Forgot to publish this album when I was actually there in the North Woods this summer. So, since there can never be too many photos of trees I’ll do it now…
I come home almost every summer, stay at Robert and Marsha’s in Grand Rapids, and walk in the woods along the Mississippi every morning. At least once during each visit I post a tree-album on this blog. How could I leave out this year…
I don’t seem to be quite ‘all the way home’ yet. Maybe a few more travel posts will do it.
It is December 2nd, my fifth day home in Albuquerque after the Big Trip of 2017—and five days of painful adjustment it has been. My body has rebelled, fighting a powerful battle against the complete 12-hour turnaround of day and night between northern India and central New Mexico. It pleads for sleep when I need to be at work; it insists on staying up with detective novels all night. This morning, even though it’s 4:06am as I write this, it feels like the worst might be over…and that the trip my body took is officially in the past. My mind, well that’s another matter.
I want to write about why I did what I just did—traveled for 39 days/5 ½ weeks in the ‘neighborhood’ of southeast Asia and India. Certainly not to relax or see famous or beautiful things. Not for exotic food samplings nor shopping of any sort—I did very little of most of the above. In fact, it’s hard to describe my apparently never-ending need to travel so I googled travel quotes to see if anyone had described it for me. Yes, it turns out, writer Eric Weiner has… “For me, a place unvisited is like an unrequited love. A dull ache that—try as you might to think it away, to convince yourself that she really wasn’t the right country for you—just won’t leave you in peace.” That’s it!
There is however another stream of desire that mixes in and around that core of geographic neediness. It has to do with a lifetime of reading explorer’s tales without ever having the will to become one of them. It has to do, now as age advances, with the challenge of getting to some of those desirable but difficult ‘explored’ places of my books.
Getting there can be a hard slog if one is determined to go the old-fashioned land route which will somehow lend authenticity to the endeavor. For example, I just visited the Indian city of Varanasi and the Ganges River. While not an explorer destination in that ‘reaching the North Pole’ category, the Ganges has always been a source of fascination for cultural/spiritual/historical explorers. And that it was for me as well—an up close and personal look at Indian life at its most spiritual and basic level…with a focus on the Manikarnika Ghat.
Of equal importance though was the purely physical and organizational challenge of getting to Varanasi from Kathmandu, Nepal and from Varanasi to Agra, India by land. It’s like seeing if I can do a three-minute plank or write a real book. As you know from past posts I did that (the travel-by-land, not the plank, challenge). I went by car the 20 hours from Kathmandu to Varanasi which isn’t so far in actual miles but is excruciatingly far in road conditions and death-wish drivers. A few days later I rode Indian Rail for another 20 hours or so to Agra and I’ve already described Indian trains.
What I am trying to say…visiting the Manikarnika Ghat and meeting the challenges of road and rail hold equal experiential and cultural value for me. Real explorers, whether in the Arctic or Amazonia, are always caught up in both the mental and physical discoveries and trials of their journeys. So I’m a real explorer…sort of…
“If we were meant to stay in one place, we would have roots instead of feet.” – Rachel Wolchin
“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Shashi Tharoor (Indian politician)
It made perfect sense to me to fly home from Delhi. After all I’ve been in northern India, Delhi’s the main urban area up here, and there’s at least a day’s worth of touristing—supposed to be a great bookstore (my idea of the perfect souvenir shop) in this neighborhood in fact.
Not a good decision. For the first time in my long and inattentive life, I grasp the seriousness of air pollution. I didn’t visit LA in the bad old days although I was in and out a few times when it looked pretty hazy. So I’ve only grasped the consequences intellectually—not up close and personal—like right this minute.
This is serious in an everyday, sickness-and-health kind of way, can I get up and function today kind of way, will I die from this kind of way. ‘ Yes,’ I said, ‘pollution is bad, especially for old people and babies and the other weaklings among us.’ … ‘but it’s not the same kind of immediate danger as a gun or a speeding truck or an earthquake, right?’ Wrong.
It is an immediate danger. Now. Today. Breathing the thick air of Kathmandu, Varanasi and Delhi has and continues to make me sick. Right now. It’s hard to breathe. My scabby bloody nostrils sting and bleed even more when I blow my nose. My eyes hurt. The article I’ve included with this post says this level of pollution is comparable to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. I read that and said omg, that’s awful…and then remembered I used to do almost that. You can imagine how stupid and yes, guilty, it makes me feel to know that I created a little mini-Delhi all around me every day for more than a few years…and subjected others to my poisonous presence.
