Travel Stories

More of India

31. Foodie

            I continue to push the edge of the “caution you are in India”food envelope in terms of my eating behaviors and thus far am rewarded (not punished?) for my behaviors.  I drink hot chai from vendors everywhere, as long as I can see steam rising.  I eat in select restaurants, including a veg place in Aurangabad that a Cyber Café owner recommended, which I’m sure had never seen a non-Indian at one of its tables before, and where I had a just phenomenal “king” dhosa.  (Don’t ask what was in it, I don’t know, something very spicy and delicious).  And at a bus depot, in a moment of late night bravado, somewhere between Ajanta and Poona, I bought a couple of fresh rolls, with some kind of veggie mash that I watched others put into the rolls, and two slightly roasted hot green peppers that came with it and also went into the roll, from a vendor who boarded the bus and hygienically picked the items up and served them on old newspaper.  Great rolls and peppers; I threw the mash away.  (Yes, out the bus window where I’m sure some dog, goat, cat, crow, or person will find and consume it on the side of the road.)  I bought shelled roasted peanuts from a tremendous pile of shelled peanuts that had a pot of hot coals sitting on the top of the pile to warm the nuts it touched and that the vendor periodically mixed with his hand and sold by pouring a handful or two into an old newspaper “cone” he twisted and made on the spot.  I ate fresh beets and cukes that Aparna washed and skinned.  I bought and enjoyed a pack of mixed chana dhal, moong dahl, masala peanuts, pepper chana and chana jor.  (I don’t know either.)  Eating in India is a bit like my overall India experience itself: mysterious, very spicy, unknown, unclean, a little uncomfortable, butwanting to be tasted.  And tied for my peak foodie moment of trust thus far, the lunch I bought on the Poona to Allahabad Express that was made on the train (yes, I visited the kitchen, yikes!!!) of rice, paneer in sauce, some veggie masala, chapattis, a lentil crisp, and … tada … some water in a plastic cup with a top on it that said it was “R.O. and U.V. treated,” got to go with that don’t you?

32. Begging and bargaining

The woman with no hands who I see everyday in my neighborhood in Pune is hard to resist, as are very old grandmotherly types who look with pleading eyes and who I believe probably have no other recourse for funds.  Pregnant woman and women with young children are resistible, and evoke in me an unkind sotto voce “you made the choice”or “is it something I did” response, although every once in a while I succumb, we’re talking pennies and quarters here, my friends.  Giving way food is my preferred response to begging, although I’m not often carrying any.  I did give one woman with an absolutely adorable child a small box of crackers right after I bought them, which she took and then looked at me like “Whatdya pay for this, big giver, two rupees?”  And I can’t get home with a bag of bananas without doling them out, which makes me feel righteous, but I should buy more bananas if I want to eat any.  My favorite beggars moment occurred just as I’d left an Internet café with five rupees change (about a dime) still in my hand, when I was approached by a particularly attractive older woman,with an absolutely stunning face,carrying a small woven bamboo tray with a tin cup and a small pile of the red pasty powder that Hindus put on their foreheads resting on the tray.  As our eyes locked momentarily I dropped the change inside her tin cup and, even as the coins were still clanging around the bottom of the cup, she quickly and deftly pressed her thumb into the red powder and then pressed it against my forehead, right between my eyebrows.  “Puja,” she said.  “Namaste,” I replied.  And that red dot made me feelgood somehow, like I was one of the folks almost, although I could not interpret the looks I evoked from people in the street once I was branded, or from dogs for that matter, who laughed just a little bit at me and then treated me with the same indifference as before.

Bargaining is just another fact of life in India.  So here’s one piece of data.  I generally operated in SE Asia as if one third of the initial asking price was what I could get an item for, which meant I had to start even lower than one third down, which for some inculcated reason I found embarrassing and feared it was insulting. But an opening ask of 10,000 kip, or baht, or whatever the monetary unit of the realm, needed to be met with a response around 2,000 to get it for 3,500.  Generally.  But in India I was at least once asked initially for 18,000 rupees for a unique Buddha that I didn’t really want and wasn’t going to buy, no matter what, or so I thought, and I refused to bid on it.  “Just give me a price, your price, any price,” the seller said, “If I don’t like I tell you.” But I refused to make an offer, because I really wasn’t going to buy it and didn’t want to insult the man.  “Okay, last price for you,” he said, “6,000 rupees.”  “No, I’m sorry, there will be no sale here, Sir.”  “But please, Mister, just tell me price you would pay if you wanted it.”  “Okay, 500 rupees,” I said. “What! 500 rupees? You think an Indian man’s labor is worth one rupee an hour?  500 rupees!  You must be joking.  Okay for you 5,000 rupees.  No? 4,000 rupees.  No?  Okay very last price, 2,000 rupees.  Give something more than 500 rupees.  I must make something.  I paid more for it than that.  I have four children at home.  What is five dollars to you Americans?  Okay, last price.  Here I give it to you.  One thousand rupees.”  So from an asking price of $180 he was willing to part with it for $10, but not $5, at which price, even though I didn’t want it, I would probably have owed it.  Like I said, just data.

