“Under the gaze of the angels, a spectacle like he’s never seen. Spinning lights and faces, demon music and gypsy queens.” -N. Peart, from “Carnies”
“Life will be so boring when I get home” I thought to myself after spending nearly a month immersed in the craziness of India, an experience that is the polar opposite from my otherwise mundane, vanilla existence.
We eased ourselves into the subcontinent via Dubai, landing in the relatively tame city of Delhi, greeted by pollution that obscures the sun and makes Beijing feel like crisp mountain air. I’ve never been a smoker, but sucking handfuls of Marlboros continuously would have been healthier than this thick smog we were choking into our lungs. After a few days of adjusting to this new “air” and the twelve hour time difference, we hopped a short domestic flight to Hindu Ground Zero, the holy city of Varanasi, with a lovely hacking cough as our souvenir from Delhi, a gift that would linger for the remainder of the trip.
Arriving into town, the traffic is utterly fascinating. “Oh look, there’s a cow in the street!” The cow fascination lasted all of about ten seconds before the terror of “watch out for the cow!” set in. Try as I might, it was impossible to capture the traffic experience in a photo, so let me attempt to paint it with words:
“Absolutely no concept of lanes, traffic flows as a solid mass in a directional free-for-all. Motorcycles with as many as four passengers constantly jockeying for position between and actually touching the adjacent cars, filling every conceivable millimeter of space. Rickshaws and buses stuffed well beyond capacity, with every inch of roof space occupied as well. Pedestrians engaged in a dangerous game of human Frogger, pushing carts of anything and everything you can imagine, stacked in quantities that defy the laws of physics. Horns blaring so constantly that it becomes a singular drone of endless noise, amid the menagerie of animals walking between the traffic and lying along the side of the road. Pushy vendors trying to sell you whatever in the middle of it all, with gangs of persistent kids banging on the windows in desperate hope of a few rupees. Dust, diesel, guys openly urinating on the side of the road, and hotter than hell to boot. Sheer chaos squeezed so tightly together that it forms a living organism with a mind of its own.”
Funny thing is, it works, and I enjoyed every second of it. The sheer spectacle of it all.
Mark Twain once said “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Varanasi is India with the volume distorting on eleven, and the River Ganges running through it, as holy as it may be, is just short of an open, festering sewer. Yet the hordes of devout Hindus bathe, wash clothes and even drink from it.
The most surreal sight for Westerners has to be the open crematoriums along its banks or “ghats” with their fires burning nonstop, breaking the endless cycle of rebirth for some three hundred followers each and every day, their ashes (and everything else) flowing into the waters of the Goddess Ganga, achieving liberation or Moksha in the process. It was amazing watching this unfold. Stretchers of white linen wrapped bodies adorned with orange magnolias forming a constant parade to the river, lining up “on deck” along the banks while their families negotiate with the untouchables for firewood, and beginning a laundry list of rituals to begin the cremation process.
Navigating narrow alleyways among the living and the dead, it takes a while to accept the reality of it all. Sensory overload of sights, smells, smoke, fire, poverty, unimaginable filth, horrific open air butcher shops, hypnotic chanting, mind-numbing amounts of people trying to sell you junk and a heartbreaking treatment of animals among sweltering heat and humidity, all the time, all at once and with no apologies. Oh, and that macaque just stole your cell phone.
Seems like everyday was some “auspicious” occasion, bringing droves of pilgrims to this river or that temple to honor this god or that god, resulting in a carnival-like atmosphere, with the most interesting and colorful of all carnies presiding over the festivities. They were as fascinated with us as we were of them, and we (especially Sheri) got constant requests for selfies. Fun at first, this new found “fame” wore out its welcome quickly, and I became more sensitive about sticking my own camera in peoples faces, resorting to asking first with a handful of rupees, or stealthily sneaking shots via telephoto lenses. Indians are by far the most resourceful and friendly people that we’ve encountered on our travels, so most were fine, and even excited to be photographed.
Leaving Varanasi with an obligatory stop in Agra to see the spectacular marble masterpiece Taj Mahal, we continued on to Jaipur to visit Galta Ji, the areas infamous monkey temple. An out of the way mountain ruin devoted to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, it is overrun by troops of Rhesus macaques and Langurs. Hindu chanting resonating from the temple provided the soundtrack for this dirty yet amazing place. I felt oddly at home here, and enjoyed communing with its hordes of simian residents. I was born in the Year of the Monkey after all.
In between Jaipur and our next stop of Pushkar, is a massive stone working sector devoted to sandstone and marble, the same marble used for the Taj Mahal. The most stone industry billboards I’ve ever seen along the highway leads to literally two miles of small stone shops, one after another. Easily at least a thousand independent stone businesses. And this isn’t even the main stone sector in India, which is more centralized in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
In Pushkar, we attended the annual camel fair, a traditional Rajasthan mela. More camels than you can count, with the whole dusty spectacle on over drive. It was here that Sheri and I took the perhaps ill-advised offer to ride an Indian Ferris wheel. In this country they make do with what they have, and their carnival attractions are no exception. Rickety to say the least, it moved shockingly fast with absolutely no safety restraints or even gates on the individual swinging cars. Hang on for dear life was more than a mere expression in this case, and I found myself starting to believe Sheri’s cries of “We’re gonna die!” The ride was unusually long, prolonging the inevitable sense of demise, and the faster it ran, the more shaky it became. We were honestly terrified.
Cheating death, we both walked off the ride with our feet never happier to feel Mother Earth beneath us. Bucket list item #254, ride and survive an Indian Ferris wheel. Check.
We spent a week or so exploring the state of Kerala in Southern India. Much more civilized than its northern counterparts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, but also less exciting as the result. Here the carnival atmosphere is replaced by natural beauty, with the Seussian-like tea fields stealing the show. Endless rolling hills of puffy, vivid green, accented by black granite boulders and the occasional elephant and waterfall, it is one of the most beautiful, yet surreal landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Another highlight of this area are the Kerala backwaters, a maze of low-lying waterways cutting through jungle and rice paddies, and the close proximity to the Maldives, just a short hour flight away, where we recuperated from the previous insanity and celebrated our 25th anniversary in the land of a thousand screen-savers.