Varanasi is incredibly overwhelming. I happened upon the beginning of a festival which only occurs every six years so there were a lot of crowds of Indian people. The holy guys, the Naga Babas, are painted in white and naked. Others are wearing orange clothing… I just happened to be wearing my long bright orange, pink and white skirt so felt I fitted in well (with the exception of being over 6’ tall and white!). There were a few tourists but not as many as I would have expected. The 6’ white blonde/grey attracted a lot of attention to the point that Indian people wanted to have photos taken with me! I imagine there are a lot of tourists who come here however I appear to be a stand out one! Surprising I know as it never happens in Australia…well sometimes. I still haven’t worked out how to manage interactions. I want to say hi and smile when the locals say hello, and generally they are just saying hello however obviously not always. I have learnt not to even make eye contact with beggars but it is difficult. A very young woman with a baby on her hip asked for milk… not money but milk. I went with her to buy milk powder which was fine. Word got around and I had numerous young women with babies on there hips asking for milk. It does make it so hard however I cannot save the world. I have heard since that when you buy the milk which costed 175 rupees, they take it back and get 100 rupees. I supposed it’s a pretty ingenious way to get money.
A guy started talking to me about the cremations. He wasn’t a guide but was touting for a silk factory which I did end up going with him to but very disappointingly for him only bought a scarf for 300 rupees ($6). He did tell me some interesting stuff about cremations. When someone dies they bring the body down to the Ganges to be washed and there are a number of rituals. I did see a number of bodies being taken down. The fire comes from a fire which has allegedly been burning for 2000 years. They burn the bodies for 3 hours. The only bodies not burnt are the holy men, pregnant women, small babies and people with leprosy. They are wrapped up and weighted and thrown into the Ganges as they don’t need to be burnt for purification. I saw a number of the cremations and there were tourists taking photos. A guy asked me not to take photos and said ‘respect ‘. It hit me how disrespectful we are when we travel. Someone’s loved one has died and we treat it like a tourist attraction. I thought about how I would feel if a stranger came to my loved ones funeral and took photos to paste all over Facebook. ‘Respect’ is such an important element in travelling. Respect for others’ country, culture, religion and lifestyle. We are visitors in their country and need to be grateful for the privilege we have to be able to travel and that we are welcome to experience other people’s worlds, and the humility to understand that being rich (and we are if we can afford go travel) and white doesn’t make us superior. We need to ensure respect in everything we do. I encountered another older man who I engaged with as he kept saying ‘just a minute ‘ and ended up taking my hand and massaging it. I was so uncomfortable with that especially as he wouldn’t give me back my hand! So knowing how to interact in a way which makes me comfortable without totally ignoring everyone has become a challenge!
I saw a couple more perspectives of the area today. In the morning I went for a boat trip down the river. It’s amazing how different things can be when looking at them from a different perspective. There were statues I had not seen from land. The sunrise was beautiful too. It was 6am and the place was full of people and lots of colours and noise. I don’t know when these people sleep! The ceremonies can start as early as 4am (outside my window!) but I find them comforting in a way. The crowds and noise goes on until late in the night however I have no problem getting to sleep. It may just be due to the festival however I have the feeling it is generally a typical day for around here, however, I have been told that the Indian crowds are not the norm. The river is obviously the life of Varanasi and is used for everything amidst religious connotations. Bathing is religious in particular. Dunking three times, appears to be the central theme in bathing. Later, I decided to walk the streets rather than beside the river. The roads are full of cars, tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians and cows! I feel incredibly safe walking on the road as there is an acceptance that everyone has a right to be on the road, including the cows. There is lots of honking of horns which after a while one gets used to as generally being a warning that you are being overtaken rather than being told to get out of the way. The only thing on the road which I was weary of was the cows! I noticed the locals are weary too and not too eager to approach them or move them on even when they are causing traffic jams.
