Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Varanasi: Living in India

"Sit down, and shut up or I will PUNCH you in the FACE!"
"What?!...I didnt do anything I just--"
(Carlos sit down man...This guy will level you....)
"This bus should cost 60 rupees, not 165!! Give him his money back we will find another bus!"
"No just--"
(Dude carlos, I dont want to have a brawl in a bus man...)
"Carlos, its fine, Ill pay for everyone just sit--"

Carlos then sits down next to me and at that moment it became apparent; we were getting held up on a empty government bus by small time mafia men for what amounts to about $6.

What happened was we got on a bus that was going to leave in 10 minutes from Sunali to a town about 4 hours away, so we could catch a train to Varanasi. No passengers were on the bus yet, so we get on, put our stuff down and take a seat. Immediately one man entered the bus and acted as the conductor collecting money for the tickets. His price was triple the amount it should be. I had no idea how much the bus cost so when he told me how much I handed over my money thinking he was the correct conductor telling me the correct amount. He immediately passed the money over to another man behind him, who then left the bus. Carlos asked me,
"how much was the bus?"
"165 rupees"
Carlos stands up and says,
"No No, it should be 60, get up lets get our stuff"
"Where are we going?"
"On a different bus, it should be 60 rupees"
The aggressive man came over to Carlos and that is when he threatened him to sit down and shut up or else we would get punched in the face.

Carlos at this point is wigged out. He whispers to me,
"That guy was going to PUNCH me in the FACE man...I believe him too man, that guy was SOLID man, SOLID. I grabbed his arm and it was like concrete man, SOLID. We need to get out of here man...We were held up on a GOVERNMENT BUS, not a tourist bus, this was infront of the driver MAN...Who knows what could happen to us on the ride, we need to get a new bus.."
While Carlos was freaking out, one of the guys dropped three tickets and 30 rupees change on my lap and disapeared.
"What are those?"
"The tickets and change" (The change we should have gotten for 3 tickets was 320 rupees, not 60)
(Carlos looks at the tickets)
"This means the conductor was in on it man! That guy bought the tickets at regular price from the real conductor, keeping the profit, maybe giving alittle to the driver and conductor for being in on deal, and left!"

So to give alittle background before I continue, Carlos, my new columbian friend, was on the bus with Ryan and I that went to Sunali from Pokhara, Nepal. He overheard that Ryan and I were going to Varanasi and invited himself to come along with us. Carlos is a 57 year old man from Columbdia, who was about my height and same build. He spoke with a rich columbian accent, and wore the attire of a druglord.He reminded me very much of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He is very intelligent man who knows alot of facts about how the world works, how politics work, and how countries work. He has been to India more than 5 times in the past 10 years.

So back to the hold up, Carlos's paranoia started to get me, Ryan was on another seat across from us, so he was able to keep his composure by not hearing Carlos. Carlos loved to talk, and this gave him an even more legitimate reason to belt out everything on his mind, which shouldve been kept to himself. So for the next 4 hours I listened to Carlos whisper through the side of his mouth about anything from not trusting anyone on the bus, to why the driver has missing fingers, to how he is going to "f&*% these guys" when we get off the bus by filing a complaint or talking to a police officer, or anything else his mind thought of. He wouldnt talk to Ryan because Ryan didnt understand the concept of speaking about this matter softly for he would yell to carlos and I, letting the whole bus know what we were all talking about. I kept wanting to move seats so I wouldnt have to listen to the ranting columbian anymore but I didnt want to seem suspicious, the only available seat was right behind the driver and I was not going to be anywhere near that guy. One thing was for certain, Carlos was completely wigged out which made me wigged out.

The driver was constantly looking over his shoulder at ryan, carlos or myself and carlos says
"I dont trust the driver man...Look hes all paranoid because those mafia men are not here man...This is a big deal cody, BIOLENCE (violence)on a government bus man...These workers LOVE their job, it gets handed down from their father and it is an honor for indians to work for the government...Once we get off the bus man, you watch, Im gonna f*^& these guys if there is a cop around, watch cody..."
"I dont think we should do anything, I dont want to get things worse for us, maybe even get folowed to our guest house, we need to just drop it"
"No Cody! Thats the problem, thats why this keeps going on because no one reports these things. If enough reports get in, they will investigate the situation, we need to do something man..."
"Just dont cause a scene, we need to do it discreetly..."

