Varanasi: City of Death and Liberation

After our experience in general seating, a night train in 2AC was blissfully comfortable!  But the “weather disturbance” followed us.  Gerard watched a lightening storm from the window beside his bunk, while I slept soundly above.  Arriving just before 5 am, the now familiar Varanasitrain station was easy to navigate in the dark. Too early to go to our hotel, we waited until light. Gerard adeptly handled the hustling rickshaw drivers and they left us alone.
Standing beside a toothbrush seller, I watched the deaf mute sitting cross legged on a mat, a bundle of branches from the neem tree beside him. His handicap didn’t seem to impair his ability to do his job with great efficiency and ease.  He’d select a branch and with precision chop it into equal lengths and add them to the rapidly growing pile in front of him.  He seemed optimistic…and early morning business was good.  Positioned at the station exit, a steady flow of travelers stopped for a “toothbrush”.  Holding up one finger to indicate the price, he patiently let the discerning customer disrupt his pile of sticks, rifling through to pick exactly the right one.  Women wanted a skinny stick, men a more substantial one.  An old man with softening teeth wanted the edge of the stick shaved.  For an hour I watched in fascination.  The pile of rupees he kept under a piece of newspaper in front of him grew rapidly and became 5R….10R notes as he made change.
A boy with a pile of newspapers came by and gave him several.  He stuffed them away in a bag beside him.  Later another boy dropped off the Times of India in English.  He put that away too…when business slowed down later in the day, I presumed he’d read them When he went off for a few minutes to relieve himself, he put a stone on top of the newspaper covering his rupees, confident no one would take them.  It was now lighter,   and time for us to snap out of our trance and get going…
Entry into our beloved city was rougher than usual. We had never been here during rain nor had we been here when it was cold – and on our arrival it was both. Walking through the muddy lanes at six in the morning to our guesthouse was not the welcome mat that we were hoping for.  Surprisingly even though they refused to take reservations on the phone, we had the “best room” on the fifth floor overlooking the River Ghanges.
My trusty guide/maintenance man set up a washing line, and rewashed the floor…and the “clean” towels …and we settled in. When I think about it, it’s amazing that Gerard can travel in Indiaat all, he’s such a neatnik! Then he proceeded to wash his sneakers…Later in the day as the sun came out, and the sweepers had done their job, the city we remembered began to reappear.
Longing for live classical Indian music we finally had the opportunity our first evening here. It was the last day of a prolonged Holi celebration which included four performing groups on a boat facing the ghat. First the solo instrumentalist played a shenai, and then came a violinist, followed by a young energetic sitar player. The last performer was delayed by another freak thunderstorm. We hustled back to our guesthouse and when it stopped raining we could hear a female vocalist through our open window.  Of course we hope to hear more, but it looks doubtful.
Our fourth time in Varanasi, we find it an easy place to be in.  There’s so much activity on the street that just going to and from wherever we need to go is fascinating. And even in our hotel room, the monkeys entertain us, hanging on the bars in front of the window, sitting with their feet dangling in, talking to us. Even though there are many places to visit, it’s not a necessity. Gerard says that staying in Varanasireminds him of the three months he spent in Marrakech one winter.  It wasn’t so much about what to do; it was much more about just being there.    On the other hand, I feel I should be doing something; still learning that you don’t have to make things happen….sometimes they happen of their own accord.
It’s easy to be social here – most of the shopkeepers are more than happy to enter into conversation with the tourists. Both of us are amazed that merchants remember us – even from several years ago.  “Hello, I remember you from two years ago, you bought the blue bedspread!” The CD shopkeeper smiles and says, “And when did you return?”   
But as in any city the exploiters are lurking, looking for an opportunity. I’m well aware that you’re not supposed to take pictures at the Burning Ghat, where the cremations take place, but I go ahead and do it anyway.  And this time I got caught! Three men pounced on us. They ranted and raved about how illegal it was to take pictures at the cremation site and what a big mistake we’d made.  “The police will demand a large fine and destroy your camera. But….we all can a big hassle with the police if you make a donation to the hospice or buy kilos of firewood.”  “How much?” Gerard asked.  “3000 rupees!”  Greed had once again foiled their plot!  If they’d asked for 300 R they might have gotten it.  But 3,000?!  Gerard said, “Forget it, we’re going to the police,” and started to walk off.  Two of the three saw the futility of their ploy, and didn’t follow.  The third, with breath smelling of alcohol, persisted. “But sir, we can avoid big problems with the police if you make a donation.”   Again, Gerard says, “How much?”  And now it’s 500 rupees!  He confronted the man, “Have you been drinking?”  Denying it, the drunkard shrank away.  Once again the tour guide comes through; he’s good at deflecting difficult people and situations.
Our friend from Agonda, Johnny, showed up for a couple of days and one of the things he really wanted to do was see the cremation site at the Burning Ghat.  Making our way through the back alleys, we came on to the back side through the mountains of wood.  Young boys approached us wanting to guide us through the ritual – but of course for a “donation” for the hospice. For the most part, we managed to avoid all of that and stood quite close to a funeral pyre. This isn’t something morbid but for the western eyes it’s very sobering to see bodies slowly melt away in the flames. Even if it’s only for a moment, the inevitability of death cannot be denied.  When the skull finally explodes in the heat, the Hindus believe it’s the final release of the soul from its physical entrapment.  All three of us were moved and silent. We left feeling a little more in touch with reality…although I’m sure what we witnessed affected each one of us differently.
People come to Varanasito die; they believe that if they die here their soul will be liberated.  Therefore, one could say that this is a city of death – or liberation!  No matter where you are there’s funeral processions making their way to the cremation ground. Somewhat similar to the funeral processions in New Orleans, there is a joyous character to it all.  We even met an English father and son, who had brought the grandfather’s ashes to put in the Gangesat his wish.   So other than all of the other fascinating aspects of this city, it really is renowned for death and liberation, making it necessary to go and see the Burning Ghat at least once.
Both of us have had a long standing interest in the Muslim saint, Kabir, who lived in Varanasi.  So with that in mind we thought we would go out to visit his birthplace.  As it turned out it was a long dusty rickshaw ride and the very large memorial/meeting hall was more about the person who did the fundraising than it was about Kabir. Close by we stopped in at a Kabir Sahib Ashram where a young man spoke good English and tried to explain to us the lineage of which they follow. All in all interesting, but not really worth the hike out there.
50154  Coincidentally, there’s a temple immediately next door to our guest house and we noticed over the door the name, Shibendu Lahiri.  Curious we went inside in the evening and there was a mass of pictures of the swami order of Kriya Yoga, of whom the most famous in the west is Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiograhpy of a Yogi).  His Master’s Master was Lahiri Mahasaya. Here it was a strange blend of Hindu lingam, marble statues and pictures of several past yogis…and Einstein!  But their devotion still seemed very Hindu based, including waving incense, conch blowing and bell ringing.  Not exactly, what I understand the practice of Kriya Yoga to be!  But we still like to sit there and experience the intensity of the sound for a moment overwhelming the oscillations of our busy minds. 

