Saturday, April 25, 2009
...and then Varanasi happened...
If you are lucky, you pick up on the lessons life has to offer... the stove is hot don't touch it, if you aren't prepared for your test you will fail, pay your bills or you won't have a place to live, blah blah blah. Some of these are learned, some of them we continue to learn, and some of them we just all together ignore for whatever reason. Life is great in that way, if you really want to, you can choose to just ignore. Lessons aren't necessarily stapled to your forehead every morning -- look at me idiot-- they are much more subtle than that. You have to actually pay attention, sometimes more than once, before you actually can get to the point of 'hey, i learned my lesson'. So that's the way life teaches you, but in India they are explained to you by a different method. You receive them in a cut the shit, don't pull any punches, don't waste my time, understand me or die manner --India has been around for a very long time, and she plays to win.
One of the most important lessons you must learn is RESPECT. Even if you aren't necessarily a fan, you must have real respect for the people, the weather, culture, the food...the basic essence of what creates this incredible country. Don't think that just because your girlfriend speaks hindi, you aren't some smelly dirty directionless backpacker, you were almost voted best personality in high school, and people always want to 'know you better' --somehow you are then above respecting india. Mother nature don't like that, and she will correct you when need be. You can count on it.
Our time with the Krishnamurti group was over (thank goodness, i can finally walk at a normal speed and speak to anna in a loud and forceful tone)... Anna, Athena, and I were dropped off in downtown Varanasi to begin our weekend vacation. Translation: Thank you God I can finally wear a tank top in this 110 degree weather. We were very tickled at the fact Varanasi is plugged into the tourist circuit. If you are ever isolated for a long period of time in a community (let alone country) where you are the only foreigner--given the opportunity, you will seek out 'your kind' with such a powerful radar it is incredible. If I am in a rickshaw in Lucknow and pull up next to some tourists, I will stare at them with such an intensity--not wanting to invite them over for chai--but just so for 5 seconds so i can remember what it was like to have a conversation that isn't "Madam, vher from? Madam vher going?". Also, it would be nice for the three of us to have someone else to talk to besides each other. Because honestly, I am running out of jokes and Anna is running out of excuses.
Anyway, Varanasi was littered with these possibilities. Simply walking around, seeing my kind, gave me a slight satisfaction. It wasn't as though we would be exchanging numbers, and becoming blood brothers...it was just nice knowing that if i screamed "FLAVA FLAVE!"--there would be one or two people who had my back. Eating in restaurants with foreigners aroused some of the most bizarre exchanges in energy i have experienced here. They are seated, you walk in. They know you are there, you know they are there. They seat you right next to each other because its so painfully obvious you would be comfortable sitting that way. No one looks at each other, no one wants to say "Hi, you don't belong in this country and I don't either. I am excited to see you, but i don't necessarily want to hang out with you -- since i have fooled myself with this 'I am so immersed in Indian culture I am practically Indian' facade, So i will just continue to ignore you". It's okay though, i didn't pretend to have any false ideas about who i was or what i was doing -- I was content with my tourist self, a cold coffee and ice cream, in my tank top, doing my thang.
For those of you who aren't familiar, Varanasi is regarded as the holiest city in India. Thousands of people come here to visit Hindu and Buddhist temples, bathe in the Ganges River (believed to have healing properties), and take sunrise boat rides along the riverbank. If you ever see pictures from India, of thousands of people bathing in the river with bright colors scattered throughout, sadhu men dressed in their orange attire, and bonfires along the ghats cremating the dead -- this is Varanasi. Its basically a photographers dream on steroids, so many pictures so little time.
Also, it is important to know that though breathtakingly beautiful, the Ganges river is extremely polluted. I'm not saying this as a westerner judging another part of the world, or as someone who leans slightly toward the ocd side of life -- i am saying this as a human being. The river is no joke disgusting. It is a concoction of pollutants from nearby factories, untreated human sewage, fully cremated and not so fully cremated human bodies, and dead livestock. Anything and everything you can imagine is in that river. It was beautiful yes, but also a breading ground for a disease buffet. Even though there is currently programs which filter the water of the river, so many people feel "oh but the bad stuff is being filtered out" -- no. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but no. There is no way i would swim or drink or play or even stand in that water, especially after learning about the cremation process.
