Thursday, September 11, 2014

A New Definition of Dirty & Christmas Non-Christian India Part 3

Me & T.J at the Taj Mahal
Maybe it was the burning smell that we encountered our first few days in New Delhi.  Maybe it was the nerves.  Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to talk to my travel companions.  Maybe it was all of these or none of these reasons, but India made me want to smoke.  The taste of the smoke on my lips and the quiet calm felt by every exhale was comforting during our travel times.  Within 48 hours, I had decided that I would be a smoker the remainder of our trip.

Apparently my body didn't love this idea.  After spending two days in Agra- home of the Taj Mahal and the most lively Pizza Hut I've ever encountered, I woke up to an uneasy feeling of sick in my chest. Our travel plans originally included an overnight train from Agra to Varanasi.  This quickly turned into a 6 am train due to fog.  As we boarded the train, we saw our home for the next several hours: open space compartments with benches that turned into cots. Each compartment slept 6.  I decided to take a deep breath and lay may head down on my backpack while strapping my day pack to my chest.  This would do.  I could feel the chest cold inching its way into my body slowly wearing down my ability to care about anything other than sleep.   The train started moving and I quickly fell into a deep sleep- hardly conscious to anything that was happening around me and confident that I'd wake up more than half way to Varanasi.   India had other plans.  

After my nap, I learned we'd been stuck on the train tracks for more than 6 hours but were hardly half way into our journey. We'd stopped moving hours ago.  The fog was intense and travel times were going to be delayed indefinitely.  The train would inch forward and then pause. Inch forward and then pause.  It became clear that this would be a much longer trip than 12 hours.  As we moved through stations, I fell in and out of sleep waking only for minor snacks and sips of hot chai tea that stewards would bring through.  The hot chai soothed my very sick throat and I could hear T.J. struggle to avoid  judgement as he helped me rest.   I-told-you-so's would not make either situation better.

The energy in the train was restless.  Our group had not anticipated this delay and found it difficult to maintain the fearless composure that had kept everyone in light-hearted spirits the previous days.  The unexpected time meant that our conditions were grimey and all of us had very little to do other than be aware of how desperate we were for a shower or even a sit down commode.  The chest cold had made me achy and uncomfortable.  This was not helped by the rocky conditions of my "pillow" or the cramping my stomach had decided to provide - an indication as to what was to come.  

I stumbled my way into the squat potties and saw the punchline to the joke that India had laid the ground work for weeks before.  My tracking app had informed me that during our 3 week stay I would.. well, have my lady time.  Little did I know that fate had conspired to make this the most memorable period of my life.  Defeat began to overwhelm me.  I was sick.  I was tired. I was very dirty and now, now on top of all things, I was on my period.  Of all the conditions in all of the places,  of course, it would happen here.  Sweet life.  My eyes brimmed with tears and I prepared to initiate full meltdown mode.   My finger hovered over the metaphorical red world-ending button for a moment and then, the button vanished.  I gave in.  One deep cleansing breath and my sense of humor was revived.  I actually laughed to myself and congratulated India on the well-timed joke.  Once again, instead of resisting the struggle, I gave into the experience and just let it guide me.  

Back in our compartment, I told T.J. what happened.  We giggled. His pride at my near-but-not-wig-out reassured me that everything would be okay.  This was character building.   After sleeping off and on for 12 hours, T.J. and I started venturing into other compartments to visit with our fellow travelers.  There we found laughter, proper jackassery and a few delicious biscuits that the group had purchased at one of our delays.   The mood was shifting. In those moments we went from crummy conditions to some of the things that solidified our bond.  

We arrived in  the holy city of Varanasi early in the morning on  Christmas Eve- over 24 hours from the time we initially boarded the train in Agra.  After wiping down every single millimeter of our luggage and investing in the hotel laundry, we laid down to rest before our day of exploring this most ancient city.  
Order among chaos - the streets of Varanasi  

Varanasi is the oldest most continuously inhabited city in the world and sits on the banks of the holiest of all rivers in the Hindu culture- the Ganges.  We woke and set out on a journey to visit Sarnath, the place of Buddha's first sermon.  We walked up to the grounds and saw worn down statues surrounded by a fence - not nearly the impact I was expecting.  The disappointment was strong, but decidedly not worth focusing on.  We would be in Lumbini in a few days and I would have my time with Buddha later.

Later that evening, we were driven by cycle rickshaws down to the banks of the Ganges river and boarded a wooden boat.  There, Jai explained the significance of the city and the river in which we were on.  At sunset every evening, city inhabitants, spiritual Pilgrims and tourists gather at the banks for evening prayers.  In life and death, the Ganges is cleansing.  People believe that bathing in the river washes away all previous sins.  In death, it is believed that by spreading your ashes in the river, the cycle of reincarnation is broken.  That is why cremation ceremonies occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Our intentions 
We lit candles and released our wishes into the holy water.  As they were released, the sounds of chanting from the banks blended into the gentle wind that helped carry our guides along.  From the water you could see the lights from the cremation ceremonies further down.  The mood was serious- but not sad.  The circle of life felt clear as the bodies burned into the river that also provides so much sustenance for the countries it flows through.  In those moments, my mind drifted to visions of our families at home, celebrating Christmas Eve dinner and opening gifts in the cold Midwestern winters.  I locked the moment away and will never forget the feeling of wholeness that came from spending such a traditionally Christan holiday in such a different place.

India was ending. Tomorrow we would cross the border into Nepal.

Merry Christmas from Varanasi, India