Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Hello again from "the city that was already old when the Buddha was young." I've been keeping busy with class, trying to get interviews for my fieldwork project, getting intermittently laid low by local pathogens, and enjoying that greatest of all pan-Hindu holidays, Diwali. Diwali, which was last Saturday, is the "Hindu festival of light" commemorating Rama's return to reclaim his kingdom at the end of the Ramayana. Lakshmi and Ganesh puja are also preformed on Diwali to ensure prosperity and an easy path in the coming year. Buildings are decorated with blinking lights, people decorate the doorways to their homes with flowers, leaves, and paintings, and thousands of diyas (small floating oil lamps) are released into the Ganga. Then there are the patakhe (firecrackers). I have to say, when it comes to fireworks, Diwali puts the Fourth of July to shame, and not only because the firecrackers are about ten times as loud are your standard (or even illegal) Fourth of July fireworks. It sounds a lot like the city is being shelled by heavy artillery for about 24 hours. They start setting them off about three days before Diwali and continue intermittently until everyone runs out (another three or four days).

My landlady returned from Delhi with her husband, who is a retired "senior government official," currently writing his memoir in English, the week before Diwali. She decided to do a very elaborate and traditional puja (mostly for our benefit, I think), which was followed by an excellent dinner. I have one sari I had been saving for the occasion (or rather that I had no other occasion to wear). The week before I had asked Sangeetaji (one of our RC's) to show me how to tie it. She did it in about thirty seconds in a way that is significantly more complicated (but also more comfortable) than I have seen it done before. I spent the next forty-five minutes trying to repeat what she did before I gave up in despair. Somehow, however, I managed to pull it off for Diwali - just don't ask how long it took. I was very nervous about it not looking right (there's a lot of important things about wearing a sari that Westerners wouldn't notice but Indians will point out immediately), but everyone seemed pretty impressed that I managed to do it so well by myself. I finished off the outfit with earrings, bangles, and a bindi. Never mind that the only shoes I have are hiking shoes, flip-flops, and my chaco rafting sandals - nobody wears shoes during puja anyway. Despite the obvious effort she had gone to it was still a relaxed family affair. Her husband, her ninety-seven year old mother (who is in amazing health for her age), her husband's cousin and his wife and their two children (who all live upstairs, though the children are in college) all came downstairs. There was singing and bell-ringing and incense and camphor burning and plenty of offerings of fruit and flowers. Ben and I were discussing how much certain aspects reminded us of Christmas, though the two celebrations may be a world apart. I must have been tikka'ed about three times (a tikka is the dot of red paste you get on your forehead during puja) and eaten a week's worth of the recommended sugar allotment in mitai (traditional Indian sweets). Our landlady and her husband, taking on the role of our elders, even gave us some "pocket money," a tradition on Diwali. After puja and dinner Ben and I went down to the Ghat for a while (we had to dodge many a firecracker in the street to get there), and then watched the fireworks from the roof. To be honest I'm not sure how half of the children of Banaras don't lose a limb on Diwali - safety isn't something that's exactly obsessed about in India the way it is in the States.

Speaking of personal safety, another recent happening is that my housemate Seth bought a motorcycle. Don't worry - I'm not getting on for any rides, at least not for a very long time. I do think it's crazy to try to learn to drive a motorcycle in the streets of Banaras, but it's easy to see the appeal (you can get places without being at the mercy of rickshaw wallas, it's faster, it's cheaper in the long run, and no where is it considered more "cool" to have a motorcycle than here). On the one hand, most of the traffic in the street is bicycles, animals, rickshaws, and motorcycles, and people hardly ever go much faster than fifteen or twenty miles an hour. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever seen someone wearing a motorcycle helmet in India. As far as personal safety in India goes in general, eventually you realize that certain risks are either unavoidable or not actually worth the lengths it would take to avoid them, and you will probably only end up doing half of the things your well-intentioned doctor in the States (who has probably never been to India) told you to do. You won't always know if your food is safe, you will wonder if your rickshaw driver is coughing violently because he either a) has TB, or b) was just smoking charas (hash) with his buddy, and you probably won't sleep under a mosquito net. Nevertheless, you'll probably come out of it alive, just like my friend with the motorcycle (a used Honda Hero, in case anyone was wondering). Speaking of motorcycles, I am continually impressed with the ability of Indian people to fit either three grown men or and entire family of five on one motorcycle. Equally impressive is the ability of Muslim women in full burquas to ride on the back of a motorcycle sitting side-saddle with their hands folded neatly in their lap (to sit any other way would be too sinful). And neither of these things is a novelty of any kind.

