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BATIK ART BY JONATHAN S. EVANS
Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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INDIA (1988-1989)

 

 

We flew on United Air Emirates via Dubai to New Delhi on November 14th. I can honestly say that it was the most pleasant and luxurious flight that I have ever taken. The service was impeccable, everything was free and the food was Asian and excellent. We had a twenty four-hour stopover in Dubai. We were driven in a Mercedes car through a modern cinderblock town that seemed to have been built on top of a desert, to our five star "Excelsior Hotel". We only got a fleeting look at modern Arabia and couldn't see much of the old. The Excelsior was comfortable and we managed to take full advantage of all of its facilities. In the afternoon, we found ourselves sitting out by a huge pool under a bright sun and a lot of curious eyes. Catherine kept her clothes firmly on. There was a bad cabaret show to watch at night with music from an all-girl pop band from the Philippines. The audience was made up solely of Arabic men who were drinking heavily. We couldn't help but comment on the fact that the only women we saw uncovered were Philippine waitresses and entertainers. All the local women wore what seemed to us to be bizarre fitted leather masks with small openings to see and eat by. It made both of us feel rather uncomfortable. We were hanging out with a rather mysterious English traveler called Phil by this time, whom I surmised was on a quest of some kind. He was also on his way to Delhi and seemed to know the ropes a little. Our flight left at two forty five in the morning and we finally touched down in India in the early morning several meals later after a sleepless night.

Two things happened at the Airport that prepared us a little for what lay ahead. After clearing Customs and Immigration, I went to the Airport Bank to change some pounds into rupees. I was amused, then amazed and finally exasperated by the process, which took at least half an hour. I was passed from bank teller to bank teller, had to fill in at least six forms giving details like the names and ages of my father and mother and finally ended up at the end of the line in front of the cashier. He gave me my thousands and thousands of rupees from a huge wad of notes that were stapled together with dozens of staples. He had a lot of trouble detaching my notes, which were riddled with holes when I got them. The whole experience of changing money would have been rather funny had it not been so terribly time consuming. I had been told stories about Indian bureaucracy. This was one of the legacies of the British Raj and I had heard that India was a nation of clerks. But to see it in action was another matter. I supposed that all the notes were stapled together to prevent theft but I couldn't imagine what my fathers place of birth had to do with anything. I couldn't even remember where he had been born actually and had to make that up on the forms. Privately I decided that I would try changing money on the Black Market next time.

Phil, Catherine and I decided to skip the bus and to take a taxi into town from the Airport. So we bought a taxi ticket from the official bureau by the Airport exit and walked out into the bright light of the street pushing our bags ahead of us on carts. As we got outside, two smiling Indians appeared, one on either side of us, took our ticket and steered us to the left, across the road and to a parked car. They took our bags from us, threw them into the trunk of the car and helped us into the back of the car. Suddenly two or three more men appeared and started to get into the car on either side of us. At that point, we all finally reacted and forced our way out of the car, pushed the men aside, grabbed our bags and were suddenly free again. This had obviously been a scam and the real taxis were waiting on the other side of the road. These guys were trying to take advantage of us in our tired and confused state. We didn't have any real sensation of physical danger for we were probably stronger than they were and I doubt that they would have tried to do anything but pressure us for money. But the experience was a great lesson and I was glad that we had had it right at the start of our travels. This was a world where anything could happen and we had to stay alert and on our toes. As relatively rich Westerners in an incredibly poor country, we would be constant targets. We had to learn to be ready to deal with these kinds of situations at any time.

