September 23, 2000

Indiaupdate I

Less than a week here and the First World already seems like a distant memory. Particularly here in Varanasi, the city of Shiva, which feels about three times older than God - there isn't a building that isn't crumbling, and it's not so much a city as a honeycomb of narrow, twisting cobblestoned streets stuffed full of stalls, cows, and people. A bit like a Moroccan medina. Except for the cows. I already hardly notice them any more. In a little while I guess they'll be all but invisible to me like they seem to be to everyone else.

The Ganges is in flood, so you can't walk along the riverside ghats (fleets of steps) to watch the bathing, the cremations, etc. Navigation through the streets is necessary (well, "navigation" isn't really the right word, since you lose all sense of direction in about thirty seconds. "Random walk" is probably a better phrase.)

Apparently if you die in Varanasi, your body is washed in the Ganges, and you are then cremated at one of the burning ghats, you automatically achieve moksha, more or less the Hindu equivalent of nirvana, which I have to say really feels like cheating to me. You can spend your whole life lying & cheating, building up a mountain of bad karma, then go to Varanasi and step in front of a bus and achieve enlightenment through a loophole? How fair is that?

Then again, no one ever said that Shiva was fair.

There is probably some language in which "India" translates to "Land of Many Scams." Everyone agrees: trust no one. I narrowly avoided a few (ingenious, multi-person, well-organized) scams in Delhi, but fell into one here; everyone asks for the guidebook-lauded "Vishnu Rest House" in this town, so the enterprising owner of the Sunrise Hotel took over the building next door, put up a "Vishnu Rest House" sign, dressed the entryway as a hostel reception area (posters, signs advertising bus
tickets, English-language books, etc - quite thorough) and has the man there regretfully inform you that Vishnu is full but he can recommend Sunrise next door...

The real irony is that when I found the real Vishnu RH I found it quite wanting compared to the Sunrise. What are you going to do when Lonely Planet doesn't call on you?

Delhi takes some getting used to but isn't a bad arrival area, many of the comforts of home, McDonald's, ATMs, foreign newspapers, etc. Thence to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is genuinely magical but the rest of the town is a total dungheap.

From here I go up to Nepal, which by all accounts is less crowded (obviously) and somewhat less hassle. There's lots of hassle here. Like many travellers in India, I have acquired a personal mantra, which I repeat as often as possible. Mine is "No." The extended version is "No. Go away." I secretly think part of the allure of travelling is that it gives you the opportunity to explore your inner rudeness.

I'll keep you posted with irregular updates - shouldn't be hard as Internet cafes are everywhere, though I doubt they'll have them while trekking (I should be on the trekking trail a week from today if not sooner.)