Bhedaghat – Rivers, Waterfalls….”and they had a Swimming Pool!”

Bhedaghat is a nondescript small town, but a popular Indian sightseeing spot for two reasons:  sits beside a river cutting through a white marble gorge. But the biggest draw is a very impressive waterfall, especially now during the dry season. 
Hotel Marble Rock

After viewing a decidedly grubby hotel with larger than life pictures of Osho in the lobby, it’s not a hard decision for me to agree to indulge in the more expensive option.  After an unexpectedly taxing day of travel, we deserve a night of relative luxury.  And the hotel, already with standards of cleanliness, comfort and service beyond our usual experience, also boasted a pretty garden complete with a swimming pool!  The unheated water was a little cool but I had to take advantage. 
Uncharacteristically, we enjoyed hanging around the hotel and its lovely garden overlooking the marble gorge as much as exploring the town. And the restauarant was of the same quality. Comfortable bed, endless supply of hot water, soft pillow and a delicious dinner was savoured!  During the night everyone was shocked by a passing thunderstorm. It was so strange to see the garden dripping with rain in the morning. Little did we know that this storm would follow us to Varanasi.
The next morning, we walked down to the waterfalls, and it exceeded expectations. I loved the power of the rushing water, the heavy mist wafting through the air – it was like a miniature Niagra Falls.  We both imagined what a sight it would be after the monsoon.
Going down to the ghat, we joined a couple of Indian business men take a short boat ride through the gorge.  Then it was time to leave our the seduction of expensive hotels with beautiful vistas and head back down to Jabalpurto catch the afternoon train to Varanasi.   Bhedaghat was all about water…

Pachmarhi: Flowers and Faded Raj

My guide has pulled it off again. During the long journey to get here I may have had a few doubts, but Pachmarhi is definitely worth the trek. This is our third visit to Madhya Pradesh, and P is its only hill station; very popular with Indian tourists, but like other places we visited in the state, not frequented by western tourists. Maybe because it takes a certain amount of some effort to get here. Few people speak English and the food is characteristically HOT…you know you’re in the middle of India.

