City of God

Trip Start Aug 26, 2008
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Trip End Dec 14, 2008


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Flag of India  , Uttar Pradesh,
Thursday, October 30, 2008

The plane touched down on time and we rented a cab to make it into the actual city. It was probably a 35 minute drive from the airport to the city centre, which Dan and I used to peruse the travel guide to figure out which hotel we wanted to stay at this for our two nights in Varanasi. Normally I prefer hostels to hotels, but in India the standards of up-keep are much different than in the rest of the world, so we opted for one of the more expensive hotels even though it was no where near the price of the top end hotels. Once we reached the city center we had to get out of the cab and continue the rest of the way by foot because the density of people was too much to get a car through and eventually the road turned into narrow winding alleyways just wide enough for two of me. When we got out of the cab, our driver had an English guide take us the rest of the way. Supposedly it was his nephew, I don't think that was actually true. He claimed to be a student studying art, who had a part time job in a silk shop close by. In his spare time he led tourists around the city at no cost, but with the agreement that they would visit his silk shop with no obligation to buy. This was to be a reoccurring theme for the next few days that many of the people who tried to help us had an affiliation to a shop and always attempted to take us there, some succeeded, most didn't. This particular guide led us to a different hotel first. It was in the budget section of our travel guide and although the view was pretty spectacular it had some less than desirable reviews so we opted to pass on the first hotel and asked him to please continue to take us to our intended hotel, the Rashmi guest house. The Rashmi guest house was located on the river Ganges, the most holy river in all of India and the heart of the entire city, nestled deep in winding alleys and with a rooftop restaurant with views of most of the river. It was a surprisingly nice hotel, even for what we paid for it. The hotel staff was really friendly and spoke very impressive English which was a nice change of pace from most of our Indian travels thus far.
 
The first room they showed us to was extremely cramped, didn't have the best AC, and had a bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower in the same room (no tub, just a drain in the floor and the squat toilet). I could have done it, but Dan wasn't really to keen on it so we opted to see the only other room they had available which was literally double the price of the first room. It still was only something like $60 per night, but for two nights made a big different in my costs for the city. Dan was much more comfortable in this room and it definitely was more comfortable, and I did like the fact of having an actual shower so we booked the room for two nights. Both of us wanted to shower to wash the intense amount of sweat off of us we accumulated since this morning before the Taj. Indian culture is so conservative that you are expected to where long pants and at least a short sleeve shirt, long sleeve preferably, regardless of how hot it is, and it was hot. Even at night on the water the temperature was so hot that we were always dripping with sweat. I'll never forget how hot India was. After the shower we decided to head out into the city to try and find some music for the night, but first we decided to get a quick bite to eat at the rooftop restaurant since we hadn't eaten since that morning. The restaurant was lowly lit but it allowed us to see the entire rive Ganges brimming with life, even at night. While we were sitting music started at one of the buildings right next to us and was really loud. We could see that a crowd had gathered and were watching something spectacular take place. Turns out this was another one of the famous ceremonies performed on the Ganges called 'Ganga Aarti' meaning fire worship. Six Brahman priests perform sacred rituals every night at this location in order to pay tribute to the river god herself. It looked and sounded amazing so we made it a priority to see the ceremony the following night.
 
 Varanasi is a maze of small, winding, alleyways between buildings and it is extraordinarily easy to get lost. To remedy this confusion there are paintings everywhere on every corner and wall with advertisements and directions towards various attractions/hotels/restaurants. They are helpful and coupled with a map make it possible to travel limited distances on your own. However at night there is almost not enough light in these alleyways to read any of these signs and is ridiculously easy to get lost. Fortunately that first night we stumbled out of the alleyway with not much problem. Almost immediately we ran into two more English speaking 'students' who gave us the exact same spiel as before. We asked him to take us to the international house of music because there was a concert there tonight. He was more relaxed than the guy who led us earlier; he even invited us to a party later (although we turned him down exhausted from almost no sleep the night before and with no intention on drinking that night). He did get us to the music house though and offered to wait for us until we wanted to leave. I assured him that wasn't necessary and thanked him for the help. The music house wasn't exactly what I expected, but it was a solid experience overall. There were two shows; the first was a duo of two older Indian men, one playing an interesting version of a drum and the other playing a wooden recorder. They were local men who weren't experts and their music was dramatically flawed at times. The crowd was small, only five other people besides Dan and me, all of whom were white. They played off and on for something like 20 minutes with little variation. Sometime about mid way through their first set a young Indian boy moved among the small crowd serving tea. I didn't want to be rude so I accepted his offer even though the music house was sketchy as hell and made me hesitant to drink anything that came from it. We were even warned about such situations in our pre-port briefings about the country. Yet, despite all of that I decided to drink the tea as a way of showing my generosity to the young kid. The Indian culture is a very sensitive one, and very focused on hospitality. One of the worst crimes I could commit in India would be to be rude or ungrateful and I didn't want to be labeled either of those. The tea was delicious. Really uniquely flavored, it was naturally sweet but not overpoweringly so. I had never tasted anything like it, so I had another glass as the set wound down. The older duo played another set of their simple and redundant music before standing and bowing to their small audience. Just then two younger men appeared from a staircase in the back and took their seats on the make-shift stage in front of us. An emcee of sorts came out and told us to make ourselves comfortable and encouraged us to take off our shoes and sit on the stage with the artists and have another cup of tea. Two of the five other audience members decided to do just that while Dan and I waited on our benches. The duo that had taken the stage was playing two of the most famous Indian instruments, the sitar and tabula. Their music was beautiful and elegant and complicated. The instruments were important to traditional Hindu religion and hearing them that night was very appropriate for our first night in the holy city. The music was gorgeous but after their first set Dan and my exhaustion from travel took over and we decided to get back to the hotel for our early morning.
 
