Sunday, August 2, 2009

India - January 2, 2009 - Sleeper Train

Yes, it was one of those open bunk sleeper trains, not the four-person compartment we were promised in the tour literature. So I chained my suitcases to the bunk (they were under it and there was a loop for that purpose), and slept the sleep of exhaustion--par for this trip.

Sharing the compartment were an Indian couple, who saw me writing yesterday's journal entry and asked what I was doing. As the guidebook told us, once the conversation started they wanted to know all about me, including what my medicine is for and my age.

The train encountered fog, so we apparently crawled for most of the night. By morning we were three hours behind schedule, and when we finally pulled into Varanasi we were a full five hours late. So no orientation walk, and no chance for badly needed showers: we piled into bicycle rickshaws and were taken through miles of madhouse traffic to the river Ganges for a sunset boat ride.

Now this was lovely. We were rowed out onto the river while musicians played sitar and tabla for us, and as darkness fell we released dozens of little candle-and-flower floats representing our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It was a grand sight, the boats on the river all trailed by the points of fire they had released.

Two loud, lively ceremonies were going on on shore, both dedicted to world peace. As far as I'm concerned, any attempt to achieve it is a good thing.

We went ashore and watched the ceremonies for a while, then walked through a most tempting bazaar to where our rickshaws were waiting. Lois and Eric and Kyle and I elected to come back to the hotel, as it is up at 5am again tomorrow to leave at 6 for sunrise on the Ganges. I desperately needed to wash my hair and do laundry. Tempting as it might be to let the cheap hotel service do it, I'm afraid they would wash it in the Ganges, the most polluted river in the world. Think that's a joke? You saw the "laundry" at Orchha. Here is a laundry in the Ganges:

India is still pounding laundry on rocks and drying it in the sun, still carrying things on heads instead of using even a wheelbarrow. And to western thinking the standard of cleanliness here is appalling. For example, last night on the train we were each given two neatly folded sheets, a pillow, and a blanket. A man collected them mid-morning--we thought to be laundered. But because our train ran so late, we saw him shake out the used bedding and carefully fold it again for tonight's passengers! How often is it used before being washed? I don't think I want to know!

Varanasi is dirty, of course, but not as dirty as Delhi or Agra. However, many many people wear painter's masks or scarves over their noses and mouths. When we went out on the river we learned why.

We saw what appears to be a huge bonfire on the riverfront. However, we learned it is a funeral pyre on which, right out in the open, are cremated 300 bodies per day. You see, to die in Varanasi is supposed to give the soul a direct trip to heaven. So people come here to die. This is the first place in India that we older women who use walking sticks are treated with respect--I think it is assumed that we are here to die! Along the river there are hotels specifically for people who come here for that purpose.

The air, thus, is filled with the dust of human remains, which many people do not want to breathe. As Lois put it, we breathed dead people.

To end on a positive note, though, the Ganges is a holy river in which many people swim and others drink from as a cure for illness. We plan to do neither--the pollution has been scientifically measured--but there is something we all noticed this evening. For all its pollution, the human remains floating in it, the filth poured into it daily ... the Ganges, or Ganga as it is called here, has no smell.

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