Thursday, May 31, 2012

Carolann's Parting Thoughts on India

We're leaving India on a high note and in full colour, today being the feast of Holi. Here's a few thoughts I have, in summary, about out nine weeks on the subcontinent. - Carolann

We're here in Hospet on the day of Holi, a festival in India where people dance and throw coloured powder at each other. I've used up the last of my Polaroids -- actually I'm lugging around a Fuji instant picture camera now since Polaroid got out of the instant picture business (but I still call it my Polaroid).

I am always swarmed when I start giving away photographs and I sometimes feel I'm leaving behind more ill feelings than pleasure since I can't possibly satisfy everyone's request. Still, I've been doing this sort of thing for ten years and even though most people have picture-taking cell phones, in poorer countries, no one has a picture to keep for themselves. Images evaporate on the cell phone.

I managed to get out of the colouring with just a purple face. Dan got in the line of more powder fire, but that's the fun of it. The pounding drums excite people and they dance and smear.

We were planning to take in the Holi at the magnificent ruins of Hampi, but, just yesterday, the date was pushed ahead a day. The festival is celebrated according to the moon and the date and time varies with the region. With car and hotel booked and paid for, not to mention our visa expiring, we needed to move on to Hyderabad to catch a plane. So instead, we hung around our hotel and the local Holi celebrations spilled onto its front lawn.

I'm happy that we're leaving India on a high note. During nine weeks of travel here, I've had my ups and downs with the country. Sometimes I'm in better mental and physical shape to roll with the chaos and cacophony, because, besides an open heart, it takes physical stamina to travel independently here. I've therefore come to appreciate the "third eye" that spiritualists talk about. I could have used one in negotiating the laneways of Udaipur. A pedestrian competes with dogs, old cars, bikes, auto rickshaws, honking cars, belching trucks, shouting crowds with raised placards, piles of rotting garbage, fresh dung, parked motorcycles, and retail goods spilling onto the walkways. Too often, I ended my day thinking: India is a mess.  

But at other times, when I've been rested .... No, what am I thinking, India is still a mess!

In fairness, the south of India we've seen over the last four weeks has been easier. There hasn't been the crush of people. Admittedly, most of the time we've been on the seaside, the Bay of Bengal and then the Arabian Sea. The ocean wind moderates everything. Also, we've enjoyed the company of other westerners concentrated in such places and that gives the experience another dimension.

I've come to appreciate that India is hardly a country at all, rather, it's an assembly of tribes.  I can now recognize a high cheek-boned Tamil and the cherub-faced women from Assam. And it's more a multicultural society than a melting pot. Certainly what never melts here is caste, even if ethnicity could be blurred.

That's all I have to say about India.

 On Sunday morning we leave India and Southeast Asia entirely. Sunday evening, we'll be in Spain. Ojala.  

[See for more of Carolann's travel stories]

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Today I was blessed by Ganesh – the Elephant, not the god

Pondicherry Vibe on the Bay of Bengal, India

Beside the Bay of Bengal
"The literature of travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching, now and then unexpectedly spiritual." (Paul Theroux, 'The Tao of Travel,' 2011)

Sitting at a seaside café on the Promenade in Pondycherry, I looked up as two European tourists walked by. This wasn’t unusual in this part of India where most of the tourists are French, but the gent greeted me with a word I didn’t recognize as either French or English as he passed by.

I didn’t even hear the word clearly, and I certainly don’t speak Swedish. And yet, somehow, I knew that he had spoken Swedish and that we had connected in that fleeting moment of his passage.

The casually dressed couple was looking for a table for two, but we had taken the last one in this tiny café looking out over the Bay of Bengal. As they turned the corner, I watched them, and, as our eyes met, I invited them to join us at our table for four.

It’s something I would normally do anyway, but there was more to it than that. As I said, we had connected and I was about to learn from Anders that a spiritual element was involved.

Cafe on the Promenade

Pondycherry is a former French colony and is known as the French Riviera of the East. It is, I was surprised to learn, a part of India never colonized by the British. It has French street signs, which in itself is doubly odd in a country where a street sign in any language is rare.