It reminds me of a sad bargaining event I was witness to in the Souk in Jerusalem when an earnest good willed American friend said to a seller of scarves, “Look, I hate bargaining.  I am trusting you.  Just tell me a fair price and I will pay it.”  And the merchant said without blinking, “Well, this scarf is very, very special, made by a woman in my village, and I hate to part with it, but you have been so forthright with me, I will let you have it for $150.”  And the American paid it.  And the merchant took the money.  And I am sure the scarf was not worth more than five dollars.  But as the scorpion who bites the swan ferrying it across the river, causing both of their deaths, said, “what can I do, I’m a scorpion.”

33. Return to Pune       

I manage to get back into Pune from Ajanta after midnight, to absolutely teeming streets in a part of town that is completely unfamiliar to me.  My rickshaw driver magically negotiates a route to Burning Ghat Road and I am in front of my guesthouse that is locked in almost no time.  When I ask the driver to beep his horn he tells me his horn doesn’t work.  I actually didn’t know it was possible to drive in India without a horn.  So in the still of the Poona night I call out softly, “Baba, Baba,” and I wait, and a door opens and in very short order I am in a comfortable room in a familiar guesthouse and fast asleep.  In the morning the guesthouse owner, who knows I’m only staying one night says to me, “Same price as last time.”  So I hand him six hundred rupees and he says, “No, sir, 500 rupees,” giving me back the hundred.  I have a very good idea who is right about what I paid last time, although there is no way to know for sure, ever.  Maybe he felt badly for originally overcharging me, or maybe he just felt 500 was a fair price, but I “know” it was six hundred I originally paid, as I take back the one he doesn’t want.

I’ve seen a sign across the street from my guesthouse in Poona that says, “Yoga.”  I’ve gone into the entrance of the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with the sign saying “Yoga” where there is a flyer taped on the wall that says, “Yoga, daily, 10:30 A.M.” There is also a sign painted on the wall inside the entrance to the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with an arrow pointing up the stairs that reads, “Yoga.”  I have met the man who is the instructor.  “You teach yoga?” I’ve asked him, and I saw him nod yes.  “Every morning?” I asked, and I saw him nod yes.  So it is on the basis of this information that I arrive at his yoga studio my last morning in Poona at 10:30 sharp.  The yoga instructor is there, in fact besides me he is only person there when I tap on his open door and, and while he looks up at me, he is on the phone and then ignores me for the next ten minutes until he hangs up and looks at me again.  “I’m here for the 10:30 yoga class,” I say.  “Oh, it is much too hot for yoga at 10:30 in the morning in Poona,” he says.  I bobble my head in what I imagine to be Indian style, and stare at him.  He stares at me. “I like hot yoga,” I say.  He looks at me as if I must not have understood him.  He says, “Too hot for yoga.”  Okay, that’s clear, so I say “Namaste” and walk back down the stairs of the building with the sign saying “Yoga”across the street from my guesthouse in Poona leaving me plenty of time to do yoga on my own in my room, get to a book store, and get to the railroad station in Pune over an hour early for my big ride to Varanasi.

When I arrive at the railroad station in Pune more than an hour early there are at least 4,000  on the platform ahead of me, most standing in the general seating line.I really don’t “get” India.  And what is it that draws people’s attention to the tall only non-Indian on the platform a very busy train stations in India, if at all?  That I am wearing shorts?  My red dot?  My shaved head?  My big smile?  I honestly have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter.  I just make this observation, some people laugh when they see me, some stare, and no matter what they are emanating I continue to feel safe, anonymous, accepted, grateful to be here, in Rumi-like “guest” mode, the comfortable recipient of fundamentally indifferent curiosity.