We woke up the next morning at 5:30 to take a morning ride on the holy ganga (what the locals call the river ganges). We had to negotiate a boatman for a couple hours for the trip up and down the river seeing many of the rivers ghats. A ghat is a specific section of the region, usually separated by different religious connotation or historical significance. The locals believe the river is powerful enough to cleanse all sins freeing the soul from transmigration of their religion. So every morning and every night many people travel from all over to bathe in the river and wash themselves clean. The only problem is that the ganga is probably the least clean water source on the face of the earth for a variety of reasons. There is so much pollution in the river stemming from poor trash disposal and multiple raw sewage drainage into the river that there is no longer any dissolved oxygen in the water. That means the river can't support any life. No plants. No fish. Nothing. Water, the life line of everything on the planet can't support life here and yet it's the most holy water for this religion. I couldn't believe the irony. The only thing that has managed to adapt (if you can call it that) to the river's toxic conditions are a specific species of small grey dolphin although they have gone blind from the pollution. Just to further give you and idea of how toxic this river is the FDA has specific regulations for fecal content present in water that makes it safe to drink or be in contact with skin in the United States. The number is something like 1 particle in 100 ML of water, namely very very small trace amounts. The ganga has a few multi-million fecal particles per 100 ML of water making it literally toxic sewage. The ganga is a famous river for many reasons, but probably none so much as the two burning ghats found on the banks of the ganga. The Hindus of the region burn their dead on the banks of the river and then deposit the remains into the river. This is a very symbolic and holy practice for the people of Varansi because they believe dying on the banks and being deposited into the holy river frees their soul of the transmigration present in their religion. Varanasi is a crowded place and full of sickness; people die frequently so the burning ghats are never short of fires. So armed with all of this knowledge Dan and I boarded the most rickety boat I've ever seen and set off in into the morning darkness of the most polluted water I've ever seen. It was black or grey depending on where you were looking. Yet as we moved towards thes first ghat away from our hotel and the sun began to pierce the darkness and illuminate the sky we saw the river come to life. Hundreds if not thousands of people were on the banks or in the water performing various rituals and incantations. It was troubling and inspiring at the same time. our guide was a boy of no more then 12 years of age struggling to row against the current of the ganga as we slowly made our way up the ghats observing new and exciting things at each one. More and more people were bathing in the holy water, some just standing other fully submerging themselves or their children in the dark water. There were monks practicing yoga on a roof of a building who where participating in yogic laughing which could be heard all over the river. Another shaman covered in white paint contorted his body while he rang a bell relentlessly. We could hear it most of the length of the river and he never missed a beat for the entire time he was within sounding range. As we approached the turning point of our up river trip we saw the small burning ghat called Harishchandra. It is rude to take pictures of the burning ghats because of religious beliefs. I had intended on adhering to that rule, but before I realized we were at the burning ghat I was attempting to take a picture of what looked like a smoking well. It wasn't until later that I realized that I had actually taken a picture of a body fire and another body being prepared to be fired. It was a really odd sensation being there and seeing a body lit up on a bed of sticks. The body is wrapped in a white cloth, so that you can't actually see the person, but it's in the shape of a person and the white cloth was dotted with pink or red which I wasn't sure if that color was blood or oil. It's an eerie feeling witnessing such an event especially since the families are often present presiding over the cremation process. It seems like such a private affair yet they have the ceremony on the river in the open. Our boy guide came to life around here and until then I wasn't sure he knew more than one or two words of English. He explained that this was the smaller burning ghat and somehow had less religious significance to be burned here. He said that there are few body fires here, although there is always a couple. He proceeded to take us back downstream towards our hotel and just past to see a few more ghats stopping again on the climax of the whole trip, the large burning ghat named Manikarnika. I don't remember how many were burning that morning, I think something like three or four were either in flames or smoking. We watched as one family carried another body to the steps and began the tedious process of stacking wood to make a pyre. The building of a pyre is almost an art form because it is a tedious task that requires intimate knowledge of wood to burn at just the right temperature and duration. I don't remember how many different types of wood our guidebook said were used, but there were stacks and stacks as high as the rooftops of the tall buildings surrounding that ghat, all of which were being used to construct the funeral mound. We sat in silence for awhile before signaling to our guide that we were ready to go back to our hotel. The morning trip was very overwhelming and impressive because we had witnessed so many historical and religiously significant sights and it wasn't even eight yet. Breakfast was included at the hotel so we headed back up to the rooftop restaurant.
 
