I barely slept on the night train and eventually took a seat at the window, once the sleeper car had become alive again. The atmosphere outside infiltrated my senses with green, cool, and an absence of the decay of Delhi and Agra. In those few early moments, I had a breakfast of rural fulfillment. I sat bearing witness to the dawn activity of farmers, their wives, and their vivacious offspring. The women never ceased carrying heavy loads of sloshing mud, fire wood, or other awkwardly-carried weight around. Had the train been going slow enough, I would have considered the tuck and roll, careful to guard my packet of crackers. I was, somewhat regrettably, rolling into Varanasi.
Even though I had heard accomplished photographers exclaim, "Varanasi is a photographer's paradise," I winced in anticipation of the dilapidated buildings, the sounds of blaring mufflers and bike chains reverberating in the narrow alleys, and the septic river known in the Hindu community as "sacred." To be honest, I was going for the photos, with a pinch of experience. A little spiritual enlightenment would be nice, but these living conditions were giving me déjà vu of the coal grime I had probably only just extracted from my soles and pores from India trip #1.
I wanted to wander a bit in the maze-like streets reminiscent of Venice's rat trap, but after knowing 100°F intimately for months, I knew that with these sorts of exploratory expeditions comes steaming piles of street doo-doo, cramped quarters, plenty of heart-wrenching sights, and urine streams that would ruin such experiences of pure wonder. However, the whole reason for planning such a long trip was to force the onset of mental and physical fatigue. Though I often struggled to smile across the Subcontinent, it was all a part of the plan. From these draining situations and near-tears moments, I was to read between the lines of my own mind's description.
The supple, green air of the country cleared and made way for the stink unmistakably indicating an Indian city train station. Wandering purposely with a backpack-mountain hovering behind, I found an auto rickshaw to motor its way towards Ashanti Guesthouse.
Yes, I want to stay there...please stop telling me to go somewhere else. I just talked to them this morning. I know what you're doing, fellas!
I was barely conscious for the sunrise bustle, but with half-opened eyes, I could see the feet and wheels that flew by in a blur. The relative coolness and airborne grit brought on a feeling of pleasure in being, once again, in a place that would whittle me down to nothing if I allowed it.
As my mother told me, my passion for travel is most obvious through my lack of hesitation in diving into some of the most uncomfortable positions to be in, not because I have something to prove to others but that I have a morsel of something to gain for myself. Not that I am a work-out junkie by any stretch of Dr. Seuss’ far-stretching imagination, but this mindset involves the same idea. Pursuing grit and pain for an end result of invigoration and strength; that is the name of the game.
I felt Varanasi; I didn't necessarily see her. I sensed she was around me, but I lingered on the thought that if my eyes were closed, I could think I was anywhere. I imagined being home at that time instead of in a tiny, motorized vehicle in South Asia, and a small jolt came to the stomach in the form of a chuckle. Life was playing games with me again.
My driver parked as close to our destination as the broomstick-wide streets would allow and then walked me towards its hidden, locked-up entrance. The man at the front desk and the watchman were both completely unconscious on the cushy couches in the lobby, but the rattling of gates sure can wake up a person. Once I got a room, I dropped my bags onto a stained "mattress" covered in ants and climbed to the rooftop eatery. Baked beans on toast (real local eats, I know). An entire pot of chai (actual real local drinks). I was set for the morning.
I brought my new book, freshly snagged from a houseboat in Kashmir, my well-worn journal, and a loaded pen for a purge session. By this point, I had the thoughts of two traveling months knocking around in my scorched skull, and I figured, with no plans and $2 bucks a night, I could camp out here forever, until I had caught up with my life as an introspective nomad. And that's exactly what I did. I saw the same people come and go, watched them creepily from the same post I grabbed at 7am, and let me pen scribble every moment that came to me. The big thoughts. The big pictures. Oh, the big hand cramps! The sun rose at my left, and by the time I had finished tapping my Blackberry filled with blogs to post, the sun had been eaten behind the building in the haze that constantly cloaked the city.
From this height, I could feel somewhat of a cool breeze and smell something more than fecal matter and spices. Yes, from this outlook, I could see the scampering of monkeys from the rooftop jungle gym. At times, they tap-danced on the corrugated steel above me, causing the resident cooks and wait staff to whack sticks around like senile neighbors. Every time the little buggers poked their heads around the edge of the wall or ceiling, I grabbed my pen like a dagger and waited to blink until their crazy eyes drifted from my makeshift office.