 We were drawn by the guide book description of “an idyllic plateau in the heart of the Mahadeo Hills” – with plenty of country walks. Walking in the surrounding hills, we found a remote cluster of caves, where Sadhus lived and performed their practices. 


After the busyness of Bhopal and Pune, the much appreciated silence was broken only by birdsongs. Another day we walked down a ravine to a natural temple hidden among the boulders where priests were chanting constantly.  

The most surprising walk was to the five caves from which Pachmarhi gets its name. (Panch means five). According to legend, the Pandavas from the mythical saga, the Mahabharata, spent their exile in these caves. After seeing Ellora and Ajunta, these caves were merely holes carved out of the rock…not impressive. 

But the flower gardens at the base of the hill were spectacular! We’re unaccustomed to seeing anything flowering in Indiaduring the dry season, and especially not a formal English style garden.  

The guidebook talks about “the faded Raj atmosphere” – and at first it looked as if it had faded completely out of sight.  But these gardens, a few bungalows, and a neogothic church confirmed the presence of the Raj.

Hearing an Indian tourist describe the thundering waterfall in nearby Bhedaghat, we decided to leave Pachmarhi a day early to visit it.  Bhedaghat is three hours up the train line we were taking to Varanasi, so it didn’t seem a big deal to go there the day before our reservation. But first we had to come back down off the plateau to Piparyia.  This time we decided to take the local bus –  twice as long as the taxi, and a bumpier ride but there would be more room to spread out.  True at first. But after multiple stops in little villages the bus was packed, with a large old lady squashed in beside G & I and the aisle full to overflowing. 
Then at Piparyia we made the mistake of buying “general seating” tickets. It was a simpler transaction…and we were only going three hours.  How bad could it be?  But we’d never ridden unreserved general seating before.  It was so crowded we couldn’t even board much less find a seat.  So hoping no one would notice, we jumped into a “sleeper” coach, one class higher. But this was no better, once again reserved seating was almost as crowded as general seating, and no one wanted to make room for us.  

So we ended up standing in the corridor beside the toilets leaning against our cases.  After a while some boys invited Gerard to sit with them in a cramped space beside the door.  I sat on my case wedged in beside a sleeping boy, trying to avoid tripping up the continual flow of food vendors, blind beggars and passengers using the toilets. Then three railway employees came and reclaimed their precious space on the ground ordering the boys, including Gerard to leave so they could sit down and eat their lunch. We were both leaning on our cases again.  After they finished eating, the railway employees took pity on us and ordered two young boys sharing a pull out seat against the window to get up and let the old Western tourists sit down.  Reluctantly they relinquished their seat and for the rest of the journey we perched on it together…and grateful.  The next time we see overcrowded trains with people sitting in the doorway we will much more empathy for their situation.
After three long hours it was a relief to disembark in Jabalpur.  But our journey was not over….we still had an hour’s rickshaw ride.  With no buses or taxis, this was the only public transport to Bhedaghat. An eager young rickshaw driver was waiting by our train; we didn’t haggle much over the price, we just accepted.   A bumpy road accentuated by no shocks left on the rickshaw –  but we were on the last leg of our journey and would soon be in Bhedaght.  Then suddenly, a loud bang and the rickshaw pitched toward the ditch…not a flat tire this time, the whole wheel was broken! Rather than yell and swear, the driver politely apologizes, “Sorry, Sir!” And standing in the road hails down another rickshaw – already full of people, but we’re squeezed in with our bags.  Further down the road, we transfer to yet a third rickshaw…..and finally reach Bhedaghat!  