At breakfast the 'concierge' of the hotel asked if we would be interested in a day trip throughout the city. After discussing some of the things we wanted to do and discussing travel arrangements we decided to hire one of his guys as an auto rickshaw for the day and head first to Benares Hindu University, then to the Temple of Shiva, then the Ramnagar Fort, and finally to Sarnath (the birthplace of Buddhism). Our guide wouldn't be ready for just over an hour so we had a little time to kill and I decided to take a nap while Dan surfed the net. Right on time I got a call from the front desk letting us know our guide was ready. We met up in the lobby and our guide led us through the maze of alleyways to his auto rickshaw. We hopped in and headed off to the university. This is a famous university which began for the study of Indian art, music, culture, and philosophy. A true liberal university at its roots, it now is a full fledged university with a law and medical school present within the compound. The entire university is walled off from the rest of the city with only one gate in or out which is guarded by armed sentries. It currently has 15,000 students with somewhere around 2,000 of those being foreigners. It is a very simple university, but like I said it is very renowned in the area. Inside the university walls is the Temple of Shiva. This was the first Hindu temple I had ever seen up close or ever been inside of. The structure wasn't extraordinarily impressive, especially compared to some of the Christian and Islamic architecture I've seen in other countries and specifically coming from the Taj. But it was a really interesting experience to see the many Hindus in the area which commuted to give prayer and worship to the various gods and goddesses strewn about the temple. Even though it was a Hindu temple of Shiva, there were scripture written into the walls from the Koran and the Bible. I found that to be a really unique feature. Many of the people who were worshiping in the temple would enter through the main door, jump and ring a large bell, and proceed to a main central area with a statue of Shiva. At the statue they would anoint themselves with water that was there, pray, and circle the statue. Some people chose to circle the statue a few times, but most only circled it once, at least as far as I could see. After wandering around the temple and writing down a few selections of Hindu scripture, Dan and I headed off to our next destination, the Ramnagar Fort.
 
The fort was situated on the opposite side of the ganges river so it took a little while to get to by rickshaw and we had to pass over a very large bridge. This was the first time I had ever been in a rickshaw while on a highway, a truly interesting experience. Once we arrived at the fort we wandered to the main gait to find an entrance to a museum. We paid a small entrance fee and stepped into the first gallery. The first portion was filled with very old British cars as well as traditional carrying cars from India. Some of the carrying cars were gilded and had fancy jewels inlaid into them. After the first room we entered room after room of artwork and random collections of historical things around India. At one point there was even a ridiculous looking old fashioned air conditioner sometime from the early 1900's. There was a military/weapons section of the museum where we saw some really interesting guns and swords. All in all I thought the museum was a bust, but I guess there were a few cool sights in there. I think my favorite weapon was a four barreled pistol that had barrels pointing in multiple directions. After the museum we wandered around the fort until we found our way outside to view the outer walls. This fort was right on the water so the main entrance traditionally was actually a waterfront entrance. After wandering around outside we decided to hurry to get to Sarnath which is one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Varanasi.
 
