Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Night on the Ganges

Varanasi's Radisson was a charming and deliciously comfortable hotel, with two problems.

1) The laundry service charged by the piece. And every single thing I owned—aside from the clothes on my back—was damp and stinky. And the clothes on my back smelled like I'd ridden an elephant, a bus, and slept on a train in them.

2) The excursions were exorbitantly priced. 

No problem. I hand-washed every piece of my clothing and hung it all over my room, while continuing to wear the stinky stuff. The in-room iron helped too. And for the excursions, I trekked down the road to the overland-group hotel, Surya, where I'd stayed with Dragoman in 1998.

"Do you have anyone going to the ghats tonight?" I wanted to go to the Ganges at night but didn't want to pay for a guide on my own. I could just negotiate with a rickshaw, of course, but I was hoping for something less stressful.

"Not yet. Can you check back later?" 

Sure. And when I did, another person had signed up. He was an older Czech guy living in Brisbane, a real chatterbox.

The driver parked in a shopping mall on the outskirts of the old part of town. Shopping mall? Varanasi had changed. So had all of India, of course, as it had been 13 years since I swore India and I were through and decided never to return.

India, or at least the north, was and still is a challenge in spite of the newfound wealth of many throughout the country. The colorful chaos, the layers of filth, the cows wandering through traffic, the vast numbers of people and the poverty—it's still confusing and overwhelming. An Indian friend of mine had smirked and said "You won't need to go looking for adventure in India. It will find you."

Tonight's adventure was to go to Ganga Aarti. That's a dancing and singing ceremony that happens at Dashashwamedha Ghat, while onlookers sometimes light lamps and float them away into the River Ganges.

Unfortunately, the floods and high water levels had really hurt the whole spectacle of the ghats this year. The ghats are usually teeming with pilgrims—and there was still a crowd, but not the masses I'd expected from Varanasi. The ceremony was on a roof instead of on the riverfront of a ghat where I might actually have been able to see it. The travel agent at the hotel had warned me, but I was already here, so I wanted to at least try to see the ceremony.

The driver led me and the Czech-Australian out of the shopping mall and into the streets. Wow. Them's a lot of people in the streets. He led us along the median, sometimes a flat area, other times essentially a balance beam. Motorbikes, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and cows competed for every inch of space on the street below.

I ignored the mayhem nearby, trying to focus just on not falling off the median.

Blah blah blah. The Czech-Australian was still talking. I couldn't hear him over the horns and traffic.

The driver led us across the madness of a traffic circle and turned down a lane, finally arriving at some steps at the edge of a river.

"You want to sit on a boat?"


"Uh, no, here is fine."

It wasn't actually fine, but I didn't yet understand what was going on. Had we gone to pay to sit on a boat, we've have had a comfortable view of the rooftop where the ceremony would occur. From here, standing on the steps, we could only see it from the side and we were in the thick of the crowd.

People kept trying to sell me postcards. One young woman tried, and I told her that people were sending fewer postcards and she should think of something else to sell.

"But this is what I have," she explained. "I need to raise money for my son's school fees."

I gave her money for her son's school fees in exchange for not trying to sell me postcards. She understood—I doubt she needed me to tell her that postcards are losing popularity.

Blah blah blah. The Aussie was still at it. I had tuned him out.

The ceremony started and still he wouldn't shut up. Pilgrims around us were clasping their hands, enraptured by the ceremony that I couldn't see so well, but they knew exactly what was going on above the ghat on the roof.

Blah blah blah. "Australians are like sheep."

This I couldn't let slide by. I'm sure there are some Australians who are like sheep, but I've never met them. Maybe he meant wild sheep who do what they want.

"You know, every country has stupid people and maybe you don't know the right Australians."

"No, no, I've been there for years."

This man was so busy talking about himself that it didn't once occur to him that perhaps I'd lived in Australia too, that perhaps I'd nearly been an Australian once, and had my romantic fate wandered just a tiny-bit differently, would be living in New South Wales today.

Our neighbors were glaring at the Czech-Australian man now. This wasn't a good time to be chatting about where he was from.

"Why don't we leave?" I suggested. "We can't see anything."

"Sure! I'm so ready to go."

Our driver led us up the steps and out of the crowd. But he didn't understand that we were ready to leave, so he led us to a different ghat, a new set of stairs with fewer people and a better view.

I walked away from him, leaving him alone with the Czech-Australian. Enough.

Up on the roof, dancers slowly went through their evening ritual, lit by fire and spotlights.

While down on the Ganges, a single pilgrim lit a lamp, then set it down into the Ganges to float away.

No comments:

Post a Comment