Varanasi – holy cow!


I sit in the railway station waiting for my overnight train to Delhi and try to write about my three days in Varanasi. I try to describe the River Ganges, the city, the onslaught of experience, the garbage, the smell, the noise, the tight mesh of narrow interconnecting alleyways, the continual sensory overload, but my brain short circuits. I am at a loss when I hear a soft voice beside me with an Indian accent, “you are writing a blog about Varanasi?” I turn around, stunned. It has been hard to find a soul who speaks English let alone one who recognizes that I am writing a blog. “Yes, I am trying, but I can’t do it. I don’t know where to start,” I reply. He is young but his eyes look gentle and wise. “What are the five things you like best about the city,” he responds. I don’t hesitate. “The history, the spirituality, the food, the energy, the people.” “Start there”, he says.

“What does the river mean to you?”, I ask him. “It is my native place,” he responds. “I was born and brought up here so it has much meaning to me. It is not just the river, it is the mother. She gave us birth and she takes us to the heaven when we leave this world.” He pauses for a moment and thinks. “All the cremations and ceremonies and our dipping, and washing in the Ganges as per our spirituality are because we believe that the Ganges takes us with her to the heaven. All the cultures that live here, we live in harmony and we all believe in the mother.” I want to talk to him more but the train arrives. He offers to help me find my seat but I thank him and tell him I’m ok. We each touch our heart with our right hand and say goodbye and he disappears into the crowd.

Varanasi is the holiest City in India and the oldest continually habited city in the world and the River Ganges is its life blood. Multitudes of people perform ritual ablutions in the sacred water from hundreds of Ghats (stone steps that lead down to the river). Hindus believe that if you are cremated at the burning Ghat after being immersed in the Ganges, you stop your incarnations and attain instant enlightenment.

Huggie and I meet up to share our experience of Varanasi together. We sit on the stone steps of the burning Ghat respectfully witnessing the process. A white-clad man has laid out his twelve year old child on a wood pyre (women grieve at home; tradition dictates that only men attend. Emotion is believed to interfere with the spirit ascending). He walks around the body five times carrying some burning brush that was lit from the temple flame which has been burning continuously for 2000 years. Once he lights the dry wood of the pyre, he is led quickly away as emotion threatens to overcome him. We are profoundly aware of the intimate grazing glimpse we are getting into an age old belief system that permeates to their core. I see a few Indians taking pictures so I discreetly snap a few shots.

We open our minds to connect ourselves to the spiritual energy of the holy city. Huggie is especially connected and I wonder if she has lived on the embankment of the Ganges at some point in the distant past. We hire a boat and float down the river breathing in the sandalwood incense and the chanting of the evening ceremonies, we visit the holiest of the holy ‘Golden Temple’ , which is bursting at the seams with pilgrims, we spit in the face of death as we careen down terrifyingly busy streets on bike rickshaws, we follow a man down the twistiest, turniest, dirtiest, alleyways we’ve ever been in to see a famed gurugu, we eat delicious food (of course) and, oh yes, I get hit by a scooter. That part is a blur for me but Huggie says she will never forget the image. She says it’s a good thing that the driver was young with fast reflexes and good brakes. I’m a little banged up with a sore left side but I’m ok. We have joked that the safest way to cross the road in India is to shield yourself behind a holy cow. And, holy cow, we are not kidding.


Ancient Erotica


All good things must end and I traded in my beach hut for a 50 hour train ride north (talk about being cast out of paradise and into the fiery dungeons of hell). I was headed for the Khajuraho monuments, a UNESCO world heritage site located in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples built by the Chandela dynasty about 1000 years ago (suggesting a tradition of acceptance and respect for different religious views) and are famous for their unabashed eroticism. Interspersed within the hundreds upon hundreds of intricate carvings, are frank representations of explicit sexual acts in varying forms. The reasons for these carvings have caused much speculation but is not known. Whatever their original purpose, by the 13th century, the temples had been abandoned and were swallowed by the jungle. It wasn’t until 1838 that T.S. Bert, a fine upstanding officer of Queen Victoria, stumbled upon them. I can imagine that the discovery was a bit of an eye popper for him. He reported back to queen and country that the panels were “beautifully and exquisitely carved, but indecent, offensive, and obscene”.

