When creating our must-see list when first planning this trip, India was at the top. The combination of sacred cows, Bollywood, Hindu ceremonies and unlimited mango lassies seemed a recipe for heaven itself. A few years back, we attended a friend’s Indian wedding, and we still talk about how much fun we had and how incredibly welcoming and loving her extended family was. I was worried I’d never want to leave India.
However, ten days into our travels on the subcontinent, we were fighting the strong urge to leave as soon as possible.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have started with Kolkata. My grandfather Perkins traveled around the world many times as a merchant ship captain in the middle of the past century. He saw countless cities, yet according to my mother, after 40 years of exploring the globe, he thought Calcutta was the most over-crowded, desperate and dirty place he had ever seen. Looks like not much has changed in the past 70 years.
While on this trip, we’ve seen poverty. We’ve smelly stinky cities. We’ve had cab drivers rip us off. Yet somehow, all these things seemed far worse here. On our first day, we were completely shell-shocked. And this, after more than 9 months of world travel.
In Myanmar, people deal with horrendous living conditions, many imposed by the military junta. Yet the people remained welcoming and, aside from a few exceptions, people were kind. Sure, people stared at us. Mark’s 6 feet tall and blond. I have hair the color of an orangutan. We’re both pale as ghosts. When we caught people staring in disbelief, we’d smile, people would snap out of it and smile back, often with a giggle. Here in India, we’ve found that our smiles are returned by cold hard stares.
I tried to remain positive, and kept Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” playing in my head, hoping that things would improve. We thought that perhaps if we committed ourselves to helping people, even if only in small ways, we’d start to have better interactions. We filling our pockets with change each morning to doll out to the masses of destitute scattered in every city. We smiled at people we passed on the street. Yet things didn’t improve. So we wanted out.
When I started writing this blog entry last night, it felt like a laundry list of complaints. I felt guilty disliking a country I thought I’d love, especially one in which some dear friends‘ families still reside. I felt uneasy and confused and I snapped at Mark when he read it and shared his thoughts. So I closed the laptop and we went out to watch the evening puja, a ritual offering to the Hindu gods, at one of the main ghats (stone steps on the river bank on which pilgrims pray, give offerings and bathe in the Ganges).
Somehow, last night, something shifted. During the puja, I sat among a mass of hundreds of pilgrims and several fellow travelers, congregated on the ghat. Five Brahman holy men rang bells, chanted and made offerings to the river. Great puffs of grey smoke billowed from elaborate oil lamps they waved in the air, giving the atmosphere an otherworldly orange glow. Red banners snapped in the river breeze. Massive cows stood among the crowds, chewing cud and curling up to sleep as pilgrims milled around them. Wandering Sadhus dressed in saffron colored robes with their skin painted white and dread locks dangling behind them, wove in between people, wild-eyed and begging. The noise, the smoke, the smell, the people, it all blended together. It was an intensely vibrant and mystical event for me.
As we wandered home, I felt that I might be able to stay here a bit longer. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the smell. And I hope I don’t become immune to the tragedy of seeing children digging for food in piles of garbage. I think India will always feel outside of my comfort zone. Yet there is also a spirit here, a glimpse of which I got last night, that now has me yearning to see a bit more of this place.
The irony is that we head to Nepal tomorrow. One of the easiest ways to get to Katmandu is from Varanasi. So now that I’m starting to feel that I might be up to the challenge that is India, we’ll be leaving it for a while. Yet now there’s a desire to return, and I hope that enduring the difficulties that this country presents will be rewarded with moments like the one last night.