"You want a holy haircut?"

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
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Trip End Aug 01, 2007


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Flag of India  ,
Monday, January 29, 2007

He Said:

Up until now it was as if we had been in an endless summer. It was rare for us to experience an evening temperature of less than 75 degrees, but here in Northern India it actually gets cold at night! So we are trying to pack our sightseeing in the north into rather short time so we can head south to the warm beaches and more comfortable climate. Keeping that in mind, we only spent one night in Amritsar, boarding a train our second evening to travel the 715 miles to Varanassi. The journey was ONLY supposed to take 22 hours, but not surprisingly ended up stretching to 27. Even though our train car was comfortable and climate controlled, that is still way too long to spend in that close proximity to the snorers surrounding us!

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in the Hindu faith. Hindus believe that when you die, your soul is reincarnated into another being. By engaging in right actions (earning good karma) in this life you increase your chance of being reborn into better circumstances or higher caste in your next life. After this cycle repeats itself innumerable times eventually your soul reaches purity you attain moksha (or release) from the cycle of rebirth. So why is Varanasi holy? It is located on the holy Ganges River and is believed to be a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds. Varanasi offers a shortcut to moksha as well. According to Hindu tradition, if you die here, your soul is released from the cycle. As a result of this, many infirm people come here to die. The city is far from being a convalescent home though, and in fact is it one of the liveliest places I have ever been to.

This city is quintessential India...on steroids!!! Virtually every stereotype of India is present all over the city. Cows wandering the back alleys, people of all ages bathing in the river, bizarre naked sadhus (monk-like male pilgrims) smeared in ashes hanging around meditating, decrepit colonial-era buildings, kids playing cricket in any available space, women furiously beating laundry on stones lining the riverbank, devotees placing flowers and offerings at the shrines on almost every corner, merchants vending large piles of aromatic spices or flowers, it is all here! Other than the occasional shop offering Internet access or cell phone repair, I don't imagine the old city looked much different 300 years ago. There is no place like this on earth, the variety of sights, sounds, smells, and experiences you can have during a simple wander through the old town is incomparable. And if all that wasn't enough, if you walk down to certain places on the riverbank, you can view cremations on wood pyres taking place! On the icing on the cake, as I was walking along a barber approached me and asked if I'd like a "holy haircut in this sacred city"! Where else could you get that?

During my last visit four years ago, Varanasi was the first place I went to in India. Being a novice at traveling in the developing world, I found it completely overwhelming. The oppressive summer heat, mind-boggling congestion, proliferation of trash, and completely foreign culture had me in a state of shock. Now with a bit more travel experience under my belt, I'm finding it utterly captivating. In fact I think I'm really appreciating India a lot more the second time around. You can get such a rich and authentic experience here, yet still stay in comfortable hotels, ride in somewhat modern trains, and communicate with most people. Yes there are plenty of difficulties and frustrating moments but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyplace that offers as many blockbuster sights and incredible culture as India while having the relative ease of travel and communication.


She Said:

Our train ride to Varanasi was sooooo long... it was supposed to be 22 hours, but it was 5 hours late, so we were on the train for 27 hours! We were in the lowest level of "upper class" in which each non-enclosed air conditioned cabin sleeps 8 people - two sides have three stacked bunks, and then there are 2 bunks across the aisle. Our section was Todd, me, and six overweight middle-aged men with MASSIVE snoring issues. It was difficult to sleep through the "chainsaws," even with AmBien, earplugs, and soothing music on the iPod at the highest volume. The ride was so long that I managed to read an entire book on the train (George Orwell's classic novel - 1984). By then end of the ride, I was going a bit insane, and I couldn't help noticing all the analogies between the novel 1984 and the train ride. I was thinking that the two little girls starting at me for hours on end were part of the "youth spy organization", the squat toilet that emptied right out onto the train track was really a lot like the "memory hole", and that our train really wasn't late because the schedule was being updated constantly and it was always supposed to that 27 hours...we must have made a mistake.... Anyway, if you haven't read the book, add it to your list of books to read.

We finally arrived in Varanasi in the dark, and for the first time had the overwhelming feeling that we were REALLY in India. We drove past 3 wedding processions parading down the street with blaring music and carrying poles with fancy lights attached to them, as well as a man holding what seemed to be a giant sparkler firework spewing fire (all the while dodging the typical cows, cars, bikes, auto-rickshaws, pot holes, etc.). Apparently we arrived on an auspicious day to get married.

When we arrived at the hotel, it was too dark to really see any of the surroundings, so waking up the next morning was a huge surprise/shock. The ghats (steps down to the river) and river were right at the base of our guesthouse, and a spectacle like no other I have ever seen unfolded before our eyes. The Ganges River is truly the river that makes life possible in Varanasi. People bathe, do laundry, and brush their teeth in the river.... right next to people washing water buffalos, cows, and floating trash and sewage! Our guidebook said that the water in Ganges by Varanasi is actually septic, with 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water.... water that is safe for bathing should have less than 500!! I'm sure that dumping the ashes of the cremated bodies into the river isn't helping the sanitation situation at all. Hundreds of crazy sadhus (a holy person dedicating entire life to attaining enlightenment) flock to Varanasi and hold vigil 24 hours a day on the ghats. We saw some sadhus with interesting (and probably extremely painful) displays of devotion that I WISH I hadn't seen, as the memory will certainly haunts my thoughts. The thing that upset me the most was the health condition of all the stray dogs. I have never seen so many mangy, injured and sick dogs in obvious pain (some were actually whimpering). I kept having fantasies of starting a non-profit organization to help the dogs.

I'm glad to have had the experience of visiting Varanasi, but it is truly the first place that made me want to cry, puke, laugh, stare, scream and faint all at the same time.
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Comments

hoodriverjim
hoodriverjim on

Got Ghat?
Since Varanasi is the only place that Lucy and I both tandem-cried on our trip, I'm interested to hear impressions from both of you. There's a lot to digest; the shear mass of humanity and, well, the END. Death and it's reality is on full display in Varanasi. ...All the more reason for a 13 month trip round the world trip I'd say!

Keep on killin' it. We're enjoying it immensely.

Jim & Lucy

kristenjohnson
kristenjohnson on

Hi there!
Just wanted to post a hello...am back to reality (fun, fun) and hoping you guys are doing well in India - miss me?? :-) Miss you guys and will post my pics soon. Can't wait for the next posting...talk to you soon! Love - K

yukinomoizefala
yukinomoizefala on

I loved Varanasi as well...! And as she said, it's a place where you can experience an array of different feeling at the same time. India could be sometimes frustrating, but in the end, one of the most beautiful, enriching and amazing experience of my life. I'm glad to hear you liked it too ;)

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