BootsnAll Travel Network

Banaras Real and Coincidental

I arrive in Vanarasi with the sun.  Though I had a guesthouse in mind, my driver insists on one called the Elvis Guesthouse.  It’s too early and I don’t feel like arguing, so I let him take me there.  My first move is to see the Ganges.  Right now, it hasn’t rained in a while, so the river is pretty low, but it’s still something to behold, especially so early in the morning.  I have breakfast on the rooftop of the hotel, where I meet several other travelers and the hotel proprietor, Lala…like the teletubby.  There’s a festival going on which start that weekend, so a group of us arrange to head down to the Main Ghat to see them make a special puja.  Afterward we go out to eat at a place that serves wonderful western food, including real cheese!  The group consists of myself, Lala, an Israeli woman Sharon, two men from Toulouse and another guy from Germany.  The streets of Vanarasi are small and windy, something about them reminds me of Venice, but I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly besides the cozy yet energetic feeling you get walking around.  Everything (like in much of India) is painted in bright pastels and smells like incense, exhaust, street food, and dung. 

 It’s strange to sit at a table where everyone is communicating in English, but you’re the only one to whom it is a native language.  Especially because I don’t talk that much in small groups I don’t know, so my contributions were largely grammatical.  On the way home a kid comes up trying to sell us something.  One of the French guys whisks him up on his shoulders and runs down the street, letting him go to chase him and then pretending to run away with whatever he was selling.  There’s music in the streets due to the festival and the men in the group stop to dance briefly with the children.  All I want is to dance to, but it would attract a lot of unwanted attention, so I refrain.  The next day I run into Sharon at the same restaurant and we talk for a while–she’s been all around India, and practically lives here, so she’s good for advice.

I do a lot of walking.  One of the most sobering things I’ve seen, I imagine in my lifetime, is the burning ghats.  This is where families go to pay their last respects before burning the bodies of loved ones on pyres along the Ganges.  The smell is overwhelming, and the sight and feeling you get from the place is such that it can only be witnessed, any descriptions here would somehow cheapen it.  As I was standing and watching, I started speaking with an Indian boy there about the ritual and accompanying beliefs.  After a while, he invites me to his family’s silk factory.  I don’t intend on buying any sarees until the end of my trip, and I tell him as much, but Varanasi is famous for its silk, so I agree to go with him.  Tourists here get these sort of invitations dozens of times a day, and for the most part I ignore the people and just keep walking, but for whatever reason, I was that day in the mood to go see a silk shop.  When I get there, I’m given tea and meet the man who owns it.  No sooner has he found out I’m from New York than he asks me if I know Manhattan College.  Why yes, quite well.  How strange.  I assume he’s mistaking it for NYU, and just throwing some names out there, but then he tells me he knows a professor there.  “Stephen?” he says, but I don’t understand his accent until he says he’s a professor of Religion, and then I realize I know exactly who he’s talking about, quite well.  The odds of this happening in a country this size, in a city this size, are so small it’s mind boggling.  I promise to come back and buy my sarees from him on my way out of town in April.

Most of my time in Vanarasi is spent walking around and relaxing.  I didn’t stay long because I plan on coming back en route to Nepal.  It’s an amazing place, my favorite I’ve seen so far.  My next stop is Bodh Gaya, where it is said Buddha gained enlightenment.  I already have my guesthouse picked out on recommendation from one of the French guys, who has also sent a note with me to give someone who is a chef there.

 My first day is spent lounging around and fighting off the resurgence of whatever bacteria is eating away at my vital organs.  I do eventually have the wherewithal to eat, and this gives me a chance to go to the temple and bodhi tree where it all went down.  I sit for a while under it with numerous others who’ve come from all over the world, as it is the holiest of Buddhist pilgrimages.  Also just so happens there’s an international chanting conference going on till the 22nd here, so there are monks galore.  Paranoid as it may seem, I found myself worrying that they knew who I was, the girl who f’ed up the radio back in Chang Mai.  Something about the way they looked at me.  Maybe it’s the guilt.

Today as I was walking down the street, I was stopped by two Belgium guys who invite me to a dinner party they’re having (of all places) on the roof of my guest house.  Though I’m no where near my guest house at the time, I know exactly who they are and tell them I’ve got a letter for them from someone I met in Varanasi.  Again, what are the odds?

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4 responses to “Banaras Real and Coincidental”

  1. tina rabb says:

    i can’t get enough of your words. i freak out at the thought of doing the things you’re doing, which gives me just the vicarious adrenelin rush i need here in my homogenous corner of the world. your mom tells me you’ve started writing a book, which i know will be fascinating and unique and chockfull of the world. i hope to read it someday. in the meantime, i’ll look forward to more travelogue and your ruminations on religion, etc., which i really enjoy.

    e.m. forster said, “Only connect..”

    keep on.


  2. Susan B says:

    Do please share more detail about the English conversations you continue to participate in. What topics are prevalent?

  3. I loved the vignette about Manhattan College, but I couldn’t (without looking more extensively) what your connection to it was. 🙂 Thanks for the insight and sighting. Amazing how word gets around. fjohn68

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