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Dawn on the Ganges

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.


Look! A photo-filled post! 😀
An elaborate temple complex, Mahabodhi, developed on the site where the Buddha historically attained enlightenment. People hawking marigolds, hibiscus, and lotus flowers to the devotees line the wide walkway up to the entrance. Boys hold bunches of the lotus flowers, hoping for a quick sale because they will fade by late morning, petals sagging beyond value. I wonder how they strike a balance between bringing enough to make a profit and losing their work to nature’s decay, especially having waded into ponds to collect them: I wish the Buddha had chosen a sturdier flower.

Gardens frame the central towered structure which contains a golden Buddha statue: I spend roughly five minutes there as waves of worshipers arrive and depart, bowing and touching the stone below the figure. The gardens themselves are full of devotional symbols and offerings. Incense sticking out at auspicious sites, flowers draping various statues, oil or water in small portions, and sometimes layers of single marigold blooms placed in tiny plastic cups.

These wooden planks are everywhere, always aimed at the stone temple. Tarps spare them from rain and cover the cushions or blankets left behind. Sometimes a book or two remains behind. They facilitate a particular form of prayer which involves prostration: moving quickly from flat to kneeling to standing with folded hands, swooping from sky to earth and back: an act done in deep reverence. Hands landing on folded fabric, sliding down the plank until the chest meets the wood and then sweeping back up and into the next position. Experienced practitioners fold and flatten in a smooth movement, visually at ease — although you could argue that the whole thing looks like an aerobics move. If their hands weren’t folded in prayer.

Each Buddha carving receives lotus flowers each morning from the young Indian boys selling them on the street.

Walking clockwise around the central tower, the already-peaceful atmosphere increases its soft touch. The bodhi (or peples) tree’s giant branches peek around the corner of the stone structure. It is not the Original under which Siddhartha meditated; it is a grown offshoot of another descendant. But it still casts a magical ambiance over those who come to meditate and pray beneath its extensive branches. Young monks and schoolchildren dive for every solitary fallen leaf, some gripping seven or eight. Hungry for peace? One realizes that he’s snapped one up at my feet where I am sitting, and shyly hands it to me. Or maybe he just thought I needed one, although I hadn’t gone for it myself.

Like nowhere else I have been on earth, there is a sacred peace to the space beneath its spread; the power may be in that peace coming unbidden, pre-meditation. A contentment and easy contemplation, a raw sense of goodness in the world. Although its base is cut off by a stone fence, its heavy branches extend to include the entire crowd passing beneath it, which is funneled past its central point.

Some position themselves in the wall’s gaps to meditate, others funnel through snapping photos. Most are devotees, Buddhists coming to pray or reflect in the traditionally most sacred religious site. The photo captures a rare, empty moment for the space dedicated to group meditation and chanting (I’m uncomfortable photographing people, or take photos in general). Buddhists from all over the world travel to visit this spot, expressing faith and philosophy through many different cultures; the population of this corner in India is exceptionally diverse. Peace manifests in another form here: the coexistence of many different approaches, and the common ground found between them all.

Poverty in Bihar

November 27th

The auto drivers swarm when I exit the train station. This is, of course, a common experience for me in India — leaving a train station always draws at least a few offers, usually at double the price. But this is different. A few get a head start in my direction, but in a moment I am among them, twenty men clustered around me, layers of circles, waiting to hear who I will choose. I look back at the station and think about how I haven’t seen a single foreigner (I wouldn’t have noticed before, I’m often the only one) but I begin to wonder at the rarity of my occurrence. How there’s no one else looking for a lift.

I hesitate, the men wait with anxious faces, some tossing out offers. This is not frightening, as it would have been in Delhi if so many overtook me at once. There isn’t a single infuriating, anticipatory grin as I scan around the group — no well-known look of relishing imminent extortion or violation. Only strangled hope. I don’t know what to do, who to choose.

There’s no obvious “first one there” to solve the question, my usual solution. The cruel and creepy usually make themselves known quickly, but no one here is distinguishable. My hesitation drags on, a distended moment that heightens the anxiety of those waiting for my all-too-powerful choice. I want fairness and reason, and it is not coming quickly in this poverty-stricken state.

Second solution: bargain, which works in Delhi for selection and, in some cases, retribution. Here, it is a mistake. I call out for eighty rupees instead of the standard one hundred, thinking that I’ll get to ninety and we can go, but someone accepts it. Glad that the choosing is over, I toss my backpack onto the back shelf and dive in.