None of which prepared us for the taxi ride into the old city of New Delhi. For a start, our young taxi driver had to push-start his ancient vehicle to get it going. He had no idea how to get to Paharganj or Main Street, which was surely one of the oldest and best known parts of the city, situated right next to the main train station. So we directed him, using the map that we found in the "Lonely Planet Guide to India" book that we'd bought at Foyle's in London. We had been advised to stay at a medium priced hotel at Connaught Place in the center of the city when we first arrived. But somewhere along the way, perhaps encouraged by Phil, the mysterious veteran Indian traveler, we decided to jump right into it all straight away and to stay at the Vishal Hotel which a couple of people had mentioned to us. At first our ride from the airport was slow but interesting. The question was merely whether the taxi would break down or not. Soon we were driving down densely crowded back streets, dodging around other cars, three wheeled rickshaws, bicycles, indolent cows, thousands upon thousands of people and a whole series of apparently insurmountable obstacles. I had the sensation that we were descending into a spiraling labyrinth in which all the streets became smaller and narrower as we continued. Our journey seemed to become more and more finite as we persisted onwards. It seemed inevitable that we would eventually run into an obstacle of some kind and would not be able to get through. All that happened in reality is that we had to jump out of the taxi and jump-start it again periodically. The noise from the streets was intense and the smells of spicy foods, cow dung, incense and something else indefinable attacked my nose, throat and eyes. It was a breathtaking experience and an incredible introduction to India, especially for Catherine who had never left the relatively familiar terrain of America or Europe before.

Somehow, against all odds, we arrived at the Vishal Hotel, which was terribly dirty, and ramshackled with a mixture of crumbling Sixties' tack and Oriental rabbit warren decor and ambiance. At first we were given a temporary room with access to a communal squat toilet and a non-functioning shower. It was incredibly filthy with stained sheets on a lumpy bed. I suppose that we were both a little dismayed. But later that day, another room became vacant. I awoke poor Catherine, who was desperately trying to catch up on her sleep and we moved up to the top floor. The room here was pretty dirty too but marginally nicer and had windows opening out onto the Main Bazaar below and access to a roof balcony.

We made one very spaced-out expedition down onto the street and ran straight into a young Chinese-Canadian guy called Tai. We had met him when we had both bought the same Indian guide book in Foyle's and had chatted with him for a couple of minutes back in London a few weeks before. For the next months on the trail in India, we were to find ourselves meeting the same people over and over again. We walked down the street through the crush of people and bikes and cows to the Railway Station and had a little look around. This was a strange alien world although perhaps not so different to souk markets that I had seen in Morocco. The street was narrow and both sides were lined with tiny stalls and shops selling anything from silk to clothes to books to food. People walked up and down on both sides of the road with vehicles pushing through continually, honking their horns wildly. There was an immediate sensation that anything might happen and one had to abandon the concept of private individual space at once. Indeed, apart from the dirt and debris everywhere, that is the first thing that the traveler has to deal with in India. For some people, India was a shocking experience. I had heard stories of westerners coming to India for a holiday and turning round and flying out the following day. There were so many people per square foot that jostling and continual physical contact with strangers was inevitable. Jean Paul Sartre's phrase "Hell is other people" came immediately to mind. We broke one of the cardinal rules that we had made when we first arrived, which was never to drink an unboiled drink. In our fatigued and disoriented state, we bought fruit juice from a stand opposite the hotel. We'd read and heard about so many people contracting dysentery from drinking unboiled water or contaminated juices. We were lucky that first time and never broke the rule again on any of our travels. I woke up later in the middle of the night in a panic realizing what we had done and gulped down a bunch of wildly inappropriate medicines that I'd just bought at a nearby Pharmacy. Fortunately, the Gods of the Road were with us.

Phil had moved on that first night after spending the day resting up in our room. A sweet, gentle man, he finally revealed what I had already guessed, that he was a follower of Raj Neesh who was very unpopular in India by then. Phil was on his way to the ashram in Poona near Bombay. He had slipped into the country through Delhi so as not to draw attention to his real destination. We never saw him again and hoped that he found what he was looking for out there.

