Friday, 2 March 2012

Planet India

The place where cows, monkeys, camels and elephants roam freely in the streets. The non-stop honking. The intense smells… well, the intense EVERYTHING… I titled this blog “Planet India” because this country is unlike any I have ever experienced before.

It was late when we arrived in New Delhi, the moment we landed, Adri and I were overwhelmed by the smoke in the air. We ask our taxi driver if there was a large fire in the area. He spoke English, yet seemed very puzzled by our question. It was hard to breathe, the air thick and heavy- hard on the throat and toxic to the lungs. The next morning we opened our hotel window- a thick haze blanketed the city and you couldn’t see very far into the horizon. Wow… this isn’t smoke, it’s pollution!

From our hotel room, we could hear the constant honking of horns on the street below us. “Are you ready for this?” we ask each other. I had spent weeks mentally preparing for this trip. Well, I was still shocked. We set foot on the streets. Unpaved roads, open sewage, garbage heaps, non-stop stares from the locals, following you… no wait- chasing you- we had $$ written on our foreheads. Everyone wants a piece of you in India. 

We stood out like a sore thumb. Two giants roaming the streets, one of them blonde. We were walking targets. Everyone (touts, children, rickshaw drivers, store owners, their friends) follow you in the streets and try to strike up a conversation with you. 

The opener is ALWAYS: What country are you from? How long are you in India? Innocent enough, but the longer you’re there, sadly, the more you realize they are just buttering you up so they can rip you off! Sad but true. (Disclaimer- I apologize if I offend anyone in this entry, it’s just my experience there).

The poverty is also enough to keep you up at night. We made a practice of buying bags of rice and handing them out to children and the homeless. I also packed up my leftovers after each meal and gave the food to beggers on the street. One woman tore the packaging open and started devouring it on the spot. Really, really sad.

After chaotic New Delhi, we head over to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I was surprised to see that Agra was not touristy at all, but home to yet more small streets and open sewage. Maybe it was the bags of sh*t thrown about the streets (yes, literally, bags full of human sh*t, the smells so intense I gaged a couple of times in my mouth), maybe it was the overpopulation of malnourished puppies roaming the streets (broke my heart), but when we arrived in our “traditional Indian guesthouse”, which I booked by the way, I had a little break down. 

No hot water to clean yourself from all the dust and smoke that percolates your hair and clothing.  The blanket on the bed was also crusty and smelled funny. It’s one thing to experience the chaos and dirt and filth outside, but when you can’t feel clean in your own room is when it really starts to get to you…

Luckily, the hotel we booked in Jaipur was much nicer. Maybe that’s the spoiled me talking, but growing up in the western world, we are used to certain luxuries and it can be hard to go without. I’ve travelled to various other countries without hot water, clean beds, etc, but this time, due to feeling SO DIRTY simply by walking around the sewage infested streets, I had enough. I think I am officially retiring from hostels. India did it for me.

On the up-side, shopping in bazaars is super fun, everything is so cheap (despite being ripped off all the time), food is delicious. I guess it just took me a few days to get used to the intensity on the streets. There is so much going on, it really wears you out at the end of the day.

So after a little over a week in India, we are adjusting to the constant noise and smells. Nothing really phases us anymore, you just learn to accept the bizarre occurrences as if they were normal. This is when we arrive in Varanasi.

At over 3000 years old, Varanasi is apparently the oldest city in the world. It is also considered one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges, or to be cremated and obtain “moksha” (liberation from the cycle of birth and death).

What really sticks out in my mind about Varanasi is the cremation ghats on the banks of the Ganges river. Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are where bodies are cremated in full view, before their ashes are thrown into the Ganges. 

These sights and smells will remain with me always. You can only be cremated here if you die from natural causes. Pregnant women and children are considered karma free, so their bodies are attached to a large stone and sunk into the river. Same with people with the disease leprosy. Their dead bodies are also sunk into the river. This disturbed me quite a lot, considering hundreds of people bathe in the river next to these ghats every morning.

Keep in mind this is also where Varanasi gets it’s drinking water. Oh, the city sewage also goes into the river.

Those that commit suicide or do not die from natural causes are not cremated at the ghats, their bodies are just thrown into the river. The same goes for poor people that cannot afford to buy wood. This has spawned many epidemics in the past, yet still seems to occur in present day.

It is also important to note that some body parts don’t burn: ie, men’s thorax and women’s hips. The left over body parts are thrown into the river, along with the ashes. Apparently it is quite common to see human remains floating around. Thankfully, we did not witness this during our stay.

There is a hospice located at this ghat, where people wait to die so they can be cremated in the holy river. We hired a guide to tell us about  the burning ghats, and while he was speaking, I just couldn’t escape the pathway of the smoke… the smell meanwhile soaking my clothes and hair. Very disturbing. At the end of the conversation, he asks for a small donation to the hospice. He says 250 Rupees is the cost of 1kg of wood, which burns one body. Adri gives the man 250 Rupees. The man turns to me and says, “What about you? Aren’t you going to donate anything?”

“This donation is from both of us”, Adri tells the man.

Then the man turns to me and tells me to consider my karma when making a donation.

No amount is ever enough in India. People always want more.

We later find out the man has lied. A kilo of wood was in fact 10 Rupees, not 250 Rupees. What about HIS Karma!! He probably pocketed the money himself. SO frustrating.

I needed a minute to reflect on what I had just seen, so Adri and I walked up the street to escape the smoke from the burning bodies and drink a lassi. As we were absorbing everything that had just transpired, a parade of people carrying a dead body walks past the lassi shop. They are on their way to the burning ghat.

And the locals are used to that. Seeing dead bodies doesn’t seem to phase them. It’s all a matter of what you grow up with and where your “normal” is located on the spectrum, I suppose.

All in all, I’m really glad we made the trip to India. It was far from a holiday, and left us completely exhausted; both mentally and physically. However, the country is home to more than a sixth of the world's population, and I believe anyone seriously interested in the world's cultures should therefore consider seeing India. It really opens your eyes to what else is out there, I had no idea. Lonely Planet describes India as “an assault on the senses”… that about sums it up.


AGRA- Home of the Taj Mahal

JAIPUR- "The Pink City"

VARANASI- The Holy Ganges