I think next time I will talk about my meeting with the Mahant-ji (head priest) of the Sankat Mochan temple. Computer problems are still putting a hold on the pictures, but Ben took some on Diwali that I will try to post. Namaskar! (Namaste.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Party-Varty ("a party or something like it")

Back at the "Sify" internet cafe. Yesterday the internet was working at the program house for about two hours and then this morning it was "khatam ho gaya" once again. Besides that it hasn't worked at all since we got back from Rishikesh and it's starting to get really frustrating.

Note: I hadn't realized that the default setting for comments was to require registration. Once this was pointed out to me I changed it so now anyone who so desires should be able to leave a comment without registering. It's nice to get comments, so please feel free.

It seems like every time I sit down to write in this blog I get overwhelmed thinking about the number of things that have happened since my last entry. I hate having to skim over a lot of things and leave out other things entirely but it's just not possible to do justice to a fraction of the things I'd like to discuss in this blog. I suppose for right now I'll tell a bit about the dance I went to last night and leave the rest for later as I'm running short on time.

So my housemate Ben is doing his fieldwork paper on volunteerism in Banaras. Through his research he's gotten to know the president of the local board of Rotary International, who is a pretty wealthy dude with a decent amount of local clout, as I understand it. Well this guy has taken quite a liking to Ben, which is how a bunch of us got invited to this formal dance last night put on by the Rotary club. Fortunately Ranjanaji and her husband were also going, as it went rather late and was way out on the other side of town. Somehow we managed to cram three people in the front and five people in the back of their tiny shoebox of an Indian car (which is a very Indian thing to do, BTW). I wore a new suit, not too flashy but I was also wearing bangles and a bindi and a fair amount of eye makeup. Let's just say that this dance ranks up there with the top five things I've seen/done in India so far. Everyone was dressed to the nines and dancing barefoot on the lawn outside this hotel around a huge, colorful rice mandala with a bunch of pots holding oil lamps sitting on it. At first it was women only and everyone was dancing in two circles around the mandala. People were doing a kind of Punjabi (?) dance where you hold a painted stick in each hand and twirl them around and hit them together to the music. Eventually some younger girls showed Briana, Jessica, Leigh Ann and me some combinations and we joined the bigger circle. Later there was a couples dance and Ben and Briana won a prize(!). The food at the buffet was possibly the best Indian food I've had in India. They had excellent mitaii (Indian sweets) and even had "mineral water" (bottled water) on tap (no alcohol of course). The children were adorable. Even some of the little girls were decked out in mini saris and jewelry like little princesses. It was definitely a society event but I didn't get the feeling that it was snobbish or tight-laced at all. Everyone was totally relaxed and having a great time. It made me really want to go to an Indian wedding, as weddings are supposed to be a lot like that but on a much larger scale and spanning several days. On first glimpse the city appears so restrained by tradition that you'd never guess Banarasis throw such great parties. Then again, it was a lot of the traditional aspects that made it a great party.

Khair, mujhe jaanaa hai. (Well, I have to go.) Namaste!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Gangotri, Rishikesh, and Back to Banaras

Here I am back in Varanasi. I decided I didn't want want to pay to sit in the internet cafe and type my entry so I'm here in my room at Parampara typing and will transfer it by USB drive. A lot has happened so this will be long. Also it's still ridiculously hot here and I don't want to chance not getting a computer under a fan.