Along the river, there are several ghats allocated for the burning of bodies where one can actually sit and watch cremation take place. The process is fascinating, but I won't go through all the details. Bodies are wrapped and placed by their families on individual bonfires. Before the fire is lit, their faces are uncovered. To watch one burn from start to finish takes about 3 hours. There is always a section of the body which doesn't completely burn...this section is tied to a rock, and then thrown into the deep part of the river. I believe I was told at least 20 bodies are cremated a day. Your caste determines where on the river bank you are burned (higher castes are burnt higher up away from the water, lower casts are right on the bank). There are some people (those who are 'pure') who are not burned however, and just tied to a rock and dropped into the deep part of the river : pregnant women, those with leprosy, those who have died from a cobra bite, children, holy men. The problem then is that after 3 days at the bottom of the river, the ropes of these bodies loosen, and the body will float to the top. Our boat guide was sure to bring our attention to the other side of the river in the far off distance, where some bodies had floated ashore. You could make out their location by looking for the dogs....cleaning up the situation. Basically it isn't out of the ordinary for multiple bodies (or body parts) to was ashore each day. Really incredible stuff to learn about and experience.
Blogging about everything that happened on this section of the trip is a bit much. However there are two stories worth telling. Please know that regardless of what my mother says, I am not exaggerating what has happened. India stories don't need any inflation, that is why you come to India -- to have seemly unrealistic experiences. You're job is to be present enough to remember all the details.
So far I'm not doing so bad.
The largest monkey in God's creation.
We had found a hotel, checked in, and made our way out to walk along the Ganges and find some coffee and food. I had a good book, my sunglasses, a skirt, dirty backpacker hair, a bad attitude-- all the fixings to just 'be' for the next 8 hours. A restaurant named Pizzeria provided us with everything we could ask for. We started off with a thin crust Margarita pizza which turned out to be perfection. I had pomegranate juice, there was the typical dread lock girl sitting alone smoking an endless cigarette- finding herself in space. French tourists were eating apple pie with vanilla ice cream a couple tables down, laughing and loving on each other. What geniuses, making apple pie with vanilla ice cream available to silly foreigners. I sat on the patio among the potted plants and ivy, overlooking the Ganges. The stores and restaurants along the river are all located at the top of the stairs up away from the river, so during monsoon season places of business aren't flooded out. A little above the restaurant there is a bookstore with postcards, journals, and tons of books on tantric sex and spirituality. How i would love my baptist friends from high school to see me now. Anna and I went up into the bookstore to check it out. The bookstore is a bit higher up than the restaurant, so its' entrance overlooks the restaurant's rooftop.
Inside, Sadhus were seated on the floor...giving me dirty looks conveying 'stop staring American, who else did you expect to be chillin' out here on a saturday afternoon?'. I browsed the spiritual enlightenment literature, the karma sutra coloring books, and the meditaion cds. I paid for a journal and some postcards and turned to walk out of the store and go back down the stairs to the restaurant. The second I stepped into the breezeway in between the two buildings, I came face to face with the largest monkey i have ever seen in my life -- positioned 3 feet away from me on the restaurant rooftop. This monkey was so exceptionally huge, I had to actually blink once to come to the realization it was not a human dressed in a monkey suit, but it was an actual dinosaur monkey left over from the Mesozoic era. Brilliant. The animal was so close to me I could hear it's thoughts, i could have given him a monkey hug. Within 2 seconds i went from being excited that i have seen my first indian monkey (woohoo!) -- to terrified--seeing that this monkey had no leash, no cage, no nothing....just him and me and a lot of facial hair.
