So we’re in Nepal and that’s the good news. We SURVIVED HOLI IN VARANASI! And believe me… survive is a key word.
The unfortunate news is like an idiot I fell on the side of the street not even doing anything awesome and hurt my ankle. Thus, I cannot trek for at least two weeks. For that reason we are just hanging around Pokhara for a while, sipping Nepal coffee, reading, and writing. Life is hard.
We finished our stay in India. Because we have decided to volunteer in Kathmandu we will only be back in June for a couple days in Kolkata unless my plans change which is constantly a possibility.
I am surprised to say that our stay in India was a lot shorter than it seems. Out of this five month trip, only about two months will have been in the country. Lot’s of people at home and Indians themselves always ask “How is India?” Michael likes to say “It’s impossible to say one word about something so large.” And it’s true India is massive. The only word I could use to holistically describe my feelings about it is ‘changing.’ The new generations clash with the old the same way in any society but the fast nature of globalization and incredibly brilliant caliber of the Indian populous lends itself to even more innovation and change – a lot of it very destructive and destabilizing.
My sample size is small. However, these are a few brash observations from an outsider. The culture shock people generally experience upon entrance into India was minimal for me. I think that it’s because I hadn’t fully re-adjusted to life in the states once coming back from Nigeria, but the squalor, pollution, and poverty formed familiar backdrops to a densely populated developing country.
The culture on the other hand was quite different from both West Africa and the US. Saving face, caste, and community are tightly woven into the Indian society. Whereas in the US racism and class are a lot of the time thinly drawn (political correctness, American exceptionalism) impassible lines, in India they are bold and written in the everyday social codes and norms. Overcoming these lines has been the public objective of the Indian government for the last five decades. Still, who you are is still almost entirely dependent in many places on who your family is, what your father does for a living, and commonly the color of your skin and the eligibility of your marriage potential.
I have found that, much like Nigeria, India’s largest critics are Indians. When we say we love India, many people say, “Really?” I think that we are always harshest on our own home. I hope it is because the young people of our countries want improvement and a better future. I hope above that, that we are all willing to work for it.
But anyway, to describe the last hurrah in India… Holi. We arrived in Varanasi two days before Holi to explore and settle down a bit. Getting there was a trip to say the least. We took a train from Agra (a pretty shitty city but where the Taj Mahal is) to Varanasi. We had booked tickets three weeks in advance for AC 3.
QUICK TRAIN SEAT DESCRIPTIONS: Second sitting – a crazy mess of humans everywhere sitting on the floor, the top of the train, out windows, doors, a lot of farm animals, people selling things… crazy, Sleeper – second sitting with beds, AC3 – sleeper with a reasonable amount of people and air conditioning, AC2 – even less people with AC, AC 1- Darjeeling Limited first class fancy-pants.
Ok so anyway we planned ahead and had tickets but were 9 and 10 on the waitlist. This is because during a festival the trains are PACKED. The day before our train we were 3 and 4 on the waitlist and basically guaranteed a seat. Except we did not get a seat and our tickets were canceled. So we ran around Agra train station for a good two hours before buying an “open ticket.” What’s really brilliant about the Indian train system (sarcasm) is that even if you don’t have an official ticket, you can still buy one and just get on the train and hope that you can breathe in the immense pack of people. So Michael and I got on a sleeper (bottom class with beds aka layered seats) compartment for a 10:00 PM – 7:00 AM train. The train car was packed from bottom to top to side to side with people. People were literally piled on top of each other sleeping on the dirty ground. Needless to say we stood or sat on our bags crunched together until about four in the morning, talking to mothers chanting pujas and young college students hanging out windows. Finally some space cleared up and we slept a couple hours.
When we arrived in Varanasi in the morning at 9:00 AM and were immediately accosted. Varanasi, named the City of the Gods, is one of the holiest places in the world and thus one of the most touristy and touty.
Nightly pujas are performed to the sun, moon, and environment. Sidhus or holy men camp out throughout the city, and the old city is packed with temples and history. Set along the Ganges River, many call it the place ‘where people go to die.’ This is not a pejorative however, because it literally is the place you go to die.