The day after my last entry we moved into the new hotel in Laxman Jhula as planned. That weekend however, nine of us moved out again for two nights/three days to go to Gangotri, "the most remote of the four dhams [pilgrimage sites] of Garhwal." Basically, if you drive into the lower Himalaya from Rishikesh, Gangotri is where the road stops. It's at aprox. 10,500 ft. and has views of three snow-capped peaks, the largest of which is called Sudarshan ("great darshan"), and is over 21,000 ft. It's also 14km from Gomukh, the ice cave that is the source of the Ganga. Getting there took an entire day (13 hours) of driving there and back, and we only had one full day there, but even still it was worth it. The roads are absolutely frightening (especially when you have to pass a bus), but the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. For the first third of the trip the entire landscape is huge foothills that have been terraced, some still still growing crops and some eroded, probably hundreds of years old. Later on we passed a lot of nomadic tribal people, who I think are called the Gugers. I was told by Ranjanaji that their society is much less patriarchal than that of the plains people. The women wear outfits that look like high-cut, short sleeved shirts tied together in the front and long skirts with a large knotted piece of fabric on their heads (no dupattas necessary). They also stand up straight and look you in the eye. It looks like a very hard life, but at the same time it's hard not to romanticize the idea of spending your life wandering around those mountains. Those people seemed to mostly heard cattle and water buffalo but we did see several flocks of very woolly sheep and goats. When you get further into the mouthing you start seeing some amusing hand-painted signs put up by the government urging people to drive safely. Some of my favorites were, "mountains are a pleasure, only when you drive with leisure," "peep peep, don't sleep," and the disconcertingly ambiguous, "life is a journey, complete it."

In Gangotri we went on a couple of short hikes, one down the river past a waterfall a little ways, and one up the hill to a temple at the entrance of the wilderness area (which you need to have applied for a permit to enter). Some of us also visited a couple of ashrams and went to aarti at the main Mother Ganga temple. I must have done puja at least half a dozen times that day, including the special puja I did at the main ghat after I splashed some (very cold) water on myself and collected a bottle to have blessed. There was a man and his wife bathing at the spot next to me and when the man saw me sticking my foot in he very enthusiastically encouraged me to drink some. When I explained in Hindi that I couldn't drink the water because I would get sick he said, "You can't get sick! This is holy water! The water is God!" The water was very clean there and I probably would have been fine but I didn't want to chance it. I think God will understand, even if this guy couldn't.

The aarti was very beautiful and also very well attended, considering how difficult it is to get there. Afterwards Ranjanaji, Sanghamitraji, Isabel and I had dinner at a Gujarati ashram after we spent some time hanging out with the head priest and watching slides from his treks into the Himalaya. Among these were several pictures of clouds, rocks, and moss that looked like the sign for Ohm. Some of them were actually rather impressive. He also showed us pictures of a human skeleton that he had found with weeds growing over it and then spent a good five minutes lecturing (in Hindi) on how one shouldn't be concerned with the material body because it's only temporary and it doesn't really exist anyway. Later he was talking about the Hindu-Muslim problems in India and I heard him say, "sab dharm acchaa hai, bhagavaan ek hii hai," which means, "all religions are good, it's all the same God." That sounded pleasantly idealistic to me, but apparently he said a lot more things that I don't agree with. The problem with only knowing half a language is that you only get half of the conversation, if that. And usually the half you miss is the important part. In any case, the ashram's refectory, appropriately enough, was freezing. I was very lucky to have bought a woolen shawl earlier in the day. They also don't cook with any onions or garlic so instead they load this intense red spice powder onto your food. Those two nights in Gangotri will probably be the only time in India that I'll be seriously cold. The next morning it was cold until the minute that the sun came over Sudarshan peak, after which it was perfect. I definitely want to go back to Gangotri someday, hang out, go to Gomukh, and do some real trekking.