It’s a Long Way to Pachmarhi

Getting to Pachmarhi involved a number of long bus rides – first to Pune, where we spent one night.  Pune is still the headquarters for the followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho), and although he died 25 years ago, there is still a large community here. After being thrown out of the USand trying to gain entry in 22 countries, Osho finally settled here.
This being the first city we’ve been in since Bangalore over six weeks ago, the city seemed louder, dirtier and more crowded than ever, but over and over again there were helpful people: the rickshaw driver who found us a hotel when it seemed hopeless – everything was full or beyond our budget; the young boy who stopped on his bike, “What do you want, Auntie?”  and then proceeded to help us find a pure veg restaurant. 
One of the benefits of traveling is that essentials are reduced to a minimum – finding a clean and affordable hotel and, within walking distance, a veg restaurant. On our way to dinner, a group of young men on motor scooters raced round the corner and catching a glimpse of me in the growing dusk, shrieked, “White Girl!” – a refreshing change from “Auntie.”
The following day we boarded an overnight sleeper bus for Bhopal, fourteen hours away.  It’s a little hard to explain but basically there’s curtained cubicles with just enough room for two people to lie down and barely enough head room to sit up. I boarded with trepidation at the prospect of being captive for so long. But surprisingly enough it was almost fun… We lay chatting late into the night and finally drifted off with the jostling of the bus. Waking early in the morning as the bus pulled into a roadside breakfast stand with only a few hours to go.  It was nowhere near as bad as I’d feared.

We’d passed through Bhopalon the train before, but I had no desire to stop there.  The spectre of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster was still too real, and in my mind caste a long shadow over the city. But now it was unavoidable because we didn’t feel like taking another seven or so hour journey immediately.  

Bhopal has a strong Moslem legacy emphasized by three mosques, one of which is said to be the largest in India, (although the people in Delhi would not agree….). We were able to walk around all three mosques, watching young boys reciting the Koran, and rows of men kneeling in prayer. We didn’t have a chance to get much of a sense of Bhopal except that it’s yet another Indian city that can’t keep up with the growing population.  It’s the cities that continually remind us of how over populated India is – 1.1billion today and still growing.

The next afternoon we took the train to Piparyia, riding sleeper class for the mere four hour journey.  Buying tickets at the train station is never easy – long, long lines at each counter, the occasional outburst when someone tries to cut in at the front of the line.  But I’m amazed at the patience of Indians to wait.  Noticing a significantly shorter line for “current reservations” we join it. Everything seems good.  The form’s filled out correctly and with the usual pushing and shoving, we hand it over – only to be told, “Come back in 15 minutes!” I demand, “Why?” but he’s not about to give me an explanation. Fuming at Indian bureaucratic inefficiency, I join Gerard back at the end of the line. Two boys have explained to him that “current reservations” means you can only buy the ticket an hour before departure.  Meanwhile the annoying clerk closes his window altogether…now I’m really loosing my patience….reopening up only just in time for us to get our tickets. 

Settling in on the train, our compartment began to fill to overflowing -fifteen people crowd into a space designated for eight. But it’s reserved seating! Further adding to our confusion, when the ticket collector came around, he only looked at four tickets– including ours, while the rest of the passengers merely nodded, and he walked away.  Striking up a conversation with a boy across from us, he explained that the rest of the passengers had monthly passes and they crowd on wherever they can. He reminded us that it was Holi in a few days (the festival of color, one of India’s largest holidays) and everyone was going home to spend it with the family.
The boy who spoke good English told us he worked for the Secret Service.  Inquiring about our experience in Indiahe seemed somewhat surprised that we’ve never had any real problems and meet only friendly people. His job focuses around tracking the Naxalites, a Marxist faction that is particularly violent.  By the time we reached Piparyia he’d managed to put me on edge and arriving at night didn’t help.  We still had 50 Km to go to Pachmarhi, no hotel reservation and had not eaten dinner yet.  The crowd of hustling taxi drivers was threatening to me.  Gerard picks one with a small private car, another passenger and a trunk full of heavy packages.  My unease was mounting as we set off down a dark winding road, in the company of two men we knew nothing about. Some way down the road the driver stopped right in the lane of traffic and turned off the engine. With no explanation, he got out, along with the other passenger, leaving Gerard and I shut in the car in the darkness.  Now my paranoia is in full swing.  Immediately I thought, they’re abandoning us – we’re going to be robbed and murdered! But if they wanted to do that, wouldn’t they throw us out the car and drive away themselves – not the reverse?  My blood sugar was really low- I needed to eat…
The reality was a flat tire – too much weight in the small car.  The driver proceeded to change the tire in the middle of the dark road – cars, trucks, bicycles with no lights, cows – all passing dangerously close. Finally we’re on our way again, but I still have a sense of foreboding.  Arriving in town, our fellow passenger, who had hardly said a word to us during the journey, proceeded to help us find a budget hotel and negotiate a discount on our behalf – and the restaurant was still open!  I wasn’t very pleased with the room, but I kept it to myself.  The next morning, by daylight, everything seemed a lot better.  I realized the fellow on the train had definitely unnerved me. 