Just to say…It’s not usually this bad in any of these cities…and I do not in the least regret going there. They’re major cities of economic, cultural and geographic interest; go there, it’s worth a little heavy breathing. But don’t stay very long in Delhi.
I don’t go to the airport until 8:30pm. What to do? I could start on the piece I want to write about this almost-always magical journey which is just now ending. Maybe I’ll wait for the clear air of high desert country to do that when my nose heals and I can find a kind word for the Taj Mahal.
I could venture out…no need to even shower—as the tuk tuk weaves through the clouds of carbon dioxide/monoxide/nitrogen oxides and the dust blends in and the smoke binds it all together (that’s how I imagine it happening at least) I’ll just be recoated. I’ll simply brush my teeth, put on yesterday’s travel clothes and brave the soupy air for a trip to…find books. It appears Delhi has a good selection of substantial bookstores, some closed today, but the Oxford Bookstore is open and has a coffee shop inside. Should be able to kill a couple of worthwhile hours there.
Meanwhile, puttering about my pleasant room in an okay hotel. Actually the hotel is fine; it’s upstairs in a tacky little shopping mall which isn’t perfect and above a nightclub that plays hard-beat stuff until 1am which could also be considered imperfect, but the service is amazing. They don’t have a dining area but they do have a kitchen so they prepare anything you want (although no BLTs on the menu) 24 hours a day. I wanted a glass of wine when I arrived about 3pm but there’s no liquor service so one of the guys went down the street and bought an inexpensive bottle of Italian wine for me.
Last day’s itinerary is unfolding. About 11am I’ll walk to the bookstore which is very close by. Then ‘home’ to finish this post and for a nap (and perhaps a wine) about 1pm. Nap until 3 or 4, shower, last bit of packing, almost through with The Handmaid’s Tale but will probably have something to read from my foray out into dirty Delhi on the plane. Airport at 8:30pm for a 1:30a flight to Tokyo. Eighteen hours later I’ll be in LA. Little time to kill at LAX and back to Southwest Airlines and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I am happy…my usual travel condition…to have been away and to be coming home.
2:30pm now and the air index has improved to Very Dangerous. The bookstore was good. Lazy hours coming up. Over and Out. (Any chance to say that must be taken.)
Good article on Delhi and pollution.
Still November 24, 2017. I am bone-tired this morning. Almost frighteningly tired. I’ve made myself get up, shower and walk around for strong coffee and photo ops.
The Mud Mirror Guesthouse where I’m staying is exactly the right place to recover from Indian Rail. I love this place. I almost could live here, right here in this odd centuries old room. Windows wide open every minute (does get a little smoky but it’s worth it to hear and feel this unusual and ancient desert town around me…no Marjorie you are not in that other desert town for a few more days yet). The guys that run this place really do treat guests in the five rooms like family, and the food is excellent and delivered to one’s room if that is your choice.
Jaisalmer is a place absolutely worth your time; skip the Taj Mahal if you’re contemplating India and head here instead. Unfortunately I’m too tired to go on a camel safari or bargain for one effing piece of anything; fortunately I can do a quick read on the Jain Temple next door to the Mud Mirror, I won’t even need to deal with a guide and you’ll see all of the pretty pictures.
This is a magic golden city just like the brochure says. And by Indian standards it’s rather low-key. The vendors are only medium pushy, the dogs look a trifle healthier, the buildings and the views are…yes…really…spectacular. I think I love it here and would even more if I didn’t feel quite so lacking in energy.
About 9:30am. I found a sidewalk cafe called the German Bakery, ordered coffee and a cinnamon roll which is supposed to give me a boost…I’m waiting. Everything else here is up the stairs for a ‘city view’ which is lovely unless one is staired-out.
A dog just came over and touched my hand. It made me sad. The dogs don’t even beg or pay attention to people eating here. It’s like each species lives in its own separate world and pretty much ignores the other. The people, the cows, the dogs; each exists with little communication between them, although I think the cows are treated better than the humans or the dogs. That old religious significance thing isn’t it? Always so sensible. I said ‘sorry’ to dog that she was born here, but how do I know she doesn’t like much of her life too.
About 11:30am. Went through the Jain Temple. Possibly the most magical edifice I’ve visited so far. More later. I’m back at the Mud Mirror, have downloaded The Handmaid’s Tale and intend to lie here however long it takes to feel energy coursing (or even trickling) through my veins and muscles and feet and brain again.
