Friday, 12 November 2010

2. Varanasi - Diwali (festival of the lights and REALLY loud crackers)

We were meeting our sweet young guide Sunil at 9am to show us around and help us get from a to b. We had realized after we got in, that our chargers weren't going to work in the hotel. So first stop was to find one.

Sunil is a local boy. I'm finding talking to him one of the most enjoyable parts of this time. He is learning English at school and lives with his parents and four siblings. He has never left Varanasi but would one day like to see other cities, if he could afford it. He doesn't know his birthday? Every Saturday he goes to the monkey temple to pray and on the one day a week he isn't at school, he tries to find tourists like us to earn money to pay for school. When he is relaxed he is a sweet kid, but occasionally he puts on his business hat and he feels like different young man. He gets cranky at us when we interrupt his explanations of what we are seeing. And then while he watches us look through shops or sit for a while, he looks like a tired, bored child waiting for his parents to hurry up. It is sweet the way he tries to look after us. Standing in front of rickshaws or cows and shooing away beggars or touters.

He is also helpful with getting our head around this place. And seems honest with his answers.
How much would we pay for this?
How do local women clean after going to the toilet?
What is that woman or man doing?
He has been a wealth of knowledge and a godsend over these first two days.

He was less helpful helping us find the power charger. After striking out at two, hole in the wall, electric shops we decided to leave it and walk into new Varanasi. I saw an electrical shop and told him we would look there. He looked shocked. And when we thought on it later, we realised that going to the more expensive places in town was out of his frame of consciousness, because to him everything was far to expensive to contemplate, that he didn't even think to take us there.

Once that was done we wandered down to the ghats. We are staying at Meer Ghat which seems to be in the middle of the main ghats of the old city. It was extraordinarily hot walking along the stone walk that takes you between the city and the river. We wandered slowly down to the smaller of the two burning ghats.

At first glance these burning ghats aren't as spiritual as I thought. They are so covered in rubbish, animals and spectators that it overrides your first glance. Then you think about the process and realize that on so many ways Indians live their lives out in the open. Every morning they all bathe in the Ganges together with spectators both local and tourist watching on. They hang their washing on walls, they spit, pick their noses and go to the toilet unabashedly. The process of death and burial is the same. Out in the open. Sure their grief is normally processed quietly away from hustle but life and death takes a different meaning here.

We started walking back to the hotel and Trish stopped to look at some Shiva beads. These are five sided beads that are worn as a blessing. After picking hers out and paying the young stall holder gave me a small set of sandalwood beads as a gift. This has been a beautiful and surprising part of this trip. These people have, what looks like, very little material possessions and yet three times now we have been given gifts.

It's Diwali today and so their are a lot of extra people here. Coming to pay their respects to the river. Bangers are going off with such regularity that I have stopped jumping at every one but my ears are hurting. Lights on building are all on plus they have added extras. It looks like Christmas. People are all walking and bathing on the ghats like usual there is just a lot more of them. We asked Sunil about all of these people who are getting their heads shaved and apparently it is something that they do if they have lost a loved one.

The festivities are loud and bright but quiet short and afterwards everyone starts walking home. I see a white guy, our age, putting a wreath of flowers in the river and wonder what he is doing. I have been feeling like tonight is the night to do something for Libby and mum. He said that he had said a Hindi prayer for the river. Thanking it for life. He has been studying for the last few years with a master and asked if I would like to go down to the rivers edge and he could chant a prayer for me and them. So we stood and he sang. I didn't have a flower so I put 10 rupee in the river as an offering and said a prayer for a smooth journey, a quick rebirth, and for them to see us all and know our peace with our lives and their deaths.

This place can be scary and intense to the extreme. But its layers and colour patchwork it together to make a rich canvas. I am already wondering when I will come back.


- at night there are a lot of bugs here. And anyone who knows me knows I'm a little iffy about bugs. When I went out to get my shirt off the line I realised as I had flicked it, I had flicked dozens of little crickets onto myself. In true Leigh style I went to start flicking and screeching. But it feels wrong to hurt anything here so I calmly brushed them off. I also woke one night to find a much larger cricket in bed with me and simply grabbed it and put it out the window. Look at how much I have grown *grin*

- Sunil asked us if we liked astrology? We both said yes and so he took us to see Baba. To be honest I can't quiet put the hour we spent in Babas den into words. Just picture a small red room lit with many garlands of flashing lights. Glass cabinets filled with crystals and oils for healing. And pictures of Hindi gods and Jesus mounted on the walls. Baba sat on his day bed like it was a throne with eight packets of cigarettes next to wads of money. He had to get a feel for you before before he decided if he would read you or heal you depending on what you wanted. All the while he talked to a french guy who lived with him for a few months a year and an Austrian guy sat quietly in the corner. It felt like a scene out of a Tarantino film. Fast talking jumping between subjects, people yelling and cursing. We had decided we didn't want a reading with Baba. For me it was mainly because it seemed we needed to spend at least 2-3 hours today and possibly 4-5 hours tomorrow. Plus Baba had rules you must follow. There were five but I can only remember three;
1. Do not be proud of what he tells you
2. Do not feel angry at others about what he tells you
3. Never tell anyone what he has told you.

He is seen as a major spiritual guide here. And so in an attempt not to offend I said that I had decided not to get a reading because I felt that last rule would be impossible for me to follow. He thought on this for a while. Double checked my birth date and place of birth in a large book. And then said ok you can have only four rules. Talk about a plan backfiring. After much talking and saying we would try to come back later to drink chai or whiskey we left. It was a completely surreal experience and one both of us are sure to remember for a long time to come.

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