We found our driver outside just where we left him and we hopped in the rickshaw for the 15 kilometer drive to Sarnath. As we were crossing a bridge on the opposite side where we had just come from, our rickshaw died. For no apparent reason it just died. To make matters worse our driver seemed just as surprised as Dan and I. A rickshaw isn't any more elaborate than an American golf cart and the engine is accessed in the same way. So here we are on another highway type bridge, stalled out in the left lane, with our guide standing in traffic with the front seat lifted up towards Dan and I. Traffic continued to move just as gracefully as it had before adapting to the sudden obstacle we provided with ease. Our driver pulled off the spark plug, which made no sense to be looking at since the rickshaw stalled while it was running. He fiddled with a few wires to no avail. About this time its midday and it is hot. Dan and I are crammed into the backseat of this rickshaw sitting less than comfortably breathing in exhaust as all the cars and rickshaws passed us. At one point a man herding goats, which we had passed about a mile back passed us and continued forward until we couldn't see him again. We were waiting there for quite sometime dripping with sweat and getting progressively more agitated. Finally when I had made up my mind to just get out and acquire another ride for the day our rickshaw driver repeated his steps of fiddling with wires and the spark plug and the rickshaw started up as if there was never any problem. I couldn't believe it. He didn't say anything to us, we just continue on our way towards Sarnath, pass the goat herder and all.
 
The trip went by quickly once our rickshaw was fully functioning. When we arrived to the city of Sarnath our driver took us to an area where English speaking local guides had congregated. I negotiated a price with one of the guides and we proceeded into the infamous Sarnath. Sarnath is considered one of the four holy sites for Buddhism and is a place of pilgrimage for devout Buddhists. It is the place where Buddha after receiving enlightenment gave his first teaching to his first five disciples who would lead the expansion of Buddhism all over the country and eventually the world. Many stone structures have since been constructed to commemorate the events of Sarnath. The earliest monuments are merely foundations of the former stupas, but date back to 300 BC. A famous king named Ashoka had a large stupa erected not long after the other stupas, but was subsequently destroyed periodically. An incredibly large stupa stands in the same exact place where the Ashoka stupa was first build. According to mythology all stupas, but especially the one at Sarnath contain a holy relic of the Buddha himself. Our local guide was explaining all of this to us while he took us around the gardens on the outside of the gates. He then proceeded to take us to a tree where the Buddha is supposed to have actually given his first sermon. There is a replica statue depicting the scene as it might have been. I was walking around trying to get a good picture when one of the guards yelled at me because I had stepped onto a holy site while still wearing my shoes. I had walked too close to the statues themselves without removing my shoes. I didn't want to bother with removing them since the next stop was a temple where I would have to remove them anyway, so we hurried away from the angry guard. Our local guide hadn't followed us into the area with the sculptures under the tree and didn't follow us into the temple either. Inside the temple at the far end was a large gold Buddha which had Buddhists in front of it in meditation. Around the walls of the building was painted all the major events in the life of Buddha. The depiction through art was a common was to explain to illiterate people the stories of the religion and is something I have seen replicated in different temples, cathedrals, mosques all over the world now. After admiring the paintings and a few photos of the golden Buddha we decided to head back out to meet our guide and head into the main area with the large stupas and ancient stones. It was at this point that our guide informed us that his services were complete. He had literally given us a three minute speech, and walked us to the entrance of two places we would have already gone on our own. We had definitely gotten ripped off on our fees for the guide. Tipping is common in India and that was the only time I didn't offer a tip to our guide. Dan and I were both pissed, but we continued to the entrance in the main gate. The large stupa is a lot larger than it seems in the pictures and is marked from wars that were fought in the area. The inscriptions on it tell stories of famous Buddhist lessons and while there were mainly tourists visible in this area I was able to spot two Buddhist monks clad in their traditional orange togas. By this time we were getting tired and still wanted to make it back with enough time to get good seats for the fire ceremony began that night. So we opted to skip the Buddhist museum in the area and just head back; which was a poor decision because from what I hear it was a really awesome experience with an intense collection of historical artifacts.
 
On our way back our driver decided to take a detour and low and behold we wound up at his silk shop. This was actually a pleasant surprise because we landed in the Muslim quarter of Varanasi which is world famous for its silks. Our driver introduced us to a local owner of the main silk shop. He took us around a few homes showing us the local families that had looms in their house hard at work producing various patterns and colors of hand made silk. This process of homes owning looms and producing is a large help for the Muslim community here because each family gets a fair share of revenue due to their work even off of one loom. After explaining a little about the process of silk making we headed to his main shop and sat in a large room with cushions for floors. We drank chai before he began showing us a few of his more famous pieces. One piece was so elaborately designed he said it took one man three months of constant work to complete the intricate detail. He also said that due to the detail children were better at the obscure patterns in some of the finer silks. One after another after another he unfolded new and diverse silks each one hand made with their own character and story. Dan and I both ended up purchasing a few things before hurrying back towards our hotel.
 