1:26pm. Slept for awhile. Now for some hotel reviews; two will be outstanding, seven good, and one bad. Booked everything through Booking.com and it’s worked out well with changes and additional dates; Booking’s communication might be better than Expedia which was always my go-to in the past.
So my nostrils are full of sores and scabs. That’s not good is it? Apparently a condition of mixing bronchitis with Nepalese and Indian air. But I made it for almost 40 days without one single stomach ache and almost no body aches. The fact that I feel like I’m dying of consumption is just a little side issue.
I didn’t take a picture of my scabby nostrils.
Some history of where I am right this beautiful moment. Thanks of course to Wikipedia and the BBC.
Jaisalmer is a former medieval trading center and a princely state in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, in the heart of the Thar Desert. Known as the “Golden City,” it’s distinguished by its yellow sandstone architecture. Dominating the skyline is Jaisalmer Fort, a sprawling hilltop citadel buttressed by 99 bastions. Behind its massive walls stand the ornate Maharaja’s Palace and intricately carved Jain temples. (on-line)
Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest fully preserved fortified cities in the world. It is situated in the city of Jaisalmer, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is a World Heritage Site. It was built in 1156 AD by the Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, from whom it derives its name. The fort stands amidst the sandy expanse of the great Thar Desert on Trikuta Hill. Before the days of the British Raj, the fortress city served as a refuge and way-station for caravans and travelers along the Silk Road. Its ramparts served as the backdrop for many battles in past centuries when the Silk Road still served as one of the main trade routes between East and West.
The fort’s massive yellow sandstone walls are a tawny lion colour during the day, fading to honey-gold as the sun sets, thereby camouflaging the fort in the yellow desert. For this reason, it is also known as the Sonar Quila or Golden Fort. The fort is located along the southern edge of the city that bears its name, and is perhaps one of the more striking monuments in the area, its dominant hilltop location making the sprawling towers of its fortifications visible for many miles around
The Mud Mirror Guesthouse is IN Jaisalmer Fort.
Sri Jain Parswanath Shwetabmer Ji Mandir Temple.There are seven Jain temples in total which are situated within the Jaisalmer fort built during 12th and 15th centuries. Among these temples, the biggest is the Paraswanath Temple; the others are Chandraprabhu temple, Rishabdev temple, Shitalnath Temple, Kunthunath Temple, and Shantinath Temple. Known for their exquisite work of art and architecture that was predominant in the medieval era the temples are built out of yellow sandstone and have intricate engravings on them.
Jainism, Indian religion teaching a path to spiritual purity and enlightenment through disciplined nonviolence (ahimsa, literally”noninjury”) to all living creatures. Along with Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism is one of the three most ancient Indian religious traditions still in existence and an integral part of South Asian religious belief and practice. While often employing concepts shared with Hinduism and Buddhism, the result of a common cultural and linguistic background, the Jain tradition must be regarded as an independent phenomenon rather than as a Hindu sect or a Buddhist heresy, as some earlier Western scholars believed.
One result of this trip is a desire to know something more about Eastern religions. And if I base the desire on which places and monuments/edifices have stirred my atheistic soul (is that a contradiction in terms) ever so slightly, I would have to say Bagan and the Jain Temple next door to my hotel here. Something about them tells me there’s a greater desire for peace and nonviolence among their honored lords and gods and statues and chants than exists in the average everyday conquering spirit of most cults and religions. Not sure that’s true at all, maybe I just like that Buddha smiles and this temple is so profoundly perfectly beautiful.
2pm. I think I feel better. Soon I’ll have the strength to climb these damn stairs to the rooftop restaurant one more time. Eventually down to go through the Jain Temple one more time I think. Or not. Then a night with ‘the handmaid’ and my wide open windows to the sounds and lights and night stars of Jaisalmer. This is a special place.
6pm. Such a perfect lazy day. Except that Jaisalmer deserved my full attention…in exploration mode. What it got I’m afraid is my full appreciation and my recommendation to everyone who wants off the beaten path (though not really too far) to visit this authentically magic kingdom.
I am feeling renewed somewhat. Another night of my beloved-wide-open windows and the gentle cool breezes and sounds of an Indian night in the desert (much taken up by barking quarreling dogs and Abba I think it is playing at a club somewhere in the ‘hood) and I’ll be good to deal with a day in Delhi and home…
About 4pm I went up to the rooftop and had kadi pakora, pineapple lassi, and butterscotch ice cream. It was just right. I also managed to find a jar of Nescafe in the market this am so I am completely content…it takes so little to make me happy…although it helps if I’m someplace called Jaisalmer when partaking of my simple pleasures.
