Chapter Four: On My Own
After I said goodbye to Vidya and Tasha, spend a shit ton money on beautiful tapestries, pashminas, and gifts for family at this incredible store Saurashtra in Jaipur....then I got onto my first overnight train to Varanasi. It was suppose to be be 17 hours. Turned to 20+. I made a young friend, Sugandha; she is in business school but on holiday and going to visit family. And across the way, I connected to a father/daughter duo through smiles and head bobbles... It is a very comfortable way for me to communicate...it says so much and nothing at all. I Grappled with feelings of envy as I watched the closeness and commitment of the father, as he was escorting his daughter to her interview for the navy (Sugandha translated this part). I slept in a drafty top row of bunk bands up against a wall and a ceiling. This is an experience all of its own. People coming and going. Loud and quiet, kids and moms.... Lots of stares and some softer smiles... I was comfortable and not. I cried. That felt good. Did I mention it was a long train ride? I woke up to an offering from below; the father passed up a package of cookies and I gratefully accepted the sugary breakfast. My misconception of seeing more of the country via the train was negated by the tinted/shaded windows that blocked any possible view of the passing landscape.
A rickshaw driver approached me at the station. I was wary but he spoke English and I followed him to his ride. He asked where I was going, I said....Ganpati. He challenged my decision. How did I find this hotel? Didn't I know it was in a dangerous neighborhood and expensive? I didn't. He said he could take me to another part of town and find me a cheaper place. I almost followed along but I didn't like his energy and I had already booked the room for two nights. Then he said, after what happened in France... He was just concerned about my safety. At this point I got defensive and was definitely not going with him. He charged me more than he said, even though my hotel was closer than the part of town he wanted to take me. I left him saying, I don't want any of your bad energy. I walked away and into the thick of Varanasi. It was absolutely intimidating. People approached, called, and followed me from all sides. I just kept my eyes forward and went towards the river. My mantra was everything is going to be okay. Once at the river, I knew to turn left. I just kept breathing deep and believing I would be fine. I was.
Without even showering!? I went exploring... Varanasi was pulling me in. I went for food and to watch kite flyers. I had a lassi (1 of 3) and then made my way to the burning ghat, Manikarnika, where the fire ceremonies go on all night/day, every day, no holidays, no festivals... There is always a body/bodies being burned. They don't burn children, pregnant women, animals, people with leprosy or sadhu (holy men)... Everyone else is burned, lit from the main fire that never goes out; I learned this from Sunil, a young man who approached me upon arriving at the ghat. Our initial interaction had the themes of a scam but the feeling of pure love. I was apprehensive to follow him but he invited me to a better view (note all of the guides say don't follow unless you're willing to pay). We arrived at a landing where a few elders and sadhus sat around a fire and we were close to the ghat; I watched, mesmerized. Sunil had acquired a dirty burlap sack for me to sit upon and I couldn't be rude and then my brain flashed to how dirty I already was and I relaxed into it. Again, he asked do you want to see a better view. I am good at masking confidence even when I am unsure, so I thought but he kept checking in. He guided me around the building and up a dark staircase. He asked again if I was worried.... No, no, I said. He didn't believe me. I'm not sure I did. And he is sharing history, taking me into the center of the fires, introducing me to secret sights and the ways of Varanasi. We left the ghat in pursuit of some Ganga to smoke and as we rounded the corner, I realized he is taking me directly into the fire where no woman, let alone westerner is.
Young boys appeared with cigarettes, chai and then some marijuana. He rolled a spliff. We smoked. I could feel all eyes watching me. Am I paranoid? We sat for an hour watching at close proximity this powerful ritual of death and rites of passage for the families to let go, for the body to immerse itself in flames. At some point, I couldn't stand the nervousness in my belly and the feeling of filth on my skin. I said it was time to go. He walked me half way. I felt safe, taken care of, like someone (he) was watching over me. He asked if he should send someone to take me around in the morning. I said lets see what tomorrow brings. He said, "no plan is a good plan." I agreed. Even though I always have a plan, a ticket, an exit strategy.
I didn't see Sunil the next day. I ate in the comfort of my hotel and met a woman from France, also traveling alone. We decided to explore together. She had been in Varanasi many times before and I didn't feel up to navigating the smoking, the sadhus, the india side-eye so I followed Celine into the markets and watched her capture and document the elder women selling vegetables. We walked along the river; we bought silk; we took pictures; I smiled and bobbled my way through the day. At the end of the day, we took a boat ride down the Ganges river, with grey-low clouds hiding any sight of a sunset and finished the day at the Dasaswamedh ghat with the puja/aarti ceremony that the brahma men perform before a mix of local devotess, tourists, and young hawkers. In the moment when I could have gone looking for Sunil and the smoky shadows of the ghat, I went to bed early instead-- exhausted and overstimulated with sights, sounds, and the smells of the back alleys and the shores of the Ganges river.
The next day, my last day in Varanasi. I struggled with wanting to stay longer. Wanting to find Sunil and sit and smoke and talk about the nothingness of it all. I wanted to forget the plans and the tickets taking me to the next destination, and stay to watch the flying of the kites and the burning of the bodies. I was suppose to be in Kolkuta for dinner and a concert that evening, a hour flight-non stop. So I went to yoga and I had my third Lassi because when I went to find Sunil, the man he had introduce me to two nights before (the owner of the building that houses the cows where Sunil sometimes sleeps in...) he told me Sunil was still asleep so I proceeded with my morning, assuming that I would find him after my two hour asana class, full belly Lassi contentment. I went to the corner we originally met, and there he was with his swagger and smile. With two chais in hand and wearing a sweater vest and sharp dress pants, he caught my breath. What is this? I can't possibly have feelings for this young, short Indian man? I did. I felt a deep familiar love for him, easy. We sat, with only a few moments before i had to leave. He asked me if I really had to go. Why didnt I stay longer? Why was I always making plans and buying tickets, he wanted to know; it was a challenging moment. But it was with love and it made me think. Why are we all so busy? When we first met, I asked him what do you do? And he asked why people were so obsessed with doing? He does nothing. No work, no home, no doing. I couldn't relate.
So I ambivalently left, in an over priced car to the airport. Questioning my reasons why I was leaving and why I wanted to stay. There was traffic. He asked along the way... This route or that-- many small back roads, different twists and turns; I was happily enjoying the scenery. Then there was that moment when maybe I won't make it? I started to panic a bit but talked myself down. He did everything to get me there an hour before my 4:20pm flight. At 3:30pm, I walked briskly to the counter to check in. Sorry ma'am, your flight time was changed to noon, you missed it. What?! Wait what? Long story short, I didn't read an email with an updated time, the airline got me on the next flight but it had a layover in New Delhi and I missed dinner and concert in Kolkuta And I was still longing to watch the kites and sit and smoke with Sunil by the fire. To be continued...