Thursday, February 18, 2010

No, No, You Go. I Already Had A Bath - Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi is India's most revered city and is the place where people come to obtain moksha, ending the cycle of death and rebirth. If people are unable to get their relatives here to be cremated, they will cremate them elsewhere and make a pilgrimage to Varanasi and scatter their ashes into the Ganga. At over 3000 years the city of Shiva is one of the worlds oldest city's and you definitely feel that as you walk around. It doesn't seem like much has changed in a millennia. Even though the city was destroyed by Mughal invaders leaving present day buildings relativly new at two to three hundred years old, the city still retains an ancient feel to it.

The first couple days here showed only dirt, noise, and people peddling karma at discount prices. Some go so far as to use the crematory grounds as a ruse to pry rupees from your wallet. But as the days wore on I discovered that Varanasi had much more to offer than filth and lies.

The center of life here is without a doubt at the ghats (steps that lead to the Ganga). Early mornings you will find a technicolor array of saris drying on the ghats, people taking puja in the Ganga or chai-wallhas dispensing hot chai to Indians and foreigners alike while the sun quietly rises. In the afternoons the ghats become much more vibrant with children playing cricket, men and women getting their head ritualistically shaved or the myriad of pastel colored boats ferrying people to and fro. In the evenings the ghats become somewhat of a Varanasi club scene as hundreds of worshipers mix with tourists to witness Aarti, the ritual of offering light to a deity while songs of praise are sung by the crowd.

One of the best ways to discover the city is by boat. With an endless amount of boat men eager for business, I had no problems finding one quickly and at a good price. The hour long ride was relaxing and beautiful as the morning sun cast a golden hue on people bathing, washing and having chai with grand buildings towing behind them.

Varanasi offers a budding photographer like myself infinite photo opportunities. It was definitely the most inspiring place thus far. I never ran out of amazing moments and had to remember to just sit back and relax and soak it in from time to time.

As with most Indian cities the beauty of a place is often over shadowed by a serious environmental problem, and Varanasi is no exception. The Ganga is exceedingly polluted. Most of the towns sewage is dumped directly into the river (a treatment plant was built but because of frequent long blackouts it only works intermittently) along with chemicals, corpses and copious amounts of trash. In spite of all this little is done to change detrimental state of the river. This poses a large risk to the millions that life by its banks.

However polluted the river becomes people still bath, wash cloths and drink the river for its holy and "healing properties." I was shown a wallha who made his chai from river water. Religious lore seems to hijack reason, science and common sense far too often here.

Once again the Indian Organization of Monkeys Tormenting Adrian, or IOMTA, has found me and upped its efforts. Every night outside my guest house a group of monkeys would jump from tin roof to tin roof screeching and calling out my name keeping me up for hours. I think it's time to make an offering to Hunuman the monkey god and try and negotiate a peace treaty. On the plus side, the guest house was run by a wonderful Spanish woman named Maria who is also the head of an amazing NGO called Seeds For Change. Maria gives poor children who can't afford schooling the chance at an education at a decent school. It was a pleasure to meet her and her passion will not be forgotten. I only wish I could have stayed longer.

Good-bye India, good or bad I will always remember you. I'm off to Nepal.

"Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"
George Taylor
Planet Of The Apes

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Day In The Life - Rishikesh to Varanasi

This is my 24 hour journey from Rishikesh to Varanasi.

Myself and three friends from the ashram decided to share a taxi to the train station in Haridwar. The driver was one hour late and panic began to settle into the group. I was staying calm only for the fact that my train left thirty minutes after the others. When the taxi finally arrived we prematurely breathed a sigh of relief as the driver was now in a heated argument with the group he was coincidentally dropping off at the ashram. Eventually our Swamiji had to step in to resolve the dispute. No sooner was that over that a land cruiser was now blocking our way. I was certain my friend Gypsy was going to lose it and hurt someone.

Finally on the road, everyone felt a little better. When we reached the train station we entered into an argument over the fare of the taxi. Exhausted with the driver we eventually just walked away to board our trains. With a quick check to see that all trains were running on time we said our reluctant good-byes and parted ways.

Soon my train arrived into the bustling station at 9PM, right on time. I entered the B section of the train, a climate controlled, "safer" and cleaner train car. I booked the more expensive ticket since I froze on the last trip and Matt had his bag stolen. Trying to find my seat, I walked into the middle of a massive fight between two passengers with many others involved. After waiting a couple minutes for things to die down I realized that this wasn't going to happen. Putting my head down I slowly went through the fight surprisingly unscathed. Reaching the other end I was happy to find out that my seat was in the other B car partitioned from the chaos.

As I settled into my seat, three ladies sitting next to me began to bicker. Of course. Soon their voices rose, fingers pointed, sitting became standing and before you knew it, everyone was in each others face. This argument easily went on for 20 minutes while I sat there contemplating my options. Walking in the dark in a strange country isn't sooo bad. Finally the TT (conductor) came by and it turned out that one of the ladies was in the wrong seat. I now had a 50/50 shot at a peaceful sleep. Sleeping however isn't really an option when you are on top of your luggage for fear of theft.

In the morning the four Indians I was sharing the berth with became curious about me and began asking many questions in their limited English. Soon the question of where is my girlfriend came up. When I told them I din't have one (I know, hard to believe. Right?), one of the women tells me that she is my girlfriend now. Flattering yes, but her English was non existent and I could never be with someone who couldn't understand the genius of Office Space. They were extremely kind and feed me twice on this trip. For breakfast they presented me with a curry so hot that it made me sweat profusely as I constantly deflected marriage proposals translated by the the woman's sister. I'm not sure what happened but I think I'm receiving 30 goats and 20,000 Rupees as a dowry.