The rest of Rishikesh involved a lot of class time, a lot of shopping, a lot of really good food, and a lot of aarti and Durga Puja going on. I ate dinner three times at this one place across the river that made great pasta with soy-meat sauce and an ice-cream dessert called "hail to the queen." It was rather loud, however, as the speakers from the tent where Durga Puja was going on projected everything right across the water. The priest or whoever had the mike kept yelling, "Jai Jai Mata Ji!" (hail to the mother), "Zor se bolo!" (say it louder!) and "Phir se bolo!" (say it again!) over and over until he sounded like he was about to pass out. What I enjoyed much more was the aarti at Parmarth Niketan ashram, which is carried out with the help of roughly one hundred young boys in saffron robes with the marks of the Shiavites on their foreheads. There is a lot of singing and chanting and at the end they bring around trays of burning camphor so everyone can offer it to Gangaji and take some of the blessing. Some of the younger boys get really into it and it's fun to watch. There are about a dozen foriegners there every night but then this is Rishikesh. Interestingly, it seems like at least 60% of the tourist population in Rishikesh is Israeli, yet I hardly ever see Israelis at aarti. My shopping expeditions went fairly well also. I think it helps when you can bargain in Hindi, since most people don't bother to learn. I got a cool mirrored shoulder bag, some silver jewelry, several small religious images, some carved wooden printing blocks, and other miscellaneous things. A couple of times I saw soldiers wander into jewelry stores and collect backsheesh (bribes), what for I don't know. It always seems to be a fairly amicable affair.

The trip back was much better than the trip getting there, as we were well rested for the drive and could sleep on the train afterwards. The only problem was when we got to the Varanasi train station at three AM on Monday and there were, once again, only two cars to pick us up, so Ben, Seth, Leigh Ann and I had to take auto-rickshaws. Monday was Gandhi's birthday, Ram Lila, and the last night of Durga Puja all on the same day (Durga is a warrior goddess, and coincidentally, my favorite Hindu deity). We were just finishing dinner at Haifa (the middle eastern restaurant) when the procession started going by outside. We went back to the house to get our cameras and then followed it to Assi Ghat. In the front was a cart carrying the big Durga murti and several smaller murtis. This was followed by another cart carrying huge speakers blasting a strange mix of Bollywood and popular devotional music. The whole thing was surrounded by men with red headbands shooting clouds of fake blood into the air and dancing like there was no tomorrow. The murtis are made of terracotta and at the end of the procession they take them out to the middle of the river and drop them in. I had to hold my breath for a while when we were watching twenty-some men trying to lift this huge murti to get it out of the cart and into the boat. One of her weapons kept falling out of one of her many hands and they just kept putting it back in. I was pretty much the only woman in sight, due to the late hour (rather ironic for a goddess worship ceremony). About half a dozen people came up to Seth and asked him if we were married. After the first time he started saying yes so that they would go away. Nobody talked to me except for a couple of little kids, which was somewhat of a relief, even if it was due to my perceived status as someone else's property. Last night the Ram Lila procession went down the street right in front of our house. At first I thought it was a wedding procession, until I realized that the young man and woman being carried down the street were dressed up as Rama and Sita (from the Hindu epic the Ramayana).