When we get off the bus we were the last 3, of course to get off. The driver and conductor smile at us and you could tell they were silently mocking us for they knew we could do nothing about the situation.
"This is not the bus station, take us to the bus station."
"No no no, bus station THERE! (points across the street)"
They didnt want to pull into the station because police are there and knew we were gonna try to get them in trouble. So we step off the bus and carlos curses the men out in spanish and exits the bus.
"Wait before the bus leaves, we need to write down the license plate"
"Already got it, lets goto the bus station man...Im gonna f*^& these guys man..."
So we walk to the bus station and ask for a manager or someone we can make a complaint to. We get shown to a small room with a desk, no chairs, just a desk and 2 mosquitoes for every square inch of space. I got bit over 15 times just from the time being there.
"Do you have paper cody?"
"Yeah, hold on. (I rip out a page from my journal and hand it to Carlos)
He immediately starts writing, and with each word that he wrote he said it outloud, dictating his own letter as he wrote it. I go to walk out of the door and he says,
"Cody! You need to help me with this come back!"
Carlos didnt listen to any of my grammer corrections for he was in the zone writing this letter. At each part in the story where he talked about the mafia men or the driver/conductor he would pause, and say
"Im gonna f*^& these guys man" and would bend the truth alittle bit making the situation seem more severe. Towards the end of our complaint, the superintendent of the station comes in and Carlos gets up and immediately re-inacts the whole scene.
"They used BIOLENCE (violence), brada (brother) BIOLENCE"
The superintendent was now joined by 4 other indian workers in less than 1 minute. Im sure that it was because they overheard or saw Carlos's performance. They all were looking at Carlos with much admiration, hell we all were, this was entertainment man watching this guy! After hearing our story the man says,
"I am very sorry this happened but we cannot do anything. These are mafia men...The best I can do is send this into the headquarters and hope someone there takes care of it."
"We just hope that the police INVESTIGATE the conductor and driver. BIOLENCE was used on a goverment bus man BIOLENCE do you understand? (the indians look down at the floor and shake their heads that they did understand) The driver on his right hand was missing his middle, pinky, and first finger, we want them to be investigated"
"The best I can do is send this off to the--"
"Ok, if that is the best ok.."
"Would you like some chai?"
"ahaha we would love some! Cody?
"You dont have to ask me twice!"
"Ah good man! Ryan?"
"I dont drink chai"
"Ill have his!"
Within a few minutes a chai walla (someone who fetches chai) comes and delivers 8 steaming cups of chai. Here all the indians even including ryan and myself all were watching carlos talk about india with his columbian charisma. The gleam and smile in the indians eyes were pricless, they were silent, listening and watching Carlos's every word and movement.

Shortly after the tea we left. Carlos roomed with Ryan and I, so we got a room by the train station, set down our bags and went and got some food. The whole night, Carlos wouldnt shut up about the incident. The whole night, even when the lights were out and people were laying in their beds he would go on and on and on.
"They used BIOLENCE man...BIOLENCE"
"I know that guy was going to punch you in the face"
"I know man! He wouldve knocked out my teeth man, he was SOLID man SOLID!!"
"We know Carlos..."
"Did someone lock the door man? I dont want any more suprises man"
Carlos gets up and checks that all the doors and windows are locked and somewhere around this point I was able to drown him out and sleep.
The following morning carlos gets up at 5 to try to hitch a train at 6 to varanasi.
"Goodbye you guys, Ill see you in Varanasi, if I dont, I will never forget you two because of what happened yesterday, together man. Lock the door behind me man, no more suprises man"
Ryan and I mumble something similar and I get up and lock the door behind him and fall back asleep.