We had about an hour to kill before the fire ceremony started and we both hadn't ate in some time, so we decided to get some dinner at a restaurant highly recommended by our guide book called the brown bread bakery. It was a locally owned and operated restaurant that donated a significant amount of it's proceeds to a local charity and also arranged volunteer programs for people staying in the area for a little while. It was an awesome restaurant. As with most places in India we had to kick off our shoes at the door and walk up two flights of stairs to the restaurant. There were pillow-clad cubicles separated by three foot walls so that you could just barely see over them when sitting upright. There was one table in the center of each cubicle very low to the ground and could probably fit six people around. I ordered a banana milkshake and a pizza with some local toppings I couldn't pronounce. Dan got some sort of rice dish and just a bottle of water. The food was unbelievably good, and the banana milkshake was one of the most delightful milkshakes I've ever had. My meal was a nice change of pace to the constantly spicy rice dishes that we had ate most other times in India. We each grabbed a bottle of water for the road and hurried back to meet our guide for our river tour of the ganga aarti. On our walk back to the hotel we passed a river boatman who offered us a very very low rate for the fire ceremony. Despite his excellent offer I suggested we speak with our boatman from the morning before doing anything as I mentioned earlier the Indians feel a special relationship with people they do business and I didn't want to offend. I ran upstairs to drop off my bag while I asked Dan to negotiate a price with the boatman. By the time I had got back down to meet up with Dan he had managed to talk our boatman from earlier down to just five times the price we were just offered, and that was a discount! We knew that we had gotten a slightly high price that morning, but since we didn't hassle too much and tipped the guide well we expected to be given a more reasonable price for the evening. We were wrong. I was alittle upset and began arguing with the younger boy (our actual boatman) and an older gentleman who I presumed was either his father or actually owned the boat. Haggling can become such a haggle sometimes it's easier just to pay the flat fee they suggest, especially since it translates to such small amounts. However, that is an urge that we constantly had to fight, not only to save money over the long run, but also because haggling is a part of Indian culture and to pay full price for an item is considered an act of arrogance. Neither of them seemed to budge on price so I told them we were both walking to meet up with the man who had offered us an actual discount on our walk back. I'm not sure if they thought we were bluffing but they let us walk a hell of a distance before the young boy finally chased us down and gave us the same rate we told him we were willing to pay.
 
After agreeing to a price and boarding our rickety boat once more we began the short trip to the ghat where the fire ceremony had already began. Before Dan and I got to engrossed in the fire ceremony we each bought a small candle on what appeared to be nothing more than a coffee filter with some rice in it. It was a tea light I guess you could call it, but it wasn't much. At night tourists light hundreds of these tea lights and send them floating on the ganges. It makes for a pretty awesome sight watching these small flames slowly be carried away from the boats by the current and illuminate the river along their short journey. I kept expecting the river to catch fire given the pollution and amount of trash floating in it, but of course that never happened. Dan and I jumped onto a larger more solid boat to get a better vantage point for the ceremony. I'm not sure why, but there was no one in the boat so we had a completely unblocked view of the ceremony from the river, while most of the tourists either sat in their original boats much lower to the water or sat on benches on land in front of the ceremony. We didn't know it then, but that night the three SAS sponsored trips that had also come to Varanasi were at the fire ceremony on land. They had made arrangements with a building just behind the main stage that had a good view to put up all the SAS kids at once. I actually have pictures of them, again without realizing who it was. They were far enough away we couldn't actually see them, but I thought it was ironic that of course Dan and I ended up at the same place in Varanasi, at the same time, as a bunch of other Americans from SAS. The fire ceremony was a pretty awe inspiring spectacle. Six Brahman priests danced in almost perfect unison swinging a cauldron of what I presumed was oil which had been lit on fire. They changed tools once or twice for different effects, but the entire time this traditional hindi music was ragin in the background while these six men, anointed with white paint dance with fire. Like I said pretty awesome and it falls into the many categories of my experiences of India where I can't really describe what happened or what I saw. The pictures don't even really convey what it was like, not that pictures usually do, but India is just so overwhelming it has to be experienced.
 
After the fire ceremony our boatman asked us if we wanted to visit the fire ghat again, we said sure and we set off once more to the main fire ghat. On our approach we saw a few more locals bathing in the waters and a smaller version of the ganga aarti being conducted just up the river. Once we got close enough to see the fire ghat it was obvious where we were. I think I counted somewhere between 14 and 16 body fires lit as our small boat approached the shoreline. It was an overwhelming site, much more than the one we had experienced that morning with just a few fires going. There was enough fires illuminating the sky it was as clear as day at the ghat. We could see everything that was going on. Just as before people were scurrying to build more pyres for the next bodied being prepared. Other people were carrying the ashes down to the water, while a few others just sat in observance at what I assumed was a family member being cremated. Watching all of this unfold stirred a mixture of emotions in me. So much of this seemed barbaric to me, but I knew that was just my cultural relativism creeping in. Still it was something I had to really swallow in order to really look intently at what was happening and not just cast the entire thing off as some primitive spectacle. While that may be easy to do, had I done that I would have missed a very important point of witnessing this ceremony in the first place; namely people outside the United States often times think and act dramatically different than we do but that doesn't make it wrong. Now I had said that in my head prior to this trip, and I truly did believe it. I knew that just because I did something a certain way didn't make it right. But it wasn't until I stared at body on top of a pyre of sticks and watched as two men lit the pyre until the body was engulfed in flames that I genuinely understood and believed that differences were ok. Because it was. A powerful lesson, one of many I learned in India.
 
