More than three months into the India trip, I finally submit to a tourist role: taking a dawn boat ride down the Ganges in Varanasi.
The sole female traveler thing means that I even arrange it through my guest house; and the desk clerk knocks on my door at 5:30 AM — I’m late. Who knows how early the boatman had to wake up to get here from where he lives.
I follow the young man down misty quiet streets — how rare — in the morning’s darkness. The new emptiness fascinates me after months of writhing crowds. Once we hit the main drag, tourist groups begin to appear, clusters of Difference. If there’s an India, she or he is selling flowers or other tokens to the foreigners heading for boats. I’m just one person with one boatman, the odd ones out, moving around and past clusters of older folks getting organized. I’m throw questions at his silence, on background and story. This guy has a boss who owns the boat, while he is the one hired to collect various foreigners at an unpleasant hour. Accountable to the guest house, he doesn’t worry me; but I muse over his appearance, little sleaze under American stereotypes — I wonder if it was only his wearing chunky rings. Carefully dressed in a button-down shirt and long slacks on his thin frame. Setting a vigorous pace with long strides, taking turns without hesitation.
Visitors own this hour for an otherworldly stroll through streets typically bursting with people. It feels like walking through a movie set, or having access to an alternative version of india, where you can pick and choose what you want to see, and turn on the crowds for a second and then click back to morning mist. Maybe I view my life through a camera.
We split off the main road, through what will soon be the morning market (he tells me). The path drops off into wide, long steps, terracing down through mist, buildings fading back, to touch a strip of sand bordering the watery expanse: the Ganges revealed into a gasp. I have to jog a bit to catch up to his accustomed pace which hasn’t hesitated at the top of the giant stone steps leading down to the water. These are not stairs as any in the West. They are a space unto themselves, the “ghats”, and layer the Ganges’ edge wherever she lies within Varanasi.
He leads me down to the water’s edge, then climbs across others’ elongated wooden rowboats to get into his and bring its tip onto the sand. I climb in, and as we pull away into the gray-lit water, I see the fleet taking shape: travelers from across the world climbing into similar boats, cameras around necks carefully recording the scene. Thousands of photographs, repeating a scene in a hundred varying narratives. It is a strange experience, being a watcher with the many, floating down Ganga en masse to observe locals performing their morning rituals. Pilgrims and sadhus come down to the water to bathe and release flowers, flame, and prayers into the sacred waters.Both observer and observed happen daily; this stretch of the river will always be populated by touring travelers taking in the famous view in the famous way. Only one side is lined with ghats leading up to stacks of buildings and the tiny ancient streets beyond. The Ganges expands towards sandy, muddy beaches unable to hold the heavy stone structures, empty compared to the intensely populated western riverbank. The water reaches and recedes across the year. She is full and dense, in her prime, soaking in the prayers of millions who reach for her rippling holiness in life and death.
Here, the two intertwine, death welcomed into the space of the living — in more than the burning ghats piled high with stacks of wood ready to receive the dead. It’s that here you can freely mourn. And I do, scattering petals into the water, giving a candle in a pressed-leaf bowl, crying over loss. Making my boatman uncomfortable with the odd sight of a foreigner grieving.
Oil lamps dramatize the ghats, worshipers reaching for blessings under the whipped flames that mix into the grayish dawn. The Ganges can even subdue the sun, bringing it up small and mild.
The boat pushes forward, easing along the ghats, revealing creaking cracked beauty manifesting this time in architecture, a withered and beloved grandparent in an already-ancient country. A mystical experience, where an age-old scene is revived daily over thousands of years.
He navigates our rowboat into a spot between other boats and bathers, and lightly bounds along its length to secure it to the first stone step. I pretend it is easy as we climb the stairs up up up up up to a simplistic chai stand at the top step of the last ghat we will pass (there are too many to see in an hour). He orders chai, a stray dog wiggles along a step or two below, some stranger begins an awkward chat, some new devotees dip into the water wrapped in simple fabric, and I avert my eyes, unsure of the decency rules. The water will rise and fall along the lengthy steps with the season. The ancient alive; the new and old wound together; life and death; sorrow and joy; the complexities of humanity, life, the world. All woken and resting, commonplace and surreal. I savor the spicy familiar taste of chai from the tiny glass cup.
The boatman sits beside me and we watch the sun roll up the sky.