34. A Word of Gratitude

The twenty-four hour long train ride to Varanasi is mostly comfortable.  I am provided a blanket, two clean sheets, a pillow with a clean(?) pillowcase, and a fresh towel.  I buy a half dozen hot milky teas, tempting the stomach bug gods yet again, and set about reading a wonderfully funny descriptive little bio novel about India called, “Holy Cow.”  Hey, are we there yet?And, of course we are “there,” grasshopper, we are always “there.”  In fact, twenty-four hours later, half a good, light, revealing book later, a variety of dangerous food consumption activities, not so surprising conversations,and an endlessly flat and fertile landscape later, and we are still here, and I am still comfortable, both in terms of my physical/spatial comfort, and in terms of my deep inner personal comfort in my completely anonymous and self reliant circumstances.  For me this is like being an astronaut sent into deep space and simply being comfortable being there.  I mean, where else am I supposed to be, and besides which, after liftoff there’s no other place I can be or escape to anyhow.  Still, I continue to be amazed, yes, that is really the most appropriate word for it, amazed - followed of course by awed, grateful, and stunned - about this entire experience, both the places I seen and traveled to, but in ways even more than that, the person I’ve been, because the self-actualization and apparent personal transformation I have experienced on this trip evokes in me something verging on disbelief.  I have wanted to be comfortable traveling in circumstances such as these for so long, to be free of excess anxiety for so long, that to have actually realized it on this journey is almost miraculous, like a cure at Lourdes, like someone who can see after years of blindness, or walk after years of being confined to a wheelchair unable to do so.  There is a quality to it of decognizance, (a word I think I just invented), that is the antithesis of recognizance, some experience that is beyond disbelief or unfamiliarity transformed, something more like an experience almost beyond or incapable of being recognized as true because it has seemed so foundationally not true for so long.  The effort required in the Middle Ages to come to accept that the Earth actually rotates around the sun and not the other way around would be an example of this kind of decognizant moment.  Deciding one day that the God you firmly and absolutely believed in doesn’t exist (or vice versa), or the realization that the country you so adore acts routinely in an evil manner, controlled not by we the people, but we the corporations, or that there may actually be “life” after the death you believed was so final and absolute, might all be other such decognizant moments.  I am just so comfortable, at home, present, self-approving, and free of anxiety on this voyage, and it is immensely unfamiliar to me to be so in this context.  And in that sense I am awestruck and immensely grateful.  To whom grateful some would ask?  And the answer is to my “self,”of course, but also to my commitment to a lifelong struggle that I was never able to give up on, to the awesome power of hope and belief, to trust and belief in the possibility of transformation and healing, to friends, lovers, Lynne, Joy, yoga, therapists, teachers, the Great Spirit, my sister, Miles, my children Maia and Sam in immense and specific ways, all the Steve’s in my life, to the beloved departed Alan B., to animal, plant, and stone familiars, perhaps even to the Divine, and as they say at the Oscars, “if I’ve left anyone out please know I adore you too.”For as I am coming to believe, realize, and even “understand,” while it is self, will, hope, effort, faith, trust, teachers, knowledge, family, friends and so forth that sustain me, it is also absolutely true that it is my partnership with the powers of the cosmos that allows my life to appear in a new light.

35. Getting to Varanasi

It was immensely challenging to connect with a bus after getting off the train in Allahabad late on a holiday Saturday, and only after hours of wandering, waiting, and misinformation, the bus station closing, drunken crazed male revelers dancing in the street, and bonfires lit everywhere, did a cranky old bus appear which ended up being so filled with people that it was standing room only and looked like a NYC subway train at rush hour for the three hour cruise to Varanasi.  And once in Varanasi things didn’t get much better, it being 3:00 A.M and hard to find a half way decent room, not to mention the chaotic filth and decay I observed in my travels through the late night streets, which left me trepidatious and reluctant to even step out the hotel door into India when I woke in the morning.  Besides which, all of the hotel staff and the hotel manager told me that it was not safe to go out that morning until after 2:00 PM because “people act crazy on Holi Day.”  But it seems at times that when warned of danger I want to see it.  So out I went into the city, the street virtually deserted, all the shops closed, and the only ones out and about marauding packs of men wearing hideous amounts of multicolored powders, and silver painted faces like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, and carrying bags of iridescent  big pump water pistols filled with iridescent powder and charging about on bicycles and motorcycles, stoned, drunk, wild, and spraying or otherwise coloring everyone and everything in sight, dogs, cows, other people who err in being on the street, groping women, driving scarily.  I just don’t get India.  A teenage boy and his buddy approach me, they want to hug me, they are clearly going to throw powder all over me, they yell “Happy Holi Day” to me like New Year revelers.  “Don’t you dare,” I say loudly in English, “Come on, man, this is complete bullshit,” I yell, as I push them away to no avail as my bald head, neck, right arm, T-shirt, pack, and sandals are covered with a hideous powdery turquoise and I retreat to the hotel, a wiser, dirtier man.