Dan and I sat in silence for quite a while just observing the ordeal of the fire ghat before we both sort of came-to at the same time and motioned to our boatman that we were ready to head back. The ride back was brief and both the small and main fire ceremonies were still carrying on even after we docked back at the Rashmi Hotel. Even though we had been up for some time, Dan and I wanted to head out for the night and maybe catch a beer somewhere. Turns out the only place to get a beer in Varanasi is at one of the ridiculously nice hotels outside the old city where we were staying. After some much needed showers and a few minutes to unwind we asked the hotel concierge to arrange an auto rickshaw for us. A few minutes later our ride was there and we sped of to grab a drink. This rickshaw driver was probably the worst one we had in India; we were zigzagging through traffic way too aggressively. Twice we hit people on bikes and one time our rickshaw slammed into another rickshaw. Dan and I yelled at the driver but he sped on regardless of our scolding. A quick side note about a friends experience with a rickshaw accident: One of my friends who was traveling in Varanasi was in a rickshaw with a friend of hers stopped at a crossing when a Mercedes car swerved too far and hit the rickshaw. No one was hurt and there was only a minor scratch on the Mercedes. Still the driver of the Mercedes got out of his car, drug the rickshaw driver out of the front of the rickshaw, and proceeded to hit him in the face until he fell down in the street. The driver of the Mercedes got back in his car and drove away while the rickshaw driver returned to his vehicle bleeding from the face. Of course the two girls were disturbed and worried but the rickshaw driver calmed them down and comforted them by saying, "Don't worry, this kind of thing happens all the time." While there is a aggressive politeness in Indian traffic, the caste system is so pervasive that its commonplace and accepted for a privileged person to just beat a person of lower caste in the streets, even if it was the privileged persons fault there was a minor accident.
 
Dan and I had no such experience in India, despite this crazy rickshaw driver; we arrived safe at our hotel. Since we were going in for a beer or two and maybe an appetizer we really tried to get the rickshaw driver to leave us and assured him we would be fine. He wouldn't budge; he insisted that he wait there until we were ready to go, regardless of how many hours it would be. What could we do, these guys are committed to these relationships, and we gave him the ok and went in to grab a beer. Of course who do we wind up seeing but a group of SAS kids having a late dinner at the restaurant/bar. They were traveling independently and had a full day in Varanasi tomorrow so we discussed places of interest since we had been there for over a day. They split early because they were doing a dawn boat ride on the ganges the next morning. Dan and I ordered a drink and some cheese naan, that amazing food that I miss already. After our second round we decided to get some dessert and then head back so we could still have a full day before catching our flight back to Delhi. Dan ordered some tutti frutti ice cream at the suggestion of the waiter, and I ordered some traditional Indian dessert they were insisting we try. It was unbelievably good and how I managed not to develop diabetes on the spot is beyond me. The only way I can describe it is imagine the best deep fried doughnut you've ever tasted... then soak it in some sort of caramel sugar sauce, and add sweet nuts on top of that. It was an ooey gooey sugar induced coma, but it was soooo good. The waiters were pleased that I enjoyed it and that approval was enough to spark a conversation. Inevitably the topic of conversation turned to the pending American election and all the hype over Obama. They were the only two foreigners I have met so far that hadn't been head over heals for Obama, which was an interesting and sobering experience. They certainly didn't love bush, and didn't speak one way or another about McCain, but they definitely didn't confess adoration for Obama.
 
