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Friday, 19 December 2014

Varanasi - The Heart and Soul of India

I've been really moody lately.....

I naively thought I was immune to such emotional fluctuations. Yet 3 months in India has slowly eroded my tolerance and patience. The sights and sounds of India which first sent culture shocks through my system now registered as either complete numbness or irritation. And my own disposition has become fragile and short fused.
An 80 ft. Buddha statue... so what?
But this is a fact of long term travelling. Believe it or not, it's not like living in an endless dream. Travelers are prone to ups and downs, just like people with day jobs and families. But theirs are different and quite varied, due to the diversity of challenges that accompanies travelling, like an annoying buddy, and enhanced by the rawness of it all, especially in a dizzying place like India.


In Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha became enlightened, my mental funk set in. Somehow, I felt unstimulated rather than meditative. I had seen too many temples and monuments by that time and couldn't get worked up by another, even if it was the holiest place in all of Buddhism, the Mahabodhi Temple.

In turn, I became high-strung and taciturn. I walked past beggars, with their bony hands outstretched, as if they were invisible. I snapped at aggressive tuktuk drivers and hawkers, my tone bordering on contempt. These are human beings for godsakes... how did I become so insensitive? I felt confused and ashamed by this.

Losing my grip, I decided to join a Buddhism retreat already in progress, for one day, at the Root Institute. The idyllic setting of the institute, removed from the craziness of India, and the universal philosophies taught here helped to revive me a little, and gave me pause to think straight.
Mahabodhi Temple, where the Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree
My situation is a complex one, as complex and tangled as the tubes in my brain. As best as I could to self-diagnose, I picked out at least two big reasons for my melancholic attitude of late. One is I have been travelling mostly alone, and for too long. It's good to be alone sometimes, to make space to think for yourself, but too much time alone means too much time spent in your own head.

Alone for too long, stray thoughts lead to stray minds. This is how people go crazy.

The other reason is that I have been in cities too long, isolated from nature. And in crowded India this is a recipe for meltdown. I needed to get away from the constant stimulation.

Keeping Cool in Varanasi

Varanasi is probably the holiest city and pilgrimage spot in India. Hindus come far and wide to bathe in the river Ganga, a sure sign that they'll go to heaven. This is also where they cremate their dead, dipping the corpses in the river 3 times before lighting them on fire on piles of wood, bodies burning while wrapped in cloth but in plain sight. The entire Ganga riverbank is connected by a series of ghats, concrete steps that slowly lower until it reaches the water forming a patchwork riverwalk. 
An amazing view of the Ganga from Kumiko Guesthouse rooftop
My ride to Varanasi was a bad omen for my hopes of an enjoyable visit - an uncomfortably long bus ride in chilly, rainy weather. Varanasi itself looked like a disaster after the rain. The streets were extremely muddy and in the dark you couldn't tell mud from cow poop. I couldn't imagine what it's like during monsoon season.

Relief swept over me as I reached my hostel, and as soon as I settled in, I felt my luck about to change. Kumiko Guesthouse was right by the river with a gorgeous rooftop view, and was occupied mostly by foreign travellers. For just 100 rupees ($2 CAD) per night, I got a dormitory with basic amenities, and for 50 rupees they served a big yummy breakfast feast.
A foggy but vibrant morning on the ghats
I quickly entered engaging conversation with two Spanish guys and one German. They reminded me why I loved Europeans so much. I even spoke to them passionately about western North America, proclaiming it as the land of the hippies with unlimited natural beauty. This made me feel proud of home, something I had been thinking more about while in my malaise. It's amazing how travelling can give you a renewed appreciation of home.

I spent most of my days taking refreshing walks through the city and along the riverfront, taking in the vibrant life along the scenic ghats along the Ganga - aartis (holy rituals), people bathing, washing clothes, playing cricket, flying kites, rowing boats, cows pooping. I witnessed a few cremations, an eerie experience, the burned and scarred bodies looking like crash test dummies in the fires. The sun eventually jumped out of the oppressive fog too, lit up the riverfront, and infused my buddies and I with warmth and smiles as we walked.

My mood seemed to reverse over the course of a few days. I even found a new enthusiasm over dealing with tuktuk drivers and shopowners, achieving a professional level of bargaining while having fun doing it.
Cremations taking place along the Ganga
It seems I couldn't have arrived in Varanasi at a better time - it has an invisible energy, positive and infectious. And I'm sure my mood will continue to improve as my trip undergoes a major transformation in the coming week.

For my Flickr photos click here.

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