I wandered around the intriguing and unique temples, wondering about the society that built them and what life was like then. I was struck again, forcefully, about how civilizations rise and fall with the winds of time and how little we know about any of it. I sidled up to an English speaking Indian guide to eavesdrop.

Some say the carvings were inspired by the Kama Sutra and were intended to serve as a ‘how-to’ manual for Brahmin boys, others claim they symbolize the wedding party of Shiva and Parvati (an important Hindu God and his wife). The guide pointed out one particular panel to his clients depicting an entwined couple and described it as “happy hour”. Happy hour indeed! (I really need to think about moving on, ‘happy hour’ feels like a past life experience.) It has also been speculated that the carvings were related to Tantric cults that use sex as a pivotal part of worship. Yet another version is that the geometric qualities of certain images served as a yantra (a pictorial mantra) to be used in meditation. I left the sensuous temples none the wiser to their original purpose, but fascinated by the mystery surrounding them.

It was also the beginning of India’s Holi festival and the town of Khajuraho was in full celebration. Like India itself, Holi is a festival of color. It symbolizes the end of the dry winter and the beginning of spring and green and lushness. Everybody happily spreads neon coloured powders all over each other, plays loud Holi music and dances in the streets.

I had already checked out of my guest house when I was reluctantly initiated into the festivities. I was still pink and powdery when I walked 10 hot kilometres to the train station for my 12 hour ride to Varanasi. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with joyous shouts of “happy Holi” and offered chai tea. My first order of business on arrival will be to have a nice, cool shower and properly clean the powder out of my hair and ears.

Gokarna Holy Water


The holy water poured from the cows head spout outside of Gokarna’s Ram temple and looked clear. “Yes, yes eet’s good to drink”, my new Russian friend said. “Everybody comes here for dis sacred, clean water, Indians and Westerners both”, she assured me, while drinking and nodding her head eagerly. I wanted to believe, I really did, but I was hesitant. I haven’t had a whiff of stomach trouble in India and I didn’t want to blow it with bum holy water. I’m not very careful with what I eat (years of conditioned stomach abuse combined with plain good luck) but I am generally careful with the water I drink.

When my ankles had had enough hiking, I took two trains and three buses to Gokarna for some leisure time. I arrived late at night and arduously trudged through the soft sand on the silent, dark shoreline, asking at each of the dozen or so rudimentary restaurants if any of their bamboo hut’s were vacant. No luck – that is until the last restaurant at the end of a two kilometre stretch. One crudely roped together hut was available. I couldn’t have been happier if it was the Taj Mahal (well, maybe a little happier).

Travel weary and exhausted, I un-shouldered my pack, collapsed on the raised netted bedboard, and fell fast asleep.

In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the surf, and a handful of Europeans doing yoga on the wide expanse of white sand, and nothing else. The beach was clean and perfectly quiet.

I have been here for a few days now, time comes and goes with the waves, I read and try not to think too hard about anything at all. There is a gentle energy about this place that I love and I have what I need; a hut with my own hole in the ground, an almost empty sandy shoreline, and delicious food (I close my mind to the giant fruit bats with a two foot wing span, and the rats and lizards that jump down from the trees onto my bamboo roof).

I continue to relish the Indian food but it is so carb, oil, and sugar heavy that I generally eat only one meal a day and supplement it with pineapple, banana, or watermelon. A dish that I love is ‘banana bun’; a kneaded mixture of flour, water, banana, and sugar. It is deep fried and served with a spicy chick pea curry (costs 15 rupees – about 30 cents). Another favourite is curried potato and onion with deep fried bread and a side of yogurt with onion. I’m pretty sure that my sweat now smells like onion and curry.

Gokarna has been one of India’s sacred sites for more than 2 millennia and the devout travel from far and wide to pray here and to drink the holy water. I filled my bottle and raised it to my lips. I would join the faithful and believe. But at the last minute, I chickened out and tossed in a purifying tablet. Clearly, my faith needs a little work.

Traveling Solo


A few days after my last post, Huggie decided to join up with her sister, who is vacationing in Thailand. It was a good opportunity for them and it happened fast. Before you could blink, Huggie was booked on a flight from Kochi to Chiang Mai. Our plan is to meet up on March 4th in Varanasi, before flying home on March 7th.

