Varanasi, India, city for single moms and toddlers?

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Since the initial acclimation period, Trekker and I have had a nice time nesting in our old home base.  We live in a tiny, cozy apartment inside a fairly private compound and hidden behind a large Mango tree and 2 Neem trees. The apartment boasts a squatter toilet and no hot water and is attached to a very large shared porch.

here’s our living room!
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I have come to prefer the squatter toilet over the standard western toilet for basic comfort and cleanliness reasons. But even better than the fact that decades old research has also proved it the healthier option, Trekker has now used it a few times on his own to pee! (dear older Trekker reading this blog some day: good job honey! love you! 😉 ) No more need for uncomfortable baby “potties”, toilet steps, or those add-on-toddler-sized toilet seats.

The initial cold during our arrival has since made way for perfect 70 F days and 55 F nights so while I’m still boiling water for our hot bucket showers, the heat is just an added luxury and not a necessity. We share the large  porch with a lively and funny Irishman who Trekker enjoys a lot, (and who kindly brought me Gatorade yesterday when I was sick.) It is probably 90 ft long and 20 ft wide, leaving plenty of room for our hammock, a hanging chair, and for Trekker to ride his new tricycle.

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For 6500 rupees/month (roughly equivalent to $105 USD) this is a great base.

So we have a great apartment BUT is the city of Varanasi perfect for single moms with toddlers?

In regards to my initial requirements in a perfect city , here is the run-down-

Affordability: this is probably the cheapest place I could live. For roughly $600/ month we have the apartment, a lady who cooks lunch and sweeps the floors, optional daily restaurant visits, transportation to anywhere in the city, gas for the stove, and tri-weekly in-home Indian classical singing lessons. Not bad. The lady who cooks lunch is called Geeta. She has a big personality and speaks no english so Trekker and I are learning hindi faster with her around.

here is Geeta, playing Trekker’s out-of-tune guitar
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Music scene: this city is the capital of Indian classical music and it attracts musicians from all over the world who come here for study/practice. In truth I will probably always have more of an American 80’s pop music/ classic blues soul but I do feel that my own music potential could be much enhanced by the regular, inexpensive classical lessons. And more importantly: exposing Trekker to this kind of nuanced tuning of the ear at age 2 could only have magical outcomes in the future.

Plenty of weirdos: indeed! This place is packed with weirdos. My original vision for plenty of weirdos mostly encompassed creative types (which Varanasi does house plenty of, often attracted by the music scene and scenery), but this place also attracts a national and international set of yogis, gurus, seekers, jugglers, astrologers, world-changer types, and weirdo PhD candidates (BHU, the oldest/largest University in India, is just around the corner.) I’ve found most of these weirdos to be fairly easy to strike up conversations with in the casual outdoor chai shop settings and family style seating at restaurants.

Active street life: probably doesn’t get more active than this one! There is LOADS of entertainment steps from our home, experienced just going to the store and back. Besides all the weirdos and the tiny ma and pa (mostly pa) shops lining the roads, we see litters of puppies and many other animals every 10 ft. I couldn’t think of a more entertaining place to spend the “what’s that?” phase-  “what’s that mama?” that’s a bicycle rickshaw, baby “what’s that mama?” thats a baby cow drinking his mama’s milk like you do “what’s that?” that’s a herd of water buffalos “What’s that?” a painted sheep “what’s that?” a baby monkey on a leash, “what’s that?” a naked sadhu covered in ashes. “what’s that?” a parade of people with lightbulbs on their heads “what’s that?” a family of langurs. “what’s that?” an excavator digging up more river mud and placing it into the long line of dump trucks waiting to carry it away (watching the excavator has become a daily activity, boy toddler’s dream!), “whats that?” more fireworks. “what’s that?” a goddess. a god. another festival. a temple. a holy river. a monkey on a bicycle, etc, etc… Also, any evening of the week Trekker will say “let’s go find a parade!” and we will probably be able to find one (usually, but not limited to, the form of a wedding procession.) The wedding hall next door also provides us with a nightly fireworks display. And where else do you get to live in the heart of a city yet feed the cows with your food scraps each day?

Trekker getting his “new” tricycle fixed at a roadside bike shop
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Trekker with a pile of puppies
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Trekker greeting “baby Ferdinand”IMG_7596

Trekker’s excavator (we could sit here for hours narrating this scene and sometimes do)IMG_7500

Trekker’s parrot at the river chai shop
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sheep says “bhaaahhhaah”
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petting a baby monkeyIMG_7606

Walking city: yes, but, forget the stroller. a stroller would be impossible here due to lack of sidewalks and animal sh*t every 5 feet. But unlike Lisbon, Varanasi is not very spread out and while it is possible to take long walks along the riverside ghats, boat rides are also available which can sort of compensate for that “stroller zen state” I was seeking. A nice long rowboat ride on the Ganges allows both mama and baby to zen out substantially.

Art scene: limited. However, the old peeling layers of paint and crumbling buildings are quite stirring on their own. I’ve already started one wall-inspired painting and if I can manage to find the time, I will work on more.
a wall in our compound
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Strong culture of dancing: yes and no. There is a strong culture of a formal, traditional dance here, known as Kartic, but you don’t see much free-dancing in the streets. Actually that’s not true – the men are dancing in the streets all the time behind their wedding and festival processions, but the women are mostly dancing at home or in private spaces, and dancing is segregated by sex. That said, Trekker and I have started a habit of evening rooftop dancing to the loud music coming from the wedding hall next door which is fun. And at a the outdoor music concert around the corner the other day Trekker really got down to some lively kirtan with a group of local kids (too bad my camera was dead at the time.) Fingers crossed for more of those scenes.