Moving back to interactions. I made a bit of a decision to just to go with the flow and trust the process but to also walk away if I felt uncomfortable or it didn’t suit me. Both these processes have been difficult for me historically. Going with the flow has always been anxiety provoking as I don’t trust easily and feel the need to control my environment and tend to avoid interaction. Walking away has also been difficult and I have stayed in situations I didn’t want to be in and/or have done things that I didn’t really want to do. So when I was walking the streets, I met a very strange young little Indian man who decided to attach himself to me. He wanted to know if I smoked marijuana which I said no to (I’m not that stupid in a strange country with people I don’t know I can trust). I think he was as high as a kite! He said he worked in a coffee shop and then proceeded to tell me that he was higher (spirituality) than the Babas and basically that he was Shiva himself. He took me to the top of a Ghat which gave me yet another perspective of the river. So that was pretty cool. He was a really strange individual and definitely educated but really weird, however it was daylight and I am bigger than him so was fine with the experience. He then told me his coffee shop was basically a drug den. He could offer me LSD and opium and any other drug I wanted. How does an 58 year old Australian woman look like a druggie? Anyway, regardless to say, I rejected the offer. He did make me laugh though because he was totally off his face and/or delusional. The interaction finished when he asked me for a gift for Shiva (him?). At that point I moved on but it was fun for a while. He spent a long time with little gain in the end. Maybe he has lessons to learn too.
Later I went down to the river and ran into a young guy, who I call B2, who was touting for boats. I had spoken to a couple of times before. He took me to a rooftop restaurant owned by a family he knows where they have beer! First beer in 3 days! We ended up hanging out later drinking whiskey. He was an interesting young man and it was very cool to hang out with him and hear about his life and his enterprises as he definitely has an entrepreneurial nature. B2 started out in life working for this family when he was very young and very poor. The love they have for him, especially the two sons was palpable. It was beautiful to see his relationship with them and that they are still close. I walked away (very late at night) with an appreciation that I met him but very intoxicated!
I woke up with one hell of a hangover and decided that while in India I am no longer going to drink. I didn’t come all this way to get pissed or stoned or whatever. I can do that at home. I came on this journey to learn and to understand, not only the cultural environment which I am being exposed to, but also about myself and to explore untapped strengths that I know I have however have not really been able to access. However, I also recognise that the people I meet along the road are part of that process so I am open to being open…cautiously.
I wandered out after a very slow morning to find coffee and ran into one of the guys from the restaurant B2 took me to the night before. We hung out for a while and he talked about his life. He is from a small village and he works in the restaurant which is run by the wife (she also runs the guest house), a silk shop, which the husband owns, and as a tour guide. He hopes to have the same opportunities that B2 has now after working with this family. He told me that he met an English girl last week who he liked very much which is so sweet. I was showing him photos and he recognised the drug dealer and was very seriously telling me that I need to be careful and that he is a junkie. He told me that the drug dealers do not come to the river as people like him would call the police and he was very worried about my safety and that I could be arrested with him. On reflection, there were a lot of strange looks when I was with the drug dealer from other men so I dare say he is well known for his trade. So I have experienced the dark side of Varanasi and the light side however I’ll give the drug dealers a miss in future. I need to leave the current guest house in the morning so I booked into the family’s guest house for the last 2 nights for the huge amount of 700-800 rupees a night (which is $14-$16) as compared to the 1750 rupees ($35) I am paying now.
Being open to experience has made my stay here so much more interesting than keeping to myself and and avoiding interaction with local people. Obviously the interaction with the drug dealer could have gone bad, however, it didn’t and I do believe that every encounter we have opens us up to learning. Maybe I have learnt to avoid drug dealers in India in this case! However, in the main, my interactions have been positive and the people I have met have been lovely and helpful. I think everyone has an agenda of some sort in interacting with each other, and especially with tourists, however, they are all people with a story to tell and experiences to share. The important thing is to make sure that you understand that concept and to ensure that you only indulge their agenda if it is what you want. I have an agenda too. Meeting people and hearing their stories broadens my understanding of the culture and adds to my learnings which is brilliant.