I headed inland to Parassinikkadavu to see a theyyem. A theyyem is a spirit-possession ceremony held only in northern Kerala at various village shrines and is quite the event. According to Hindu belief, during a theyyem, the performer doesn’t just impersonate a deity, he actually becomes the deity and acquires their magical powers. I arrived to find that absolutely no one would rent a reasonably priced room to a single, unaccompanied woman. There was nothing to be done but enjoy the evening ritual and deal with where to sleep afterwards.

The golden shrine was illuminated by hundreds of candles on bronze tiers. A series of drums started to beat loudly. The deity emerged from the shrine wearing an elaborate and enormous headdress and mask with showy jewelry and costume to match. The dancing started out gentle and rhythmic with a lot of complex hand motions. As the ceremony unfolded, the dancing became more frenzied, until the final crescendo a couple of hours later, when He seemed to have a sort of seizure. Like moths to a flame, people leaned their heads inward hoping to be touched by the Divine. The extraordinary experience was made even more memorable by the night that followed.

I was the only non-Indian face among the Hindu pilgrims and was sitting beside a beautiful teenaged girl named Pravda. She could speak a little English but her sister, mother and grandmother, with whom she was sitting, could speak none. They invited me to join them for rice with curried vegetable broth, the dinner that is offered to everybody, after the ceremony. During dinner they invited me to join them in the pilgrim’s sleeping room (her father and brothers were on the men’s side). I felt very fortunate, not only for the authentic opportunity, but also, for the secure place to sleep.

It was a large open space with woven bamboo beach mats on a concrete floor and everybody just found a spot and stretched out. I posed for no less than 25 pictures with various women and children. We all slept until 4 am when it was time for morning ablutions.

I enjoyed being cocooned under the protective wings of my new friends. Pravda invited me to her wedding in their village on March 4th and I would have loved to go but I am due in Varanasi that day. When they asked where I was headed next, I told them that I wanted to go to a small coastal town from where I could then walk overland from village to village. I’m not sure they understood. In any case, they started their journey home with a predawn boat trip and I followed along. I was still with them two bus rides later, uncertain of where I would end up. At one of the bus stops, Pravda explained that her mom had her menses and we all created a shield of sisterhood while her giggling mama changed her rag. Literally. It made me think about the things that we take for granted!

In the town of Vatakara, they indicated that I should stay while they continued on and it was exactly what I was looking for. I found a hospital for my third rabies shot (which I received in both arms) and then found a coastal trail.

I have been hiking next to the Arabian Sea for three days now and it is beautiful, easy, and dotted with fishing villages. I am often invited in for food while the local grapevine notifies the rest of the village that I am there and they all come.

I play with the kids for a bit before venturing back into the 35 degree heat. When asked where I am going, I reply, “north”. There are no guest houses here. Last night I slept on another concrete floor (with permission) in a quiet temple anti-room. After I find somewhere to send this post, I will continue on my shanti (peace) trail.

More than just Monkey business


The small village of Hampi, in the province of Karnataka, used to be the magnificent, but ruined city of Vjayanager (City of Victory) from the 1500’s. It is set in a surreal landscape of golden-brown boulders, vibrant green rice paddies, and leafy banana fields. The ruins were spectacular but a highlight for me was spending time with a small group of children on a concrete step, teaching them to read and write simple English words. Huggie bought them each a pen and I bought them some paper and their eyes shone with excitement at the gifts. They were eager learners and it pulled at something deep inside of me and rekindled a childhood desire to teach English in either Africa or India. Something to think about.

We landed in a spot called ‘The Hidden Place’. It was well off the road, had a babbling brook, only a handful of tents (of which Huggie and I each had our own) and a lounging place with cushions to hang out. No internet but that was no surprise. We haven’t had internet for awhile.