The young driver and I quickly pass through the simple city and out onto a long road passing fields and I wonder if the poverty is connected to the weak-looking land that cannot entirely owe its appearance to an imminent winter. Tension eases. The driver switches on his radio and suddenly I have a soundtrack to life, heightening my awareness — I really am in India.

We stop along the way, and a street-clothed man asks for a “road tax,” not even attempting to feign professionalism. I refuse to pay the ten rupees, and fake incomprehension, another common ruse of mine. The young man pays it instead; he may only be subject to corruption, and not participating. I don’t know, and I won’t be so disconnected as to pretend he has much of a choice.

Again, we stop at another cluster of stalls, mostly chai-focused, and the driver leaves me behind in his auto. He’s only gone for a moment, waving goodbye to someone and shouting. I ask, and he tells me he stopped to see his friend [unspoken: to show off his passenger]. So I figure that that’s worth ten rupees. But after crossing the seven miles to Bodhgaya, I tell him that my quoted price is unfair, and give him the one hundred rupees. It’s still an unthinkably small amount for how prices usually go; to give more would increase the ugliness of elbowing for a foreigner, unproductive for everyone.

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained Enlightenment 2,500 years ago. A grand temple marks the spot, with a grown offshoot of the original Bodhi tree. A town formed around it, with more temples.

There are extremely poor, begging folk all over India; there is a high concentration of them in Bodhgaya, here for the merit-building donations that praying Buddhists may give and potentially the highest concentration of any tourists in Bihar. And there aren’t that many.

The destitute are often maimed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes to intentionally elicit sympathy. Sometimes they’re organized, carried to their “spot” by others who will take a cut of their earnings. Mothers may hang back and send their children to you, or point to an infant wrapped across their chest to ask for milk (which, at least in McLeodganj, they sell back to the shop owner for cash). In lucrative tourist areas, they make more than they ever could via hard labor. It is a complex situation integrated into the society, supporting the better-off in many ways, especially by producing cheap labor.

Bihar feels different.  The pleas used to make me feel cornered, anxious, overwhelmed, helpless. Here, I am simply and utterly humbled. Pity separates: one standing above, extending a thought or a small rupee bill meant well, but keeping the others below. In Bihar, poverty manifests in broader ways, a heavy message of limited options. Perhaps I am simply able to receive the message, now that I’ve cleared my head and heart. An earnestness devoid of manipulation or disconnection. That anxious desperation. There can be no superiority in the presence of that, only great humility. Maybe it is because I was raised Catholic, maybe it was my university, but I feel as if this is what they are talking about, the Jesus of my liberal friends and family, of St. Vincent de Paul. 

I have come to visit the sacred Buddhist site, but also to see the collection of temples built according to different cultural styles: the carefully painted structures stand stark and strange against the living pain. Bizarre expenditures bent on glory and peace but decorated with suffering.

It’s around 8 AM as I am walking past the grand Mahabodhi temple. I recognize some Tibetans standing at a basket or two — there’s bread! Imagine a giant English muffin, baked fresh that morning. I can’t buy enough for everyone here, and what will they eat tomorrow? The juxtaposition of nicely-outfitted Tibetans, baskets of bread for those who can afford it, the fancy temples, and the thin, begging people scattered among it all contorts my mind. I take a breather in the known — and ask about the bread.

Buy Tibetan things from Tibetans, and Indian from India = an attempt to sort through consumer ethics. The salesperson smiles, and the man behind her gives me a price that is more than double what it would cost in Delhi. I give him a startled, critical look, but he smiles and shrugs it off, but I buy it — and he asks me for a donation, says something about hard times. I leave without answering.

Priorities. Racial conflict. Discrimination.

My delight in eased harassment among the Tibetans had been too strong an influence. This is not a condemnation of an entire community, Indian or Tibetan. Eyes opened to the few who take advantage of a situation, to the desensitization, and the troubles. Traveling in India demonstrates the worst and the best of humanity, and draws out your best and worst. It is a land of extremes, with a unique education to offer.

Still, the next morning, I purchase Tibetan bread from two young Indian woman squatting next to a large woven basket. All smiles and connection and reaching out. So much for a simple answer to ethical consumerism.

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