After not quite meeting our goal of also achieving enlightenment, we moved onto Varanasi where we spent an entire week - nearly a record for us. Varanasi is without comparison. When I thought of India I now realize I thought of this city. It is claimed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, it is the city of Shiva (one of the most impertant Hindu gods) and is located on the Ganges River - this combination makes for a city with thousands of temples and a continual stream of pilgrims bathing in the river/raw sewage. It is belived that if a person dies and is cremated on the banks of the river, he will bypass reincarnation and attain union with the divine. For us, the sight of dead bodies and family members preparing for the funeral rites is not only somber but a bit eery, whereas for the people going through it, we were told it is a joyous occasion because the family knows that the deceased is being liberated. Regardless, a dead body wrapped in white cloth and covered in flowers and smoke is a stirring sight to behold. While in Varanasi we walked along the ghats - steps that lead from temples to the river - where our senses were endlessly engaged. The feeling of the paralyzing heat. The sight of the wandering holy men and brightly clad women making their pilgrimage to bathe in the holy waters. The sulfuric scent of those holy waters. The unending sound of boatmen luring us for a sunrise boat ride. And the taste...I think it is a good thing that I cannot associate a taste with this experience!
Aside from its historical and spiritual aspects, one of the greatest parts of being in Varanasi was meeting Nandan, the founder of an NGO that works to bring sexual health, mainly AIDS, education to high school aged children in a country where the discussion of sex is taboo and the number of AIDS cases has recently outpaced that of Africa (really!). We met him as we were interested in volunteering some time to his cause and in the process were welcomed into his home, provided with great conversation, and invited to a girls summer camp 'graduation' where we were made guests of honor. The summer camp was a program for local girls in a small village outside of the city that taught them some basic skills in handicrafts (okay) and computers (really good!) that would enable them to become financially independent. The girls performed dances for us and gave us paintings, jewelry, and candles they had made - a very touching and insightful experience that we were fortunate to be a part of.
Slightly related to the ever-popular discussion of the role of women in society is the conduct of Indian men. One can never make blanket statements about a group of people, but it seems that the men of India have made a reputation for themselves - they stare a bit more than makes us comfortable and seem to have a rather strong fascination with foreign women. As per usual, we make our mothers proud with our prudent choices coupled with our alibis regarding husbands working in Delhi. Our responsible behavior led us to do the safest thing possible for Saturday night entertainment - a night at the mall! Malls are the same all over the world. There might be a cow lying in the street with charcoal around its eyes to protect it from the evil eye, but there will definitely be frozen yogurt and teeny boopers - without a doubt. Our objective in going to the mall was to see a movie and the movie we saw for a cool 100 rupees each (2 dolla) honestly delivered in everyway a movie could - singing, dancing, a love story, psychic abilities, dismantling bombs, matrix-like fighting, dream sequences in familiar New Zealand scenery - all the pageantry I am just learning to expect from Bollywood. Yes, it was in Hindi, but I think I can still vouch for it being a work of cinematic excellence even though we were consistently laughing apart from the rest of the audience.
Today we spent our last day in Varanasi at a yoga class which seemed rather appropriate seeing as Shiva created both yoga and this city. The class was Jess, me, and the teacher aka Jess's biggest fan. We began with some standard sun salutation series and various other poses when the yogi abruptly decides that we can do those poses when we are in the States and instead we would work on some breathing techniques to help align our chakras, improve our practice, and eventually unite us with the greater consciousness of the universe. All right, sounds like a plan. Then she demonstrates 'fire breathing' for us in which her belly moves in and out like the graphing of a soundwave and her breath sounds like an old radiator heating up. I almost fainted from all the breathing. Maybe that was what took me off of the spiritual plane or instead perhaps the blowing of the conch-shell-made-of-my-hands action. Fast forward to the end of class: the teacher is telling Jess she possesses a lot of white light around her and the placement of Jupiter means that spirituality is very integral in her life whereas the moon is strong for me which indicates that I am an intellectual who thinks too much and for whom money will never be a problem. I may not be on my way to nirvana, but at least I have money in the bank (astrologically speaking).
The images shown below (hopefully) are of a sadhu, holy men who wander between holy Hindu sites; young girls dancing at their summer camp party taken from our perspective as the guests of honor on stage; the gifts we received from the girls; and Jess being assisted by some kindly cobblers in the repair of yet another bag.
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