Catherine went off to sleep early on our first night in India but I went down again and bought candles, incense and a map. Then I sat up late on the balcony listening to new tapes that I'd bought in the duty-free shop in Dubai and watched the scene down below me. I was hypnotized by the apparent anarchy of the sight below, the packed streets, the endless freaks, holy men and hustlers, beggars and children. People defecated in wide-open public toilets, shops were doing business until late into the night, new vendors set up their wares on the street continually. I saw some of the most beautiful men and women I'd ever seen. I had to drag myself from my vantage point on the roof to try and get some sleep for there was only so much new information that the mind could deal with. My initial fascination with India has stayed with me through further travels and many more countries and I continue to marvel at both its beauty and its alien culture.

I remember that I slept very badly that first night at the Vishal. In fact I seem to think that I slept badly every night that we spent at that fleabag hotel. I was jet-lagged and over-excited and that rock hard mattress covered with those mysterious stains wasn't really conducive to any deep relaxation. Each day started early, as the sun rose over the city at the same time as the cowdung fires started to spread their smoke like a veil across the hazy skyline. That was the mysterious smell that I noticed on our initial entry into the old part of the city, I realized. The sacred cows, which wandered freely through the streets, provided the fuel that heated a million Delhi cooking pots every day. The family living on the roof across from the hotel started to stir themselves at the same time I did and sat huddled together in the same dazed state that I found myself in. When Catherine woke up a little later, we went down to the street to a little restaurant and ate a breakfast of porridge sprinkled with some kind of spices and drank cups of chai, sweet tea boiled with milk. Catherine was fascinated and horrified by the swarms of flies all around the kitchen but screwed up her courage and ate her breakfast anyway. As we sat there in the depths of the cafe and looked out into the bright light of the street, an elephant plodded slowly by. Yes, this was India all right.

We had decided to leave India from Bombay rather than Delhi and so walked along to Connaught Place where all the airline offices were located. It was a bit further than we had realized and walking around the crowded noisy streets was pretty tiring. We resolved to use rickshaws in the future. Connaught Place was a huge multi-ringed circle in the center of the city with streets radiating out from it. The area was a lot more uptown than Main Bazaar and was full of banks and office buildings of all kinds. By the time we had found the Air Emirates office and changed our return flight tickets, we were both nearly swooning from fatigue and stress. We stopped at a restaurant and ate a really good hot curry and soon revived.

We cruised the many clothes shops on Janpath Road and found one selling buffalo hide sandals which we both liked a lot. I stood outside on the street watching Catherine try on shoes when suddenly I felt hands clutching at my legs. I looked down and saw this really beautiful young man, clinging to me with one hand and begging for money with the other. Both his feet were missing. In that moment the gross inequality of our lives, Catherine and I here in Delhi shopping for shoes while this poor cripple was begging for money, hit me like a hammer on my head. Actually, since then I've seen him many times begging outside that sandal shop. He definitely knows what he's up to and probably lives quite well off the tourists' guilt. But in that instant I found the situation intolerable. I grabbed a surprised Catherine and fled with her down the street with the beggar swinging along behind us on his hands. We had to almost literally run away to escape from that determined pursuer. Later I told Catherine how terribly upset I had felt. She agreed with me that the disparity between our lives and those of most Indians was hard to deal with. But she also pointed out that wealth and happiness weren't in anyway synonymous and that we had no way of telling what kind of life the beggar had. It was obviously a crippling loss to be without feet but perhaps he had a fabulously loving and complete family life. We couldn't begin to gauge the quality of his existence, which might in fact be much better than ours. What she said helped me. As we continued to travel through India and saw more cripples, crushing poverty and disease everywhere, it would have been impossible for me to continue our trip without bearing this perspective in mind.

We spent the next couple of days exploring our strange new world and swiftly got into the habit of leaping into and out of the rickshaw taxis to get around the city. Of course we still did a lot of walking but had learnt not to overdo it and to take refuge in the rickshaws from time to time. Catherine got her sandals finally and I bought a fine leather money belt, our magic "talisman" belt in which I carried our cash, passports and tickets. I always wore it under my shirt out of sight. Without the contents of that belt we would have been truly lost and so it seemed to take on powers of its own. From then on, we both became very careful and never let the belt out of our sight. So far we've never lost anything in all our travels.