The Handmaid’s Tale is good, really good. Which means another streaming channel when I get home possibly. Although I have not had a television on for this entire trip except about 20 minutes halfway through somewhere of BBC…couldn’t even deal with that.
One more post from Delhi…and it’s done. I do want to write some thoughtful wrap-up piece…we’ll see.
DO VISIT JAISALMER. AND VARANASI SOME DAY. Don’t take the train.
Please scroll through the following many random photos from this best of all possible places.
MORNING MOOCHERS OUTSIDE MY WINDOW.
THE GOLDEN PLACE
November 24, 2017. Still Thanksgiving evening back home; here in Jaisalmer we’ve moved on. I am so happy to be here…and will be equally (equally plus) happy to be home soon. Here’s a teaser photo of my room at the Mud Mirror Guesthouse and then a long tirade about Indian Rail. This will bring my railroad stories to an end…and let the healing begin.
Pollyanna reporting in…if I had not wanted a long train ride on Indian Rail I never would have scanned the map of India until I found a strange sounding place called Jaisalmer twenty hours from Delhi. Forty hours altogether traveling west into India’s Rajasthan state and then returning would be like reliving a piece of my Siberian/Mongolian/Chinese train adventure which was one of my life’s highlights, wouldn’t it? Well No. It would be as different as activities within a category called rail travel can be.
Where I’m going with this however is…I am here in Jaisalmer tonight because of yet one more daunting Indian train experience…and this place is different and beautiful and well worth some trials and tribulations to get here…and thanks to Indian Rail I had them…and I’m here.
Actually, I’m on the verge of being ill from never eating anytime I’m near an Indian Rail station or train. But tonight with some peas paneer, nan, and enough lassis I’ll be okay. But…ROBERT and MARSHA, if you read this could we please have BLTs and Baileys Monday evening?
ONE LAST INDIAN RAIL ADVENTURE
Yesterday morning, in my least favorite place of this entire trip, Agra, I rose early to get to the train station early to get to Delhi early to transfer to another train station early so I would be sure and catch the one train a day to Jaisalmer…which miraculously enough was only half hour or so late. I spent about five hours at Old Delhi Station. Which has a McDonalds. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing.
I made notes about this train ride at dawn today by which time, except for my fish sandwich and one of the bananas the monkey hadn’t swiped from the vendor yet, I had not eaten for 30 hours. Now we all know Indian food is loved the world over so most of this finickiness is just me and my stomach. Although I will give the condition of the stations and trains some credit for appetite loss as well.
For hours I thought of backing out of the this Jaisalmer adventure. Instead of passing through Delhi, why not just book in early to my nice hotel and spend a few days watching TV and eating ice cream and drinking wine and never worrying about how much coffee I drink because there’ll always be a toilet nearby. Nah…I’d be ashamed if I gave up now…and I wouldn’t have anything requiring bravery and hardiness to brag about. So onto the night train to Jaisalmer…
And jumping right in to what in my opinion is the absolute inexcusable worst aspect of Indian Rail…and remember I was traveling First Class! Some of the stations and all of the trains I’ve ridden on have been filthy. Not just messy, not just kind of dirty. Actually filthy. There was not a surface, hard or fabric or glass, in the train I rode here to Jaisalmer that had been cleaned in years, decades, since being in operation for all I know. Neither soap and water nor any disinfectant nor any cleaning method known to mankind has ever touched these surfaces.
While writing this morning I realized that none of the other drawbacks…like never being on time, or having irregular and chaotic messaging about what track your train is on, or not having toilets readily available are deal-breakers for me as far as enjoying the ride. Layers of dirt on every surface close though… Don’t mean to sound like a little old Minnesota Lutheran housewife aiming for a fresh doily on every surface—you do know we Norwegians once pretty much lived in the other half of the house from the cows and spent the winter drinking homebrew and eating butter…or at least that’s what the Viking historians say. But I’m pretty sure we washed up now and then. Maybe not. Anyway sorry if I’m being persnickety about this but I cannot be in perfect-tolerant-traveler-mode all of the time.
May as well get the other major negative out of the way. There are no railway employees anywhere in the stations for information. None. Nada. I mentioned this to a young Indian guy I met on the platform who said that most of the time the employees are hustling their other side gigs in and around the station instead of being at the consumers’ disposal. I do have some sympathy for that since it’s obviously tough to make a living here.
