Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Varanasi, The City of Light

I realize that my thoughts on this city could go on for a long time, so i decided to condense to make it more reader friendly and to take out parts that would scare my mother...

The 45 Hour Train Ride
On Tuesday, the 17th of July, I arrived in Mughal Sarai, after a 45 hours train journey across India. It is not like it was a miserable train ride, it wasn't. The people I sat next to and across from were nice and we had a really great time playing cards with them all day long. And I realize that I was paying 25 dollars to go across the sub-continent and that was pretty amazing. And I realize that I wasn't seeing the sugar coated India I would have seen had I decided to travel via a/c. I did live in a village for the past two months, I know how to 'rough it.' This train itself was dirty. I am so thankful for the clorox wipes my mother sent me. The first thing I did was disinfect my bed, which was also the seat we used doing the daytime. I have been in India for about two and a half months, so I understand how instensely dirty India could be. But before I could control my space. I had the remarkable ability hold my bathroom breaks for nice bathrooms (my definition for 'nice' is used rather loosely here), sometimes I could go all day. I had no choice but to use the train's bathroom. Meanwhile, the baby across the way would just pee and then his parents would wipe it up, over and over again. Sometimes it would take a while for them to realize that their son had peed on the floor. I would watch as the stream on urine got closer and closer to my bag of stuff. Luckily, they caught it every time. Oh, and it was so hot. We went through Chennai during the middle of the day. AHHH! I did see the country side of India change ride before my eyes. I also had a lot of time to think. When we arrived in Varanasi I smelled like urine and felt like crap. An awesome preamble to a crazy city

This segment is called ... India is dirty

One evening I was attending a ceremony on the main ghat (the steps where the ritual bathing occurs). A man next to me was selling camper and flowers in a small cardboard bowl. He told me I could send it out onto the river. It seemed so romantic, so I tried it. While doing this I got a bit of the Mother Ganga on my toes and my hand. With the help of Rebekah and Natalie, I quickly washed and sanitized the affected areas. Oh, the Mother Ganga, said to be the holiest water in the world. The Mother Ganga can cure you, you go into the her with impurities and you will come out clean. Maybe the fact that there are "1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water," doesn't bother ritual bathers. From my balcony I watch as hindus undress and dip themselves several times Often they will wash their body with the mud found at the bottom of the river. The same river that houses dead bodies in it, thousands of dead bodies, maybe even millions! The bathing appears to be a sacred experience but all i see is foul water infested with body limbs, heavy metal, trash and sewage. Perhaps the Ganga represents a cultural difference that I am not able to embrace. It is like the train ride here, the filthiness made the trip almost unbearable. The heat was ok, the close proximity was no problem, even the persistent starring could be combated with a scowl but no matter how many clorox wipes I used, the train was still dirty and my febreeze spray could not get rid of overpowering smell of urine. How do I live and let live? Different strokes for different folks, right?

Burning Bodies

As we were walking home we got lost. Lost might be the wrong word because this happens every time we walk home. Yes, we don't know where we are but there is no way we can eventually known where we are. The whole way home we depend on other people's finger pointing in the right direction. Our guest house is right next to the burning ghat, the place where they burn bodies after dipping them into the river. We didn't know where we were going and a guy told us to come this way, up here. We walked up a staircase. It was dark and there were a lot of men. No women, in fact. He told us to come stand here. We went over. I look at where I was standing and saw a dead body about six inches from my feet It was a body getting ready to be cremated. We watched as below they dipped the body in the ganga and then brought it up to the burning area. It was so eerie to be caught between this strange man telling me about burning bodies and a body on the ground about to be burned. It was this out of body experience, perhaps. I kept thinking, 'is this really happening?' It was too impersonal, it was too close, it was too informal. From my view I can see at least six different bodies burning. And of course this man wanted us to givehim a tip for showing us these burning bodies. We walked home in a haze, literally smelling like death. Burned into my memory was the looks of those men and the darkness of that area, even the light from the fires couldn't seem to lift the darkness, as we stood, confused by the close proximity of death, watching the tinsel covered bodies being ushered to their fire. The next few days when we would pass this area to go to our hotel there never ceased to be a man asking us to 'come this way to see the burning bodies.' Why was it publicized?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The SIghts and Souds of Sravanabelagola

I left the village about five days ago. It was a sweet goodbye. We did the health class our last sunday. It turned out so well. We told these village woman some things they knew and some things they didn't know, like letting food get cold and then eating it can make you sick. You need to reheat your food. Afterwards we offered refreshment (because although it wasn't a branch activity we still held it in the church therefore every activity has to have refreshments). We made the woman walk outside and wash their hands with a bar of soap and a bucket of water we had provided. Some of the woman were very timid to do this at first but once they did we had a jolly good time. Before the woman were distant and had stuck together but after the hand washing ordeal they were shaking our hands and speaking to us in the little english they knew. This is a picture of Natalie and Liann assiting the woman wash their hands.

