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22 November 2005

clearly operating far beyond safe limits

life in india continues to be full of learning experiences. i just gave a cycle rickshaw (also referred to as a 'helicopter' rickshaw) driver 250 rupees and he looked at me like i'd just insulted his mother. i just don't understand. i really thought he'd be extraordinarily pleased (which in turn would have made me very pleased) but he obviously was expecting more. i've stopped thinking in terms of us dollars. after a month in india, i thought i had a firm grasp of the costs of goods and services, appropriate tips. apparently i was wrong.

my train pulled into the mughal serai train station this morning at 0630 and 'my' driver was eagerly waiting for me as i stepped off the train. these are a few sites i saw during the early morning taxi ride into varanasi:

. two boys huddling around a small newspaper fire for warmth.

. further down the road, a woman was cooking something over a propane tank which was raging orange fire from four holes on the top of the tank. the tank had been modified to emit the gas right from the top of the tank and was clearly operating far beyond safe limits.

. a man squatting on a pile of trash brushing his teeth with a long stick.

. a red stray dog standing stoically on a pile of dirt overlooking a vast field of garbage. the chill in the air, the whipping wind, the bouncing of the taxi on the giant potholes, the dog... the moment is imprinted on my mind.

. the bridge over the ganges river

we arrived in varanasi shortly after 0700. when i'd called to reserve a room a few days earlier i was told to call the guesthouse again when i arrived in varanasi and that someone would come out to the rickshaw stand to meet me. i'd forgotten to mention that i'd be arriving so early in the morning and so i'd planned to camp out for an hour or so before calling. my taxi driver didn't want to leave me off without the guesthouse escort... not exactly sure why, although the stories i'd heard about varanasi all spoke of the voracious touts... my guidebook likened them to starving tigers pouncing on defenseless deer (pleasant image... made me feel good.). despite the early hour, i thought it best to give the guesthouse a call. fifteen minutes later, my guide arrived and we were off to the hotel.

there is absolutely no way in hell that i'd have found the guesthouse without him. varanasi is famous for its narrow streets and alleys (among other things) and i gave up trying to remember the way after the tenth turn. cows walked lazily through the streets, bicycles and scooters zoomed around obstacles, children on their way to school walked with droning looks, men were in the process of opening their shops, people were doing laundry... all in a space just wider than a stndard car. the streets were very much alive.

i checked into my room and considered going back to sleep or taking a hot shower (although, similar to when i took the long overnight bus rides, i was surprisingly well rested), but one step out onto the balcony overlook the ganges made up my mind for me. three baboons were chilling on the balcony not more than a meter from me. the view of the river was amazing and i needed to get out into the city immediately. the sights below were calling to me.

i grabbed a quick breakfast in the guesthouse and then was out. i hadn't walked more than three minutes before a man saw me looking at the bonfires along the river and asked me if i'd seen the burning bodies yet. no, sir. i had not. he grabbed my hand and led me over for a better view. directly below me, a corpse wrapped in cloth was burning on a pile of wood. varanasi is one of the holiest of hindu cities; the ganges is a river of salvation and hindus from all over india travel here to cleanse their sins in the sacred water. for these reasons and others, it is a very auspicious place to die. bodies are cremated 24 hours a day on two areas along the river on carefully weighed piles of wood. the man told me that it typically takes three hours to fully cremate a body. a family member lights the fire and the ashes are collected and thrown into the river.

i continued my walk along the ganges. groups of men were bathing and swimming (in the fridgid and famously polluted water. the guidebook expands by noting that 30 large sewers continuously discharge into the river and that the water is considered 'septic' - no dissolved oxygen exists whatsoever). the various platforms leading down to the water are called ghats and the walk on each one was uniquely interesting. in addition to the burning bodies and the bathing and praying men, i saw children playing cricket, flying kites, and selling postcards or tikka powder, animals roaming freely (including stray dogs, goats, cows, oxen, buffalo, monkeys, ducks, and geese). i was asked approximately 20 times whether i wanted a boat ride, given a hand massage, and led to two different silk shops where men threw out dozens of tableclothes and bedsreads despite my resistance.

in the late afternoon, the aforementioned rickshaw driver, rajkumar, turned out to be a great guy and carted me around the city, stopping to allow me to eat and use the internet. he dropped me off at the river where i paid him 250 rupees and then paid far too much for a boat ride back to my guesthouse. during the boat ride, we stopped so i could witness puja, a ceremony performed every morning and night in worship of the river. i spent the evening chilling in the kitchen with very fun travelers in including south african jenn and americans ryan, scott, and eve.

posted by paul on Tue 22 Nov 2005 at 00:00:00 est (-05:00)

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