Lots of playgrounds: Nil. There IS one small “playground” thing in a park nearby, but the slide is like a hot frying pan leading to a hole with metal bar that could break a leg. And the park, which doubles as a sleeping grounds for sadhus, is used as a toilet. I didn’t notice this at first but after Trekker’s key-ring toy rolled off the perimeter walkway into a bush and his little hand promptly reached down to grab it but returned holding what looked like a dried human dookey, I understood. I quickly knocked the thing out of his hand but just as soon as it dropped to the floor Trekker stuck his 4 fingers straight into his mouth. In the past when Trekker would touch something seemingly questionable and then go for the mouth I made it a practice to also touch the questionable object with my own fingers and then put them in my mouth under the premiss that i have a stronger immune system and any antibodies I build up against the shared germs would be passed along to Trekker through nursing. But in this case, although we do continue to nurse, I declined. The incident was days ago and he hasn’t shown any signs of sickness so I feel ok about it but a fellow neighborhood mother suggested we take the deworming medicine that her family takes a regular dose of. The same mother and I also discussed the idea of gathering some people (school groups, local politicians) to clean up the park. Lets see what develops..

Kid-friendly restaurants and culture: yes indeed. Indian people LOVE babies. Trekker is welcome everywhere and we find ourselves surrounded by people who are excited about his existence. Restaurant dining is  particularly enjoyable because restaurant staff are usually proactively engaging baby, leaving me more leeway to enjoy my meal. Strangers come up all the time excited to see him and talk to him and he gets loads of attention. This has a slight challenge to it in that people are always wanting to take their picture with him, and grab his cheeks, I guess because he is a foreign baby, and a very cute one, so I do wonder what kind of impression that will leave on him. Will he grow up expecting the paparazzi to follow him? Is that a bad thing? For now he seems to handle the attention well – he gives deadpan face and ignores who he wants and otherwise smiles when he feels like it.

While engagement with the larger community is great and I am getting the chance to interact with other adults each day, the main issue I do have with Varanasi as a place to settle is the traditional conformity of the Indian people and their lack of openness (or awareness) to other ways of doing things. “Single mom” seems to be a foreign concept here, or certainly not a position a woman would ever choose to be in. While Trekker does have regular contact with his darling bio-dad via Skype, and I am sure their relationship will continue to develop as years go on, we have had an unconventional family from the start and that is how it is. I have zero shame about being a single mother and am overwhelmingly grateful to have been blessed with this incredible baby. Trekker has grown up happy so far and people are often remarking about what a happy baby he is. But here in India we are asked at least 5 times a day by complete strangers, mostly men, who come out of nowhere yet seem to have the self-entitled right to ask, (and occasionally in strangely challenging tones,) “where is your husband?” “where is his father?” or to Trekker “where is daddy?” “where is papa?” or pushing it farther with “you missing papa?” “you missing daddy?” all under the assumption that he was raised in a 2 parent home. It has gotten to the point where I’m wondering if this constant line of aggressive questioning could actually create a feeling of lack where there previously wasn’t. I realize that a single-parent home is untraditional for most societies and that the question could come up anywhere but Indian culture in Varanasi seems particularly closed, and sometimes quite pushy, about it.
So, in consideration of the last point, and of the pollution and non-stop noise, I will say Varanasi is not the PERFECT city for single moms with toddlers, though it clearly does have a lot to offer. For now I am taking advantage of these nights filled with howling dogs and honking horns to night-wean, as the noises help cover the sometimes terribly painful moments of protest (will blog tips on this process once it is successful). And I think Varanasi might just be the perfect place to toilet train (squatter toilets are the shnizzle for toilet training!) And considering all the other merits on the list above I think we will at least base here another month or two, but I’m not sure if Varanasi will remain our longterm home.
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4 Comments Varanasi, India, city for single moms and toddlers?

  1. Jenny

    Eve what an adventure enjoy your time there. Not sure about the toilet I guess ill have to see for myself someday. Good luck with night weaning, mine aren’t nursing anymore but I’m still getting up some nights for shepy

    Reply
    1. SMOTL

      Thanks sweet Jenny! I think you would love squatter toilets actually- did you read the health benefits article?
      and yeah, I’m sure post-night-weaning won’t equate to lifelong restful nights, esp. not during the teenage years! (aka finding my mom in my bed after a certain excursion.. poor lady, I’m sure she put the hex on me for that one!)
      A few nights a week of 7 hours plus could be incredible though. I hope Shepy grows out of it soon and gives you a break before Jannah hits the teen years (though I’m sure she will be perfect and you wont have anything to worry about!)

      Reply
  2. Karen

    As a stay-at-home mom who loves what I do yet dreams of the day I will be able to venture out into and travel the world a bit more, this blog is a dream come true! I’m loving your adventure, SMOTL…please keep them coming!

    Reply
    1. SMOTL

      Thanks Karen!! Now, if only I could write like you do! Just checked out Little House in America – what beautiful poetry and writing- inspiring.

      Reply

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