I'm glad to have started Sanskrit again and I'm especially glad to be starting voice lessons on Friday. We're going to be reducing our Hindi class hours in a couple of weeks (from four days to three) so we have more time for tutorials and fieldwork projects. This is fine with me, as I seem to have more motivation for Sanskrit at the moment, and my fieldwork project definitely needs some attention. On the other hand it's just hard to get as much done here as I'm used to being able to do and I'm just going to have to accept that. I'm really looking forward to Diwali in a couple of weeks. Diwali is the big festival of lights that is pretty much to Hindus what Christmas is to Christians. I'm also trying to make plans for Winter break, which will hopefully include a stop in Goa. Once again, I hope everyone is well. This is Amanda, signing off. Phir milenge!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Hello from Rishikesh! For those who don't know, Rishikesh is 800-and-some odd km upstream from Banaras, where Gangaji comes down from the mountains and "crashes onto the plains," to quote my guidebook. It's the starting point for a whole lot of yatras (pilgrimages) to ashrams and temples up in the foothills of the Himalaya (ashram = monastery/sangha/religious community). Rishikesh is also a pretty big ashram town itself. It became more known to Westerners after the Beatles came to stay at Maharishi Yogi's ashram here in 1968, where they wrote a lot of the White Album. Since then a lot of Western celebrities interested in Hinduism and Buddhism have come here. It's in the state of Uttaranchal, which was split from Uttar Pradesh in 2000. The three most relevant districts of Rishikesh are Rishikesh town, Swarg Ashram, across the river where most of the ashrams are, and Laxman Jhula, about 4 km above the town, where most of the trekking starts from.

Unfortunately getting here was just a little hellacious. We left the program house at 1 PM on Sunday and our train left Varanasi station at 1:45. We were told the train was going to arrive in Mooradabad, UP at 2:30 AM, but it didn't get there until after 3:30, so because a lot of people were getting on the train at Lucknow at about 10 PM most of us only got about three hours of sleep. When we arrived at Mooradabad station we found that there were a bunch of politicians arriving for the inauguration of a new town, so we sat on the curb for a good 45 minutes trying to figure out where we were supposed to meet the cars. After that we found out that the program had only hired two SUVs. As it would have been utterly impossible to fit 18 people and all of their luggage in two SUVs we sat on some boxes outside of the parcel depot for another hour while we waited for the company to get another vehicle. After we finally got on the road the car I was in got a flat. By this point it was about 5:30 AM and things were still almost funny. They stopped being funny when we found sixty of the 300-and-some km remaining between us and Rishikesh were on Very Bad Road. By Very Bad Road, I mean potholes well over a foot deep spanning half of the road, never mind the cows, buffalo-carts, and other normal obstacles. We were pretty much bounced around like ping-pong balls in our crowded vehicles for almost three hours and found it impossible to get any sleep. We stopped at some chai place on the side of the road at about 7:30 at which point most people promptly fell asleep on the tables and resolved to save Rishikesh for another day. We did however arrive at the hotel at about 10:30, only about four hours behind schedule. We found out we could have taken a train all the way to Rishikesh and skipped the whole SUV debacle entirely but it turns out the tickets *weren't reserved early enough.*

The next issue was the hotel. The place that had been reserved is in the middle of Rishikesh town, which is crowded, polluted, and not that much different from Banaras. As we were supposed to come here for our Hindi *retreat* many of us were very unhappy with the location. The fact that, while by Indian standards it’s solidly mid-range, by American standards it’s pretty dang flea-baggy didn't really help matters. There was also some concern about the safety of the food as the kitchen staff was obviously not accustomed to dealing with Westerners. Virendra-ji had to explain to them why they couldn't put tap water in the raita. Even though one should expect a certain amount of these things to happen in India and try to be flexible about it, there's no denying that all of us were exhausted and hungry, and a good number were more than a little pissed off.

After a (cold bucket) shower and a nap I felt much better and several of us decided to head up to Laxman Jhula to check things out. Once you get a couple of km above the town by auto-rickshaw the air becomes about ten degrees cooler and much cleaner. You also start to get a good view of the (very impressive) surrounding hills and the Ganga below. Within half an hour we had found two slightly nicer hotels in Laxman Jhula with space for all of us . This was somewhat surprising as we had been told that all of the hotels in Rishikesh were booked up for Durga Puja (of course later when we were discussing the possibility of switching hotels we were told that the current hotel would be unlikely to give us a refund as they would have trouble filling space during the "off season"). I pretty much figure that the travel agent pocketed the money he was supposed to use to come to Rishikesh to set things up and probably also pocketed a commission from the first hotel which as far as I know is owned by his brother-in-law. So it goes... Anyway, the area around Laxman Jhula is very pleasant, is near everything we want to be near, has great shopping, and I am happy to say that after much persuading and politicking we will be moving there tomorrow after class. The new hotel has incredible views, cleaner rooms and a more touristy (read: safer) restaurant next-door.

