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India blog 18 (going north) Delhi, Agra, Varanasi

June 13, 2010
We left Auroville and Pondicherry ready to see what will come from moving further up the coast.  A few hours north, we stopped in Mamallapuram, home to the dirtiest beach claiming to be swimmable, endless food derived sickness, a crazy Brit claiming India the greatest place and soon to be the worst place on Earth, and what I believe to be the worst housing I have had in India.  In other words,  I did not enjoy myself.  Mary wanted to come because of the beach, I wanted to see more small temple based towns, and since we already did a few of my suggestion, it was her turn.
Turns out I was right and everything sucked.  We were planning on moving up the coast to a place called Vizak, but the train there would have to come from Chennai.  We spent too much time worrying about how shitty Mamallapuram was that we didn’t think to book a train ahead.  So we can either wait many days in hell for a train or just fly north to Delhi, totally out of the blue, but seems like a good idea.  The decision is made to go to Delhi and 5 minutes later we have a flight.  Off we go the next morning, through so so Chennai airport into decent Delhi airport.
New Delhi is different from the rest of India.  Of the big cities, it seems to be the one with the least taboos.  Women can go out at night, dresscode isn’t as necessary, people are more liberal.  But with all those freedoms, comes a giant population that has only had these opportunities for a short time.  On top of that, there is widespread poverty where these freedoms don’t apply and a large cross section of conservative religions to choose from that adhere to their own laws.  This all becomes jungled below the above ground air conditioned metro and seems to grow like vines around me when I’m moving in a cycle rickshaw down crowded skinny streets devoted to car parts or god.  Women might have more rights here but I have now heard enough stories to never send Mary out alone.  The papers are filled with stories of teen thugs beating, killing, raping, and stealing.  The rest of the paper seems devoted to how the citizens perceive the police and government (not well), uncovering the intricacies of the education system, and the upcoming Commonwealth Games, which are proving to be a big hassle that will hopefully turn into a big upgrade.  If all goes to plan, the city will have an extended metro and a refurbished downtown, particularlly Connaught Place.
The city can be a bit daunting so I tried to find us some couchsurfing.  It was easy enough.  We stayed the entire 4 days in Delhi with Ronita and Vijay.  They were amazing right from the start.  Particularly because they had no problem with us arriving at 1am on the first night.  They already had one guy from Iran staying there so we slept in a spare room.  Our days consisted of waking up early, seeing Vijay off in the morning, Ronita seeing us off at around 10am, sightseeing the whole day, then coming home around 8-10pm and chatting til around 12.  Vijay was a bit quiet but when he spoke he was funny and had a good repore with his wife.  Ronita seemed to be the one of the two that was more into having guests such as us.  The list of countries she has hosted is quite large.  From our conversations, I learned that they had lived in most of India’s big cities for about 2 years at a time each, I believe because of Vijay’s work.  She has 2 masters degrees but wasn’t working when we met her.  They both taught me about Indian cinema, and I am ready to start downloading when I get back.
On to the sights quickly.  We saw a decent mosque with a spire that overlooked the whole city and might be the best view in Delhi.  We visited the red fort, where the President speaks from on independence day and where some of the Mughal Kings ruled from.  Right near there is a place called Karim’s with the best Mutton in the world.  I saw India gate, enscribed with the names of Indian war casualties.
Last and best was Akshardam.  Built by a Swami whose name I don’t have on me right now in honor of another Swami named Swami Narayan who was way cooler than the first Swami I just mentioned.  Swami Narayan did the whole, leave home on his own at around 10 or so and walked to the top of the Himalayas.  Along the way people realized that he was divine and became his followers.  Eventually, he settled down to teach at a school where the current Swami immediately realized Narayan’s abilities.  From his new perch, he preached peace, love and understanding in a way that included vegetarianism, and compassion to the nth degree.  The stories of his good deeds are endless, like telling a fisherman not to kill fish by bringing back to life the ones already dead, and sitting outside in the cold while the rest of a village stayed inside afraid of a lion that had already killed a few people.  