I had my three meals above the city, paid three different times for oncoming chais and lassis, rice and dishes, club sodas and chapatis, because the servers couldn't fathom that a visitor would stay in their restaurant for the entire day. I did, and it was ever-so fulfilling.
A Ganges sunrise
4:45am is a romantic time of day. My body refuses to sync with my mind on this point, but if I could, I would love to watch the sun rise from my own rooftop every morning. If I had an easily climbable tree leading to the gutters and a slightly inclined roof line–along with the physical motivation to move so early in the morn'–that's where I would be to start my day regularly.
Dawn is a time of day that feels rather apocalyptic. It's one of the only times when a person drives around town, sees another car on the road, and honestly wonders what on Earth compelled that person to rise as well. The morning light and ambiance are transformative. If it’s a cold climate, the air's deadly crisp feels as warmly welcome as a chilled glass of water in a desert. If the weather outside is humid, hot, and muggy, it doesn't matter, because the air is new, relaxed, and pure of the previous day's anxiety. 4:45am in Varanasi is lavender and dirty pink.
I boarded a small boat for a free ride with 12 other Ashanti Guesthouse patrons, loading up downstream from the sight of 24 hour cremations, and claimed the aft as my domain to sit Indian style with camera in hand. Though I'm normally drawn to make conversation or witty quips with the strangers around me, the setting merited a moment of silence. If any place calls for serenity, in order to take in the slowly increasing activity of lives so foreign to our own, this would be it.
While I refused to let a drop of Ganges touch my skin, expecting the Fight Club movie scenario of burning flesh, those practicing "puja" or worship around me were swishing mouthfuls and letting Mother Ganga drip down their faces with a cool cleanse. Each man or woman became completely drenched and scrubbed clean, clothes and all, without ever getting completely nude. As I learned later from my new book at the time, Shantaram, Indians are skilled at many things, among which is the ability to never actually be naked, regardless of their activity. To me, odd. To them, necessary.
Candles flickered by on cupcake liners and flowers, representing souls hoping to reach nirvana via the famed waterway. I clicked the shutter at all things colorful or foreign to me only to realize the scope of those photographs' content two months later at home. I caught beautiful things, embarrassing things, things that make you exclaim, "That looks like Borat's bathing suit!" Considering the morning boat ride was completely free, it seemed I had found one of the most charming and cost-efficient ways to witness this city I was afraid to witness.
And then a dead body. A bloated human carcass appeared beside some docked boats, already stained with dark streaks of feted flesh and dried debris. It was a slow, internal realization that I was viewing a long-dead man in a river where thousands were bathing. I clicked a shot, somewhat shamefully, and hoped that man got to where he wanted to go. But when the man next to me gasped in shock at the sight, I thought to myself, "Was it weird that I wasn't too fazed by the floating corpse?" I certainly wasn't scanning the surface looking for one, or even expecting it before we went out, but I think I accepted it before even landing in India.
The world of India is upside-down to me, and though so many of their traditions are understandable, I walk the streets and navigate the waters assuming I will see things I cannot fathom. Part of me has always imagined that one day, when I am much older, I will wake up in the middle of the night with a gasp. It will only be at that moment that I fully come to grasp the sights and situations I have experienced in this world. I hope that day comes, but until it does, man, that was weird seeing a dead body floating next to me.
Strolling the flowing petri dish
After docking and wandering behind the cremation ghat to purchase Vick's Vap-o-Rub for my newly acquired nail fungus, I roamed for grub, for conversation, for knick-knacks and paddy-whacks, and sights to behold. I followed the painted signs on the buildings that served as my only directions through the labyrinth and made it to an organic bakery, a small shop with henna to practice my haggling, and the remaining ghats, where I could witness buffaloes bathing and power hoses thrusting the sitting muck off the steps from the monsoon.
Little boys approached me to convince my skeptical mind, with their batting eyes and adorable English, towards visiting their father's silk shop. I tried to encourage conversation and play rather than acknowledge the sales pitch, but they didn't like my tactic. I wandered alone back to another chow spot for lunch.
Squat if you love Indian food!