Having told my tale of woe, my general impression of Rishikesh is that it's pretty dang awesome. I keep thinking to myself, "_____ would love it here!" and I can completely understand why people (mostly the young Israelis, who have a very bad reputation) hang out here for months at a time. Trekking and river rafting trips from here are ridiculously cheap, there's tons of good food and good shopping, there's lots of cool stuff to see (especially if you have any kind of New Age bent), and it's much more laid back than Banaras. The surrounding area is gorgeous and the Ganga is actually clean enough to swim in!!! It was amazing to just be able to see the bottom for once. I stuck my toes in the water (now at least my feet are free of sin?). The one cool thing in Rishikesh town is the big ghat (near which I am sitting right now). There are a bunch of big religious statues and small temples, and cows and kids wading in the sandy water. The evening aarti (fire offering, usually with drumming/music) is supposed to be pretty awesome. Two nights ago after we found the hotels we walked down some very long winding stairs lined with shops to the shore by the Laxman Jhula foot bridge, where we ate too much really good food at this "German Bakery" restaurant where we sat on cushy pillows on the floor. We watched some of the aarti happening across the river in Swarg Ashram ("a really loud party for God"). Despite the day's unpleasant start, I had a really great evening. I also put my Hindi to practical use several times that afternoon, which was rather pep-inspiring.

That's it on Rishikesh for now. Unfortunately I don't have my computer with me and the modem at this internet cafe is 33.6k, so no pictures until I get back to Banaras. Phir milenge!

Friday, September 15, 2006


While I'm sitting here sweating in the internet cafe with one tiny fan and a broken A/C unit, I thought I might as well do something useful, so here are a few of the long-awaited pictures. None of me in a salwar suit yet - sorry.

Outside the Hanuman temple near Connaught Place in the midde of New Delhi this dude sits on an elephant. If you give him Rs. 10 he'll give you some kele (bananas), and you can watch the elephant eat the whole bunch in one go.

India often seem to blend the information age with the pre-industrial revolution age. Take for example, the gaay (cow) hanging out in front of this billboard in South Delhi.

South Delhi is booming, and as you drive along the highway you see plenty of new office towers and apartment buildings going up.

South Delhi also has its share of brand new, modern, A/C shopping malls. The main difference from Western shopping malls is that you still have to fight your way through the crowds of beggars, cows, and rickshaws to get to the front door.

Outside the Dilli Haat craft bazzar. From left: Briana, Leigh Ann, Ben, and Jessica. I think Leigh Ann is doing an impression of Kali, the warrior goddess.

Walking up the famous Chandni Chowk. From left: Sanghamitra (one of our resident coordinators), Gabby, Emily, Isabel, and Mike.

Ben checking out the columns at the Qutub Minar (the ruins of the first city of Delhi). Maybe I'll post a picture of the actual minar later - or you could just google it. (I highly recommend googing pictures of the Jama Masjid - I didn't take any pictures there because it cost money.)

Banaras at last! Briana, Rachel, and Jessica.

This is our lovely program house, where we have Hindi class and eat lunch. I am frequently harassed by monkeys outside of the front gate.

The gate into Varanasi's Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the first university in India not founded by the British. I have my Sanskrit tutorial with a BHU professor who lives on campus.

Childless women's broken bangles and cast off clothes aroud Lolark Kund. Again, I'll post pictures of the actual Kund later.