After a little political convo and those amazing desserts we left the hotel to grab our auto rickshaw back to the hotel. Except our rickshaw was no where in sight. We were walking up and down the street checking everywhere, yelling a little trying to draw attention that might bring him out of hiding. After some awkward stares one of the cab drivers asked what we were looking for. We told him we left a rickshaw driver out here about two hours ago and expected him to still be waiting. The cabby informed us that he saw our rickshaw driver leave not to long ago. This struck me as odd, especially given the circumstances of our drawn out hassle trying to get him to leave earlier coupled with the fact the cabby obviously would love us to pay him to take us back. Still our driver was no where to be found  and we had already been waiting and searching outside for almost 15 minutes. We decided to wait a little longer and after about five minutes another rickshaw came by and we decided to ride back with him instead of our original driver. However, this was an ordinary rickshaw, not an auto rickshaw. Meaning that instead of some small two cycle engine doing the work, this feeble, older Indian man would pedal a chain by his own feet, just like a bike operates. Except instead of carrying himself on a bike up and down hills he was pulling two larger than life Americans around. I was a little hesitant to put that task on him, but he had no other passengers, and was eager to take us. The ride back was a decent amount longer given the slower pace of the manual rickshaw. Our driver didn't break stride once amazingly. By the time we got to the area where our ghat was he was dripping with sweat and threw a rag over his head to cool himself down. We paid him double what the charged fair was, which was about the same it would have cost us to take the auto rickshaw back. I've never seen someone so grateful for their wage. He kissed the single bill, placed it to his forehead and bowed to each of our hands. He worked harder than any of the auto drivers and received less pay, yet he was more grateful than any of the other drivers we had paid thus far, and we usually tipped well. Another lesson to be learned about the value and dignity found in honest manual work.
 
Dan and I headed into the maze of alleyways to find our way back to the hotel. After about five minutes of walking I quickly realized we were totally lost and since it was dark out it was really difficult to make out the wording on any of the wall advertisements. Stumbling around in the dark alleyways we managed to find a small group of men congregated outside of a small shop. One of them spoke some seriously broken English and was trying intently on understanding us. Fortunately I remembered I had kept a card from the hotel which had the address on it and the name written in Hindi. Once I produced that, they merely pointed in the exact same direction of which we had just came, which meant they weren't going to be much help. As we started that way, another man appeared out of no where carrying a large suitcase and the man who we had just talked to yelled at him in hindi. He waved us on as if he was leading us somewhere so Dan and I followed. After a moment or two of following him he spoke to us in almost perfect English asking where exactly we were going. We told him and began chatting with him. He was a local music teacher who travels through India teaching sitar. We weren't following him long before he led us to an area where I recognized and we split off to head back for a full night of sleep.
 
The next morning we woke up to make it to a few of the temples close to our hotel and see a few more sights before the flight back. We walked first to the golden temple, perhaps the most famous temple in all of Varanasi. So famous in fact that non Hindus are not allowed into it. However we were told that there were shops with second story views that allowed tourists a good view of the temple and nearby mosque for a small fee. We didn't even have to look, they of course found us wandering about the walls that enclosed the temple after we were waved past by the armed guards patrolling the entrance. One shop owner approached us and took us to the top floor of his shop to a single window which opened up to an amazing view of the Varanasi city line and of course the golden temple. It is called that in English because the entire dome is solid gold and inlaid with precious stones. There were monkeys crawling all over the upper edges of the temple and swinging back and forth from trees. There were also guards on ledges with long electric prodding sticks to try and keep the monkeys off the temple. It was funny to watch them struggle to keep these monkeys off because there was no point, there were way to many for a couple guards to handle and were far more agile than any of the guards. It was an impressive sight, but at the same time you can only stare out a window at a finite space for so long before getting bored, so we paid the shop owner and headed back down to the street to head back. On our way back to the Rashmi we managed to wind our way into a temple not to far from the golden temple. I wasn't exactly sure we were supposed to be there because we were definitely the only non-Hindus and were getting some interesting stares but no one every approached us to leave so we continued to wander and observe the Hindus in prayer. After leaving that temple Dan and I decided to inquire into a yoga lesson since this was the holy city. The first place we walked by advertising yoga looked a little too sketchy for either of our tastes so we consulted the guide book. The book highly recommended a yoga master not to far from our hotel so we set off to find him. After winding many small corridors and consulting with various locals we arrived at the yoga house only to find a sign that read "out of business until January 2009," and with that our quest for a yoga instructor came to an end. 
 
We arrived back at the hotel with just enough time to get some lunch, pack, and arrange a cab to the airport. The hotel made the arrangements once again and we thanked them for their great hospitality. We were able to negotiate one more stop on our way out to the airport at a 'monkey temple.' I'm not sure if that was it's actual name, but there certainly were enough monkeys there, they were everywhere. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to bring any cameras into the temple so we didn't get any pictures of all the little guys running around. We walked under a long covered corridor hearing all the little feet running on the top side of this roof was pretty amusing. Once we got to the actual temple we were greeted with, now familiar sights of incense, prone Hindus, and circumambulating the temple. We wondered around seeing the various god's being worshiped and the different statues which venerated these deities. As we had almost circulated the entire temple complex we came upon a single monkey on the backside sitting on the ground just casually staring off into the distance. All my social psychology classes left me because I did exactly what you're not supposed to do in these situations. I decided to just stare at the monkey in wonder, long enough that he noticed me staring at him and our eyes locked. After just a few moments of this the monkey slapped his hand on the ground, screeched, and lurched towards me (not at me, but one of those flex type moves that lets the other person know they are threatening) I quickly flipped shit and averted my eyes and began walking the other direction. In the animal kingdom, regardless of size, direct eye contact represents a challenge and I certainly didn't want to challenge a monkey inside a monkey temple. I think I saw that in Indiana Jones or something once and it doesn't end well. Dan and I quickly hurried out of the monkey temple after that and b-lined it for our cab to take us the rest of the way to the airport.
 
