This will be my final email from the subcontinent. It is 3 in the afternoon, and after a last meeting at the National Foundation for India (a sponsor of Seva Mandir), I will be on my way through a final battle with Delhi transportation and off to NYC.
My last few days in India were filled with the chaos I expected of the country. After I left Kathmandu, I went to Varanasi, one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and then to Agra, to see the famed Taj Mahal. Upon arrival, I thought to myself, where is all of the craziness of India that is supposed to permeate everything in this holy city? Well, little did I know I was actually 20km north of the city- a drive to the central train station changed all of that. It was utter mayhem- people are everywhere, camped out on plastic tarps on the ground, cows roaming in the middle of the crowds, auto and bicycle rickshaws vying for space to enter the parking lot, sadhus (holy men) dressed in white or orange and wlaking barefoot across the rock and sand pack that makes up the parking lot, old women squatting on the ground over their tiffens (stacked containers of food), and off to the side, in a small room, 40 tourists trying to get trains out of the city. It was awsome. I splurged that night on a hotel, Rs500 for a private room with air con and an en suite bathroom, in a neighborhood between the train station and the old city. The next day I woke up early, as I heard the best time to see the old city of varanasi was in the early morning when the pilgrams wash in the Ganga (ganges river). I headed over in a cycle rickshaw, and as we got closer to the old city, the number of people grew. Many were sadhus and pilgrams, making their way to and from the rivers. The rickshaw had to stop, as the roads were blocked (that weekend had been independence day and rakhi- the brother and sister festival, and there were tons of people in the city). So i got out and walked among the throngs of half clothed and mostly barefoot individuals to attempt to find the holy river in this amalgam of people. There was a queue a thousand + persons deep, of men and women holding jugs of water from the ganga, all waiting to bathe with it in a holy temple. I promptly got lost and found my way to the chowk, the main shopping area, but unfortunately i couldn't buy anything because it was 6 in the morning and nothing was open.
I finally gave in to the propositions of men claiming to be tour guides, and one helped to to the river, showed me around the old city, which is a wild maze of tiny streets- streets so narrow vechiles and rickshaws aren't able to get by so everyone is on foot, dirt, mud and flith line everything, piles of rubbish area everywhere, there is no drainage, and everyone (but me) was barefoot). there are very few tourists there now, so it was just me and the thousands of pilgrams and sadhus vying for a tiny bit of space in which to move through the incoherent alleyways of the old city. Nothing I have seen compares to the true apex of disorganization that exists there. The guide took me to some of the temples, helped me arrange a river tour, and of course 'his shop' to see if i wanted to buy anything (varanasi is famous for its silk bengali saris). Because Varanasi is a holy city, many people come here to die. We went to an area next to one of the cremation sites, where we met the manager of the three hospices located on the river. People are cremated here 24 hours a day, and there are stacks of wood all along the water, and piled in huge row boats at the river's edge. I got a blessing from an old woman invalid, and my donation was rejected by her because of the low amount. All along the river people are bathing- men in their underwear, and women more discreetly washing their limbs under their clothing. We went to the main ghat and as we turned the corner to approach the water, I encountered my greatest fear of India- a cobra. thank someone that it was in a pot and i could manage my dread and panic as i nervously followed my guide down an alley of vegetable sellers to the top steps of the ghat. I joined the other tourists and snapped a photo of the river, and then looked to my right and saw another cobra, and decided I had seen enough of the city, and headed back to my little ac-ed room and waited in the coolness until I had to leave for the train station.
I befriended a group of Spaniards while waiting for the delayed train. They invited me to try and get upgraded to their compartment, as I was in sleeper non AC and they were one level above- in an ac car- and were a group of four (and 2 were big guys). So I joined them, and somehow in broken english and hindi conveyed to the conductor that I didn't feel safe in my original seat and that I wanted to sit with my friends. By some grace of god there was an open berth in their compartment- a top berth at that- and we spent the rest of the 16 hour train ride (it was only supposed to be 12-13) to agra together. The train was late getting in, and parted ways with my friends at the station, as they had to arrange for a train to delhi and i wanted to see as much as possible before i booked it to Delhi that evening. I met a tourist at the taxi stand and we shared a cab to the taj. As we got into the vehicle, a bizzare looking 2m tall Brit, in addidas workout pants, a golden kurta (long shirt worn here), 3 piercings in his lip, two more in his upper lip, a mohawk, and psoriasis joined his lost friend and the three of us made our way to india's most famous monument.