We discovered the vast Underground Market at Connaught Place and explored it. It was a good place to find cheap cassette tapes and music from all over the world. It was shaped like Connaught Place with concentric circular walkways packed with shops of every description which were linked by radiating passages. On our third day in Delhi, we knew that it was time to plan our next move. Following the advice that an Ibiza friend had given us in London, we took a rickshaw uptown to the Kashmir Gate Bus Station to find out about buses to NainiTal, an old hill station northeast of Delhi. It was a long ride and on that side of the city the traffic was really crazy. I wondered if the rickshaw driver was deliberately taking us way out of our way as his meter whirred on. Catherine and I were both feeling a bit faint from lack of food and water. She reacted by becoming slow and passive while I became tense and manic which didn't make for a good combination. We drove up past the old Red Fort, a massively impressive building and got to the bus station eventually where we staggered in to reserve seats on the bus to NainiTal the following night. By now we were both collapsing and had trouble finding a taxi to take us back to Main Bazaar. But eventually we were successful and clutching a bottle of water, dived back into the maelstrom of the traffic which in the meantime seemed to have become even more dangerous. We were actually rammed by another rickshaw at one point and narrowly missed running down two pedestrians who tried to cross in front of us. At a traffic light a young child ran out into the traffic to grab poor Catherine's foot and began kissing it and begging for money. She owned nothing and would have been content with anything we gave her. Around us the cars and rickshaws blew their horns as Catherine struggled to break free. For one awful moment, the full insanity of India was almost too much for me. I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the begging child, dirty and dressed in rags and by the deafening noise and sensory bombardment of the city. I wished that I was far far away. And then Catherine thrust her half-empty bottle of water at the child who grabbed it, radiantly happy with her prize. The lights changed and we were on the move again.

Later, we sat out in the street at a little restaurant in front of the Vishal and ate dal and rice and recovered gradually. The afternoon's experience started to lose its almost hallucinatory intensity and I reflected that we had to learn to pace ourselves better and to eat and drink more regularly. Spending so much time out on the street was like being put through an emotional mangle. There seemed to be so little personal breathing space.

As I sat there, relaxing and breathing in the smells, sounds and sights of the bazaar on a pleasant winter evening, I happened to glance over to the next table where an Indian gentleman was busy writing a pile of letters. Curious, I couldn't help but notice that he was addressing his envelopes to the FBI, the Mounties, the CIA and the British Secret Service. Was he applying for a job or sending them secret information? Was he a complete lunatic? I found myself expecting the bizarre in New Delhi where anything seemed possible.

The following night we took the bus to NainiTal. We had paid ninety rupees for seats on a "luxury, air-conditioned video coach". At first we were lead out to a tiny vehicle with a sort of ledge running all around the rear which we were to sit on. Our hearts sank and Catherine said aloud "What a rip-off!" But we realized, to our own amusement, that this was only the bus to the bus. Soon we were on the real coach, speeding through the night en route for NainiTal. We had been given seats #1 and 2, right at the very front of the bus, the "Honeymoon or Tourist" seats we learnt. I still hadn't really slept since we had arrived in India and took half a Valium pill when we got on the bus, which knocked me out straight away. I got my best night's sleep in a week and didn't wake up till six the next morning in spite of the fact that videos had been shown all night on the screen about three feet in front of my face.

 

As the dawn broke, our bus climbed an incredibly steep mountain road up to NainiTal and arrived there at seven thirty am. We walked around the lake, which is at six thousand feet and checked into a little room on the top floor of the Evelyn Hotel. It was a bit expensive but pleasant and clean. We spent a busy day exploring the town, which was basically a tourist resort. It used to be the location of Rajah's summer palace. It felt immediately wonderful to have escaped the hassles and hustles of the city. First we took the cable car up to Snow Peak from where we had an incredibly clear view across to the snow peaked Himalayas and a very distant Mount Everest.