Carved stone writing on the building across the Promenade from us reads “Douane – Customs.” Another reads "Travaux Publics." French colonial-era buildings light up the sunny streets of the old French quarter in the bright colours of the Caribbean. French is still one of the official languages of the regional government.

Travaux Publics (Public Works)

Indian "Gendarme" with Kepi
Restaurants here serve faux baguettes, faux croissants (Hello, they’re supposed to be flaky and buttery not just dense bread in a crescent shape!), and pseudo-French meals. But the police all wear the famous red “kepi” hat of the French gendarmes and you can hear French spoken everywhere.

As interesting as all that is, we came to Pondycherry, not because of the French aspect, but because of a little known book by Canadian author Yann Martell called the ‘Life of Pi,’ a story about a boy’s spiritual awakening in India. We both loved the book and thought it would be fun to explore the locale of the book and visit some of the ruins here.

We had also been told that this area was a spiritual hub, with a “World Peace” village, temples and ashrams. But I wasn’t looking to get immersed in an ashram or in any form of mysticism for that matter. I was really just looking for a beach vacation.

It’s very pleasant in Pondycherry, warm, sunny, tropical and maritime; a world removed from the dry, arid northern India we visited in November. It’s a relaxing, laid-back seaside resort town, but not gussied up, just slow and casual.

At night the sea breezes from the Bay of Bengal blow across the Promenade and thousands of locals stroll along in the cool night air. The police close off all of the streets leading down to the Promenade so there are no screaming motorbikes, belching tuk tuks or honking cars to disturb the peace.

This has to be the most pleasant town we have visited in all of India. For the first time in months, we actually saw the stars in the clear night sky.

The Promenade in Pondycherry

But it’s not just physically different from northern India, its spirit is different too.  It has a different vibe. Pondycherry is full of mystics, lost souls in search of spirtitual enlightenment, and faded old hippies searching for the guru they misplaced 40 years ago.

Shops are filled with “mystic” crystals and books on yoga, yogis and yoghurt. Healthy food and vegetarian restaurants abound. Many of the French tourists wear Indian longis or sarongs and brightly dyed t-shirts that contrast with their long grey hair and beards.

There’s a special spiritual air about this town that you sense from the laid-back tourists, the slow pace of life, and the bemused smiles of contentment.

Candy Floss Vendors
And so, when the Swedish Anders sat down at our table with his latest devotee Marjvie, he said he knew that I was going to ask them to join us. He was just waiting for me to realize it.

He had read my “inner spirit” as he walked by and felt a “connection.” He could “see” my “aura” and knew we were meant to meet and exchange life stories.

Carolann and I both seemed to connect with him immediately, so there may be something to this whole spirituality thing after all.

I was fascinated by his talk of reading our divine inner spirits by looking at our palms. As a small demonstration, he asked us to hold up our hands and proceeded to tell us what sign we were and what our social skills were based on the shape of our hand. He said he wanted to help people get in touch with their “inner selves” and he offered to help us achieve a sense of enlightenment and freedom.

Anders and Marjvie
He claimed to have worked with Meryl Streep and John Travolta in his earlier life in Hollywood when he charged $1,000 per hour for helping them connect.

I asked how he could walk away from a gig like that and he simply said, “My past lives [my emphasis] tell me where to go and what to do next in this life.” Now he was leading tours of people in search of their past life experiences and had just finished a 14-day tour of temples and ashrams. When he met us he was taking a day off with Marjvie, one of his students and now a true believer.

He told us about a fascinating ritual practiced by Indian holy men who can predict your past and future by consulting ancient texts written on palm leaves stored in a temple. You give them your thumbprint and they proceed to ask questions about you by reading from the palm scroll.

This leads them to tell you, without further prompting, your parents’ names, your birthday, and what you did in a previous life.

Bill Gates had gone through this experience and Anders claimed it changed the history of Microsoft. In fact, Gates has built one of the biggest IT complexes in India because of this spiritual experience.

It was all incredibly interesting and I was intrigued by the palm leaf ritual and determined to find out how the holy men did it. What was the trick? I was dying to find out if there was any truth to Anders’ stories or if it was all BS. But then he helped me by saying, “You know that all of the pyramids were built by aliens using anti-gravity devices.” I took a metaphysical step back and asked if he knew Thor Hyderdahl, but he ignored my implied skepticism.