I wasn't struck by the taj upon arrival, but after three hours of circling the stark while marble, impeccable craftsmenship, perfect symmetry, and inlay stone work, i realized just how incredible the building really is. I spent my time sitting in the cool marble alcoves, looking at the river, visiting with israelis (in hebrew, no less), and staring at this stellar piece of architecture and the perfect symmetry of the entire site. I also visited the mosque to the left (the taj mahal is only a mausoleum, not a mosque), and the fake mosque on right, built for perfect site planning symmetry. the japanese tourists and i took more pictures of ourselves in front of the building, and i eventually pulled myself away to see some other sites in the city, like the awesome Agra Fort, the Baby Taj, and a few other leeser visited structures, like the tomb of the shah's vizer from persia. I also went to the other side of the yamuna river to see the taj from the 'back.' it was really really cool.
After a nice ride back to delhi and visiting with my seatmates- a man from nairobi getting a ph d in literature in delhi and a young guy from austrailia who is living in kathmandu and teaching english to monks, i entered the horrid crowds of delhi all trying to get rickshaws to their next destinations. after an hour or so in one, i finanly made it to my place of rest for the evening (late night at that point), had a nice cool shower, and slept the best night of sleep i have had, under the cold breeze of the air con unit. After a bit of work this morning, I arrived at a friend's apartment, closer to the city. I have been rather lazy today, and after my meeting will head off to the airport.
My time in India and Nepal has been exquisite. I came here knowing a lot about the country, but no first hand experience of it. It was certainly over-whelming at first, and I had a few, "oh shit" moments, but the shocking culture of India quickly melted away as I settled into my life this summer. There are certainly many shocking differences, food, toilets, showers, roads, transportation, dress, and I quickly have adapted to seeing people sleeping on any surface, seeing cows and animals share the roads with rickshaws, taxis, and buses, people using the toilet where they can, open drains, chai-wallahs, and vegetable carts lining all the streets. It is now ordinary to see people getting water from handpumps, men and women carrying their loads on their heads, seeing trash on streets because solid waste management here leaves something to be desired, and open drains. The colors in the poor country are the most vibrant I have ever seen. No one wears black or brown, and everything people where, women in particular, is brightly colored in all shades and patterns. This color I have observed in many different ways before- as a contrast to the dirt and poverty of the city, and i see it as a pretty bright metaphor for something about the challenges life presents people here. Certainly people don't enjoy getting water from handpumps, taking a shit on train tracks, having to nagivate snakes in high grass, or see piles of trash because there is no one to collect it, but life marches on, and people continue to live here, send their children to school, get married, drink chai, and live in their communities. There is a strage push pull factor here- pushing me out of the country and into the creature comforts all of us have come to expect from living in the west, and a pull back to India, an allure to understanding what works and what doesn't, what is a necessary piece to living a fulfilling and quality life and what is just superfluous, to understanding what a community wants versus an individual...there is something fabulous and wonderful in the midst of the chaos people living here and people who have visited this country understand. India is remarkable on many different levels- the highest office rents in the world and the highest rates of poverty, the bright colors everywhere against the extreme poverty, the gold women wear daily because why hide all of their fine jewelry away under a mattress or in a safety deposit box, the modern versus the tradition, the religous fervor- it is a country to not be missed, and to be experienced as fully as one can. It is not a perfect country by any means, but it works somehow. India has certainly not seen the last of me, as I have barely begun to see it. I look forward to my future visits, and to the new layers the country will reveal with more exploration.
Until I reach the states, a final Namaste from India.