 

After a good thali meal, our first in India, I was happy to sit in the sun and watch the two local cricket teams play their Sunday game. It was probably the first game of cricket that I'd watched in twenty-five years. I discovered that Indians were fanatical fans of that very English sport and was amused to hear the running commentary of the game, which was broadcast over loudspeakers. It was in Hindi language with English cricketing phrases like silly mid-off" or "clean bowled" thrown in continually. Probably I enjoyed the match more than Catherine who fell asleep immediately. Later we climbed up a very steep path to the peak on the opposite side of the lake called Tiffin Top. We sat on a flat rock at the very top and looked out across the whole town and lake. Back at the Evelyn Hotel, it was cool at night, the shower didn't work and we went to bed early, to sleep heavily once again.

We got up well before dawn the next day to catch an incredibly crowded local bus up to Almora where we arrived by ten in the morning. Almora seemed to be a strangely featureless sort of little town. As we wandered around looking for a hotel, we were waylaid by a funny fast-talking man called Mr. Shah who persuaded us to come back to his guesthouse. We had a few misgivings, for the whole scene was a bit funky but we were tired and hadn't spotted anywhere else to stay. Catherine was developing a cold and we couldn't see any alternative. Mr. Shah behaved like an archetypal Indian guru, offering native wisdom at every opportunity. From our room, there was a nice view of the far mountains, although they clouded up by noon each day. Mr. Shah insisted that we read his guests' comment book but there seemed to be as many complaints about the bedbugs and his dishonesty as there were praises for his food and spirituality. It didn't really matter for we'd look for somewhere new as soon as possible. Catherine really needed to stay horizontal for awhile. That night I explored Almora on my own and found that it really was a one-horse town. But I heard an Indian marching jazz band for the first time playing its weird, drunken-sounding boogie woogie music. We had been in India for only six days but it felt like six weeks. I realized that it was time to find a nice spot to settle down for awhile.

The next morning, I finally saw my Himalayan Snow peaks close up. That incredible view has stayed in my mind ever since. In spite of a terrible mattress and the fear of killer bedbugs, we had slept well. With a packed lunch of parathas provided by Mrs. Shah and a vague feeling that we were being ripped-off somehow, we walked out of the town and up the long steep road that lead to Kasar Devi. This was the small community around the Shiva temple that was built up on the ridge above.

The Nanda Devi mountain range was right in front of us, perhaps thirty miles away, set in an azure blue sky. Between the ridge that we were standing on which was seven thousand feet high and the mountains on the Tibetan border which were about twenty-six thousand feet high, there was a deep valley filled with blue-gray mist. The snow peaks seemed to float untethered in a deep blue void. As we watched, the only clouds in the sky began to form around the mountains. By noon they were wreathed in white clouds, condensation from the snow up there I supposed. It was truly magical sight and an inspiring experience. I realized why Kasar Devi had a reputation for being a special, sacred place.

On first sight, the Shiva temple on the ridge was disappointing. It somehow reminded me of one of our West Virginian Native American sweat lodges. One approached it by two series of impressive curved steps and there was a lower temple half way up. At the top there was a tiny building which looked rather like a large dog kennel. It was dark and funky and the ceiling was so low that one couldn't stand up in it. The smell in there was of sweat and smoke and incense and there was a small altar with a lump of hashish and an empty whisky bottle sitting on it. There was a small window in one wall through which I caught a glimpse of those snow peaks and I realized again that the Himalayas were the focus of this whole place. The mountains were an ever-changing backdrop to all experience up here on the Kasar Devi ridge. That view was what had attracted DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and the Scandinavian mystic Arthur Sorenson to this spot at different times. Up here, the intense splendour of the view helped put the human condition into a meaningful perspective. Once again we were reminded that we were all only ants crawling around on the edge of a world which was way beyond our comprehension. I found that view and realization both awesome and comforting. This was a beauty that I could really worship.