The lion approaches the Swami, but instead of violence they understand each other and become friends.  Anyway, the whole complex is built with sandstone, no metal used at all, and is fucking spectacular to look at.  The place even has a whole universal studios type ride in order to teach visitors about the Swami’s life.  The man in charge of this place today and the foundation that is huuuuge worldwide is the 5th (?) incarnation of Swmai Narayan.  People come from all over the world to worship here, but it was a target of terrorists in the last few years so we couldn’t bring in cameras.  Dissapointing because the sandstone sculptures, particularlly of the elephants are wonderful.  They surround the base of the temple lining the waterway/ moat type reflecting pool.  The whole place reminded me of every time I have seen a major landmark of the world.  No matter how much something like that can blend it with the surrounding architecture or nature, it stands out because of how recognizable it is.  Akshardam did that without me having any idea what it looked like beforehand.
One evening, we leave for Agra by train, set to arrive after midnight.  We are under the impression that Agra should be seen in one day then left behind to be a check mark on a to do list.  Agra is home to the Taj Mahal and other Taj Mahal related activities.  We can go to the mini Taj Mahal where we can see a mini version of the Taj Mahal.  We can go to the fort that has a nice view of the Taj Mahal.  We can eat in a roof top restaurant for the sole purpose of chewing while looking at the Taj Mahal.  Regardless, we are idiots.  We show up on a Friday, when the Taj is closed, so we end up seeing it from 30 angles, regale upon its beauty, take 1000 photos, and get out.  I will talk about the first time I saw it.  Like I said, we arrived very late, got to our hotel, and put our bags down.  We were on the fifth floor of a five story hotel.  Walking out of our room was the roof.  So I put down our bags, having realized that we won’t get to go into the Taj, and walk out to check out the view if any at night.  The white splendor isn’t there but the faint flow is.  The structure is just as brilliant in the shade.  The outline is amazing.  Best outline ever.  So we wandered around for days doing everything involving the Taj except going in.  One thing I enjoyed very much was the Subhash Emporium, the best marble handicrafts place in the town, which is saying something, because this place is well known for it, hence the Mahal.  The size and scope of the plates, tables, inlaid mirrors, elephants, mini Taj’s etc. was truly amazing.  Right as we walked in, they had people in the front room making all of the things we would see further inside.  I wanted to pack up my bag with presents, but the weight of marble is something to be experienced by picking up what seems to be a tiny elephant and almost breaking your back in order to get the point.  I had a great time talking about all the beautiful things they had there, but I was starting to get sick from the change in weather from the fucking hot and humid south to the fucking hot and dry north.
I need to get away. Maybe find someplace even more dusty, even more dirty, but with a life breathed into it that is unmatched with any place I have ever been.  There is the bustling of Manhattan, the stagnant sprawl of LA, the determined movements of Koreans in Seoul, and the chaos of Beijing, but the virility of a place isn’t only determined by size.  It is the landscape and the people, the variety and the routine of their daily lives.  It’s the actions of children in relation to adults.  It’s what people do when it rains.  It’s what you do when the streets get too crowded and how and where the alley ways lead.  If a city only leads you from attraction to attraction it’s no longer walking aimlessly, it’s being led.  I prefer a place where a city takes me, not on a tour, but unpredictably from hot spot to life spot.  Quiet, seclduded and shady, to pushing others aside for a quality table with a view or a quick picture of the painted guru.  Varanasi is all this and more.  This is why so many people hate it and love it.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about it until a few days in.  The first couple days we just walked around in the heat trying to get out of it and into restaurants or temples.  But soon, I started to feel enveloped by the city, to allow myself to succumb to it.  I came out of a nice airconditioned internet cafe on to a chaotic street blaring with horns of all shapes and sounds.  The heat was so heavy it pressured my lower back from my shoulders.  