Awaking at 5am, Debbie and I showered and headed out the door for our sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. Walking the same path that we had the night before, we met our tour guide, Ritu, and he helped us onto our rowboat with a young boy who was 11 years of age who would be our captain for the day. Ritu explained that he was indeed young to be working in this position, but that it must be a family occupation, one passed down from his grandfather and father. You could indeed tell as he rounded his way through hundreds of other boats with ease. I had such respect for this little boy and thought to myself that I’d love to see an American kid up at 5:30am doing similar work.
Sunrise on the Ganges is a miraculous experience. While we were able to see the ghat at dusk, it is even more beautiful in the morning. All of the colors come to life and communities of people come dancing down the stairs, banging on drums and singing mantras…getting ready to take their daily holy dips in the river before they start their day. Most of these people do this ritual seven days a week. At home, it had been difficult for me to make time to get into meditation, work out, or even journal. In Varanasi it is not a question…just a way of life. This will definitely be something that I take with me from this journey. These people have so much self control, dedication, and faith. If I could take 1% of that and incorporate it into my daily life it would make all the difference in the world. I truly believe that you cannot come to India and return unchanged…that is the real beauty of this country.
On one bank of the Ganges the moon was still high in the sky while on the other a pink glowing ball of fire rose from the Earth. I had never seen a more beautiful sunrise and tried desperately to take a million pictures of it, before realizing that my camera would never be able to capture its true beauty and that this was a lesson to truly live in the moment as I sat my camera down.
We came across people in the water that were slapping cloth against stone rocks. Ritu explained that these people did laundry services for a living, where they picked up locals dirty laundry and took them to get blessed and washed in the holy water. Afterwards they would lie them on the floor of the city and allow the sun to dry them. Thinking about the polluted water, all the ashes from the dead bodies, and whatever else may be lingering in that water…I could never imagine wearing laundered clothes like that. However, again…the people of India’s faith did not see filth but water to salvation. Even Debbie reached her hand into the water and wiped the wetness all over her head and face in belief.
When it was time to leave the Ganges, Debbie and I both felt very emotional. Tears welled up and I knew we had just experienced something magical. I cannot explain it unless you experience it first hand. All I can say is I highly, highly recommend it when you have a fully open heart. From there Ritu took us through Varanasi’s small alley ways where small shops existed and people sold offerings and flower arrangements to give to the Gods. He brought us to a tea and oil shop where we sat with the merchant who explained all of their offerings. I really enjoyed learning more about aromatherapy and which oils were used for various cures and remedies. I ended up buying Green Grass oil that came from the grass up in Kashmir which is used as a mood enhancer. I also bought Hymalain Flower (mental healing and concentration), Lotus (used to open up your chakras), White Rose (for happiness and finding love), and Night Sleep (to put behind your ears to help you fall asleep at night). I also sipped on their local tea marsala which was HEAVENLY! For all my tea lovers out there (a.k.a. Dev….get your butts to India! Best tea I have EVER had).
As we walked back to the car, Debbie was walking in front of me and her foot got stuck in a pothole in the ground. She went flying and took a terrible fall, hitting her head quite badly. Locals came rushing to her aid to help pick her up, but she couldn’t move and appeared to be very out of it. She asked everyone to step away and let her be, just lying their in the middle of the road. A million thoughts were running through my mind…is she ok? Do we need to get an ambulance? Do they have those here? Would we have to take a rickshaw?! We don’t have insurance! Is that the end of our trip? After a few minutes, Debbie finally got up, very dizzy, and held on to Ritu’s hand. She insisted that she was ok and we continued our trip back to the car. I was walking behind her, mind racing still and very concerned. Suddenly, I felt a massive amount of gooey wetness and sandpaper rub against my bare arm. I quickly looked over and saw that a cow had wiped all of his snot and licked my entire arm making it sopping wet. In complete utter (no pun intended) disgust, I thought to myself…oh this is going to be an interesting day!
As we got back to our homestay to get ready for the day, Debbie looked at her watch and said it was 11:11. She then mentioned that butterflies had been following us around all day and that it must be an omen. I asked her how she was feeling after the fall and she said absolutely fine. “Really? Your head doesn’t hurt? You landed on it really hard. Any broken skin?” She nodded her head no and at the same time with a knowing smile we both looked at each other and said “Varnasi” at the same time. We wondered if indeed there was something to that holy river water after all. At first when Debbie put her hands in it and sprinkled the water over her head, I thought she was a crazy woman. Turns out that might have been the very thing that allowed us to continue on our journey and for her to be safe.
In fact, very strange things like this continued to happen day in and day out in both Delhi and Varnasi. At our homestay in Delhi on our last night, I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and turned on the light. Suddenly the light turned off on it’s own and for some reason this did not freak me out in the slightest. However, the second I got back into bed the light turned on again in the bathroom. In the morning I told my sister about this and she said she had been experiencing a presence in the room. As we were talking about this, all of the lights in the room went off except the light right next to Debbie’s nightstand. How could this be? If the electricity was out then why was the light and air conditioner still on. We even asked the homestay manager and he checked the fuse boxes…no problems.
