced on pedestals and matched with oval mirrors, a comb and a pair of scissors. Every time I pass, my mind imagines the intellectual conversations those walls might hear and the stale smell of shaving cream with aftershave that must occupy the barbershop’s air.
In Varanasi, I came across a more intimate experience than that which I had imagined within the barbershop walls. A man in his forties squatted in the shadows of a large log pile as an older gentleman held a single blade razor to his head. The men sat in quietude in the open air as strand after long strand fell to the dirt ground beneath. Later, I would learn the symbolism of this silenced ritual.
When a family member dies, he is to be cremated in an outdoor ceremony. Ghats throughout India and Nepal have continuously burning fires, and the Hindi aspire to be cremated in such holy places as Varanasi. Shaving the heads of children of the deceased, particularly the eldest child, is a way to release any egocentrism felt by mourners. What I witness in the backstreets of Varanasi, India was not just another haircut. It was a mourning process. It was a sacred moment which I unknowingly invited myself into. Looking back, I can replay the moments in slow motion, see the hair falling: scalp, shoulder, ground. I can hear the silence that accompanied each tuft hitting a rock-covered ground, adding a second layer of protection from the winter’s frigid cold.
The next day, a young boy took me on his rowboat through the waters to catch another view of the city, and called over a friend’s boat after a few minutes. Too much work, he said. We threw a rope to the other boat, letting Friend lead us up the river with his sputtering motor. The break was a welcomed relief for the rower’s tired arms.
As we passed Manikarnika Ghat, our joined boats slowed to give me an opportunity to see the cremations from the water rather than from the cremation site itself. At our turtle-like pace, we watched as flames rose from the orange-clothed bodies. After wrapping the body of the deceased in orange cloth and arranging displays of marigold atop, mourning families place their loved one one on a wooden stretcher to parade through the city’s streets. Along the way, they’d chant prayers, eventually leading to the Ganges River. With newly shaved heads, immediate family members attend the cremation of their loved ones. For many, the day was one of much anticipation, as arranging a cremation at this holy city’s riverbed was done for each after being placed on a list many months long.
My eyes trailed the ashes skyward, following the slight wind that blew through the chilled air, burning ashes cooled mid-flight and settled down toward the water. As our boat sat blocking ashes’ way toward their final destination, several instead landed upon my lap. I didn’t touch them or blow them away. I simply let them land as they chose.
That night, as is customary for Varanasi’s training Monks, the daily Puja Festival was held. The city’s honorable monk invited me to join his family for the ceremony, offering both a warm place to sit and a front row view. He spoke to the mass that had gathered, and later directed a calming dance of fire, sound, and dance amongst the training monks. After the ceremony was completed, his wife offered to me a cup of Chai and a place to practice yoga in the wee morning hours, on the banks of the Ganges.
Visiting Varanasi was not what I expected. It was so much more – more intense, more beautiful, more peaceful – than I’d expected.