My life the advil commercial
Trip Start Dec 13, 2006
17Trip End ??? ??, 2007
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we've spent a day and a night in varanasi, one of the holiest hindu cities in all of india. i slept through most of my second year university world religions class, but from what i remember, varanasi - and the ganges in particular - is significant to hindus as a place to die and a place to be cremated; cremation and the subsequent scattering of ashes in the river allows a hindu to break out of the cycle of rebirth and arrive at the pearly gates, or something (all these religions tend to run together). so the disposal of bodies is big business in varanasi - over 200 bodies are burned each day. and, like everything else we've experienced in india (including urination, defecation, and general insanity), this happens in full view of an overly inquisitive public. this is how i found myself face to, um, foot.
i'd like to say that it's a pretty crazy experience to watch bodies get burned, but each of you are intelligent enough to know that might be a slight understatement. better to say that it's a pretty crazy experience to smell and taste burning flesh, or to actually be aware of information like it takes 360 kg of wood to burn an adult body and that, after 3 1/2 hours of cremation, everything on the body will turn to ash besides a man's chestbone or a woman's hips. but the sheer amount of craziness that we've experienced (in only 5 days) only serves to make the unexpected expected. there is something surprising around every corner; nothing surprises us.
so picture waking up in india tomorrow. you roll out of bed, well-rested; actually, more than likely, you've tossed and turned all night and all you hear when anyone opens their mouth are the sounds of bells horns tires ringing honking screeching. but, invigorated by the shower - 30 seconds of ohmygod boiling water followed by 5 minutes of ball-curdling cold - you throw on your stained unwashed for 4 weeks jeans, throw open the door, and prepare to greet the day. ring honk screech. let's say that you need to go from here to there, and it's too long to walk. what to do? why not a rickshaw?
of course, by the time this idea enters your head, you can't identify whether it was an independent thought or 'suggested' to you by the legions of auto-rickshaw and cycle-rickshaw drivers who've accosted you as you walk down the street. pay attention; there's an important difference. you announce your destination to one, and he shoehorns you towards his vehicle. oh, i've played this game before, you think, and before entering, you inquire on the price, which he promptly quotes at 3 times the going rate (you know this because you just took the same rickshaw ride not 12 hours ago). and so you begin the haggling process: you set a price, he fills you in on the economics of rickshaw driving, you roll your eyes and walk away, he runs after you with a new price, you offer a new price, he shows you a photo of his starving children, you point out that the photo in question actually contains an image of starving children in africa, etc. in the midst of this haggling, other rickshaw drivers have seen your conversation and have raced over to offer their service. you studied basic economics in school, you think, and competition is good for the buyer; you announce your destination to the others, and are rewarded with a series of offers - all more expensive than the price offered to you by the first driver who, despite having subsequently lowered his price, now raises it to match that of his peers. the frustration in your stomach mounts. why, you ask yourself, can't this interaction be easy?
fortunately, you have the perspective to understand that your stomach won't tolerate much haggling, especially when the difference in mileposts - i listened in negotiation class - is approximately 37 cents. you haggle for another moment or two (because it would be rude not to) and then pile on the bench that you're convinced is made for two, despite the fact that the rickshaw beside you has 12 people crammed inside and on top. you're on your way to breakfast. you can relax.
or can you? there is no experience in the world like travelling in an indian city by road. chaos isn't a strong enough word. perhaps you can envision what would happen if absolute insanity had a baby with blatant disregard for order, and that child was raised by incredible hurry to get from here to there (and looked after by michael schumacher on weekends). blatant disregard isn't actually correct; there is a clear and well defined order. it goes, in ascending order: dog pedestrian bicycle cycle-rickshaw schoolbus-cycle-rickshaw motorcycle autorickshaw car truck bus and, at the top - obviously - cow. put all these things in a bowl, mix vigorously: voila, instant india. in india, vehicles travel on the left side of the road, except when they travel on the right side of the road, and passing is done on the right, except when it's done on the left, or perpendicular to the flow of traffic, or into oncoming traffic.
but, remember, this is a 3D experience - those aren't just your eyeballs popping out of your head. remember the ring honk screech? try that at jet engine volume. smells in your nose and tastes in your throat? exhaust, urine, feces, occasionally delicious foods, more exhaust; it wouldn't be unfair to call your newly formed cough 'chronic'. and on the side of the road: homelessness death temples prayer delicious foods stomach churning foods beauty destitution garbage garbage garbage.
still sticking around? so you arrive at your destination and your rickshaw driver - despite having agreed upon a price 15 minutes ago - has now decided that, due to certain circumstances which he is not enthusiastic to explain, the cost of the ride has increased 20 rupees - 42 cents. desperate to eat anything, you figure the fight isn't worth it. you stumble your way towards the closest restaurant - or, more accurately, whichever restaurant has the most persistent sales person with menu on the street.
but, finally - peace. perhaps your restaurant is six stories above the ganges, in the sun, looking out on a city's skies filled with hundreds of kites in preparation for a national kite festival beginning tomorrow. or maybe it's a different rooftop with a view onto the taj mahal - yes, that taj mahal - even more incredibly beautiful striking breathtaking than you could have imagined. or maybe it's just a little hole in the wall that serves the best vegetarian food you've ever tasted (you've recently decided to turn vegetarian, remember, because you've seen both what the chickens eat and the state of the indian public toilets, and you'd prefer to avoid both). and as you order, sip on your banana lassi - this is so heartbreaking that i'll have to say it in caps: MANGOS ARE OUT OF SEASON - and scroll through the more than 100 photos you are taking a day, you come to one frightingly obvious conclusion: india is incredible.
5 days in india: 2 spent in delhi with our departing-to-canada friends dave and hil (dave with 1967-era george harrison beard and hair; hil fortunately sin beard) who picked us up at the airport, toured us to every sight and shop, fed us well, downloaded 2 months of india experience, passed us a cell phone, and took off like india fairies; 1 spent ogling the taj mahal from front and back, undressing her with our eyes and whispering sweet nothings into her ears; one incredibly long train ride from agra to varanasi; and 2 days breathing bone and skin by the ganges. tomorrow we're reversing course - despite travelling 12 scheduled 17 actual train hours east from agra to varanasi, we're going to head 19 scheduled ? actual hours west from varanasi, through agra, to jaipur.
and before that, worth mentioning: two incredibly odd days in dubai. dubai is the oddest city in the world, and the insanity that we experienced there was on a level totally opposite to what we've seen here. our dubai experience included 5 shopping malls, a movie, a european soccer game, interminable (but comparably well controlled traffic) and as much money spent on taxis as we've spent in 5 days in india. i had a lot to say about this a few days ago, but then india happened. this experience has been deleted from my memory starting ... now.
stomach situation: good. protein situation: poor. send steak.