Ryan and I hitched a train later that afternoon. It was supposed to be an express train which meant less stops and much faster but the 3 hour train ride turned into 7. There were problems on the train which is why we stopped so much and so frequent.

Immediately from the time stepping off the train into Varanasi, I felt that there is something in the air here. Both literally, and metaphorically. Varanasi is probably the most holy city in India, people come here to be burned at the ganga, just like I was talking about in Kathmandu, but the energy here doesnt compare to any place Ive been in my life. You can actually feel it here, its in the people, its in the air, its in your being, its everywhere. We got into varanasi at 8pm and immediately got an autorickshaw and headed out to a hotel. Nice hotel, cheap, and had an amazing restaurant. The rickshaw drivers were really nice and informative of the town, and best of all NOT AGRESSIVE on the 20 minute drive. He offered to be our guide if we wanted to do the sightseeing one day. He said it was a fixed price, we wouldnt have to pay not even a extra rupee the whole day, so we agreed. We told him the day after the next at 9am to pick us up.

The next day I spent the whole day walking around. Our rickshaw driver said to us,
"If you havnt gotten lost in Varnasi, you have not seen varanasi"
I got lost more times than I could count, I have the worst sense of direction known to mankind. To get to the ganga, you have to walk through a labyrinth of narrow alleys, which can make you feel like you are walking around in a circle, which at many times Im sure I was. Especially at night, it was even worse. I got so turned around so many times and walking around alone in Varanasi at night is not recommended. I was lost one night and one guy says he will show me where to go, so I walk with him and we make small talk about india and he even helps me alittle with my hindi. He asks then,
"Are you married?"
"ME? hahaha no"
"No girlfriend?!"
"Dont need to rub it in.."
Then he mumbles something and all I heard was "penis..penis..."
I stop walking, my heart stops and breath becomes deep...
"Show me your penis.."
"No no no no...(i walk backwards shaking my head)
"Its ok, no its ok"
All I could say was no and shake my head. At this point my adrenaline was pumping like a heroin addict because I didnt know if I was about to get raped by a gay indian. I try to clench my trembling fists but my hands are soaked with sweat I was so scared..
He then turns around and starts to walk the other way. I just sit down on the nearby steps for my legs were about to give out and I try to calm down and center myself before starting to walk again. Once I see he is out sight, I have to find a different way to get to my guest house because I didnt want to get raped while turning a dark corner getting to my guest house. The whole way back to my guest house, I walked with a knife in my hand for I was not in a good state of mind. I made it back safely and just got back to my room and was totally wierded out. I have no problem with gay people, that is their personal choice and right to choose who they love, not mine. But I do have a major problem when people cross the boundaries of another persons comfort level. I felt violated, even though nothing physical happened. I didnt sleep at all that night, I saw the sun rise once again.

The rickshaw driver was on time to the second the following morning. That day Ryan and I at first went and saw all the major temples in varanasi. At each place he had to park, when we returned he looked at me and asked for a few rupees for the parking, he had no money. So much for his promises... After this we wanted to got a near by city because its a nice buddhist town with lots of beautiful temples but he gave us a runaround about how it an exspensive toll road and he wouldnt take us for the fixed price, he wanted more money. Another broken promise, which is typical. At this point I was fed up, I gave him less than half of his rate and we walked to our guest house.

The next few days were ryans last in Varanasi. We ended up splitting into different hotels because he needed to get into a super deluxe place with cable t.v. because there were college basketball playoffs on that he wanted to watch, and I didnt want to pay that much money. We made plans the next few days to meet at the ganga to see the daily aarti ceremony. Upon meeting up, ryan says to me,
"Dude, youll never guess who I ran into..."
"YES! Dude I totally agree, there is something quite magical about this place...I was walking around totally lost in those alleys trying to get to the ganga and just when I think Im forever going to be stuck here, I see Carlos! I told him we would meet him here in a an hour"
We met up with carlos at the ganga and just talked about varanasi and the hold up, or should I say, we listened to Carlos talk about Varnasi and the holdup. After an hour of chit chatting, we split ways from carlos making a time to meet the next day same time and same place for a boat ride, for it will be Ryans last day.