Below us, terraced valleys fell away from us on either side and we could see tiny figures working among the crops growing on the terraces. We stayed up there all day, walked on a bit further and found "Ram Singh's Internationally Famous Chai House". A bunch of European travelers were sitting around the dark little cafe, mostly with heavy colds and running noses, drinking tea and smoking huge hashish and tobacco chillums. Hemp, from which a strong black hashish was made, was in fact the main cash crop in Kasar Devi and nearly everybody, locals and visitors alike, smoked the drug. We'd felt a bit isolated for a few days and it was good to meet some other travelers to talk to. A young Swiss guy, Sandro, took us for a walk further along the ridge and showed us some other incredible views. When we finally got back down to Almora again at dusk, we both felt tired but inspired. The mountains exercised an almost hypnotic attraction over me. I couldn't get the view out of my head and couldn't wait to get back up there the next day. We needed to find a new hotel room nearer to Kasar Devi and further away from the ubiquitous Mr. Shah whom I didn't trust further than I could carry. He brought a sick Catherine some medicinal concoction of his wife's but it could have been opium and honey for all we knew and I was afraid to see our bill at this point. Mysteriously, he was never around when I went to ask see our account. Perhaps his Hotel Kailas was like the Hotel California and you could check in but never check out. All I really knew was that this was my best day in India so far. This was what I had come to India for and I couldn't wait to get back up to Kasar Devi.

The next day was Full Moon in late November and another brilliantly clear day with a piercingly blue sky. We finally got to see our bill, which was enormous and definitely contained several items that we hadn't received. Shah wasn't around and I resolved to deal with him later. We took a taxi back up the hill and spent another magical day on the ridge, walking, drinking tea at Ram Singh's and hanging out with the local community. I still found myself unable to stop thinking of the mountains and continually went out to look at them, to refresh my memory of their beauty. We walked down the hill back to Almora rather late that night under a massive silver moon accompanied by a young local Indian shopkeeper called Bubbli. He started out in good shape but finished a bottle of rum on the way down and was violently ill before we reached the town. More and more Indians were apparently drinking heavily in spite of tight Government controls on alcohol. Alcoholism was beginning to be a major problem in India for the first time.

We passed a shop and guesthouse about halfway down and met Tara, the young owner, who impressed me with his straightforward friendliness. We booked one of his rooms for the following day.

We packed up and left the Shahs' on a cloudy morning, argued over the bill and eventually paid most of it. Then we moved straight into the best room at Tara's Guesthouse. The room was large, clean and with plenty of light and a lovely view to the South West. It had an outside attached squat toilet and shower stall. All our water had to be brought in from the nearby well and there was a good little restaurant downstairs run by Som, Tara's younger brother. Lalu, the youngest brother, ran the shop part of the family business and the Tewari family lived below. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant and we both felt instantly comfortable and welcome there.

And so Catherine and I settled into a routine at Tara's, eating our meals there or up at Ram Singh's and making a daily pilgrimage up the hill to look at the mountains in all their regular daily incarnations. Most days they seemed to cloud up by the early afternoon but on a couple of occasions they were still clear at sunset. Then we watched them go from pale pink to shocking pink in the fading light. We got to know the local immigrant population too. There was Bret, the beautiful but decadent looking Cockney boy who managed to set his long hair alight one night up at Ram Singh's while smoking a fire chillum. Doc, another Brit, was a rough looking traveler who claimed to be a chiropractor but who seemed to be only interested in achieving ever higher states of consciousness--or oblivion depending upon which way you looked at it. Indeed, the preoccupation of most of the foreigners up there on the ridge was to get as high as possible. Several of them spent all day every day in one of the dark little teashops up on the ridge with only that aim in mind. We spent our days walking, exploring and just looking, constantly amazed and fascinated by the changing face of the mountains. Those images have stayed with me and haunted me ever since.

After a couple of weeks in the mountains, I realized that it was getting cooler and that a North wind was blowing down on us. It was time to move on again and to head for warmer climes. Besides we wanted to see more of India. We had both formed a strong attachment to Kasar Devi and I knew that we would be back there again some day.