Debbie is my half sister, so we have the same father but a different mother. Debbie’s mother past away last year and it has been so hard on her. We both felt that this spirit may just be her mother since neither one of us were scared. As we acknowledged her more, the lights began flickering on and off more readily. We had the same exact experience arriving in Varanasi…the guesthouse flickered lights for the first hour we arrived and then remained fine for the duration of our stay. Usually ghosts terrify me, but I truly do believe it was Debbie’s mom or the power of India that calmed my nerves around such spirits.
After a light rest and an amazing breakfast from the Kapur’s at our homestay, we headed out for the day to explore some Hindu and Buddhist temples. The first temple that we arrived at, Ritu explained the story of Siddhartha and how this temple was the first place Buddha made a sermon after he was enlightened. Th temple had beautiful paintings covering the walls of all stages of Buddhas life and transformation. At the center was a very large golden Buddha statue, with Buddha clasping his hands together but just holding his middle finger. Ritu explained that we would find many statues of Buddha in this pose since the Buddhist religion focuses a lot of its philosophy on finding balance. He explained that doing too little of something was bad and too much of something is also bad. Staying the course and in the middle would give people a successful life. Being in the line of work that I am in (character development and personal growth) we discuss this very theme on a consistent basis. We discuss how all character strengths can be both helpful and detrimental. For instance, kindness is a wonderful strength to have, but someone should also look out for their own safety and concerns in order to not be taken advantage of. This middle path resonated with me…again the common theme of self control. I am starting to see your message universe!
We visited several other beautiful temples that day such as the Goddess of Power, The Monkey Temple, and the Temple at the University there. All beautiful in their own right and all full of rituals that were amazing to witness. However, some of my most favorite parts of the day were talking more to our guide, Ritu. Debbie and I asked him so many questions about religion, marriage, love, education, and so forth. What were his people’s views half way around the world and how were they the same but different from ours?
I found his views on family and women to actually be pretty amazing. He explained that he came from a large family and had many sisters who were better educated than he was, since he dropped out of schooling early. When asked what they did with their degrees he said that they had the most important job that anyone could have in India…taking care of the family. In India, motherhood is almost considered sacred and the matriarchs are revered with the utmost respect. Family in India is paramount and always stick together, in fact, most of them all live together under one roof for their entire life.
On the topic of safety and crime, he said that India was extremely safe for everyone believes in doing good deeds and getting good karma. Hence, all of the rowboats on the Ganges never needed to be tied up or taken home for no one would ever steel them. He explained that police only exist to help keep the traffic and crowds under control. I am fairly certain their are never any traffic tickets written…as a matter a fact, that’s pretty laughable even thinking about!
In terms of poverty (which most people are starving and beyond the poverty level I have ever witnessed) he also had such an interesting take. He said “people that are lucky in India and have money will give more because they can and people that have less will do what they can but will give less. It all comes out in the end to give you good karma. We don’t leave this earth with anything but our souls, so we may as well distribute the wealth why we are here.” Instead of people giving handouts individually to beggars, individual stores will collect the money and give it to the government to distribute.
The last question we asked him was a tough one for him to answer. Debbie and I asked how gay people were perceived in India and Ritu was trying to dodge the question. I mentioned that I had arrived at Delhi and two boys were walking holding hands. I had been surprised that being gay was so open in a place with such old traditions. He nodded his head no and said that in India, it was very common for friends and family to show affection such as hugging and holding hands not depending on what sex they were. I thought this was amazing, as I wish more men in America felt open enough to show affection just as women do. I believe that is a very large problem in our culture…not allowing men to be emotionally expressive and affectionate from an early age and then wondering why they are emotionally void and distant when they grow older.
Ritu went on to say that the people of India viewed gay people as mentally ill and most families brought their loved ones to psychiatrists to cure them of their sickness. Knots churning in my stomach, I asked “so is there a high success rate of people being cured.” “Oh yes mam, many are cured.” Debbie and I looked at one another in silence and could had an entire conversation without saying a word. Then Ritu asked how gay people could ever be happy if they could not marry. I thought this was a fascinating question and it actually formulated a better understanding of where he was coming from. In India, marriage is almost mandatory and expected from every single individual. Since gay marriage was illegal, he could not understand how two people could be happy without a religious ritual tying them together in the sanctity of marriage. There is obviously more to it than that, but an interesting question none the less.
Ritu had told us earlier that in India, people of all different faiths support one another and participate in each others rituals and holidays. Hindu’s make up a majority of the population, then Muslim, then Buddhism and Christianity. So for instance, on Christmas people from all over Varanasi come to the Christian church to celebrate their faith. It puzzled me how this country could be so incredibly open minded and accepting of different skin colors, economic status, and faith, but that love between two people was seen as an illness. Typically I would have debated someone to the core about this issue, but instead I just sat back in the cab and allowed myself to be a guest in their culture. It was not my place to step foot on this ground, even though it hurt biting my tongue.
Falling asleep that evening, I realized that India may look very different from the outside, but a lot of the same fears and troubles plague these people as they do us. Just like the United States, lots of money is spent on religious rituals where the priests make money off of the believers. Prejudice exists everywhere and we are all searching for good karma and a wonderful afterlife. They follow stories or mythologies to make sense of their lives…just like so many of us do. I fell asleep wondering if this gave me a sense of peace that made me feel more of a connection to this culture, or a bit perplexed that my beautiful spiritual India bubble may have been burst just a very tiny bit.