And then the unthinkable exciting part happened. It JUMPED AT ME (holy. crap.). Shut up, i know right... IT JUMPED right AT ME. In the ape monkey's defense, it wasn't trying to attack me -- it was jumping INTO the store, and I happened to be standing in THE wrong spot. Couldn't have been more wrong of a spot to be standing in. But anyway, the monkey man jumped at me, and with the reaction time of George W. Bush, I stepped to the side...saving myself from a lot of cosmetic reconstructive surgery, and an even better story. This animal projected such force soaring by me, the wind created from its leap pushed my hair back in one big whoooooooosh -- and i got to smell it up close and personal for about 1/2 a second.
With one effortless jump, Monkeysaur landed in the store on all fours....and began walking around with the swagger of a cocky pirate. His long tail sticking straight up -- swaying about as it commanded people to move out of its way (which they did). If my friend the monkeyman had walked upright, he would have been at least 4.5 feet tall--easy. His monkey hands and personality larger than mine....and that is saying a lot. If you had seen him from afar scaling a building -- you would have thought it was a burgler - or spiderman dressed as a gorilla. I could hear him breath he was so friggn big. I hollered to Anna, "Anna, um Anna!" Anna poked her head out of the nook of the store... "Yeah honey! I'm comi...oh....oh no." Anna backed herself into the shadows of the room and fell silent. My first reaction was not to be scared -- i somehow thought "This is India!" "This sort of thing happens all the time, right??". But Anna's reaction was proving me all wrong. She looked at me and said "It's OK to be scared honey...im scared too." Oh great. Anna's scared. The world is all going to hell. I am going to die from being monkey mugged. I looked around the store, everyone (even the holy Sadhus) didn't dare try to shoo it away...or yell at it....they all sat still, hoping it would get the point for one or two dirty looks. There was suddenly a cautious nature in the room I had never EVER experienced before in India. I mean, I have seen Indian families of four ride a motorcycle without helmets as they hold their newborns, the street lamps on the freeway falling - hanging over the sides of the bridge - ready to fall at any moment onto the street below, they ride 12 to a 4 seater rickshaw, faulty electrical equipment always hanging down into pools of water as someone is fixing it. ALL this without the slightest bit of panic...but if a giant monkey comes looking for you -- you better watch out cause this could be dangerous.
After some sniffing around - it was obvious no one was going to force this monkey to do anything it wasn't ready for. Anna later told me stories of when she lived in india during high school, they would actually close down school if monkeys got into classrooms. They didn't want them terrorizing classes...throwing things, screaming, running around, killing elizabeth. Apparently you can do a lot of things in india -- except piss off a monkey. Fun for the monkey, not so much for everyone else. So, this monkey got the same treatment. We just stood and left him alone...and soon enough....after he decided he wasn't interested in karma sutra coloring books, he left. Thank God. One of the store clerks actually told me to stay inside for a few minutes to make sure he wasn't hanging around anywhere, Anna agreed with this and I obeyed whole heartedly. We waited around for a bit -- looked around for a man wearing a monkey suit -- and made our way back to the restaurant. We were just having too much damn fun.
And then we almost died - no really.
With this second story, I learned the lesson of Respect I spoke about earlier. Respect for all things India.
I had been really lucky in India healthwise. I hadn't gotten really sick. I mean, I had had a little upset tummy maybe once or twice - but not that death sickness so many people had warned me about. The night before our last day in Varanasi we were actually discussing this same topic with some guy travelers we had met (one french, one german) - bragging about how Anna never gets sick (which she doesn't). Talking about her 'iron stomach', how I am super careful with what i eat. Bullshit bullshit bullshit. Yeah, well Mother India decided that she needed to teach these stupid american girls a lesson. A lesson called "Don't get cocky with a country that can make you so sick -- you wish you were dead." Fer realz.
When i tell people I got sick, the most common (and ANNOYING) response is "What did you EAT?" Well, please understand that here in India, it doesn't necessarily have to be something I ATE. I could have gotten sick fom: The fly which landed on my arm, the child whoes hand i shook, the banana i peeled, the water i washed my face with but paid specific attention to not ingest, the money in my pocket, the 34,876 kilos of dirt and ash from burning bodies and trash i just inhaled, the monkey that breathed in my direction, the bottled water i drank, i raw sewage that was splashed on me on accident. Please understand that you are outnumberd here. You are going to get sick. You aren't going to be able to figure out what exactly it was. It was everything, it was nothing. Im exhausted just thinking about it.