Getting a boat on the ganga was simply amazing. Carlos ended up coming along with Ryan and I, and this truly was the best way to see varanasi. On a peaceful, silent boat ride at dawn or dusk was the real way to see varanasi. It was so peaceful and you get a better view of the tall buildings you walk along, but never really look at. You get to see the whole Varanasi, and it is truly amazing. After seeing the sunset, our driver let me row the boat and we go to the main cremation site. We sat and watched the roaring fires for a good 30 minutes in silence. Here the bodies were alot more revealed, for instance, one of the fires gave a clear view of a human skull, you could even make out the ear on the side of the head...According to the locals here the cremations have been going on for thousands of years, nonstop. There is one fire in specific that has been on going for 4 thousand years some people claim, and you can take alittle bit of ashes for yourself, if you desire to do so. They also claim that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world and that it is the exact center of earth. Once we started to get nauseated from the fumes we head over to see the aarti. Just like in Rishikesh, there is a daily ceremony by the ganga but this aarti is alot better. Here ryan and I buy a boat of flowers with a candle in the center and float this boat of love down the ganges. This will always remain as one of my favorite things to do in India,it never gets old, I love it.

After the majestic boat ride we all went to get some food at a nearby restaurant Carlos recommended. He knows almost everyone by name as we walk through the narrow streets and alleys, sometimes stopping at peoples houses to show us their family and talk to them. Here he would talk about how much the children have grown since the last time he was here a few years ago. Walking in Varanasi, especially at night, you have to watch where you walk. There is so much poop everywhere, literally, so much its ridiculous...I learned my lesson the first day here by not looking where I step, now I am very aware of where my feet go... At the restaurant, Carlos wouldnt shut up again. My energy just gets drained from listening to him pop off on rants without breaking...However, he is a very intelligent man, who knows ALOT about current affairs, polictics, and how the world works. Dont get me wrong I did learn alot from listening to him, its just my brain hurt after awhile...After dinner, Ryan went back with me to my guest house because he missed his train, so he crashed on the extra bed in my room. His new train left at 5am, so that night we said our goodbyes and laughed until we fell asleep again, just like in Nepal.
Ryan says to me laughing,
"Look at the people we get involved with man AHAH First its the miserable frenchman, now its carlos the columbian"
"HAHA CARLOS! That fool loved to talk..."
"That guy was going to punch me in da face man!"
"You know what man?...Im gonna F*^& this guy man"
After all the laughter was out, I decided to write Ryan a letter to get out what I wanted to say but didnt want to be a sobbing mess.
Promptly at 4am the next morning, he left. Grumbling and stumbling around, I find the letter and give it to him and tell him its been fun traveling together and to please keep in touch.
"Cody..Lock that door behind you man...I dont want any more suprises man"
We shook hands, gave each other a hug, then I went back to sleep.

The rest of the days in Varanasi Ive essentially been living here. Up until now, Ive just been traveling around India, but the rest of my time in Varanasi Ive been living in India. My home is a room in a guest house and it has everything I need. There I use a gas stove and have been learning how to cook my own indian dishes. Ive made very good friends with the young manager named Anil, who has been showing me how to cook these indian meals. The deal is Ill buy the ingredients for both of us and he will show me how to make the dish. So every couple of days, I would goto the same vendor for my fruits, same vendor for my veggies, the same chai stand in the morning, the same internet place to take my chai to, and as a result have came to know each of these great people showing me what it feels like to truly be living here.

