Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.
Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.
It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent.
A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.
I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance — the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.
“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”
Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.
Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.
More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.
I flew to the other side of the world and built a simple, normal life in a mountain town.
Routines in Chicago swept significance aside, making me groan about the speed at which my life flowed, driving me away from the familiar and up into the Himalayan Mountains. Where I proceeded to reconstruct my life back in the States.
It’s not simply that I lingered for a month, with regular (although volunteer) employment and friends. I organized a solo female traveler’s women’s group, complete with meetings, a contact list, and casual events. Once I started helping one of my charity’s co-founders with networking, community development, and social media, it became quite clear that I had to leave McLeodganj if I was going to do any of this solo work.
But routine can be a gift once you see it form unexpectedly. I could see how significance was built, as I grew to know more and more people after starting with nothing, and saw my friendships deepened. For a brief time, I could feel as if I lived in McLeodganj.
When we follow the routes that have been laid before us without examination or thought, it is harder to see their complexity and importance. To live in Chicago and never go to the top of the Sears tower is normal; and almost every tourist attempts it. I tried to get to the top of the tower before I left, but I was too busy saying goodbye to friends. How beautiful is that?
Once I realized I was nearly halfway through my time in India, I knew I had to go or I would not finish in time. I closed down my life, passed on my responsibilities, and packed. Again.
One particular good-bye was difficult. My friend/co-worker/boss and I had become close friends; I had come to respect how her insight and humor helped me process the challenging side of India. My visions of self-improvement, of yoga and Hindi classes, fell aside as I focused on the café, on her dreams and story.
We hugged goodbye and I promised to return; when I said I would miss her as well, she responded with her classic “Truly??”
Leaving me with the café, off to finish work at the office, she shouted “sange jeyo!” through the open window. In Tibetan, the words for “goodbye” actually mean “see you tomorrow,” making it feel as if I would greet her the next morning like always, and begin to mop the floors while she sets out the baked goods, and we tell each other our stories and ideas for the future.
I will miss her, and my life there. Truly.