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.
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.
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.
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 greeting “baby Ferdinand”
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.
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.
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.