After my last post, I am afraid you may think me a shallow person. Or an overly chirpy one (nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, if someone called me chirpy I consider it an insult). I wrote of the colors, the marigolds, the friendly smiles of India and how all of this mended my broken heart.
And all of that was true, but here is another truth – much of India was also heartbreaking in its own way. I did see the other side, the darkness, the poverty and the stark contrast when we arrived at a station in the morning.
All aboard the luxury train, stared at like royalty, honored but not befriended. We had a red carpet rolled out for us next to people who were sleeping in the station, enjoyed our morning coffee while people were trying to catch glimpses of us in the reflecting windows, watched the everchanging landscape of hills, animals, and people squatting in the open to do their business.
India is full of contrasts. Joy and sorrow, light and dark, colors and grey. There were chocolates that were put on our pillow every night and the kids fighting over them when we wanted to share them. There was splendor next to poverty and once we got to Varanasi there was life right next to death. All of it part of the same wonderful country, two sides of the same medal, and as a visitor all you can decide – take it or leave it. India is all or nothing.
Having lived in a country like South Africa I know the discrepancy all too well. There are so many riches next to so many poor, often just a short road away but if you make a proper effort you may just able to ignore it and just enjoy your holiday. Play golf, drink Chardonnay, and have your biggest worry be a too reddish tan.
I am not condoning that and neither am I condemning it. I like to think that many countries who depend on tourism money will benefit even from those kinds of tourists. But I do applaud those who at least try to go beyond.
In India, you will have to because the lines are so much more blurred than in South Africa. The contrast is starker and it usually comes in a tiny shape with big eyes – puppies or children left to their own devices. Do they choose this life? And Indian friend tells me so but I think sometimes choices just seem like choices, they are a non-choice, a simple this or die.
I should just add at this point that I am not writing this post to point fingers, to offer solutions and definitely not to turn people off visiting India. I just wanted to share my observations, good and bad, no judgment because I think a traveler should know. India is not Lion, is not Slumdog Millionaire but it is a little four-year-old out in the dark on the ghats of Varanasi, selling flower-rimmed candles to strangers. It is an old man telling ‘his kids’ which foreigner to approach at the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri. One of the kids had a black eye. It is a little boy praising his wares in six languages and a young girl asking me for my lipstick.
What they have in common? No shoes, those big eyes, and their ability to render me speechless. Is it guilt, my desire to help and know that any help will be inadequate, the gutwrenching feeling that even just some of the stories I have read and heard are real?
Is that all of India? No, of course not but it is part thereof. A part I was prepared for and still never saw coming. The opposite of all the marigolds and all the bright smiles.
My friend Brent was getting into an argument with someone on Twitter for living the high life on our beautiful train while being surrounded by the country’s poverty. Rightfully so he remarked that tourists, luxury travelers and backpackers alike, bring jobs and money.
Are you a better traveler when you take a chicken bus instead of a nice train? I think to each there own but still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty whenever I saw kids begging and people sleeping in the train station next to our red carpet and wondered if I would feel slightly less so had taken a public train.
Arriving in Varanasi was a highlight for many of us. A city that is older and holier than most. Think of Jerusalem and you will understand just how important this city is for devout Hindus. We boarded a boat at sunset and rode down the Gangagi, the river Ganges. The river that Hindus try to visit at least once in their lives to wash their sins away. The lucky ones come to Varanasi to die and be cremated here, ashes strewn over the river. A great privilege because it means to break the daunting cycle of reincarnation.
From the boat we can see the shore with the cremation sites, fires burning bright, a few shrouded shapes on the floor – bodies patiently awaiting their turn. Mourners in the distance, struggling between joy for their deceased to die right here and sorrow for their loss.
Or so I would imagine. We look on from the distance as do countless other boats. We can’t get very close as our boat is too big and we are told that we wouldn’t be able to take pictures getting closer in any case. Respect towards the mourners is in order. I don’t feel very respectful because I too snap my pictures, a few meters more or less doesn’t seem to make a difference, I cannot stop staring, my camera doesn’t stop clicking. A morbid fascination has come over me. What looks like a very well made movie set is real fire, real people burning. Am I just imagining the smell of flesh in my nose?
My group all around me seems deeply moved and I question what is wrong with myself. I just feel confused, like a paparazzi I only mourn that I haven’t brought my zoom lens.
We move on, up the river where just a few hundred meters further the Ganga Aarti is about to start. A daily evening ritual to give thanks to mother Ganges and to say goodnight to her. A lovely thought. The crowd is big and again it is hard to tell who is a mere spectator and who is here to actually give thanks to an invisible river god.
I feel a bit disheartened. I was looking for enlightenment in Varanasi but all I see is a spectacle and all I am leaving with are more questions. I am trying to make sense of all I have seen in India and that night. The kids fighting over our chocolates and a river which according to our guide is definitely not full of dead bodies as some are concerned. There are no river dolphins anymore either though, they have all left.
My friends all seem to have epiphanies about life and death, the symbioses and the contrast of it all, and I feel nothing but envy. My friend Nikki has written beautifully about her experience of Varanasi (her website has crashed but I will link to it soonest!) and while her words have moved me deeply, I wonder if we have been on different trips entirely because my emotions mirror none of hers.
We get a candle to put in the river and of course, we can make a wish and if we keep it secret it may just come true. Holy Ganges and all. I too make a wish, willing it to come true, believing in it. A strange emotion because when I think of Varanasi now I see a movie set and I see a little four-year-old on the river bank who I dare not look in the eyes lest the guilt may break my heart all over again.
After we return on the train, I share a pretty picture of myself on Facebook and get the first truly nasty comment ever (I guess that means I have made it, right? I got a hater!). An Indian woman is basically calling me an ignorant tourist, someone who has covered a tiny glimpse of a country and seen nothing at all. Her tone is offensive and condescending and I shut her down. But deep down I am afraid that she is right. What do I know about India? I listened to all of our guides, to my Indian friends, to the local news and still, I can’t make sense of it all, have no solutions, no words.
And maybe that is the way the world works. In India, just like anywhere else, everybody has an agenda and everybody has their own truth. And that truth comes with joy and sorrow, with riches and in poverty, with dead bodies and with river dolphins.
The Maharajas Express stops for one day in Varanasi and you will visit the Sarnath ruins, a silk weaving center as well as take a Ganges river cruise (for a lack of better word).
As I mentioned for many in my group it was a truly moving and memorable experience. As far as I am concerned, I would like to come back here and see it all again. With some locals, from different angles, from the thick of it.
I don’t think it is Varanasi’s job to move me, to give me that epiphany but at least I like to try to learn more about it. And dear lady with the rude comment, I take your words as an invitation to Swargdwar and I gladly accept – always happy to see and explore more!
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