Okay enough with the griping. There’s a lot of good stuff like relatively smooth rides. Outside of Swedish or Chinese trains, the trains here feel as good as any I’ve been on. Trains are, in fact, still the best means of travel. That particular train gait, that world passing by, those brief encounters with new 10-minute friends, the surprises. It’s good…already the sticky surfaces are receding into just memories.
Long story short…I seem to have major issues only with the cleanliness or rather lack thereof. It’s amazing how one adapts though. Enter compartment. There are clean sheets and previously used blankets—the airlines don’t wash every blanket every time we open it up, drop it on the floor, why should the trains. And that doesn’t bother me usually, it’s just that it’s hard not to get a little paranoid given the immediate environment. Go to toilet. After using the squat toilet the entire trip I discovered the one across the hall had a seat. And honestly, the toilets are watered/doused enough so they don’t really smell that bad.
So I’m finally in the train about six last evening. Given that the day wasn’t wonderful, I pretty quickly pulled my purple blankie that goes everywhere with me over my head and went to sleep. And in spite of everything I’ve just said…there is nothing quite as wonderful as falling asleep on a train (or at least one that’s not threatening to jump the tracks at any moment). Slept until 2am but since the AC had been turned on as soon as it got dark and cool outside, I wake up freezing. Find fleeces in bag, pull them on under the covers in dark, okay may as well go to the toilet now too, back in bed slowly warming to sleeping temperature. Dawn and I’ve already slept at least 10 hours so what to do. I’ll read awhile. Do not like this detective novel so I’ll try a slightly more complicated read, “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived…” Wrong choice for daybreak on an Indian train.
Enough…boring but had to share that…if you actually read this far just realize you’ve participated in my therapy session.
Oh yeah, I’m flying back to Delhi on Saturday. I did it though. I rode three Indian trains for about 50 hours all told. And I get at least as many points for that as my kids get for all the hiking they’re doing…only Michele, who just did a full marathon, is ahead of me in the physical department and I may be ahead of everyone when it comes to meeting a mental challenge. Thank you Indian Rail.
For the first time this trip, I am cranky with a whole place/city (Agra). And it’s the first time I’ve felt really depleted. It’s okay, time/money/me winding down together. The four train days ahead are a little scary, but it’s all good…I say confidently.
This was Taj Mahal day. Chichén Itza, Mexico; Christ the Redeemer Statue, Brazil; Colosseum, Italy; Taj Mahal, India; Great Wall of China; Petra, Jordan; and Machu Picchu, Peru have all been declared, by whom I’m not quite sure, the seven wonders of the modern world. So I’ve been to most of them and must say the Taj Mahal was the least inspiring. (the Great Wall is the most impressive.)Let me explain and not just sound like the cranky old slightly-ill crone of the day.
First of course, it is truly beautiful; if there is such a thing as a heavenly structure the Taj Mahal would surely be the prototype, and there has likely never been any building/monument, natural or man-made, more thoroughly photographed. I really did feel quite silly taking more pictures…but it’s all just fake photography unless you have a selfie in front of the magnificent thing you’ve come all this way to see, yes?
I’m thinking about men today. The constant news coming out of India about the devaluation of women in this society. The brutal rapes, female infanticide, increase in honor killings, and the practice of marrying girl children off to hideous old men—all still not uncommon. For whatever reason, all of these abhorrent practices feel almost more everyday here than in the Muslim countries I’ve visited. I loath seeing an exhausted looking girl carrying a baby, yelling at a toddler, and pulling her stubborn goat along behind.
Before sharing the obligatory photos of the Taj Mahal, I have this little scene I observed while the train was stopped at a rail station. In all fairness, I don’t know that the men in the following photos were directly responsible for the plight of these girl children, but if not them, certainly their brothers and cousins were/are. I think these few pictures are illustrative of the story of girls with their babies living in a world of arrogant men.
Then I check in with HuffPost to see what the men of the US are up to…no good it seems. But I think we may want to stop a minute and take a look at whether we’re tarring too many men with the same bad behavior brush. There are some differences: accosting children versus adult women; rape versus an inappropriate pat; using power for sex as opposed to equals stepping over the line. Men need to grow up, to stop using the power they hold in the real world, whether India or the US, to poke and prod and take and threaten. No new thoughts there.
