Wednesday, June 13, 2012

India. Part Three.

I'm currently back in the good ole USA and I'm so happy to be here. I love handling dollar bills, calculating distances in miles and going grocery shopping. Life feels easy again. Things that would have been a drag before I left don't bother me so much anymore. I was actually psyched to go to the DMV the other day. I think it's just a matter of familiarity. I know what to expect and that is such a satisfying feeling these days. Even when things don't go as expected, nothing can be more difficult than trying to mail a package in India, for instance. Or catching a bus in Bolivia. Or crossing the street in Saigon. Or trying not to get jumped in Manila...

Last weekend I went to an RV demolition derby in a small town north of San Francisco and I was loving the "trashy" American culture. I even loved the tweenage girl's cringe-inducing, most-horrible rendition of The Star Spangled Banner I've ever heard. Cotton candy and hot dogs--this is what I'm talking about!

It's been great to see all my friends and experience the dreaminess of California again. The sun has been shining strong. Even when that damn fog rolls in I enjoy it. My life here is so different now, and it feels like a good time to move on and live out my next dream in life: moving to New York City. I feel bittersweet leaving San Francisco. I didn't know I had missed it so much. But I know I'll come back to visit often, and that my friends will come visit me on the other coast when they can.

I will never forget the obstacles I overcame. I feel changed in so many ways, but most notably my attitude. I have exceeding amounts of patience, I'm more adaptable and I can just... let... things... go. I improved my negotiating skills, and I think I'm a much better communicator--both verbally and non-verbally. I enjoy the present. Even though my life is in transition right now, I'm doing my best to enjoy each moment and not be overly concerned or anxious about the future. These are the things I'm most thankful for, and though I wasn't necessarily looking for these internal changes before I left, I'm so grateful that they happened.

I also feel incredibly thankful that I made it home in one piece. Monica and I survived this trip. We were talking about it the other day--all those windy roads, bicycle and motorbike trips, thunderstorms, shady meals, and simply putting our life in the hands of so many strangers. I think we had a guardian angel of some sort. We had moments of danger and vulnerability, but things always worked out okay. I'd also say I've become much more spiritual, something that just sort of grew into me and expanded throughout the trip.

I also acquired a life-long friend. I miss sharing a room/bed with Monica. Even though we had our heated moments on the trip, I think it just brought us closer together. We worked through our problems and figured things out together.

Now that I'm back and a little bit settled, I have a lot of blogging to do. I want to write about the third and final part of our India experience (in this post), Nepal, London, Zurich and Romania. I think Monica and I are going to continue keeping up the blog even after we finish writing about the "world trip" adventures, as I'm sure our lives will pursue new ones. So...

My last blog post left off in Jaipur at the Monkey Temple. From there, we stopped in Fatehpur Sikri to visit the Imperial Palace complex.

Expansive courtyard area.
Intricately carved stone at the Jama Masjid mosque.

I was amazed to look up and find colossal beehives in the Buland Darwaaza gateways.

Next we hired an awesome guide who took us to hidden viewpoints of the Panch Mahal palace without actually going inside and having to pay the steep admission fee.

Distinctive view of the Indian horizon, fading off into the dusty sky.
Nice chillin' spot.
Climbing to the roofs of deserted buildings.
Monica and our guide.
Below is the Buland Darwaaza, built by Akbar the Great to commemorate his victory over Gujarat.

And on to the Taj Mahal, the compulsory tourist destination in India.

A classic shot.
Getting in was an accomplishment. At the crack of dawn, our driver took us as far as cars were allowed to go. From there, we were hassled by rickshaw and camel drivers wanting to take us the half mile to the entrance. We walked. The tickets were 750 rupees ($14) for tourists and a mere 20 ($0.36) for Indian residents. Monica, Jenny and I paid extra for the audio guide.

Once we had tickets in hand, we lined up in the queue devoted to "Non-Indian Women," the lowest group on the totem pole. It was the caste system in full effect. Basically, we had to wait until all of the upper-class Indian men were let inside, then the lower-class Indian men, then upper-class Indian women, then lower-class Indian women, then non-Indian men, then it was finally our turn. All of this was made very unpleasant by the swarming mosquitoes and our inability to move around. Who would have guessed that mosquitoes would be feasting at 5:30 a.m.?

We took the usual tourist shots of us on the Lady Di bench, the reflection in Mughal garden pool, etc.

Once inside, people continued to be separated based on class and nationality.

The marble stonework was stunning.

There were a few groups of tourists from other parts of India. I liked that everyone is required to go barefoot around the palace.

Beautiful designs...

Yet again, some people have no respect for beauty. I looked over the edge of the Taj Mahal platform, and lo and behold, there were one million plastic bottles discarded on the grass. Unbelievable.

It was amazing how one minute we were in a majestic mausoleum palace with vibrant verdant gardens and the next minute we were back on the dingy, unkempt Indian streets. Below is a scene that took place just down the road from the Taj.