Up until this moment, I followed the books when it came to eating out in India. Since I was steering clear of the high class establishments, I had to search carefully for places that catered to the Western belly. Do you boil all unpasteurized and unfiltered food products? I'm there. Nay? I always say no, but thank you, to Delhi belly. However, sometimes the desire to try local favorites hushes your cautious nature, screaming its warnings, and too much dairy goes down the old tube.
I got the Delhi belly, in Varanasi, from aloo palak and a banana lassi, and the most ridiculous part of the result was that I knew it would happen before the ink of my order was even dry.
Lying on my side, iPod buds in the ears, my eyes showcased a look of resignation as I grabbed a nearby plastic bag. I'll spare the details of the next roughly ten hours but will note the most amusing part of the story: the squat toilet. That’s the cue for your imagination to run amok.
I sprawled on my sleep sheet with a high-powered fan aimed at my war-trodden body. No matter how crappy I felt (no pun intended), I still thought something was funny. It's as if I wanted to get some sort of disease while abroad. I think my mind’s billboard read something like this…
You haven't been to India until it gets the best of you!
I attempted to get plain rice and club soda upstairs for a few minutes and then flopped to the streets for a ride to the train station. Everything under my skin was aching, aggravated, or fatigued, and the cycle rickshaw ride to and fro didn't exactly nurse my malady. My eyes were open but not engaged, and my hand unclenched an old book, which tumbled to the dusty ground and received a killer tire mark...just the kind of travel wear-and-tear so many of us try to recreate for aesthetics sake (Yeah, I took that around the world...here are the bite marks where that tiger tried to rip through my backpack for beef jerky).
I'm still not sure, but in the middle of a busy round-a-bout, I believe I saw a naked man powdered with dust, just taking a stroll. I struck a confused look, took a double-take, and shrugged my shoulders back into the rickshaw seat. Since I was a nincompoop and waited until it was too late to purchase my ticket out of V-town, Ashanti had to take me in for another night in the same room, in the same bed, where all my disease-filled dreams came true. After such an excursion, nothing said comfort and delight more than eighteen hours in bed. I hibernated in the depths of a withered building in Varanasi until life came back to my eyes, life pumped in by the auditory musings of my iPod friends.
The joy above the haze
I had one more day in Varanasi. I took a backseat to tourism and tried to mosey for sport. I wanted to mosey as if I couldn't hear reality and daily life throbbing around me, like I was in a music video, walking in slow motion and just making eyes with those who never move from their posts in shops, tea stands, or smoking corners. With any offering of toilet paper, chai, or drugs extended unto me, I declined with a smile and a right hand politely protesting. All I wanted was to blend in. The dark hair didn't fully do its job that day, but I can't say my board shorts and soccer jersey helped.
I took my book and followed the lanes toward the riverbank, only to be literally followed by yet another fully decorated and prepared dead body on a bright orange gurney. In Africa, I had stare downs with wild buffalo on the way to the toilet. In India, I saw dead bodies on the way to a reading spot. A local hustler, insisting I have a chai and silk pashmina browsing session with him, helped me find the perfect spot to read and be undisturbed. This spot was a fenced-off shrine next to billowing clouds of human ashes.
A compelling little sales boy leaned over the fence to make me a seafarer yet again, so I sailed the Ganges and observed a massive puja session on the main ghat. This ten year-old sailor rowed his heart out to move the ample frames of myself and the boat, and after investigating his life story and future ambitions, I agreed to tipping him nicely and lying to his employer, if he asked, about the higher price and his 1 USD gratuity.
Above the seedy business and all the crap, at rooftop level, there occurs an endearing pastime I felt refreshed to witness. I wished at that moment I had already read "Kite Runner," but I had to assume it had something to do with children ignoring the hardships of their daily lives and tenderly lifting a kite into the twilight. Instead of birds, dusk was peppered with flying wooden sticks, string, and bright colors now faded from overuse. I leaned over the ledge at the rooftop restaurant, keeping an eye out for a “clepto” monkey's approach, and followed each boy's string to his respective kite. They held huge yellow spools and yelled at their neighboring friends in between moments of pure concentration and love. They had captured a peace I hadn't been able to find yet in the city; they figured out the secret to childhood enlightenment in a place I couldn't fathom growing up. No grassy knolls. Little time in the day allowed for leisure. But the wind provided an escape for little boy dreams and desires to compete, prove themselves, and feel lifted when so much presses them into the dirty ground.