Once in Varanasi I struggle to find a driver who knew where my guest house was and wasn't fleecing me. One cycle-shaw driver insisted he knew of the place and off we went. 10 minutes into the ride he pulls over and says "One minute." Sitting there for another 5 minutes I watch him have a chai, eat some biscuits and urinate 10 feet away from me. I don't know what was more disturbing, the urination or the fact that it doesn't even faze me anymore. On the road again, I notice that all other cycle-shaws are passing us and even children skipping are faring better then we. After another 10 minutes he wants to stop again but I insist we push forward.

Finally he stops and say "OK, here." and points to a dark narrow alleyway. I peer down but see nothing. I shrug in confusion. The man motions for me to follow and we walk down the dark corridor. The first person he sees he asks for directions. I KNEW IT!!! He had no idea where he was going! For the next 20 minutes we walk all over the area asking every fourth shopkeeper the whereabouts of my guest house. At the brink of my patience we belatedly locate the guest house. As it turned out we walked past it twice and 2 of the people we asked had their store only 30 feet away from it yet pointed us in the opposite direction.

Relieved to finally have made it, I pay the man far too much but don't have the energy to care. I turn to the proprietor of the guest house and inquire about my room. "Ahhhh we just gave your room away, but we have a lovely double room for only 100 Rs more."


Ashramarama - Rishikesh, Uttarakhand

Rishikesh is the yoga capital of India and has enough ashrams to surely enable me to reach enlightenment in 10 days. Situated on the picturesque Ganga nestled against the mountains , Rishikesh has been the epicenter of swamis and sadhus (Hindu monks generally clad entirely in orange) for centuries. I looked online for many days trying to find the perfect place to practice yoga and learn a little more about spiritual life in India. After a thorough and sometime frustrating search I found Ashram Dayananda. The program included Iyengar yoga, Sanskrit, meditation and chanting. It was a little more than I wanted to spend but how can you put a price on eternal salvation. I was looking forward to all of it.

Exhausted from my jarring and cold ride, I reached Ashram Dayananda at 8AM looking for respite and peace. I quickly went to bed and when I arose I was greeted with a clean, quiet, surprisingly large ashram on the banks of the Ganga. The first few moments were spent just listening to the water rush by as the sun warmed my face. Finally, a quite place in India.

The days that followed started at 6:30Am with 3 hours of yoga, breakfast, 1 hour chanting, a video pertaining to yoga, lunch, 2 hour break, 1 hour Sanskrit class, 2.5 more hours of yoga/meditation, dinner and then usually a guest speaker or musical performance from 8:30-9:30PM. It was much more than I anticipated and had little time to myself oddly enough.

Where astanga pushed me physically, Iyengar pushed my focus as we stayed in the asanas much longer and the emphasis was to be aware of every part of your body while maintaining the asana. Luckily, we had an amazing instructor in Nanda Kumar. His knowledge of the human body and the exceptional way of relaying that information to students made learning very accessible and enjoyable. Nanda's assistants, Amit and Ricardo, were also indispensable when Nanda couldn't tend to you, inside or outside the yoga shala.

Swamiji, who taught Sanskrit and chanting, is a large humorous man who would dispense pearls of wisdom as easily as he would jokes. Some days chanting class was spent discussing philosophy leaving you thinking for the rest of the day, other times class would be on the roof of the lecture hall with the backdrop of the mountains above and the rush of the Ganga below as a chorus of westerners butchered the Hindu language.

I knew I would meet some nice people at the ashram and share some laughs but I never imagined that I would meet so many wonderful people that would so quickly become good friends. I think the over abundance of chapati, rice and dal bound us like nothing else. How much rice and dal can one man eat. "Hello sir, dal or dal this evening? If you prefer dal I can bring that as well." That was my only complain about the course. Well, not so much mine as my lower intestines.

On one occasion 250 sadhus came to the ashram and sat outside the temple to have lunch. Easily one of the greatest things I've ever seen. Massive pots of, you guessed it, dal, rice and chapati were made and doled out with great efficiency. Sporadically a lone voice would rise from the crowd and chant, then silence, then another and another till the meal was done. Thirty minutes into the event someone bellowed a short statement and in military precision all 250 sadhus got up at once and immediately left the ashram almost sweeping me away in the parade. There was so much orange that afternoon that everything had a orange tint to it for the rest of the day.

When the course was over Amit, his friend Om, fellow student Mirko and I rented motorbikes and rode into the mountains to visit 2 temples. The first was a modest temple with 300 steps needing to be ascended to reach the top and possessed a good view of the Himalayas. The second however needed a 3km hike to reach the top and half way up became covered in snow. This temple was bigger and had amazing views of the Himalayas. Since shoes were not permitted the visit became chilly quickly. We all took turns doing asanas with the Himalayan backdrop. Super cheesy I know but just be glad I wasn't doing the robot. On the way back to the ashram we ran into 3kms of snow covered roads. Since both groups had a tumble on the bikes because of snow and ice we opted to walk the bikes this time. On account that it was a 16 hour day and I was already weary from the course, I slept the next day blissfully away.

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.
B.K.S. Iyengar