Above the Haze in Mahalabeshwar

The 12 hour private bus from Margoa in Goa would take us only 48 KM from our next destination, Mahabaleshwar, a small hill station on a remote plateau in the western ghats.  “We will arrange for a taxi, included in the price,” the bus company told us. But we couldn’t get reassurance from the non English speaking conductor about when or where we’d get off. In the dark, the four lane highway is treacherous; the conductor takes our bags out of the storage and points across to the distant far side, where a small bus depot and restaurant are lit up.  With my heart pounding, I follow Gerard into the median, dragging my case.  “Run!” he shouts…and we make it to the other side.  

Inside the restaurant, a man listens to our request for a taxi to Mahabaleshwar.  “But where are your tickets?”  “We gave them to the conductor on the bus”….we have no record of our reservation.  It doesn’t look good and we suspect we may have to pay extra for the taxi now.  The man is in no rush to help us, and speaks virtually no English.  “15 minutes!” he says… It’s getting late and we only have a tentative hotel booking.  30 minutes go by…  Hungry, tired and nervous that I may have nowhere to sleep tonight, I keep hassling the man….  For two hours, his response continues: “15 minutes.”  Finally a jeep arrives and we’re transported effortlessly up the winding mountain road to the plateau.  The driver drop us off in the center of town, and to our surprise make no demand for payment.
Mahalabeshwar, famous for its strawberries and clean mountain air, is a hill station developed by an Englishman in the 1830s.  It’s the highest point in the western ghats, with wonderful views into the valley below were it not for the inevitable haze. 

Gerard tries to make a joke with the young Indian boys: “Do you know why there is so much haze?  It’s due to all the damn cigarette smokers in Mumbai!”  The joke falls flat.  
One afternoon, we took a 7 Km walk through the woods to a beautiful viewing point. The guidebook told us we probably wouldn’t meet another living soul – and it was right.  Walking along a path that was once a road, long since abandoned, we passed by the crumbling gateway to Nugent Lodge, the one time residence of some Englishman.

Another day we took the local bus to old Mahalabeshwar, a peaceful hamlet with an old Shiva temple sitting on a ridge, overlooking the valley stretching far below. 

On the way back from the temple, we passed a strawberry farm offering large of glasses of fresh strawberries and cream which was irresistible. We ate in the sunshine sitting in a garden surrounded by hollyhocks in full bloom.  A Hallmark moment! 

An old Indian couple (older than us) from Long Islandapproached us in the bus station to share the cost of a sightseeing taxi with them for the day. Ken came to the USin 1969 via Canadawith $300 in his pocket. Arriving at JFK unable to speak English, a taxi driver found him a room for the night, another man helped him get a job – within 6 months he’d brought over his wife and child, and by the end of the first year he owned a duplex in the Bronx and was working as an accountant at Chase Manhattan where he continued to work his way up.  Today, two sons are eye surgeons and his daughter, a producer for NBC Dateline. 

He had a wealth of amusing stories including on his first flight out of India he sat next to a white woman – the first he’d ever seen. She took her shoes off and he stared at her feet – she had no toes!  Being an outspoken man, he asked if all white people had feet like that.  She laughed and explained that she was wearing “knee-highs” and took one off to prove she wasn’t a freak, with webbed toes, after all! 

In the evening, Indian tourists are bused in from the resorts scattered around the countryside.  This is definitely an Indian tourist destination. The majority are newlyweds from Mumbai and Pune, the bashful young brides in their iridescent nylon honeymoon suits.  After five days we were glad we’d made the effort, but once is enough – we doubt we’ll return anytime soon.