On our last day there, we spent the whole day high on the ridge feasting our eyes on the mountains as if to fix their image upon our retinas forever. For a change, the mountains stayed clear all day but subtly changed colour as the light changed. From our perch up by the temple, we watched eagles swooping backwards and forwards below us in the valley. On the way down at dusk, we rounded a corner on the hill and came upon a mother goat licking clean her newly born baby kid, watched intently by a young goat herder. That night we packed up again, had luke-warm showers and a final supper with Tara in the restaurant. He drove us down to Almora in his battered Jeep the following day and feeling very emotional and sad, we caught the overnight bus to Lucknow and new points East.

We had our first Indian train experience when we caught the Express for Varanasi and traveled in the Second Class part of the train. We enjoyed the trip a lot until a plainclothes policeman came and sat next to us when the train stopped in the city of Lucknow. He was obviously amusing himself by interrogating me. We had nothing to hide from him but I deeply resented being questioned in this way. The cop was a foxy-looking individual with teeth stained red by chewing betel nut and very bad breath. With a final last question and an accompanying sneer, he left the train and let us continue our journey in peace. I felt that he had been playing with us the whole time.

We got into Varanasi, India's oldest and most sacred city, in the late afternoon and managed to evade the hustlers at the train station. We caught a rickshaw straight to the Old City by the Ganges River where we were dropped at the Yogi Lodge Hotel. It was a travelers' enclave lost in the old backstreets of the city, a world apart and unto itself. It was amazing how quickly we recovered from that long and rather unpleasant trip after some tea and pseudo-western food. Varanasi certainly seemed pretty interesting but in my heart I was already missing the mountains and wondering why we had come down to a city so quickly.

The first person we ran into at the Yogi Lodge was Tai, the young Chinese-Canadian, whom we had first met in London and then again in Delhi on our first day there. He had in the meantime been up to Kashmir and was as delighted to see us as we were to see him. One of the best things about budget traveling is that it's very easy to meet people on the road. Often surprisingly intimate relationships start up instantaneously as most travelers are emotionally wide-open and looking for company while out on the road. Tai was traveling with a young woman from Seattle called Erin and an English woman called Sally soon joined our group. Within two days we all became inseparable and were to go on to have adventures together.

Catherine and I took a large light room together on the top floor of the hotel which had the same rock-hard beds that we were to find all over India. It was great to have such a place to escape to from the craziness of the city whenever we needed to and to be able to rest up with fellow travelers behind the heavy doors and security guards of the Hotel. We found a good place to have breakfast in the mornings, a big open-air restaurant called Ace's New Deal Restaurant where we were always sure to meet somebody new and interesting to hang out with. We spent several days exploring the city. As well as being the most sacred city in India, Varanasi is one of the oldest in the world, with a recorded history of over five thousand years. I felt every one of those years as I walked around the maze of back streets that made up the old city.

I have a notoriously poor sense of direction. If you turn me around a couple of times I really have no idea which way is up. But it seemed impossible to get lost in the old streets of Varanasi. All streets seemed to somehow come out onto one of the main streets leading down to the River. It was easy and fun to plunge blindly down one of the little alleys, trusting that one would emerge eventually at some familiar point. We found one street that sold only yogurt, another that sold only brass metalwork, one only with silk, another with only tea and so on. Varanasi was a fabulous market.

But the River Ganges and its banks, the famous Ghats, held the most mystery and interest for us. This was India's sacred river and any body laid to rest in its waters was guaranteed access to the Afterlife. Conversely, any body laid to rest on the other side of the river which was flat, arid, sandy terrain was condemned to wander for all eternity, never to find rest or peace. Consequently, relatives brought bodies from all over the country to Varanasi, generally to be burnt in huge fires at the Burning Ghat. They then scattered the ashes in the river. The Ghats themselves were fascinating for every facet of Indian life could be seen there. They were divided into sections, one for prayer, another for washing, another for weight-lifting and muscle building, yet another for making speeches and so on. All of the steps leading down to the river were packed with people all day long. Cows roamed freely along the ghats too. We made lots of trips in rowboats up and down the river but kept coming back to look at the Burning Ghats where six huge fires burned bodies all day long.

