There are a lot of mental resources needed when traveling that you don’t normally tap into – from the logistics of hotels and transportation to the assessment of food sanitation. India puts those resources on overdrive because you’re always trying to just understand what is going on around you. In fact, we even got a book that helps explain what’s going on around you in India. Today was maybe the most sense-overwhelming days of my life. We arrived this morning in Varanasi via overnight train. The train ride was superb, gently rocking us to sleep in the comfort of our bunks.
We were greeted in the morning by Pinta, who we would soon learn would be our guide for the entire day. We were a little hesitant at first to get a guide, but it was the best thing we could have done. Pinta was worth his weight in rupees. Varanasi is the holiest city in India, where pilgrims and locals come to purify themselves in the waters of the Ganges.
The steps down to the Ganges, the ghats, extend five kilometers north to south.
And this is the first thing that is so hard to understand – how people can purify themselves spiritually while the physical surroundings are so incredibly filthy. The streets of the old city are narrow and twisting and filled with cows and cow crap and dust and goats and garbage and dogs and lots of people.
Yet every single person that I saw didn’t give the dirtiness a second glance, and I find myself spending quite a bit of time trying to understand why.
Pinta took us to ghat where they seem to do most cremations on the banks of the Ganges(there are a bunch of smaller ones where they only do one or two at a time). They use large piles of hardwoods to burn the bodies, between 150 and 400 cremations a day.
That was an intense experience that I did not expect to witness up close – really up close. It made us realize how much closer Indians are to the realities of life and death, and in a way it was really touching. You aren’t supposed to cry because it messes up the spirits or whatever, but I could see Abbey’s eyeballs starting to well up. Or maybe it was being in the middle of, like, 5 infernos.
Later, we found ourselves in the middle of a Hindu ceremony with thousands of people surrounding us, song and dance and piercing incessant bell ringing, burning cow poop, incense and consequently our eyeballs, not having a clue what was happening. It was interesting to see how that many people could gather peacefully, without cops and without incident.
The American equivalent probably would have ended in drunken dudes and woo-girls and misdemeanors. I haven’t processed exactly what I took away from the day, but I know I’m still confused. Tomorrow we head north!