Outside of this, Ive been taking tabla (indian drums) lessons everyday sometimes twice a day. I initially was going to a older man right down the way from my hotel but he tried robbing me blind for a tabla set so I started looking for a new teacher, one not so focused on money, who is focused solely on teaching and music. Anil asked me after my first lesson,
"How was your tabla lesson?"
"Good except he tried ripping me off buying a tabla, and his lessons are expensive!"
"What you mean?"
"He tried selling me a tabla set for 9000 rupees! It should have cost like 5000! and his lessons are 200 a lesson, where they should be only 100 or at most 150."
"Who you take lessons from?"
"Bagchi over across the way at the--"
"BAGCHI! He is a bad man, only out for money. I bring you two teachers tomorrow, one is my uncle the other is a close friend of mine, a professor teaching tabla at the university, BHU. Lessons are 150 and they come to your room. Good people, you see."
I ended up choosing the professor. His name is Bolanath, and he is a short, skinny indian man, dressed in traditional indian attire, from the neck down, but from the neck up he wears a baseball cap and designer knock off sunglasses. He makes me smile and is the exact kind of teacher I wanted.
"My god, is music. Every morning, I offer incense to my tabla and pray for God to bless me and give me power to play. God also bless me for I am much too happy, Cody, I am." Not only is he sincere, but he truly believes that music is his god. I like this devotion about him. He has been playing tabla since he was a young child and is now 59. After our first lesson he invited me one of his concerts at a nearby temple and at that instant I knew this is my teacher after hearing him play and sing. I am only in Varanasi to learn tabla for the rest of the time I am in India, so I take this very seriously and need a teacher who will treat me as such.

One day my Guruji (hindi work for teacher) took me to meet his family at his house. His wife died a few years ago and he lives with his 3 stunningly beautiful daughters, 1 brother, 1 sister, and his mother and father, all under one roof. Here he showed me the cds he has made with his son (his son plays tabla as well) while one of his beautiful daughters kept putting delicious food on my plate. Sitting on the cool concrete floor with my Guruji listening to his music with his family was a great experience of which I am truly grateful to have had. They were all so hospitable and friendly, after food we took rest. Men went into one room, women in another and took a nap. Indians tend to sleep after they eat.

The next day or so, I ended up buying my own tabla set with Guruji and the next day he brought incense to the lesson,
"Guruji, what is this for?"
"Puja, for your tabla! I give blessing for tabla, and give you blessing for you to have power to play!"
Here he waved incense, chanted a few mantras, touching the top of my head blessing me and my tabla.
"Ok now you can play, dont let anyone touch your tabla. This is your god Cody, only your energy here, understand?"
"Yes Guruji"
"Before you play, offer incense to it and ask god to give you power to play and you will be much too happy."
"Thank you Guruji"
"Your are most welcome Cody"
Shortly after our chai was delivered and the lesson began.

I spend about 6 hours a day practicing and 2 hours a day in lessons with Guruji. The people at the guest house have come to know that as soon as Guruji arrives for my lesson, within 5 minutes, we have 2 cups of steaming hot chai handed to us. When Im not in the tabla zone, Im cooking up some delicious indian meals with Anil, and when Im not cooking, Im working on the blog. When I can squeeze in some mediation, I do, but for the most part, I am focusing only on these three things.

Each day here I feel more and more at home at the guest house. Anil and I play chess, cook together, and he watches me play tabla. Ive even made friends with one of my neighbors. My neighbor to my left is a deathly skinny, tall, japanese man with long black hair and a thick thick accent. Every time I see him he showers me with the warmest smile and says "Namaste". He makes me coffee every once in awhile (always at night never in the morning) and I am constantly borrowing his utensils to cook. He comes to Varanasi just to learn Sitar. He was at the same guest house last year and is here this year for 6 months again, just learning sitar. All he does all day is practice, literally. His only break is on sundays.

It is starting to get unbearably hot here in Varanasi and it is getting worse by the day. I plan to stay and put up with the heat here until I leave to go home. I feel truly blessed to be given this experience, and for the wonderful people that have been placed in my life, this truly has been the highlight of my trip.

After this blog, there will sadly be only one more blog, a conclusion, a recap of my trip on how Ive grown, and what Ive learned on the way. The last blog is taking more energy than anything Ive ever put together. This is part of the reason for me going into silence til the end of my trip. I wanted to focus solely and wholeheartedly on tabla and the blog, nothing else. Ive never focused so hard and spent so much time and effort into something before and I am looking forward to sharing it with all of you.

You are all in my thoughts and prayers. I love you all.
Be HAPPY!!!!