Jenny and I visited a shop in Agra that makes things out of marble stonework, in the same style as the façade of the Taj Mahal. They showed us how the pieces of gems are cut and inlaid into the marble.

Of course we were offered cups of chai.

We actually only went to this shop because Jenny needed to mail a package. The post office was closed, and we were told this shop could mail her stuff if she bought something.

Jenny modeling a handbag package containing a marble tabletop (that she didn't buy).
Next we traveled to our final destination in India: Varanasi. Jenny and I went to a mini zoo in Sarnath, 13 km outside of Varanasi proper. Sarnath is where the Buddha first taught the Dharma.

Scene at the end of the zoo, inside the gates.
We visited an old monastery, yadda yadda, kind of boring even though I think it has huge Buddhist significance.

Street food in Varanasi.
Opium pipes of some sort.

Varanasi lies on the banks of the Ganges River in eastern India. It is considered a bona fide holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India.

Our first look at the Ganges.

We soon realized that these "holy" waters were actually quite repulsive. Animals and people defecate in or near the water, and corpses are submerged and often "buried" at the bottom of the river.

I read an interesting article about the contamination of the Ganges River. An excerpt:
In Varanasi, India’s most sacred city, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the United Nations world Health Organization, according to Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and Hindu priest who’s led a campaign there to clean the river for two decades. Coliform are rod-shaped bacteria that are normally found in the colons of humans and animals and become a serious contaminant when found in the food or water supply.
“Polluted river water is the biggest cause of skin problems, disabilities and high infant mortality rates,” says Suresh Babu, deputy coordinator of the River Pollution Campaign at the Center for Science and the Environmet, a watchdog group in New Delhi, India’s capital. These health problems are compounded by the fact that many Hindus refuse to accept that Mother Ganga has become a source of illness.
“People have so much faith in this water that when they bathe in it or sip it, they believe it is the nectar of God [and] they will go to heaven,” says Ramesh Chandra Trivedi, a scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board, the monitoring arm of India’s Ministry of the Environment and Forests.
It's tragic that the common deluded (but enchanting) view of the water's holy powers lead people to bathe in it and even drink it! I talked to a couple locals who admitted that they have gotten sick the last few times they have touched the water. One even said he wasn't planning on going in it ever again.

Washing clothes in dirty water, amongst piles of trash.
Sludge on its way down to the holy waters.
Religious head-shaving rituals on the riverbanks.
I'm not sure if this is a group of Hindus, Buddhists, pilgrims or Hare Krishnas.
Fixing a boat by the river.
We hired a rowboat in the evening to take us down to Manikarnika Ghat, to witness the cremation ceremonies.

Our rowboat guide.
Bodies are burned 23 hours a day at the ghat (one hour is reserved for cleaning up I suppose). Close-up photos are not allowed, but I took one from the distance.

This photo doesn't do the scene justice.
The funeral pyres are lit with an eternal flame believed to have emanated from Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. Surrounding the cremation grounds are many hospices, where the old and sick await death in a convenient location.

Different types of wood range in price. Elite families are able to spend more on nicer wood, while poor families use the cheaper variety. While we were watching the ceremonies, a man boarded our boat, gave us a long lecture about poor families who are unable to afford wood to cremate their relatives, or people who had no relatives left and were on their way out, and asked us to make a donation. This was one of the more interesting things we donated to...

The process goes something like this:
  1. The funeral pyre is set up.
  2. Four men (friends and family of the deceased) carry the corpse down to the river on a bamboo stretcher.
  3. The corpse is dunked into the holy Ganges water and left to dry for a while.
  4. The body is placed on the pyre. A priest begins rituals and chanting. Male family and friends pay their final respects to the deceased (women are not allowed because--I was told--they get too emotional, which disrupts the process of transcendence).
  5. The chief mourner, usually a husband, brother or son, sprinkles ghee (clarified butter) on the pyre and lights the fire near the mouth. 
  6. Once the corpse has been significantly burned, the chief mourner uses a pole to make a quick jab at the skull, breaking it and releasing the atman (self) to continue transmigration.
  7. After the burning is complete, the chief mourner and others douse the smoldering pyre with water from the river. They gather the ashes and fragments of bones in an urn, and go down to the river to empty it in the Ganges. 
  8. Lower-caste men wait there with wire nets to sift through the remains, hoping to find bits of gold from a tooth or a nose ring.
Directly downstream from the corpse-dunking and bone-chucking location were a group of teenage boys splashing around in the water. I've never seen life so close to death. The surrounding morbidity didn't phase the kids at all.

Our rowboat driver told us there were a subset of Hindus who were not allowed to be cremated:
  1. Pregnant women
  2. Snake-bite victims
  3. Sadhus
  4. Children under the age of five
  5. Lepers
Rather than being cremated, their corpses are tied to stones, rowed out to the middle of the river, and sunk to the bottom. Some of these corpses (or parts) eventually float up to the surface of the water. I'm glad we didn't witness that.