I was excited to scramble up the boulders and Huggie was eager to explore the countryside on a scooter and we set out on our respective adventures. I started down the road enjoying the muscle stretch that comes with a good stride when, out of the blue, it felt like flying glass had embedded itself into the back of my thigh. I spun around to see a snarling dog biting my leg. There was no warning and I was stunned. I shook him off with a vengeance, picked up a fist sized rock and hurled it at the snapping canine. He backed off. When I was well away, I checked my burning thigh and found three skin punctures and bruising, so decided to hold off on the scramble and headed instead for the populated Monkey Temple with its 575 steep stone steps. By the time I was at the top, my leg was on fire. I was about to head home to wash and treat the wound when I turned around and saw Huggie. She was with a new friend that she had met on the way up and when they saw the bite they insisted we go to the hospital. The dog didn’t appear rabid to me but the doctor scared the bejesus out of us with “no cure” and “paralyzingly painful death” if it was rabid. I yielded to his (and Huggie’s) recommendation that I start a series of rabies shots immediately (the only series of shots I didn’t get in Canada). It was obviously the prudent choice.

Puja and Huggie had decided to spend the day together and they invited me to join them. I did and the day was a blast. We visited a few more temples where Puja, a smart, affluent, little Indian spitfire with an infectious belly laugh regaled us with stories about a few of the 2600 Hindi Gods. It was great fun to have an insider who spoke the language and knew the customs. We also went to a monastery where food was shared and we enjoyed a dinner of rice with a vegetable broth and milk poured over it. It’s an engaging experience to eat soupy rice with your hands. We finished the day at a lake, went for a ride in a ‘Moses basket’ boat, and chilled on the boulders. But when an aggressive monkey tried to wrestle Huggie’s bag right out of her hands, we took our leave.

The following day, my leg felt fine and I went on my hike. It’s hard to follow a trail on enormous boulders and I got more of a hike than I planned for. When I was ready to climb back down, I couldn’t find my distant landmark between the rice paddy and the banana field (in the sea of rice paddies and banana fields). After hitting dead end after dead end, and belly crawling through thorny brush, I finally found a place where I could continue up, and hoped to find the Monkey Temple which I knew was up there somewhere. When monkeys started swinging all around me, I worried that I was trespassing into King Louis’ territory and crouched under a large boulder, being quiet and submissive, until they left. I was probably overreacting but they have shown themselves to be aggressive and I was taking no chances. It was a happy moment when I heard voices and saw the temple flag. The stairs that had seemed so long and steep the previous day were a joy. Everything is relative.

India – continuing the adventure


When you ask an Indian a question, invariably they will answer with a head wobble. The head wobble is a cross between a nod and a shake (somewhat like a figure 8) and it can mean yes, no, it’s over there, who knows, who cares, or I don’t speak English. If it is a man, the head wobble is often followed by a penis adjustment and a spit of red chewing tobacco.

Our view

We needed a rest from our steady diet of sensory overload and settled ourselves on the beach in a three-sided bamboo tree house (minus the tree) facing the Arabian Sea, and beside another open air restaurant. We asked the man if it was quiet there. When he responded with a head wobble, we took our chances, but it looked like an awesome and unique place to stay and the price was right ($6.00 each a night). The beach scene was more ‘touristy’ than ‘traveler’, but was a welcomed break anyway as we lounged on chairs and swam in the surf. Women in brightly coloured Saries cruised up and down the strip, persistently beseeching us to look at their ‘shop’ as they stretched out slim arms laden with bracelets and other finery for sale. It was hard to resist their big, brown eyes that tugged on our western guilt at having had the good fortune to be born in a place as wonderful as Canada.

Huggie drinking fresh cane juice in her new silk dress

India is a country of extremes. Whatever can be said about it, the opposite is also true. I know that statement has merit everywhere, but it feels more acute in India with the stark contrast between the rich and the poor (poor in Canada is not like poor in India), the karmically devout and the swindlers, the gentleness and the cruelty, the beautiful and the ugly, the chaos and the calm, the list goes on. But by and large, while many faces are etched with hardship and creased by the sun, they generally seem a happy and carefree people. Whole families will toodle around town on scooters with toddlers between dad’s legs and mom sitting sidesaddle with a sleeping baby in her arms. They are programmed from infancy to sleep through anything and everything.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for us and we have had our fill of the base thumping music on the beach that blares day and night. We are as rested as we are going to get, and so, with ears ringing, we are ready to move on. Tomorrow we will take a 12 hour overnight sleeper bus inland to Hampi. Maybe in the splendid ruins of the far past we will find a measure of quiet in the present. I asked a local woman who was raised there if Hampi was a peaceful place. She answered with a head wobble. Of course.