The gate to Vishwanatha Gali, which is pretty much Banaras at its finest. It's basically a huge crowded maze of alleyways lined with shops selling everything you could ever want to buy in India plus a lot more. Eventually it leads to the Vishwanatha temple, the temple to "Shiva as Lord of the Universe" which is the most important temple in Banaras. It's also known as the Golden Temple, as the entire shikara (spire) is plated with gold. It's mostly hidden behind walls and non-Hindus are not allowed inside. It's also under semi-serious terrorist threat from Muslim extremists, and this area is constantly patrolled by military dudes with huge moustaches and really old-looking rifles. Note the cycle-rickshaw wala in the foreground.

Attempted night shot of the full moon down an alley off Shivala Road.

Another attempted night shot of the absolutely incredible, makes-me-crazy-with-envy view from the roof of my friends' apartment. The shikara of this temple sticks up right next to it, and yes, that is Gangaji herself in the background.

I hope life goes well for my friends on other parts of the globe. Tomorrow our little circus sets off for Rishikesh, at the headwaters of Ganga and the foothills of the Himalaya. Clean air! Trees! Mountains! Ashrams galore! I can hardly wait.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

many kinds of electricity

Well, internet outages and food poisoning have kept me from posting for longer that I planned, but this is India, and Banaras at that, so you have to expect everything to take at least three times as long as you think it "ought" to.

Food poisoning has been only one of many problems and frustrations we've encountered lately. Most are not nearly as dramatic, but it's all too easy to get worked up by a thousand and one little things. It's often hard to understand why people do the things they do, or why they don't do simple things we take for granted (like not sticking their dirty fingers in your chai). Two of the other rooms at Parampara (the house where I live) are occupied by guys from my program: Ben, from UW Madison, who was added at the last minute after his Israel program was cancelled, and Seth, who is here from Princeton studying Eastern music. We've been having a lot of problems with our inverter lately, and for some reason our landlady decided to padlock the sitting room where our inverter is located before she left for Delhi. I had asked her specifically to leave us keys, explaining that she had told us before we moved in that we would have the use of this room and that we needed to be able to access the inverter. She assured me that she would, but I guess I should have made sure the deal was "pukka" (firm), because it turns out she didn't. Sure enough last night was one of the hottest nights yet, sure enough the power went out at four o'clock in the morning, and sure enough the inverter failed to automatically switch on like it's supposed to. It's impossible to sleep in this heat without the ceiling fan on, so of course we all woke up in pools of our own perspiration not long after. I was still recovering from my illness, so I just laid in bed and prayed for the fan to start spinning again, while the boys got more and more agitated and finally attempted to dismantle the bolt on the door with a screwdriver. I guess one of the landlady's relatives from upstairs (none of whom speak any English) heard all the racket, and brought down a key when they figured out what the problem was. Interestingly, they opened the door to find that the inverter had been unplugged (!!) and so not able to charge when the power was on. Fortunately it had enough juice so that when it was switched on our ceiling fans started spinning again and we were all able to go back to sleep (sort of), at five thirty in the morning when the street dogs start barking and the Bollywood "filmi" music starts blasting from the paan stalls out on the street.

I continued to lie low for most of today but by the afternoon I was feeling better (I actually had some tea and toast without feeling sick), and decided to venture out of my room. I talked to Ben and Seth briefly at different points during the day and both of them (even Ben, who's about as patient and mild-mannered as you can get) had distinctive tones of "I am so fed up" in their voices. I think that my being holed up in the house for the last couple of days may have shielded me from some of the daily hassles (plus it's wonderful to feel alive again), so this evening I optimistically trugged around the corner to Haifa, the touristy Middle-Eastern theamed hotel and restaurant, for some soup and ginger tea. I should have known that the tomato soup was going to be spicy (as almost everything is), but my optimism must have obscured that possibility. Still it was relaxing to sit in a restaurant, directly under a fan, read a little and observe the other videshis (foreigners).