It’s just that seeing and thinking about what women go through here makes a news flash about yet one more woman being groped by yet one more celebrity/politician/male person seem…well…almost trite. No, do not think I’m making light of this…in fact as I was walking around Taj Mahal’s beauty I kept having to imagine Charlie Rose subjecting female staff to his naked self at the office, and not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Nevertheless it’s not the same as an 11-year-old girl being sold to stinky grandpa down the road.
Here’s how this all ties in with the Taj Mahal. This delicate vision in white of Muslim architecture was built by a Shah Jahan in memory of his wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. Speaking of creepy. So did the Shah insist on impregnating her 14 times? Did he rape her? Did she have a say in the matter? I’m not so impressed with all this perfection coming about because the dear old Shah couldn’t figure out that keeping his love pregnant all of the time might not be good for her…so he literally killed her with his ‘kindness’ and then built a pretty thing by which to remember her.
Anyway between Charlie Rose and Shah Jahan and the ever-present and persistent vendors, I am annoyed with men…except of course my family and friends who are male—and all of whom are much further evolved than either Charlie or the Shah obviously.
November 21, 2017: A little later than the last post! Must be getting homesick…
Shower taken, breakfast ordered, weather’s turned chilly, veg omelet looks delicious, rest of the world doesn’t make those puffy watery omelets we get in the States; these are flat and browned with tiny veggies grilled quickly so nothing is runny. Nice that my stomach’s performed as ordered this whole trip—the rule is to hardly ever eat and when you do never never try anything new and interesting. Hey, it seems to work for me, I eat breakfast though so I have strength To See Interesting Stuff. I had great expectations for the Ganges and was not disappointed; I am looking forward with equal levels of anticipation to Jaisalmer with its mammoth golden fort (within which my tiny hotel is located). Today the Taj Mahal…when in Rome… I’m going to try with force and power and meanness and falling over in a dead faint if I must…to avoid having a guide. Not so easy in India. Anyway I’m sure to make a post this evening raving about the Taj Mahal.
Admittedly, one of the reasons I do this travel gig is—it’s my version of extreme sports. Some people get old and take up the Ironman Triathlon—for me it’s Indian train stations. Evening before last I took the train from Varanasi to Agra. Aside from the 6-hour delay and always knowing there’s pee on your shoes it’s not so bad. I was in 3rd class sleeper with four companionable travelers, age and apparent breadth of interests of my grandchildren, and one quiet Indian couple. Narrow berth of course but smooth ride.
It was the time getting on the train that tried my soul but apparently Indians are use to it since no one rioted or shot up the station… I actually paid a nice young guy from the hotel to go with me and help me find my train—although he was a little clueless as well. Met two interesting young Scottish cops who were the perfect train-delay friends. We had books and travel and some degree of exhaustion in common, and they were equally confused, which gave me a comforting feeling of ‘we’re all in this together.’
I did make a decision yesterday to cancel my train tickets and fly from Delhi to Jaisalmer and avoid Indian train stations forever after. Fortunately came to my senses…this is an adventure, Marjorie, I said. A physical and mental challenge. An ‘ain’t over til it’s over’ moment and I not ready for it to be over.
Now off for some sink-laundering and a day at one of the seven wonders of the world.
Travel with me now from Varanasi to Agra………….
THE STATION AND THE TRAIN
THE SCENE THROUGH THE DIRTY WINDOW
Varanasi the difficult. Varanasi the profound-maybe. Varanasi on the Ganges.
November 21, 2017 in Agra, India: The bloom is definitely off this trip’s rose. It happens a time or two on every one of my jaunts too-far. But when I plan them, considering my age, income, and available vacation, there’s pressure to wring as much experiential ‘joy’ as possible out of each hour and dime. Then I wake up one morning in a strange room I don’t like very much, with various god-based prayers and chants echoing through the neighborhood; sick of Nescafe for an eye-opener; wondering how many more days I can wear this sweatshirt without emanating some near-homeless odor, and wanting to just get up, shower, put on my jeans, and drive Ghost to work.
Part of this morning’s angst is how I scheduled this last week—including an early morning train ride into Delhi tomorrow, then catching a 20-hour train to a city called Jaisalmer in a state called Rajasthan in the Thar Desert. Overnighting at the Mud Mirror Guesthouse. Taking 20-hour train ride back to Delhi to breathe poison air for a day and one-half before getting on a plan for Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque. The seriously daunting part of that whole scenario are the train stations. Pretty much hell they are.