So we had gone to this backpacker's hostel to hang out, meet some foreigners, and possibly have some conversation with members of the opposite sex that weren't going to want to propose marriage, or think that they had gotten lucky with three loose american women. That is another thing i crave here...male friendships. Anyway. I started feeling horribly off. Not just regular crampiness, but cramps that hurt so bad it was difficult for me to breathe. I told Anna I needed to leave, since it was going to take us go knows how long to make our way back to the hotel at 10:30pm. I was slammed with nausea and more stomach cramping as we walked in the dark, trying to find an auto rickshaw. The smells were not helping, and it was starting to be difficult to stand up. Finally we found an auto and got a VERY bumpy ride ( bumpy ride = excrutiatingly painful) back to the hotel. I walked into the room and colapsed into bed.
About an hour later I steam rolled out of our bed (all three of us were sleeping together), crawled into the bathroom -- i was in so much pain i couldn't walk -- and threw up with such a force it would have powered the flux capacitor. Thought i would feel better right? Wrong. For the rest of the night I vomited followed directly by the sudden urge to shit my pants -- which i did thank you very much -- all. night. long. You know that you are really sick in India when a couple things happen to you: (fyi this list is gross. i appologize)
*You choose to lie face first, sleeping on the floor, of any bathroom.
*Your friend has to wash your ass for you, innumerous times.
*You don't have the strenth to speak but just wimper to yourself.
*You burn up with sweat, throw up, diarreah all over yourself, and then get freakishly cold. over and over again.
*You cry because somehow death seems better than the stomach cramping, and shortness of breath you are experiencing.
Oh its a good day for newly found humility.
The worst part of the night was at the point where I had lost count of how many times i had crawled in and out of the bathroom, in and out of consciousness. Somewhere in the middle, I was halfway back into bed, when anna suddenly ran into the bathroom and projectile vomited EVERYWHERE. All i could think was "What the *%&# is going on!!!??" I couldn't believe what i was smelling - Anna was down, the queen herself had been hit. Nothing was sacred anymore. All i heard was anna and athena sit in silence, trying to grasp what had just happened, and then break out into laughter as Anna tried desperately to clean everything up. Anna and I were sick that night. We were so very very sick.
I woke up the next morning, poked Anna to see if she was alive, and we both laughed at eachother with smiles. That's all the strength we had. We were lifeless, we were in pain, we had nothing left to give, Varanasi had taken it all. It was like something out of the movie Trainspotting. I barely had enough strength to go and brush my teeth, my legs were like a newly born calf, all i wanted my MOMMA. It took all the energy i had to wash my face. Once i did though, it was obvious I had been defeated, I had to go back to lying down. What had we done?
Angel Athena had the hotel call a Doctor, which came and prescribed us a bucket full of medicines -- one of them being an antibiotic to kick the ass of whatever it was which was trying to murder us. My favorite part about this Doctor (which is such a commentary on India) was that he prescribed Anna the heavier antibiotics (definitely should have been the other way around), and he also took both our temperatures -- mine was 101.something, Anna's was 98.something -- and recorded them on his notepad. However, he recorded them as a MEAN. So, the two patients ended up not having individual temperatures, but a average temp. of around 99 degrees. Lovely, something extra special to tell my mother when she comes to pick up my body before it is burned and dropped into the Ganges. Vhatever. Give me drugs, i'll take.
The whole point was to get healthy enough to make our 5am train the next morning. So we rested. I didn't eat anything, except some toast (disgusting) and tea --which i threw up around midnight that night. So horrific. At 3:30 am we woke up, I still had a fever. By then Anna could walk around. The girls had collected my things, my only job was to get my purse and myself into the car waiting downstairs to take us to the station. I had my dupata (scarf women wear) ready around my neck to block any smells on our way there. My biggest fear was that i was going to smell something horrid (pretty much guaranteed) and vomit again. So, i purposefully didn't take any food--any water -- nothing that my body would have to reject. I could do that business in a hotel, or in a crumpled pile in the streets of Varanasi, but not on a 7 hour train ride. I just didn't have the emotional capacity for anymore Indian torture.
