Travels with George: India Week 1

After a hellish 42-hour journey, my wife Paula and I made it to Delhi. The contrasts here are mind-blowing. On our way to the hotel, we passed four men outside a McDonalds extracting earwax from passers-by for 25¢ an ear. On one street, we encountered a mosque, Baptist church, Sikh temple and Hindu shrine, along with a tobacco store selling upscale cigars and a man out front selling betel nut and tobacco leaf concoctions. Our guide is from the poorest state in India, Bihar, and his village had no electricity or running water. He was given a scholarship to come to Delhi as a teenager and is now a very well read member of India’s middle class, who all own cars, buy appliances and computers, and want a developed country lifestyle.

It is hard to comprehend the sheer number of people, flowing like a river; natives, foreigners, black, brown, white, young and old, holy men and beggars, intermixed with cars, pedicabs, scooters, bicycles, cattle, goats and mangy dogs. The air is thick with smoke and incense, blending with pungent smells…some good, many bad, along with noise and chaos, yet no sense of threat.

Located on the western side of the holy river Ganges, Varanasi is said to be the oldest living city in the world – more than 3,000 years of constant existence and the site of Hindu and Buddhist purification for centuries. After nearly an hour of walking through narrow dark alleys throbbing with energy from open markets, food stalls, small temples, flower sellers and the ever-present cows and buffalo, we arrived at the river. The city forms a long crescent along the Ganges and hundreds of steps lead to the water. During festival time there are literally millions of Hindi filling these areas called “ghats” which serve two functions: access to the holy water of the Ganges and as common open area crematoria. Hundreds of funeral pyres were burning all along the five-mile crescent. We entered a ghat massed with thousands of worshippers and tourists for the evening ceremonies. The steps were teeming with humanity…in the water, hundreds of primitive wooden boats filled with observers.

What followed was a magical mix of music, bells, chants, incense, and ceremonial dancing and singing. Paula and I gently placed a marigold petal cup with a single votive candle into the water, a tradition that includes a private wish. Once the ceremony finished we re-entered the human river to return to our hotel. From our pedicabs (a rickshaw/bicycle combo) above we noticed more details in the mass of humanity below, in particular that the crowd seemed to be focused on a strange otherworldly figure, a 5’10” blonde. It seems Paula is a combination not normally found in Varanasi.

The food has been surprisingly tasty and spicier than we expected, but in a positive way. Naan is done a myriad of ways, all deliciously different, and the Indian sauvignon blanc is quaffable.