I think I should be out now to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal; I think I’ll go for sunset over the Taj Mahal.
I’m up this 5:30am writing this because I’m tired and I thought maybe if I put the next few days planned activities down in black and white they wouldn’t seem so foreboding. Because I am pleased to be here. Really. Although India’s tough. Every move requires some level of determination…people, traffic, noise, dust, pollution blah blah blah.
Can I just add…I do check in with the Times and HuffPost periodically to see if Harry and Meghan are engaged yet…no no no, I mean to see if there’s anything I should know beyond the expected death-by-gun tolls; new ‘dumb Trump’ quotes; all the men in the world have been ousted from something/place for their stupid behavior around women lo these many millennia; and it all sounds so trite. Viewing up close and personally how many of the world’s people exist on bad air and refuse-gathered scraps, it’s hard to get excited about most of the above. Even the US’ excessive gun-love just seems like what we do for fun when we’re not buying crap at Walmart.
Okay…now for the closing album on Varanasi, a special place, because of the Ganges. First must mention again, the Alka Hotel. I’m going to write a review of some on-line places, but just my off-the-record-love-poem. Old hotel, stacked up rooms, the ‘suites’ hanging out over the Ganges where morning noon and night the quiet of a river without motored pleasure boats can lull one to dream…sleep…ponder, three lassis a day keeps the doctor away, warm water for this morning’s shower, paint peeling, people friendly enough, helpful, every single thing costs money but not a lot.
I am proud of the following pics. School girls visiting a famous Varanasi temple which may be on the campus of their biggest university. They wanted to have their photos taken with strange little wandering lady I guess. The situation for girls and women sucks in India. It is awful, visible, deep, abiding. These girls offer such hope. I wanted to say to them ‘your education and determination and toughness in the face of this very-male-world is what will make it better…someday…maybe…perhaps.’ You too can wander around the world on your own just like me. Here all of the questions directed at me aren’t about how old I am but rather why I’m alone, why I don’t live with my sons…one guy said ‘but don’t they want you to cook for them!’
In India, the different species just sort of co-exist. It’s hardest on dogs who really don’t want to live their own lives. The cows (buffalo some call them) seem to do best…like yeah, run into me and you are the one in trouble.
Where to begin. On a slope up from the Ganges lies the Manikarnika Ghat, that famous Indian crematorium we’ve always known about but not quite believed was real. I was rowed a short way from the hotel to the Manikarnika Ghat on two evenings, and one morning I went there for an informal but still fairly in-depth tour. No photos allowed of the actual burning so you have only my poor words, and this is certain to be a time when my store of adjectives and adverbs fall short of the need.
There are six or eight concrete platforms with steel side bars that rise from the river on a fairly sharp incline, stopping at the base of what once were imposing buildings The platforms are lined up at different levels on the hillside. At the top, large chunks of wood are stacked into piles; there are also some few other open type structures. Otherwise it’s mostly bare packed earth with the usual cows and dogs lazing about.
Barges are constantly unloading the wood which is expensive sandalwood that overpowers the odors from the already-decomposing bodies as they burn. There is a hearse-boat that brings bodies from all over India pulled up at the waters’ edge.
During my daytime visit, only one body arrived; it was wrapped in simple cotton pieces and carried on a stretcher of bamboo. The recently-passed person was unloaded and then immersed in the river a few times for purification after having rested in the family home for visitations during the past two days. He/she was then laid out, still in the dripping sheets, on the steps leading up the hill to dry out for an hour or so. There were two or three other recently departed souls ahead, wrapped after this initial drying period in prettier cloths with color and glitter and ribbon. A worker explained to me that before the actual cremation the shiny stuff will be removed because much of it is plastic, and the body will proceed into the fire in only a simple wrap.
Apparently the wood is mostly placed on top of the body as it lies on the concrete bed. A body had recently finished burning near where I was sitting with only the skull left in the ashes.
The chest/rib cages of men and the pelvic bone structures of women are the last to fully burn so in some cases they are pulled from the ashes and thrown into the river.
Six categories of living creatures cannot be cremated. Children and pregnant women (babies and children are pure so there is no need for a purification rites); it’s the same for holy men, snake-bit humans and people with small pox. Animals are not cremated…nor killed…I’m told. Although obviously that means only certain categories since chicken dishes seem plentiful here.
The site/crematorium has been owned and operated by the same family for generations. They are of the caste still called the Untouchables (although now there are more politically correct terms). In fact only Untouchables are allowed to oversee the handling of bodies and burial of people.