Right across from me were three female French tourists, all in halter tops and spaghetti straps, chain smoking away. I can't blame them for not wanting to put on extra layers of fabric, but I couldn't help but being more than a little irritated by their behavior. In Banaras it's more than a little unseemly (some would say scandalous) for women to be so undressed and to smoke in public. One could argue, "they're not Hindu or Muslim, they're liberated Western women, why should they have to bother?" but what it boils down to is that it's just plain disrespectful of the culture. When foreigners come to the West we expect them not to behave in ways which make us uncomfortable, and to not extend similar simple courtesy when in somebody else's country is chauvinistic at best.

Seth had mentioned there was some major event going on down at Assi Ghat (the one nearest our house), so after Haifa I decided to wander down and see what was going on. Sure enough, the road down to the river was jammed with cycle-rickshaws full of women in their best saris and gold jewelry, all going to do puja (worship) in the hope of having sons. I sat on the ghat for a while and watched. I regretted not bringing my camera, as it really was a sight to be seen, but then I hate taking pictures of religious observances, never mind that that's what all the other videshis were doing. The most striking thing was the color. Thousands of bright, neon, even fluorescent seeming outfits on thousands of women makes a stark contrast against the dull grays and browns of the river, the ghat, and the surrounding buildings. The second most striking thing was the extremely strong smell of the incense. I should also mention that this was the first time I've seen women in public in any significant numbers. Usually when I walk down the street, especially in the evening, my tendency is to wonder, "where are all the women?" The answer, of course, is at home, but today they were out in droves. Those headed for ghat brought camphor lamps and offerings for Gangaji, and those returning brought vessels of the holy, bacteria-laden water for some further ceremony. The men mostly sat behind at the top of the Ghat. There was also somewhat of a festival atmosphere, with hawkers hawking balloons and, yes, even cotton candy. The gender aspect of the event would have been useful for my research, but nobody ever tells you when these things are happening. To keep on top of all the festivals and religious events would be quite a chore, as there seem to be at least one or two every week.

I think this entry is long enough to make up for the lapse, and I'm being hailed on my "mobile," so I'll be signing out now.

Phir milenge! (Until later!)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

At long last, the inaugural post of my travel blog. I have been here in Varanasi/Banaras/Kashi for over a week now and already things seem less bizarre than they did on arrival. But before I get into all of that, a little background information:

I, Amanda, normally a student of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA, am participating in the University of Wisconsin's College Year in India program. The program has been running in Varanasi, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, since 1963. After spending eight weeks in Madison, Wisconsin studying Hindi (one of India's 18 official languages and the lingua franca in much of Northern India), I flew to New Delhi on August 24th. After four days in Delhi our group of 14 students traveled by train to Varanasi (the city's official name), where I will be living and studying for the next nine months.

Also known as Kashi ("city of light"), Varanasi/Banaras is located on the "Ganges" river (more accurately, the Ganga, or Gangaji) and is considered to be Hinduism's holiest city. It is also one of the world's oldest continuously living cities, on par with Damascus. Numerous Hindu poet-saints (e.g. Ravidas and Tulsidas) lived and preached here. The city is also a mere 10 km from Sarnath, where Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The city itself is shaped like a crescent, located on the Western bank of a bend in the river. The shore is lined with Ghats, which are big stone steps leading down into the water. Every day thousands of people come to bathe in the (highly polluted) river to be ritually purified and absolved of sins. Being cremated here, and/or having one's ashes poured into the Ganga is considered to expedite one's journey to moksha, or liberation from rebirth. Banaras is also known as "Shiva's city," as Shiva is by far the most important deity here. According to some myths the city was founded by Shiva himself.

Despite it's rich history and cultural traditions, it is important to remember that over a million people carry out there daily lives in and around Banaras, and like most small Indian cities, it has it's share of problems. I hope this blog will be a convenient means for me to keep in touch with family and friends and also share a little bit about my experience here. It would be impossible to document everything I've seen even in this first week but with some vignettes (and eventually, pictures) I hope you will get a little bit of an idea of what Varanasi is all about.