We arrived at the station, and by the grace of God I made it through the mayhem, passed the smells, over the piles of cow poop, under the fat rats climbing up the rafters -- and into our train car. We got to our seats, Anna and Athena secured the luggage. By this time Athena had devloped a fever, severe nausea, and hives on her face of all things. Anna just fell into her seat staring at the roof ...and I just laid in my seat reclined, meditating on my mantra of the moment "Do not shit your pants, do not vomit on the woman in front of you". Thank you God Thank you God.
About 20 minutes later I was awoken by a large Indian man telling Athena she was in the wrong seat. Anna piped up in Hindi -- showed him the tickets that we were in fact in the CORRECT seats, and he was mistaken. All indian men love to help, so of naturally a seperate indian man next to us took our tickets, looked at them, and then sweetly let us know that our tickets were infact booked for 2 days earlier. In other words, we didn't have seats on this train. In other words, we were screwed. In other words, I wanted to die................In other words..............there were no words. I had no words.
It was at that moment, for the first time in my life, I litterally checked out metally, physcially, spiritually, and emotionally. I had completely removed myself from the situation. I couldn't take it. The words "you don't have a seat on this train" didn't compute in my head. We would all die if we stayed at the train station, that was for sure. I looked at Anna, she told me to get up and stand in the back. We were not to get off the train. I didn't even respond, i just stood with a 'i can't believe this is my life' stare. If she had told me to marry myself off to a guy named Hiritik 'who would treat me real nice' I would have skipped down the isle at that moment. If i had needed to produce a male child from my loin at that very second, I would have bore twins. If i needed to memorize the complete periodic table in the next 20 minutes-- i would have told you that Boron's atomic mass is 10.81. Desperation gets you every time. I knew that whatever she asked me to do was what needed to happen for things to get done. Anna power is magical power, its one of life's secrets. The last thing I remember hearing was "Im going to have to bribe the conductor...", and then she was gone. The train pulled away from the station with us on it, I sat down in a open seat in the back and fell into a malnourished coma sleep.
I woke an hour later to the conductor giving out seat numbers....I probably had to marry Hiritik, but we would make it to Lucknow in 7 hours. Apparently Anna had told the man in hindi "Sir, my friends are sick, we don't have seats." astonished that this woman was speaking hindi, his helpful response was "Madam, apko Indian he?! (Madam, you are indian?!)"....glorious.....this was what we were up against. we were up against the world now. No one would listen. But somehow, like it always does Praise God Almighty, Anna managed to work it out. We had to pay for new seats - 1600 rupees damnit- but there was no bribing, no hold up, no producing magical illegitimate children. No one had to die. We were girls, we were sick, they felt bad for us. We got seats.
The rest of the 6 hours was spent meditating on my mantra. I dozed in and out of sleep. Anna tried to get me to take somemore medicine which i refused. I just wanted to get home, if shit was going to hit the fan (litterally) i wanted it to happen at home - away from the burning dead bodies, polluted water, the hotel room we left smelling like a crime scene. We pulled into the station, got our bags, and hobbled out into the blanket of heat. We got some random rickshaw to take us home - would have paid him whatever he wanted- we were just thankful the Varanasi nightmare was over.
At home, I took a cold bucket bath, scrubbed the trip off of me, and fell asleep for the next 48 hours. A doctor came to the house a few days later to take blood, urine, and stool samples, but i was so far gone it was impossible for me to produce any stool. Not like i didn't try, but it just wasn't going to happen. It took me a good 2 weeks to recover. I had lost a good amount of weight, developed a sinus something and just started eating normally (yesturday actually).
Just so we are on the same page, my hair can stop falling out, my 10 pounds can come back, the acne scars and pressure in my ears can go away. I have learned my lesson...and whatever it was i did....i'll never do it again. And by accident, if i do do it again (whatever it is), i am so so so sorry.