Saturday, June 07, 2003

Hello again.

I seem to be writing a bit out of synch at the mo. I'm now in Calcutta, but first need to write about varanasi... ok, here goes...

Varanasi is one of india's most spiritual places. It's situated on the banks of the river ganges, and the whole length of the town has ghats (steps leading down to the water) where everyone goes to have a holy bathe in the holy water. Apparently, bathing in this holy ganges water will purify your soul. Because it's so holy here, it is india's number one place to die. people come from all over the country, and even the world, to die here. Apparantly, if you are cremated here, you automatically go straight to Nirvana without any of the hassles normally assosiated with death like re-incarnation, karma etc etc. It's like arriving to the airport on your way to the states and being told that your criminal record has been wiped and you've been bumped up to business class...

It's so poular in fact, that lots of people come here a few years before they are actually due to expire, in order to spend the last few years of their lives begging to get enough money to burn their own bodies.... You see wood is very expensive, and the human body takes 3-4 hours to burn, so thats quite a lot of wood.....

The cremation Ghats here are much more raw than the ones in katmandu. Instead of the nice stone alters, the fires are just lit on the ground by the water's edge and there's a veritable production line.. or should I say destruction line going on.

Varanasi is also a poular hangout for Sadhus, or babas as they are sometimes known. Babas are people on an individual quest for enlightenment. they survive by begging for alms and denounce all material possesions. John, the american, was telling me about some of the babas he saw when he was here for the Kumb Mela a few years back, which is the biggest gathering of humanity in the world... (I think about 80 million people).... Here's a few examples: One baba had been holding his right arm in the air for 17 years. One baba had "rolled" (forward rolls) all the way there from Bombay (1000's of km's). One woman buried herself for 3 days. The list goes on..... sounds fun!

But anyway, Varanasi was too hot. The only time it was really possible to move was for 2 hours in the morning (5-7) and 3 hours in the evening (4-7). I did get about a little bit tho, with the help of Rustom, my faithful rickshaw driver and his son who remained nameless despite doing all the pedalling. Rustom became my guide after i tried to take his rickshaw to the train station to get a ticket. After showing me a few scraps of paper with "recommendations" for him written by other tourists, he proceeded to offer me just about every imaginable service I could think of. To be honest I didn't really need anything, but the sight of him was enough to make me come up with some "needs" to keep him busy... His cheeks were so sunken that it looked like you could easily have fitted two golf balls in the depressions they made. His arms and legs were like matchsticks. He kept telling me "i am poor man but rich inside". I'm assuming he was talking about his heart and soul, as his actual "insides" were unquestionably as poor as his outsides, which they kept threatening to join every few minutes when he was racked by a coughing fit. Luckily he was not doing the pedalling, but sitting beside me and trying to come up with new things I might like to spend my money on. I kept him for most of the day and gave him what i thought was a pretty hefty tip. But it's so sad, because even my hefty tip was only enough to buy medicine for about 2 days, and what's the use of that?

The next day I met Rustom again, and again found a reason to use him. I asked him to take me to a place where i could get a packed lunch made up for my train ride, and he said he knew just the place, so we set off once again with his son at the pedals. I bought him lunch at the restaurant, and as i sat opposite him at that table I couldn't help but feel guilty. It's so easy to hide from the reality of poverty here, by simply detatching yourself from the people who are suffering. Instead you worry that the rickshaw driver is overcharging you by 10 rupees and behave indignant at the prospect of being ripped off. Somehow your eyes look through the emaciated body of the man in question, or some pathetic yet stubborn part of your brain convinces you that he, and the children in rags on the street, are deliberately looking like that to make you feel guilty. You find comfort in fellow travellers who are not about to make you feel guilty with there obvious need for help... But ultimately, whether the beggers are being controlled by a begger master, or the rickshaw driver is overcharging you, there's no avoiding the fact that all of those people are desperately struggling to make enough rupees to buy a bowl of rice at the end of the day, and that's the thing that we westerners just find it too depressing to accept.

So anyway, yes, i felt guilty sitting opposite Rustom, not for anything i had done, but for everything i was not prepared to do. Yes i'd given him 120 rupees instead of 20, but why not give him a 1000? Why not 2000? After all, it's only 25 quid.... But once you start thinking like that India becomes an impossible place to be, as almost everyone you meet in your normal day to day life is in a situation not dissimilar to Rustom's. Everyone needs a handout, everyone needs your cash. So what's the solution? One possibility is to join Mother Teresas Missionaries of Charity and wash a few lepers. This has an almost instant purging effect on your guilt from what i've heard, and allows you to ignore beggers with impunity.... ;) But then who are you doing it for? the benefit of the leper or benefit of your own conscience? I guess it doesn't really matter, as long as the leper gets washed.

So, in conclusion, I didn't give Rustom 2000 rupees, but at the same time i didn't try to cheat him of the few rupees he deserved. I dont intend to join Mother teresa and wash lepers, but i do intend to continue giving small amounts to random people who look like they need it, just as i would in the UK. And if I start to feel guilty again, i'll come in here and moan about it until i feel better.... :)

Right, i got a bit sidetracked there. I'm in Calcutta now, after a fairly pleasant train ride (interpret "pleasant" as "screaming adults, hyper kids, food fights, sweltering heat, stomach cramps..).

I arrived this morning at about 7am. First i tried a hotel recommended by a girl from the train. The only single room thay had was like a prison cell, only not as nice. I gave it a miss, and headed for the Salvation Army Guesthouse. I asked to be shown the dorm beds and was pointed in one direction. I walked through a door and did a double take. I thought i had accidentally walked into mother Teresa's Hospice for the dying. It was a crumbling, long and narrow old room with about 7 iron framed beds sqeezed in against the walls. The occupants of the beds looked in desperate need of medical attention, and i really expected to see nuns walking amongst the beds and mopping brows whilst telling everyone that God loved them... It was a horrible sight. For some reason i decided to stay. I guess I just had to be able to say i stayed in a dorm. As I moved my bag in and sat on my bed, not one person in the room looked up or made the slightest acknowlegement of my presence. Everone looked as if they were too deep in the contemplation of their own suicides to say hello. I then had my first dilemma of dorm life. Do i leave my valuables in the room or take them into the shower with me? Opting for the wet cash approach i headed into the shower, feeling very conspicuous with my "I don't trust you guys" day-pack slung over my shoulder. In the shower the owners had obviously anticipated I might try this and so had removed anything that could be used as a hanging hook from the walls and created an inch deep puddle on the floor. However, by balancing my bag on the toilet i finally managed to take a shower....

anyway, that's enough blogging to write a book!


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