Peddlers yelled at the top of their lungs about unnoteworthy fruit as bicycle rickshaws tried to avoid being clipped while squeezing through the small space between the fruitstands and swerving cars.  The buildings along the way weren’t tall but they loomed over the skinny main road, giving it a sense of ominous foreboading and telling history.  The city is doomed but it has already died a few times.  It is the center of Hindu devotion culture, where the Ganges river is the main attraction and abode.  People worship but also bathe in it.  They wash clothes and sins simultaneously.  Mother Ganga is to be revered, yet from at least 20 points, there is raw sewage flowing directly from pipes right in the city.  Staggering considering they bathe in the river to free themselves of the cycle of birth and death, or Samsara, to be more on par with the divine. With how spiritual this place is, it is easy to see why it has died at the hands of invaders and been reborn over and over again.  But not from this.  Before, it was with swords and guns that the city was reduced to ashes, but now, the people will get sick from water, air, food, and pesticide and the river will be abandoned, or another site will spring up.  Right now though, I am walking down the street heading up to my roof.  It is almost dusk and there was a sandstorm the night before that cleared away some of the overbearing heat.  The climate is finding its comfort zone and the children of the city head to the roofs, kites in hand, ready to battle their neighbors and yell with the wind to rooftops a half kilometer away.  I stare at the sky in wonder at how long the strings are when I notice a boy on the roof next to mine reaching over the edge and waiting to catch a falling kite.  It starts to move towards me and I reach out, almost to my death, and snatch it.  I hand it to the boy who looks appreciative.  In the short distance the Ganges is filling up with worshippers, tourists and bathers, ready for 1st or 2nd hand cleansing.  Offers to the gods and Kodak will be given and hopefully something good will come from them. I have left the roof and am walking along the Ghat lined river.  Ghats are the focuses of the river banks.  They are the stairs from their individual structures down to the river.  There are some devoted to certain gods, and there are some devoted to cremating bodies and sending them down the river on the way to something more.  I see fires rise from flesh, but also from guru offerings.  I see boat after boat of flash bulbs, enjoying the evening satsang.  I feel something grab my arm.  It is an old man, he is massaging my hand and it feels creepy but nice. He starts to move further up my arm and I protest but to no avail.  Within the next 10 minutes I will be on the ground with 50 people watching as I get a full body massage from a 70 year old man and his son.  Afterwards, we take some pictures together and I give him a small penance.  I walk away amazingly refreshed and with a bounce in my step.  Varanasi and the river are a lot of things to a lot of people.  To me they are intense worship and laundry, a morning bath and hippy baked brown bread, the kite sky and sneaky street massages.  But what I felt the most from Varanasi was a vibrant city on shaky ground, showing cracks in the foundation but also cracking a smile at its splendor.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elayne Sawaya permalink
    June 13, 2010 4:46 pm

    Hi Alex
    Another great Read for my Sunday. I loved Varanasi. It was there that I found a guy walking down the street who came up to me and asked to see my tongue. ( I was ready to do anything since I was suffering from some sort of dysentery that I got in Syria) He handed my some homeopathic chalk tiny disks, I popped them and bingo ….dysentery that I had for 3 weeks went bye bye.
    I have no idea why I trusted a stranger handing out sweet disks, but I did and was rewarded. Your full body massage sounds similar. Something in the water perhaps.
    Continue on. Have fun,be well be safe and don’t take candy from strangers unless in Varanasi

  2. Mama permalink
    June 14, 2010 5:50 pm

    i didn’t think i ever wanted to visit india – but after reading your blogs – i think i want to (just not in the hot months though) – i can see how people would have a love/hate relationship with the country though. it must be infuriating, crazy-making and wonderful at the same time. ahh, the ganges – so refreshing! – i don’t know if i would have submitted to the impromptu full body massage – but i’d take it any day over bathing in raw sewage. that is at the top of my ‘things never to do’ list. oh, and thanks for sharing the ‘almost dropped to my death’ kite rescue story! Elayne – doesn’t the city of taj mahal related merchandise remind you of ‘alamo dry cleaners’?! KEEP WRITING ALLIE

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