At places along the river called “ghats” bodies are burned in funerals and then placed in the river. At one ghat bodies burn 24-hours a day and have been since who knows when. The Ganges is a holy river to the Hindu faith. A reincarnation of Vishnu, in an attempt to measure the length of the world, extended his left foot to the end of the universe and pierced a hole in it with the nail of his big toe. From this spot flowed the Ganges the water of which is supposed to heal away all sins. Thus the burning of bodies and placing them in the river ensures a good chance of pleasant reincarnation. Though hundreds of Hindus bathe along the river in Varanasi every day, the river is heavily polluted with trash and, of course, dead bodies.
After our first couple days of exploring we met up with our friends Chris and Collette for Holi’s eve or Holi Dahan.
It may help at this point to know the Logan-abbreviated-story behind Holi. There was a demon named Hiranyakashipu. Say that three times fast. Anyway, Hiranyakashipu had a boon from the gods that he would never die. Hiranyakashipu had a sister named Holika who had a special gift that she could not be burned by fire. So Hiranyakashipu and Holika became quite smug with their eternal selves and decided that they must be the real God and forstook all the Hindu traditions and proclaimed themselves holy. However, Hiranyakashipu had a son named Prahlad. Prahlad was a rebellious kid and decided that his God was Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu did not like this at all so he tried in various ways to kill his own son to prove his holiness. When the first two attempts failed, Hiranyakashipu recruited the help of Holika and told his son to get on a pyre on Holika’s lap in hopes that Prahlad would die in the flames. However, due to Prahland’s worship of Vishnu, the god saved him and Holika died instead. Thus every night before Holi huge bonfires are constructed and lit off in the middle of the night with a large demoness doll and a smaller human one in the flames to symbolize Prahlad’s undying faith, Hiranyakashipu’s ignorance, and Holika’s death.
The next day, however, is the real fun in which people of all ages gather together with bright colors and have the second biggest water fight in the world. All the shops close and many people are instructed to stay inside (drunk men ruin everything.) We all decided to go out though. It began ok. We played with kids and got soaked in color. But then everything went downhill.
We were in a group of about 15 tourists, most of them guys almost six foot but that didn’t stop the chaos of Varanasi from descending. We witnessed two bloody fights, one of them involving people throwing shit at each other, two of the guys in our group got their t-shirts torn off for no apparent reason, and nearly all the girls were attacked in some way (groping, ‘hugs’) but in the end we fought of all of them and made it down the river about a mile. Upon return we were proud, disturbed, and bruised, but survived.
Talking to many tourists, we heard about how dismayed they were in the ‘peaceful’ Holi experience they expected. It’s true… all Indian women stayed inside. It was mostly aggressive, drugged up and drunk men looking for a fight or just too drunk to care about the impact of their actions. I didn’t think too badly about it though. It’s not representative at all. My thoughts are this: Varanasi is a pretty hardcore place to live. Many workers get one day off a year and that’s Holi. If you are poor and disadvantaged, living in a hyper-masculine society, aggression and drunkenness are natural products of the system. It’s not something I’m condoning by any means, but a sad display of hard lives in a hard city.
Holi overall was fun when we played with the kids. Most people were polite and genuinely enjoying playing holi with us. Next time though, I’m definitely going somewhere a little quieter.
So that was the end to India. Now we are in Pokhara in Nepal. It’s quieter, cleaner, slower. Nepal is also in a way much poorer. It does not have the burgeoning economy that the giants India or China have and a government that generally mismanages the money that it does have. For example, the per capita GDP in Nepal in US dollars is 1,600. The per capita GDP for Nigeria, which I’ve given previous descriptions of, is 2,500 (Work Bank 2010 numbers).
The people here are so far incredibly nice and welcoming. Even though I am immobile for the next couple of weeks, I am glad it’s on a beautiful lake with lovely people. I also hear that elephants have rehabilitative powers and am trying to convince Dr. Michael to let me take the five hour journey south one day next week to Chitwan where for less than a dollar you can take a bath with some.
Cheers guys and happy Easter,