I left the village and headed for Mysore. I only stayed in Mysore for about one day, to pick up train tickets. While in Mysore Rebekah and I looked at this really rad palace. Here is a picture. This is Rebekah and I at the palace.

Mysore was dirty and touristy and so much more abrasive than I was used to. i was used gong home and being greeted by twenty children and Matthew or Jeeva asking about my day. It was a familial sort of feeling. And even when I went to into the city no one bothered me. I in Mysore there were like five men up in my grill trying to get me to go to their hotel. I got offered pot four times and i was there for less than twenty four hours! It was cool though. It was never a temptation to say yes. And twice i resorted to used my middle finger as my answer, which I had never done before.

From Mysore I went to Sravanabelagola, a small village that caters to thousands of Jain pilgrims a year. The village is in between two hill, both of which have a large temple on the top. Most visitors come once to climb the hill. After some tiffin (breakfast) I climbed the hill to find myself some pilgrims.

The first thing I saw was a group of students, possibly high school students. There looked so trashy, wearing tank tops and jeans or shorts. This frustates me. They are not at some freaking Kenny Chesney concert, you are in India. It just goes to show that they came to take pictures and not to learn about the culture. It just gets me really upset. I started walking up the hill, after saying hi to the postcard seller who i had made friends with the day previous. I walked up the hill with the intent to talking to people. I had a smiling face. i was stopped alot for people to ask where I was from. Every Indian I talked to was so nice and had smiling faces, causing me to smile back. I think I was very approachable because a) I was wearing a sawarl b) I was alone and c) I had a smile on my face and looked into the faces i passes by,letting people know that I wanted to interact because I was already doing so by making eye contact. There was one elderly woman who stopped me. She asked me where I was coming from. She herself was from Bangalore, she was with her brother and her children. She was a Jain. Her family was about to go meet with His Holiness Swamaji. I told her that I also was going to meet him later that night and she was very excited. We shook hands and exhanged sincere smiles. I was feeling so good because of the many smiles and heart felt messages that had been transfered verbally and nonverbally. Was it that I was in a really good mood so I saw goodness emanating from every strangers or was it that I was in a sacred spot or was it that other Indians appreciated I was studying their culture and religion? I think it may have been a combination of all three.

I made it into the temple area. i circumanbulated the temple, received my blessing and sat to meditate slash observe. Other visitors were doing the same thing I had done except some were chanting some sort of mantra for a minute. Some would prostrate themselves in front of the statue. And others offered coconuts as a sacrifice. A family sat beside me on the steps. I watched as a woman sat in meditation position and her husband brought his hand over her body, starting at her waist and lifting it over her head. He talked as she breathed in and out. At one point she would take in deep breath, throw her head back and cover her face with her hands. Her husband repeated the hand motion but this time when he got to her neck the woman's breathing became rapid and shallow. He would lift the hand past her head and she would start to breath normally again. They finished their routine and the woman relaxed. He hit his daughter on the leg and she got into mediation pose and they repeated the same process. After this was over with I asked the daughter if she was a Jain and her confirmation marked the beginning of my first interview with a jain.

I sat there for another hour, sitting and meditating. I talked to a couple. I was overcome with a feeling of peace. I loved siting there and watching the people worship. I had asked the woman I just interviewed if there was a God. She looked stunned and repeated what I had just said. 'Yes!' She said emphatically. 'There is a God. He is everywhere.' Indeed, He is. I felt a connection with these people that were profounding religious because I also am profoundly religious.

Later that day our group was able to meet with the head holy guy of Jainism. He was like there Chief, the president, except for Jainism is not a easily defined as that. He got to talk to His Holiness (Insert really long name here) Swamaji and it was really neat. He gave us dinner and a sacred shawl. I will save that story for another time. Here is a picture of the group in our sacred-ness. The picture at the beginning is me with my sacred shawl