The only other guest I meet at the hotel is Heidi, a Swiss woman living in America for thirty years, married to a Swiss man all that time, with two grown children, working her way through the end or not end of her marriage, a serious yoga teacher, in love with one of her students, but not having consummated the adoration/infatuation and not yet sure she will because, as she pointedly tells me, she is “still a married woman.”  She’s nice, Heidi, in her sixties, on a personal spiritual voyage in India, fit, a mandala artist, a seeker, someone who has already been to Rishikesh, who has found a yoga teacher in Varanasi she likes and later that afternoon introduces me to, clearly a fellow traveler who in response to our “fortuitous” meeting wants to share with me four principals that guide aspects of her spiritual practice: that whomsoever you encounter is the right person, that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, that each moment something begins is the right moment, and that what is over is over.  Not my particular cup of” spiritual” tea, and not intended by her as an offering of anything other than a sharing in wonderment that we have encountered each other, such at least superficially similar souls so far from home.

36. Varanasi

            Varanasi is simply the dirtiest, filthiest, most run down, vile, pit of a city I have ever encountered.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t “like” it, it’s beyond that; it’s that I can hardly bear it, can hardly tolerate being there, feel like retching (and come close to doing so more than once) because I feel so personally filthy there, feel my nostrils and lungs under assault by smells and dust, can’t get clean no matter how often I wash, where even after washing my hands I feel I need to wash them to clean them from the first washing, and then bathe them in hand sanitizer,and then even going so far as to rub some sanitizer into my nostrils and on my lips.  And the “signs,” the omens, and the guides are all wrong.  I see and hear no crows.  The dead bird at my feet doesn’t wake up.  The monkey laying in the alley has a horrible grimace on its dead face.  The man laying in the street - clearly recently hit by something, a rickshaw, a motorcycle, a van, a truck, who knows - laying face down and bleeding severely from the head, not moving, maybe dead, blood running copiously into the street red and deep, who people ignore, and drive around, and say tsk tsk but do nothing more that I can see.  And I’m surely not imposing my values on that scene. Nor can I respond or say anything in the “organic” food restaurant that advertizes their ice cubes as made with mineral water, but has such a pervasive powerful smell of stale piss that drinking and eating there is beyond unappealing.  And the  unbearable.  And I don’t want to sit down on or touch anything.  And there is dust and flies and stench everywhere, grown men and children shitting and pissing in public, cows laying in the middle of crowded streets, traffic moving around the cows rather than someone moving the cows out of the way.  And the cows so blaze!  I mean why else do these nice people put out food and water and even wash me in the river, the cows must think, if I were not meant to be a king or queen.  And then the goats, and dogs, and cockroaches who are oh so grateful to have been reincarnated into the bounty and blessings life provides for goats , and dogs, and roaches in Varanasi, where bicycle rickshaws are everywhere because they move more deftly than gasoline propelled rickshaws in the packed and basically gridlocked city streets, where cow shit, goat shit, human shit, and dog shit are everywhere.  With fetid standing water. Stale garbage.  Piles upon piles of unsorted garbage that flies, goats, and cows are eating, that puppies are playing in, rolling over in, laying in.  And we haven’t even made it to the burning Ghats and the Holy Ganges, a river which makes the polluted canals of Brooklyn look as clean as mountain springs at their source. Or the tiny ants crawling around on every available surface.  Or the cobwebs I repeatedly encounter with my face in dark passages, apparently because I am just those few enough inches taller than most traffic thru the doorways to disturb dust that has established what it though was permanent resident status.  And if the guy who’d served me my chapattis wasn’t the same guy I just saw wiping the floor with a filthy rag I’d be oh so much happier.  And I haven’t even mentioned the mosquitoes.  Fine. 

But Varanasi is also alive. Amazingly alive.  Throbbingly alive.  Intensely and immensely alive.  “Clean on the inside,” a man I complain to tells me.  The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, older even than Damascus, an ancient city, a genuinely “holy city” whether I like what that looks like or not, a monstrous city arisen from this now dismal swamp throbbing with death and mourning, with burning ghats, with thousands of pilgrims and mourners from all over India walking the narrow streets and alleys of the old city,buying trinkets from vendors,taking boat rides to seethe oh so scenic funeral pyres from the Ganges, and behaving pretty much like tourists everywhere, starry eyed and bewildered, or maybe that’s just a personal projection. 