In the daytime this was all unreal, dreamlike…thick clouds of smoke…stacks of buff-colored wood, a small number of workers moving busily about between the resident animals, still bodies; sweeping up, everything into the river. The family member who will light the fire for their loved one is shaved completely and then bathes in Ganges to purify himself for his task. Only the men of the family can directly participate because, I was told, women get too emotional and have been known to throw themselves into the fires of their burning husbands or grown children.
The night scenes, looking on from the boats gathered round, is when the tableau becomes truly surreal. Six to eight fires burning briskly, crackling, snapping, smoking. On the bank they unload the tightly-shrouded bodies which are dipped in the river, and then laid out for that hour or so of drying. Then onto the pyre. You can just see the outlines of the family members gathered on the different levels and, always, the cows and dogs who live where they choose are front and center.
Flames flicker, shadows drift, chanting sooths and renders the scene even more otherworldly. It’s beautiful. Not macabre. Can I say a ‘hellish’ beauty…
I have a great desire to feel comfortable with death. I am close to or in that age category called old-old so now would be the time to separate fear of the unknown from fear of the process, and then try to come to terms with each. Yes, easier said than done. This visit to the Ganges and the Manikarnika Ghat is part of trying to get under that tough skin of the unknown, of knowing more about how cultures approach death generally. We’ve removed ourselves as far from it as we can in the west. We kill people with assault rifles and drones and then stack flowers up somewhere and utter pieties at all of the funerals; we kill animals out of eye and ear range and then pretend that tasty meat dish arrived at our table with no suffering or death involved.
Here in the flames of the Manikarnika Ghat, it’s obvious, it is up close and personal, frightening but touchable in some way I can’t really explain.
I meant to find some meaningful piece of prose or poetry to include here since this powerful experience deserves more than my limited language. I couldn’t find just the right thing so how about this poem…silly as it is…but great fun.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
by Robert Service
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” (Hermann Hesse/Siddhartha)
Twenty-four hours a day, except for brief forays out into the intensity that is Varanasi, I have most of one wall open to the ebb and flow of life on the Ganges River of India. Yeah, that Ganges, of purification and rejuvenation and cremation. There are many ordinary small boats on the river, some carrying families who’ve come from all over India for the cremation rites of a loved one; or newlyweds holding hands, just the two of them and the boatman; others with visitors packed in—as in locals and Indians of the diaspora, and the quiet sort of travelers who are attracted to difficult places with deep significance. I saw a boatload of white-robed men—wonder who they were; and there is always a plethora of one/two/three sailors like me. It’s quiet, few motors, just the Ganges rowers in their shabby-bright little conveyances. Everything is old along this waterfront. The hotels, restaurants, boats, crematorium, me; I am extraordinarily comfortable here.
This is my last evening in Varanasi. My friend Natasha commented on how much she loved it here. I’ve been thinking about that today because these days next to the river may somehow come to be the most important of the trip. But I’m not sure why and I’m not sure I love Varanasi wholeheartedly. I’ll know soon…for now it’s only the Ganges I love without reservations.
This waterfront/riverside is still a place of grandeur but of a subdued variety. It’s the grandeur of a place as yet unglitzed and ungilded by the developers of today; of faded colors and muted sounds (both out of the ordinary in this country where every niche glares with red and gold and shiny and where the sounds of horns and shouts drown out talk and thought).
But it’s all about the river. That slow-flowing muddy brown water carrying the impurities of our bodies, cleansed in life and death by ritual bathing in the Ganges, on down to the Bay of Bengal. Around the crematorium the water appears literally and figuratively to be thick with ashes and one looks for other death debris. I always thought this must be a grisly place but it turns out not to be. In fact I am deeply moved by everything about this death/cremation process—a subject to which I’ll return.
Right now it’s 6:30pm, dark outside. There are only a couple of spotlights, and no flashing lights, neon signs, or big noises along here. There’s a stage down the waterfront a ways where Bollywoodish crooners can be heard in the evening. I was rowed down there my first evening and immediately left; faux-rituals and shiny and show-bizy, but it’s only in one spot and not so loud as to cheapen the whole area.
It’s warm and damp and dusty all at once all of the time but without the burn of the day’s sun it is most pleasant. My fan whirs gently, the crooner can be barely heard and voices drift up from on the walkway and the water. Bells tinkle and there’s the obligatory dog quarrel but that’s another story too.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.” (Norman Maclean)