Sunday, February 20, 2005


Varanasi you later finally

Before I go on to tell you all about the lovely week I’m finishing up in Rajasthan, I did want to go into further detail about Varanasi, since it is such a significant place and it did leave a strong impression on me, for better and for worse.

One of the main attractions of the city, particularly for religious travelers, is the Ganges River on which the town is situated. I feel that this body of water is a kind of analogy for the city of Varanasi. In Hindu belief, the river springs from the head of the god Shiva and is basically unendingly pure and holy. Many Hindus refer to the river as Mother Ganga and it is truly a lifeline in Indian culture. It is a focal point of religious rituals, a receptacle for the ashes of many dead bodies, and also a center point for daily activities like clothes washing. It is very common for people to place offerings into the river the bring luck and blessings, and there are a serious of religious ceremonies where people chant and twirl oil lamps towards the water held on the banks every night. If this were all that the river was used for, it would be a nice place to visit. Unfortunately, people also throw their trash and plastic bags into the water. The wreaths and candles that look lovely floating as offerings wash up in ugly piles on the shore just a few hours later. People also go to the bathroom right on the banks and raw sewage has flowed into the water for years now. I tried to look at the Ganges and escape my ingrained cultural impressions of it, tried to see the holiness and purity, but all I could see was the tainted, horrendously dirty water.

In the same way, the city has many beautiful, unique and very holy Hindu temples. There are small shrines tucked into the winding, labyrinthine streets of the old city, many of them occupied by a phallic shaped representation of Shiva called a lingam, which looks like this. There are many holy men roaming the city along with the normal people who come to bathe in the river, then hang out and chat on the banks. Varanasi is also famous for are its silk sarees, which are hand-woven in the peoples’ homes using looms and punch cards that create the fabulous, intricate designs. If a weaver is lucky, s/he will make 6 or 7 inches of the 6.5-meter long garment in one day. The other salient but difficult aspect to witness of the city were the many cremations happening on certain areas of the riverbank. While these were stomach churning to watch and smell, I tried to see them in the positive light that Hinduism casts on them. People who die within the city limits of Varanasi are liberated from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Their years of wandering the Earth are over and they have achieved the highest spiritual point. Thus, death in the city is still solemn but not necessarily a sad or negative event. I think that having death out in the open and trying to break people from their attachment to their bodies because, hey, you may have a million more lives in a million more bodies, can remove some of the stigmas, taboos and fears that surround it. Again, if these were the only things happening in the city, along with the everyday life of the market shopping, and for us tourists, the hotels and restaurants, it would have been a lovely city, filled with light and spirituality. But like the Ganges that it sits on, it too was tainted. There were salespeople from shops who are constantly shouting at you, talking at you to try to get you to come in. There were a constant stream of kids trying to capitalize on the religious nature of the place by selling the little offerings; if you refused to buy one, they whined at you and would hang off of you for far too long. There were many, many sketchy young men who get a kick out of trying to hit on Western women, who are generally perceived as promiscuous. There were many, many cycle and auto rickshaw drivers who constantly try to get you into their vehicles as you walk down the street, try to up the price that was agreed upon for the ride, play off of your ignorance to make you pay double and triple what you should, and generally fight like dogs to get your business. I saw some of the drivers jump into another’s rickshaw to try to physically put the brakes on it so that I would ride with them instead. They also try to drop you off far from your destination then try to get more money from you to get there. All of this is combined with more garbage, more cows, water buffalos and stray dogs, more tourists, more motorcycles and bicycles all crammed into some very narrow streets. As I write this, I feel like it doesn’t sound too bad, but ultimately it just becomes overwhelming and exhausting. Indeed, in the end I did not see some of the more famous temples in the city because I did not want all of the hassle in trying to get there. So it’s not been my favorite destination of this trip and it was rather disappointing to have to stay there for those 3 extra days while I was recouping from my illness. But many people I spoke to enjoyed themselves there very much.

In an attempt to not be totally negative, I will say that I did have some nice moments there. The first was probably my general amazement that the people who got near the river didn’t drop dead instantly. While in an Internet café, I spoke to a man who’s working on a project to help clean up the river. He said that it’s filled with every communicable disease know to humans – hepatitis, cholera, typhoid. But you still see people on the banks at sunrise brushing their teeth with the water! They have just developed an amazing immunity. I also went to see an at least third generation astrologer, who had kind of a grandfatherly air despite his mostly missing teeth. I should note that people here take astrology very seriously and consult with astrologers before scheduling a wedding, purchasing property, or making an important step. Indeed, the timing of India’s independence in 1947 was changed because all of the most prominent astrologers said that the previous date was very inauspicious. On a smaller scale, no couple here can get married without first making sure that their horoscopes match. So the astrologer and I had a nice chat generally, and about my future, and was generally a very warm fellow who said I would always be welcomed back into his home for chai anytime.

In many ways, however, my experience here in Rajasthan has been so great that it’s washed away many of the bad parts of Varanasi, including my illness. I’ll go into detail about that in my next update. Take care and namaste until then!

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Varanasi you later? Not Yet...

Gosh darn, I had this whole long post that I even wrote in Word so that I wouldn't lose it but my stupid computer just shut itself off for no reason. Poo. So I'll summarize so you won't worry that I've fallen off the face of the earth.