And what of the policeman who on apparent impulse buys me a chai?  Or the uniformed soldier who puts the red mark on my forehead.  Or the endless number of people who say “Happy Holi Day” to me and mean it.  Or the barefooted man who leads me on a ten minute jaunt thru labyrinthine alleys to the yoga studio that I couldn’t find and then won’t accept even a ten rupee offering from me?  Or the ancient rickshaw driver who underbids a fare when taking me to the furthest, northernmost ghat in Varanasi from where I begin my walk south into the heart of the holy city and who, when I give him twenty extra rupees, looks as though he wants to kiss my feet.  And the faces of the people, my god, the faces, thousands upon thousands of classic portraits of humanity as it is, each face more compelling and storied than the next, each a study in character and beauty, of swamis, and ancient rickshaw drivers, and youthful rickshaw drivers, of holy men and beggars, glorious children and glorious mothers, of barefooted soldiers and beautiful women, the flower market, the flower sellers, the regal cows, the prancing horses, the chanting and music which fill a city celebrating life in death, funeral biers moving down the streets with the frequency of city buses on their tired routes, on roads so full of people that walking is as fast as riding, with roundabouts and streets leading off in six different directions, and dark in the daylight alleys barely a shoulder width wide where whatever is underfoot cannot be seen.A place where, for obvious reasons, I am not only uncomfortable, I am nauseous.


37. Burning Ghats

The ghats are burning.  The corpses are burning, about ten of them in varying stages of transformation.  Chords and chords of wood are stacked against the sides of the buildings that edge the ghats, some to a height of forty or fifty feet, some that run the width of the buildings and extend out from the buildings in piles as much as sixty feet long.The corpses are carried on bamboo litters to be washed in the Ganges.  They are carried back to piles of wood that have been purchased for five dollars a kilo weighed out on massive balancing scales.  The dead are wearing simple clothes.  Most of their jewelry has been removed.  A few drops of Ganges water are poured into the corpse’s mouth.  Rice is sprinkled into their mouths.  Sandalwood chips are sprinkled onto and under the corpse.  A priest walks around the body with a smoking piece of wood from the eternal fire five times, once for each of the five elements that make a person - earth, air, fire, water, and ether.  The oldest son has had his head and face shaved clean.  He is shaking with emotion.  Crying.  Sniffling.  Trying to hold together as he speaks some words about his mother before her mortal remains are consigned to the flames.  When he finishes speaking the priest hands him the burning wood with which he starts the fire. 

Crowds of people are wandering about the burning ghats and smoldering ashes.  Cows are standing and laying around on the steps and in the river.  Dogs are playing and barking.  Goats are everywhere, eating the leis of stringed flowers that have been left on and next to the corpses.  Barefooted young kids are playing quietly among the dead, the grieving, the ashes, and the shit.  Animated discussions are taking place among arguing loud men about the services, the order of events, about who does what.  People are using cell phones to film and photograph the funeral biers, their relatives, and who knows what else. 

I take out my cell phone and snap a few shots of a corpse laying on the wood after she is brought up from the river.  She was very old and is very dead.  An Indian man who speaks quite good English comes up to me and says with urgent passion that I am not allowed to take pictures, that I don’t have permission, that I have been very disrespectful of the dead and her family, that I have just brought some very bad karma upon myself, but, that for the right contribution of funds to help the impoverished dead and dying I can clear this bad debt I have just assumed.  I am immediately suspicious of a scam but also feeling concerned about even the possibility that I have incurred any bad karma.I’ll skip the agonizing details of his and my bargaining about a fair fee to clear my karma.  He wanted $70.  In the end I gave him $10.  And then he told me more than I wanted or needed to know about the consummation of flesh in flame, and I still felt played for the rube I no doubt truly am.  But one thing I hadn’t observed that he told me I’ll share.  “Do you smell the burning hair and the burning flesh,” he asked.  And although I could feel the heat and distinctly smell the smoke, I really could not smell the burning flesh or hair.  “No,” I said surprised.  “That is because on the holy Ganga, in the most holy city of Varanasi, at this the Mir Ghat, the spirits of the deceased and their bodily remains are taken straight up into the heavens and no one on Earth can smell them.”