I used this reflective standstill in time as an escape from the company I had unknowingly joined. There are some locations where travelers become instant friends: Europe, perhaps, or South America. But in India, there can be a sense that everyone is looking with a shifty eye at the crazy next to them in the hostel restaurant or dirt cheap sleeper dorm. Chances are they are equally, if not more, haphazardous than you are, to have stepped onto this subcontinent and willed the experience of sensory over-stimulation and exhaustion.
Everyone was reading the same two books and virtually all were busy smoking, chewing, and caffeinating their soon-to-be weary bodies. A sore point was I was reading one of the two books. This group toting Lonely Planets, cigarette papers, and Bohemian baggy pants, some chomping their Western favorites unembarrassed while others tried in every way to mimic the local customs, seemed like they were following the lure of drug tourism. Actually, I could hear it...and smell it. And to imagine these people had the ability to travel across the world and used it to quench a dirty pleasure disheartened me massively. Mostly, I was worried I blended in with them. The 1% of the 1% of people in the world able to traverse this orb was not represented well.
Grasshopper moshing and train hopping
Packed up like a trekking pony and weaving in between rolling vehicles in the street, I haggled a mean bargain with every auto rickshaw driver for a trip 20 kilometers out of the city. I started off indifferent, escalated to amused, stomped off stubbornly, hailed someone else, pulled the same tricks, and then gave the first guy the job after he returned screaming a reasonable price in my wake. We sped through an unwavering fog of dust in the black of night, a ride I could only see through the slits of my guarded eyes, and shook hands when our destination appeared.
The walk up to the station was as I envision it would be to walk through a crowd of people who hated you. But they weren't people. They were grasshoppers; thousands of grasshoppers flickering and flopping around in the strongest street light. It was as if this light post was the insect-equivalent of a pilgrimage sight, and I walked through the crowd that was working on their spiritual exercises. Every step was a crunch, and I had them flying past my ears, neck, nose, and arms. I swatted and shivered and made it out grasshopper-less. The same sort of crazed crowd engulfed each hanging bulb in the station, so I sat, waiting in fear, inside the only café around. I was petrified of those little winged kamikazes.
The time on my ticket passed, and no train to Darjeeling showed. Even its expected time of delay was fast approaching and passing as I walked up and down the assigned track. I memorized the name of my train's route name and inquired about it to every station hand with a shrug. One man finally pointed behind him to a different track, to the train that was slowly pulling away. Not only was my locomotive late, but it had switched lanes and hidden from my watchful eyes.
What a visual. Here I was at my salvation station waiting for a train to take me to the mountains, away from whatever hardships I endured on that damned riverbank. The occasional man was hanging out of the doorways that were beginning to pick up speed with the train. I booked it alongside the moving cars and screamed my memorized express route to a man who then shook his head, "Yup." The London tube drilled it into me, "Mind the Gap," and I reached for the man's outstretched hand with a leap over the grinding wheels below.
Once I comprehended my success, all I wanted was a good old-fashioned high five, but four staring, ticket-less women gave me nothing but scowls as they crouched on the floor. No problem. I high-fived myself, got directions to the right car in another language, and proceeded to wobble over sleeping old ladies, children, and spooning men, some of which appeared under my feet and cursed me. It being 10:00pm and the lowest-class sleeper car, a compartment that should have slept eight comfortably now held double that. My teetering presence caught enough gazes to make me feel like a spectacle, especially when they all realized I had to wake the two men in my bed in order to claim my rightful ground.
A standard day in this life, a random cross-section, if you will, will normally include a moment like this, when you might as well be on stage doing something uncomfortable or awkward in front of people that don't know or have to like you. That's when the smile comes in handy. It catches people off guard and bounces the vulnerability back to the staring eyes. This is what I did as I shook the men awake, clean-and-pressed my backpack onto the top bunk, and gave back the change that had fallen on the mat from the men's pockets.
The smiles, the change, the comfort exhibited in the expectedly uncomfortable situation; these are the ways in which I nestled into my place among people who hopefully respected me a little more than they had before or wanted to. We were all just trying to sleep, and there is something really tender and endearing about the human condition that enables us to become engrossed in one giant sleep hug when the moon is high.