I remember being with a large group from the Yogi Lodge one night. There were probably ten of us including a bunch of rather drunk and noisy Australians who had attached themselves to us at dinner. We had decided to try a "Bhang Lassi", a famous Indian drink to be found in every city in the country. It's a powerful mixture of hemp and yogurt sweetened with honey and other herbs that has definite mind-expanding qualities. We found a street stall that sold the concoction and we all drank a large green glass of the liquid. The Aussies got even noisier as the drink took effect and we decided to hire a rowboat and to cruise up the river. Actually the Aussies were beginning to irritate me a little with their continual shouting and wisecracks but as our boat approached the Burning Ghat, they all grew strangely quiet. The bonfires were still blazing brightly in the dark and the shapes of burning bodies, twisting and even exploding in the flames could clearly be seen. All around, onlookers could be seen standing around in groups. They resembled demons or fiends with the fires of hell illuminating their faces harshly. There was a pungent sweet smell of burning flesh in the air and the whole scene might have illustrated a passage out of Dante's Purgatory or have been a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. As we swept by in our rowboat, the Australians, one by one, became silent and didn't open their mouths again that night. That almost medieval vision of Hell on Earth was a powerful one and not that I would forget in a hurry either.

 

Varanasi was a fascinating place and continually brought home the alien nature of India to me as a Westerner. One morning, walking along a little backstreet on my way back to the Lodge, I stepped carefully around the piles of cow dung that lay dotted up and down the road. I suddenly noticed that one pile of dung, then another, had little pieces of coloured paper stuck in them. In fact, I realized, someone had carefully marked all the piles of cow dung with different coloured scraps of paper. Then an old lady came out of the house in front of me and with an unmistakable look of joy and even greed on her face, she bent down and picked the still fresh and steaming dung up in both hands and tottered off with it. All those cow pats belonged to someone, I realized. Someone actually watches where each cow wanders and later claims its droppings. Round another corner, we found a street in which all the walls were neatly covered with beautifully rounded pats of cow dung which had been stuck up there to dry and later to be used as fuel for cooking fires. It wasn't at all unpleasant and the street had a rich rather fragrant smell. Later I saw beautifully arranged and stacked cow dung "palaces" all over India and realized that in the West we don't really know the meaning of recycling. In such a poor country, everything and anything has a use and then a second or third use. Once I watched an old man at a garage making retread car tires by sewing pieces of old tread onto an old tire and then scoring the tread with a knife to give it some traction. Virtually nothing was thrown away in India and the clever and resourceful Indians could repair almost anything.

At the end of a week, Tai announced that he and Erin were going up to Nepal for a couple of weeks. Sally, Catherine and I, now inseparable, decided to go with them. We spent a last day around the Yogi Lodge traipsing around the backstreets and were carried off by a silk merchant with promises of a classical sitar concert at his factory. We were amused and entertained when the merchant himself sat down cross-legged and played us his sitar for ten minutes before launching into the inevitable sales pitch. He did show us some wonderful silks and brocades but lost interest in us when he realized that we weren't going to be big customers. We walked around a corner on our last evening there and bumped into another of those splendidly uniformed Indian jazz bands playing a sort of polka with a back beat. The only way that I can describe that priceless legacy of the Raj is as an amalgam of British martial music and improvised jazz mixed with ten thousand years of Indian culture and sensibility.

We made one last trip up the Ganges at sunset past the Ghats and the new and the ancient buildings, past the futuristic-looking temple, sunken and half-submerged in the river and past the cows and the water buffaloes, the silent rulers of the city. Then it was time to get some sleep before the morrow's journey north.

 

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