Hello, Varanasi.

21 January 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m trapped chest-deep in a snow drift at the bottom of a roadside ravine. The world, should it continue, shall have to send word via toboggan. My digestive system seems to be on holiday, yet still I eat the Varanasi tourist favorites, clogging the pipes. What little escapes is gas and slime.

Last night whilst returning to our hotel from the main ghat, my muscles and stomach ached to the point of immobilization. Couldn’t walk a hundred feet without a rest. Sick and stoned (I mistakenly thought a “mild” marijuana lassi from a street vendor would help my stomach – three sips of the half-pint drink put me out. Still, for thirty rupees…), I sat on a giant stone step and recalled my twenty-minute-old memory of Manikarnika, the Burning Ghat, cremation place of 200-300 bodies per day. 

We reached the shore well after dark, having lost the path of the pallbearers. They’d walked by the Blue Lassi Shop, where we waited for fruit curd, carrying bamboo stretchers with small corpses wrapped first in white, loose mummies, then oranges, yellows and reds adorned them, gold bangles and decor for the portal to heaven. Flame expectant.

Medieval towers. Darkness and firelight. Monkeys scaled the buildings. Music, from a celebration at  A crowd watched the bonfires, mostly from the stairs above. Some stood between the fire and the blackness of the sacred Ganges, its current slow and strong.

Bodies burned on ghat and rooftop, a quiet city sieged. The scent of burning flesh and sandalwood. Cow dung and masala. Three incandescent lights shone from the building at the top of the ghat. How the smoke must have tasted.

I peered into a face revealed by a lively flame: the white wrap quickly melted away from the head. Sick as I was, these bodies were of humans, small and decrepit elders most, or children. The hotelier Ricky’s words repeated, We Indians are happy to die. When you burn in Varanasi, you go straight to heaven. It’s beautiful.

I would not debate the beauty of the scene. It felt more however that I had stepped into some former century, one of the 3,500-year-old city’s elder days, that I was a traveler from a land where nothing was sacred, one whose people concentrated far more on cleanliness than life or death, and no one, really, was concerned with heaven.


himalaya haiku

12 January 2014 § Leave a comment

ice cold toes
birdsong & laughter
earthquakes’ heartbeat.

himalayan sunrise,
tourist tea & photographs,
abandoned home in shadow.

god left his epitaph
flapping in alpine winds,
now builds sand castles.

gentleman whispers
float from roof: Richard Cory
umbrella in hand.

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

3 January 2014 § 1 Comment

In Holy Cow, Sarah MacDonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years living in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two white people who seem “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town.

Sarah arrived in India in 1999, just before the turn of the century, and the last BIG Kumbh Mela (which occurs once every 144 years). MacDonald was the quintessential “spiritual tourist”; many chapters of ‘Holy Cow’ narrate her trips to visit gurus Amma in Kerala, and Sai Baba near Bangalore (modern buddhas, both with millions of followers); a venture to the Pakistan border to get the low-down on the Sikh faith, and to wash away her bad karma at Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River. On a trip to Dharamsala, MacDonald was audience to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and left the town a couple of days later having adopted both Buddhism and Jewish faith. Perhaps the most enlightening side-trip was a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which served as the gateway to a softer narrative tone in the book, and noted her increased compassion for even sleazy Indian men who stare at her relentlessly wherever she goes.

That was all nigh 14 years ago – years before I started traveling, and a few years after Leo DiCaprio in The Beach (a film adaptation of Alex Garland’s bestseller) was accused of revealing certain traveler secrets to the masses. Inspired American kids newly introduced to the concept of ‘gap year’ headed off for Koh Phangnan, Costa Rica, and an armful of other destinations the 90’s “ruined” by ever-cheaper plane tickets, an influx of international travel magazines hitting the market, and other privileged white kids needing to go find themselves (disclosure: the author is also of a Caucasian, male, middle-class, US-American-with-identity-issues heritage).

It could be said that narratives like MacDonald’s ‘Holy Cow’ and Garland’s ‘The Beach’ paved a path riddled with backpackers and dreadlocks from Western Civilization to the exotic world. By the time I was born in the mid-80’s, Thailand and Bali and South America were already popular backpacker routes. I cannot speak to what Costa Rica was like before I lived there in 2011; it was probably cheaper, a little more “third-world” (a label many ticos cling to, despite the saturation of universities in the capital, abundance of IT jobs, and a bursting tourism industry), and certainly less gringo.

I write this from Pokhara, Nepal, on my first journey to the Eastern Hemisphere, though not my first time in a darker-skinned country where most light-skinned people donning The North Face and Arc’Terex (when a t-shirt would do fine), seem oblivious to, or deliberately avoid, other white people. Travelers. Tourists. People whom, at home, they might connect with because Travel, for us, is an essential ingredient to Life. The very act of exploring other cultures can open the heart and mind in ways life without a passport cannot.

So, we (my wife, who definitely has a passport) are in Pokhara, a primary tourist town of Nepal, at the base of famed Mount Annapurna, and base camp to some of the best trekking routes in the world (at least, the old guys said it used to be that way). There are other travelers here. Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, French, English, Chinese. The list goes on. That doesn’t need to be said, but evidence suggests otherwise. We tend to not acknowledge each other while walking about the town. I am as guilty as any. I narrow my focus in search of “authentic cultural experiences,” in search of a long-lost place to which I am the first explorer. Maybe colonialism is genetic, and I carry the virus.

We have things in common, we white people. Not as much as the average Nepali might assume, but Pokhara is not where one goes to avoid other tourists. So be kind. Say hello. Maybe pick up some garbage from the lakeshore. If you’re really intent on straying from the backpacker/trekker route, it’s not difficult. Pick a random town on a map of rural Nepal, and take the local bus. Eat dal bhat, stop complaining about the daily power cuts, and learn useful phrases in the dialects. You’ll still stand out (some of us are “too tall for Nepal,” as our friend Josh says), and locals will probably still charge Westerner prices, but maybe they’ll cut a deal for a friend.

My wife decided to call on Ghandi’s wise cliché of being the change she wished to see. We walked along the shore trail, and she said hello to every westerner we passed. Virtually all of them replied with a smile and hello. Some with ‘Namaste.’ It doesn’t take much, I think, to change the world, no matter who you are, what color, or where you stand. Maybe that’s naïve.

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