In the most sacred Hindu city in India, we did not expect to celebrate Christmas. But we were surprised – over two days we had no less than four festive invitations! First we met a Hungarian family with two small children who invited us to eat Hungarian Goulash with them on Christmas Eve. They are staying in Varanasi to have their two-year old son treated for a brain disorder which doctors in Hungary were unable to treat. So they’re now trying the Aurevedic route.
A few days earlier, Sanju the manager of our guest house announced that there would be a dinner on Christmas Eve prepared for those guests who wanted to participate. Veg and non veg options to be followed by home-made apple pie and ice cream. But unfortunately no one thought to order the pies in advance and they were all sold out! I was already salivating for a slice…A long table decorated with Indian flower garlands was set up in any empty guest room (next to ours) – the bed moved into the corridor. Like a postwar British boarding house, we sat around the table – an unlikely cast of characters, including some “long term” guests staying several weeks or even months; a Spaniard with a passion for chess, playing his way across India, two Portuguese and Spanish girls learning yoga from the “best” teacher in Varanasi, our British friend David and a handful of French and German others. After the meal, the loud techno rave music began and that was the end of polite conversation at the dinner table! We retired because we had to get up early the next morning and fortunately for us they moved the dancing and loud music up on the roof.
On Christmas morning, the Hungarians, Uschi and ourselves gathered at a restaurant for breakfast. We first met Uschi, a Californian, a number of years earlier in Varanasi. She’d mentioned creating a work project for women but we knew little of what she really did. But today she took us to out to a village east of the city so we could see what she was doing with the village women. First we stopped at the Krishnamurti Foundation which she has been involved in for many years and where she first had the idea for this project. The Foundation is a peaceful estate sitting on an embankment overlooking the Ganges where followers can come to retreat. At the village nearby, the women were waiting for us sitting in a large work room where they sew and embroider clothes of beautiful fabrics for export. Uschi finds the fabric, designs the patterns, and does the marketing in the US. She also encourages the women to express their own creativity in design and it’s obvious they take great pride in their work. And rightly so; the clothes are a higher quality than the other ready-made we’ve seen anywhere in India. It’s taken years for the women to let their guard down and be themselves with her. Now there is a wonderful camaraderie between them all.
Uschi loves what she’s doing and it shows on the faces of the women. She gave a brief talk about the meaning of Christmas and then we sang carols in German, Hungarian and English. Chai, samosas and sweets were served afterwards. Uschi is so dedicated to what she’s doing and is an example of service before self. It’s not an easy life shuttling back and forth between California and Varanasi, as well as being an efficient business woman in a patriarchic society. A perfect end to the day was a very long boat ride back to our ghat. In the late afternoon light, I took endless photos of life along the river’s edge.
Our fourth and final celebration was with Rajest, a CD stall vendor who we met on our first visit to Varanasi six years ago. He wanted to give us a special drink, called Thandai, that is sold every evening in a dark alley near the GoldenTemple. The curdled milk with swirls of lurid yellow and orange syrup has a consistency and taste that defies description, but makes you want to return every night to drink it again. Sadly it was our last night.
Last year, Varanasi was not my favorite destination. But this year, it was hard for me to leave. We made some good friends: Uschi, Sanju our hotel manager…and David, from Elephant and Castle in London who we enjoyed long conversations with over leisurely breakfasts and cappuccino! We made a promise to meet again for tea in London when we stop there on our way back in March.
On Boxing Day, we trailed our cases through the lanes in the Moslem section, a short cut up to the main road and the rickshaws, and then to the railway station. Another over night train ride to our next destination, Jhansi Junction in Madhya Pradesh, and from there a rickshaw ride through country lanes to the village of Orchha.