Trekker and I arrived back to our old base in Varanasi, India on the eve of the celebration of Saraswati, a festival where hordes of young men and boys take to the streets in small brigades hoisting large statues of the goddess Saraswati en route to the wooden boats waiting at the edge of the Ganges to deliver the goddess figures to their final resting places in the depths of the river.
Varanasi is India’s oldest living city, and sometimes considered the holiest. It also may also be the strangest and possibly one of the dirtiest. Each time one returns to Varanasi there is a period of adjustment. Other than the logistical hurdles like having to use your terrible Hindi and modified english to negotiate a new SIM card with data plan to get basic internet, or just taking the gas tank to be filled so you can cook and have hot water at home, there are physical, mental, and spiritual adjustments that also need to be made. Physically, your eyes must adjust to the sepia tone of this dust-covered world, and your ears must adjust to the constant honking, inanely loud (and pretty terrible) music of the wedding hall next door, the almost nightly fireworks, the distant call to prayer, and to the early morning temple bell ringing (which sounds more like a school alarm bell or sleigh bells than the western genre of bells typical to our ‘holy’ places); Your nose must adjust to the must now found in your clothes, blankets, sheets and towels – which doesn’t make the fist night of sleep very pleasant but quickly passes as an unnoticeable part of life in a couple of days. And your lungs must adjust to the pollution of a country whose capital has normalized the forecasting of daily air quality as most other countries would the weather. You will need to adjust to life with no indoor heat or cooling and you must adjust your habits to start hand-washing your laundry in a bucket and boiling water for your hot water bucket-shower. You must adjust to a lot of boiling – you will boil water for drinking, cleaning, and brushing teeth, (if u have previously found reason to not fully trust the semi-expensive water filter u bought last year) and you must adjust to hanging your hand-washed cloth diapers on the line fast enough to dry in time for their use again tomorrow. Your general sensibility must adjust from seeing starving sick dogs and cold puppies everywhere to instead seeing the wondrous beauty of the cycles of old and new life before you. And you must readjust your eyes to look beyond the trash piles you see every 10 feet to see…everything else. Culturally, you will adjust your wardrobe for reasons of showing respect but also out of self-preservation. Wearing loose-fitting baggy clothes is not only culturally appropriate but it will save you the hassle of ass-pats on the streets, I’ve found. You will need to adjust your awareness to become almost spherical in order to navigate the cow manure on the street before you, the bicycle rickshaw an inch to your left, the car honking 2 feet behind you and the water buffalo to your right. You may also need to adjust to being seen as the foreigner, and to feeling that you must come off as a freely accessible, walking ATM machine. And you must not take it personally, how you are being seen, for this is just a byproduct of an existing system that is beyond your control; and because you are here visiting, in their country. You must stop feeling guilty for the insane economic disparity between countries that is suddenly allowing you to afford to pay someone else very little money to sweep your floors and to cook your lunch and start to feel good about providing that someone a job. And you must be weary of a few of these adjustments all the while.
You will go from feeling overwhelmed by the loudness, pollution, and general madness of the streets to feeling an elated calm by your new ability to rise above it all. You will go from feeling a general sense of control over your life in the western world and a feeling that you may matter to accepting that you are merely a speck in the masses of people and, like everyone else, you have no choice but to trust that the guy who just handed you a straw for your drink, by the tip of the straw, had washed his hands, or at least that any bacteria you just swallowed with your fresh coconut water will serve to strengthen your immunity for your continued journey.
There will be all sorts of adjustments. And you will go from your mind-on-the-go, never-having-time-to-meditate western world busyness to the much, much crazier India where you somehow do find the time to sit, close your eyes, and instantly transcend into a depth in meditation that you had not experienced in ages, or rather since you were last here. And in that moment when you open your eyes again you will notice that a warm feeling of peace has sprung up within you and is now lighting up your heart from inside, and you will smile in gratitude, feeling that you are home.
But then, even in your relaxed meditative state, while this certain oneness has overcome you and everything seems just about right, you will inevitably, and daily, experience severe cognitive dissonance when a small dusty child in tattered clothes tugs at your sleeve and begs you for money.
Welcome to Varanasi.