I got to Varanasi on Tuesday morning. While some aspects of it, like the beautiful old temples and buildings and the religious life focused on the Ganges river are fascinating, I've mostly been overwhelmed by the constant haranging of the rickshaw drivers, hawkers, beggers, kids, and sketchy men. I was ready to move on to my further destinations on Thursday but when I woke up from my post sunrise boat ride nap, my lower back hurt and I didn't feel well. A trip to see the doctor at the local hospital seemed to indicate that I had a kidney infection but I would have to wait for a final test that would be ready until Sunday. I wasn't happy with this prospect but I'm dealing with it. I basically haven't left my hotel room in the last two days and have found copious amounts of sleep to be best cure. After getting the tests back, it seems that I didn't have a kidney infection, but just a bad cold or flu with back pain. This has not been the most fun stopover and it's disappointing that I've lost these additional days here but this is one of those things in life that I can't control so I have to just go with the flow. Either way, I feel much better and will probably get to finally leave here tomorrow and go meet another volunteer in Rajastan. I'll repeat that I feel much, much better and I will be fine. I hope that you all are having much better health than I am and I wish you well. Peace and I'll be seeing some of you in about 2 1/2 weeks!

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Bright Lights, Big City

My absence has been long, has it not? You’ll have to forgive me as last weekend I worked on Saturday and was taken on a tour of nearby Buddhist and Hindu temples on Sunday. Unfortunately, neither of these places of had any sort of Internet connection, even though it probably would have made them even more popular.

The big news since I last posted is that my volunteer time has finished! I know I’m shocked about it because my time went very, very quickly. Indeed, I felt like I’ve barely posted about what I was doing in Rajgarh, and now it’s finished! So I’ll try to give a bit of a quick overview, even though I’d like to note that I don’t think I’ll have a clear sense of what the trip meant until after I’ve returned to the US. My placements were definitely the highlight of my time there. Although I wasn’t helping in a necessarily critical situation, I had a great time with my girlies. Despite a fairly major language barrier, I was able to teach my students 3 new projects: fingerless gloves, purses, and hats. I was also able to show them a variety of different stitch patterns, so that they can liven up their future projects. I was also teach many of the students some knitting terms and abbreviations in English and help them to be able to read English patterns – this part also had a reciprocal effect, in that I also picked up many Hindi knitting words. Although my students may not have fully understood some of the useful math concepts I was trying to show them and may not remember everything in the long run, many of them did quickly pick up what I was demonstrating and then went on to show them to their classmates. This is how I know they absorbed it, because I saw them teaching it. This is gratifying in that I know in accomplished what I was sent to Rajgarh to do and that the skills I taught will be transmitted through many of the knitters in the town. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if I went back to the area in a year or two and saw many random women carrying handmade purses. These skills may not be used for a business venture necessarily but they have expanded these women’s repertoire so that they can create more lovely items for themselves and their families. They will help them to express their creativity better and they will be useful to many of them who may lead work heavy lives.

The downside to the trip was that I felt that I didn’t get as much personal support from the staff as I would have liked, especially as the only volunteer, and many of the excursions were not particularly enriching. I have informed the staff here in detail and also discussed these issues in my evaluation so that hopefully, the program can be improved upon in the future. Despite all of this, living in that beautiful corner of the world has really filled me with a lovely peaceful feeling. I will always remember the experience of walking up the nearby hills and looking out over the amazing vistas, lifting my dupatta shawl over my head to blow in the lovely breeze. My didi (sister) students said that they will remember me whenever they knit any designs into their projects, and I feel the same about them. I’ll always remember their persistent questions about my marital state, their laughter at my Hindi, their dedication to their craft and absolutely fabulous creations.

I returned to Delhi on Thursday night and after being in such remote conditions, I was absolutely thrilled to be back in a city, even if it is dirty, polluted, has death defying traffic and extreme poverty. I was just so excited to feel the city energy, hear the constant car horns and, most of all, be around lots of other people. This has been especially pertained to the group of volunteers that stayed in Delhi, who are a great group of folks. They’re about half Brit and half American, which in and of itself provides an interesting cultural living experience. It’s been great to hear all of their experiences, see their photos, go to tourist stops and shopping with them, and really just have others to talk to. Indeed, speaking with them in some ways has helped me to process my own experience.

My plan for the rest of the trip is as follows: I will leave tomorrow morning to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. From there, I will go on to Varanasi, which is like Jerusalem or Mecca for Hindus. It’s the holiest place in the world for them, and those who die there are freed from the cycle of reincarnations. There are a variety of cremation spots and a multitude of temples lining the Ganges River there, in addition to some great silks. It should be amazing. From there, I’ll see if it’s feasible to go to this town called Khajuraho and see a complex of intricately-carved temples, the most famous of which illustrate the Kama Sutra. Then, I will return to Delhi to meet up with one of the other volunteers and her boyfriend, and we will go on to Jaipur and Udaipur in the desert state of Rajastan. I may go on to a city called Jesilmer (sp?) where at the end of the month, they will be having their annual Desert Festival, which features contests in Rajastani traditions like turban tying and moustaches. Back to Delhi and off to visit Ilona in Paris! The time does certainly go quickly. But I’m very excited for the next phase of my trip, see some great sites and maybe purchase a few souvenirs and crafts. I feel really rejuvenated and I hope that you all are feeling the same.

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