Jenny and I also went on a sunrise rowboat ride to see what life is like along the banks at that time of day...

Beautiful sunrise.
Our 17-year-old rowboat driver, up at 5:00 a.m.
Praying and bathing.
We asked to be rowed to the other side of the river. The scene was totally different over there. It reminded me of Burning Man!

To sum up how India was, I would say: "We survived India." There was a lot of drama, dealing with people, coordinating plans, bargaining, getting sick and overheated. It was mentally and physically exhausting. We learned to write contracts for any sort of negotiations we made, including a description of the services, price and signatures of all parties involved. It seems ridiculous and I'm sure a lot of the locals thought of us this way, but we were in survival mode, and we were tired of being taken advantage of.

Below is a photo of a letter Jenny wrote to the director of the Indian Tourism Board. I'm not sure if this will ever get to the right person or will ever make any sort of difference, but at least it felt good to write down some of our gripes and get them off our chest. We were bullied, betrayed and victimized in India. It felt like some perpetual mind game. The three of us were fortunate to be there together. If alone, I think we would have started to question our mental stability.

It's hard to describe, and I think you can only truly understand what it's like if you are a female traveling in the parts of India we were in (some of the more touristy parts of the country). I've heard Mumbai and the southern parts of the country are very different, and maybe one day I'll venture back out to explore those areas. We'll see...

I want to mention that these immoral people who I'm talking about are not the everyday Indian. These are the people whose livelihoods are based on tourists. They are the drivers, salesmen, hotel and restaurant staff. I was deeply fortunate to meet a wholesome young man named Vikki at the very end of our time in India, who took me under his wing and helped me in my quest to buy a sitar.

Riding to the post office on the back of Vikki's motorbike. Not an easy feat!
It sounds rather insignificant. I mean, he didn't save my life or anything, but his kindness was so genuine and came at the perfect time. The three of us were burnt out on dealing with people. We imagined that everyone who pretended to be a friend or help us in any way wanted something from us, based on our prior experiences. I even took Vikki's kindness with a grain of salt in the beginning. This is what happened:

I approached a random teenage guy in the back streets of Varanasi to ask if he knew where a music shop was. He said he did and would be happy to take me there. [Of course, I was assuming he was going to ask me for money once we got there.] He told me he didn't want any money, and walked me over to the shop. Let me add that these back streets of Varanasi are a black hole to me. They wind around in a maze-like structure of narrow alleyways, and there would be no way to simply give directions to this music shop.

We get to the music shop and the guys there are friends with Vikki, but nothing seems sketchy. [Of course I am assuming they are in cahoots and Vikki is going to get a cut of any potential sales.] I check out the sitars and one of them screams out at me. It is 13 years old, which is supposedly good for a sitar, the older the better (for sound quality). I love this sitar, but I want to check out one more just to be able to compare styles and prices.

My future sitar.
I ask Vikki if he will take me back to the place I had my sitar lesson earlier. [I imagine he won't want to take me back there because he's not friends with those shop owners and won't be making any profit.] He surprises me and takes me back to the other shop. The sitar there was ugly and overpriced. Vikki takes me back to the first place. I don't have enough cash to purchase the sitar, so Vikki takes me to an ATM. I go back to the shop and buy the sitar. Vikki rides me on a loaned motorbike to the guy who wraps packages. We leave the sitar there because it takes a while to get this thing wrapped up...

It transformed into an art piece!
Vikki takes me to another ATM so I can get enough cash to mail the package, then he takes me to the post office. He gets me a deal on shipping and gets me out of there before anyone has time to sell me anything or rip me off. At this point, he's spent over two hours with me, taking me all over the city to help me get this thing in the mail.

Melting wax to seal the package.
Detail of sewing and wax seal job.
Vikki asks if I want to go to a café to get something to drink and eat. [It all makes sense to me now--he just wants a free lunch!] We order cokes and water and some snacks and cake. Then the check comes and of course I offer to pay for both of us. After all, I am appreciative for all of his help. Amazingly, he refuses to let me pay for anything. He pays for both of us, we leave the café and he arranges a tuk-tuk to get me home (local rate). I told him to come by our hotel for dinner later (my treat). [It's at this point that I realize I have just met an honest, generous Indian person.]

He comes over for dinner later in the evening and brings a box of traditional Indian sweets for us all to share for dessert. The three of us are so grateful to have met him, after all that we'd been through. Vikki is an amazing person. He speaks Hindi, English, French and Japanese. He grew up in Varanasi and dreams of studying in Paris one day. He was raised by a single mother and has many siblings. He is in no way wealthy. He has used his charm and friendliness to make lots of friends who help him out, and I'm sure he helps them out in return. I can tell that he is admired in his community.

It was such a joy to end our trip in India on such a refreshing note. Vikki purified our experience on some level. Perhaps Varanasi really is a holy city after all...