Once we arrived at the airport we found all the other SAS groups lined up waiting to enter security for their flight. It was nice actually seeing the people again and I bumped into Flynn and a few other friends that I spent a few minutes catching up with. We were on a different flight that didn't leave for sometime so we got our boarding passes and waited on the outside of the security gate because they wouldn't even let us into the gate until it was close to our time to board. Ironically this was the only time in India where Dan and I had made it to the airport in a reasonable timeframe relative to our flight, yet as luck would have it, it was also the only flight that arrived late. This was troublesome not only for the fact that we had already waited two hours at the airport, to find our plane arriving an hour late bringing our total waiting time to just under three hours, but more importantly we only had an hour lay-over before our next flight was scheduled to leave from Delhi and already it was looking like we were pushing it on time. I was worried and so was Dan, but I knew there was nothing that we could do to change our circumstances so I merely sat in peace. Dan on the other hand became extremely restless and agitated verbally complaining and being short with other people the entire flight to Delhi. Prior to landing we signaled our stewardess to come over so we could explain the situation and see what her suggestion would be. She said she would speak with her senior officer and get back to us. She didn't come back. The plane landed and we had about 20 minutes before our plane was scheduled to leave, although we still had to get our boarding passes for our second flight, it was looking like there might be a possibility we could still make this flight, and we had to make that flight. Dan had a school sponsored trip the next morning and I still had to complete a requirement in India that I only had the following morning left to complete. The flight we were on was the last flight back to Chennai from Delhi with our airline, which meant we would either have to be directed to a different airport and possibly get home that way, or purchase a different ticket with another carrier just to make it back that night. Taxing in India is done by busses leading to and from the airplane instead of the airplane pulling directly to the hangar. Even though the plane didn't have to make it to the hangar, it still took 10 minutes to get off the runway leaving Dan and I with the understanding that we wouldn't make our flight. We had resolved to being defeated when the stewardess appeared again and asked us to remain on the flight as the other passengers got off, they said they would be printing our boarding passes from the plane and we would be taxied over to our flight. Whew! Dan and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The captain made an announcement about those continuing to Bombai should stay on the plane while all others should disembark then. Dan and I had moved to the front row of seats but remained on the plane. Many people came on and off the plane talking to us, asking for passports, checking our ticket confirmations, and discussing amongst themselves. Another fifteen or so minutes went by like this putting Dan and I clearly past the deadline of when our plane was supposed to have left. I began to get anxious and Dan checked in with a stewardess to see what the hold up was. She explained that we would have to stay on this airplane in order to make it back and told us not to worry we'd be fine. So Dan and I understood that we had to take this flight to Bombai where we could then be transferred to another plane in order to still make it back to Chennai that night. A few minutes after that the captain came back on the intercom and made an announcement that all passengers continuing to Bombai should disembark at this time. Everyone seemed confused but Dan and I stood to gather our bags when a different stewardess asked us to sit. Confused we asked her what was going on. She said that two flight plans had been switched at the last minute, the plane we were on had changed from Bombai to Chennai. We couldn't believe our good fortune. After all that stressing and worry the plane we needed to catch turned out to be the plane we were on. Unbelievable. Dan and I couldn't help but laugh at the irony of it all. Soon passengers for Chennai began boarding and we saw a few familiar SAS faces in the crowd.
 
Once the plane touched down we met up with the other SAS kids to grab a quick dinner in the airport before jumping back on the electric train bound for our port. We caught the last train of the night, seemed to be a reoccurring theme with us, and made it back to the port just before midnight. Dan and I's trip had been a whirlwind through India characterized by nothing but the highlights, little sleep, and constant movement. It was amazing and the things we saw and the people we met were even more amazing. India had captivated my mind and my senses with all its complexities and complicated intricacies of society. I knew I could spend months there and still feel that same sense of awe at each day and I had only experienced a sliver of the diverse country, and besides I still had a full day left in Chennai and a full agenda to fulfill.
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