Nevertheless, after lunch we parted on good terms and he left me amazed by his sales pitch. I was tempted to call him to set up an appointment for a reading of my “inner spirit” and past lives just to learn more about his shtick, but I really thought it was all hype and held off. Maybe I was wrong to be so skeptical.

Downtown Pondycherry
The next day, we were walking along a laneway looking for the Bureau de Postes/Post Office. We took a wrong turn and got lost. Suddenly at the end of the dead-end street I saw an elephant. In India, an elephant downtown is not that unusual, but this one was all painted up and swaying his trunk. 

We had, in fact, stumbled upon the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple of Ganesh. I had wanted to visit this site, but Carolann had told me it was too far outside of Pondycherry to warrant the drive so I had given up on it.

And suddenly there it was, appearing out of nowhere, as if by magic. Was some divine spiritual guidance at work? Was I subconsciously heading down the path to enlightenment? Anders would have said that everything happens for a reason and I wasn’t lost that day on that narrow street in Pondycherry, I was actually just starting to find my way.

The temple Sri Manakula Vinayagar is known as the place where Ganesh, in the form of an elephant, blesses all those who make a donation to the temple. Ganesh is the Hindu deity or Lord of Beginnings and is widely worshipped in India and honoured at the beginning of spiritual rituals.

Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple
But this Ganesh was a real live elephant waving its trunk around and blessing people by tapping them gently on the head. I bought some grass and fruit and offered them up to “Ganesh.” She patted my head and then suddenly wandered off down the street, her shift having ended for the day.

It was like she was waiting for me to come and be blessed. Was this Karma again? Or did “Ganesh” just see me buying the food and decided to wait around for me. At any rate, I had been blessed.

Elephant Food for Sale

Elephant Blessing a Child
On our last day in Pondycherry, I decided to wander off on my own to take some photos of mandalas. Mandalas are beautiful handmade chalk drawings that people create in front of their house or shop. I didn’t know it at the time, but they have a spiritual significance. Carl Jung saw the mandala as "a representation of the unconscious self." Was I unconsciously looking for enlightenment again?

As I was photographing an elegant woman in a sari who was delicately pouring white chalk around the geometric design, I heard a voice behind me say in French “Isn’t it beautiful?” A small Indian dressed like a tourist stood behind me admiring the artwork. 

In French, he explained the spiritual significance of the mandala. He told me he was a doctor living in France, but originally from Pondycherry. He came back every year to enjoy the relaxed quiet lifestyle.

We walked together for a while as he told me his connection with Indian ayurvedic medicine and the importance of diet and meditation in healing. “The mind plays an important role in the health of the body,” he said. “Spirituality and mysticism are all interconnected with the physical world and your body is but a vessel.”

As we passed some large trees that were blown down by Cyclone Thane in December, we reflected on the damage inflicted on the town of Pondycherry and he commented how all things were meant to happen, just like Anders had said. 

So I asked if he had heard about the palm leaf readers and whether the stories were true. “Anything is possible in the spirit world,” he replied with a wink and left me to puzzle over the strange vibe of Pondycherry.

I struggled over how to end this story. I’m still puzzling over Anders and his tales of reincarnation and rebirth weeks later. But then Carolann pointed out that the story of life never ends, life is continuous like the geometric manadala and Anders will be reincarnated over and over again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Beaches of Goa -- I Can See for Miles, and Miles, and Miles….

Palolem Beach, Goa
The Who may have been inspired by the miles and miles of beaches in Goa. You can literally see for miles in either direction on these beautiful golden sand beaches. And in South Goa, the view is often unmarred by any other tourist.

Today we rode our bikes on the hard packed beach sand from Cavelossim Beach in south Goa, north to Colva Beach. The 20 km of beaches here in Goa are so wide, long and empty that it’s easy to forget you’re in crowded India.

Riding on Varca Beach
Our bike ride took us from Cavelossim Beach, past Varca Beach and Benaulim Beach to the town of Colva, a distance of about 10 km.

At low tide, the hard packed sand is 60 metres deep and solid enough to ride your bike for hours. Mere metres away, the sand is soft and golden and your wheels sink into it like deep snow, tumbling you over the handlebars. But if you stay on the dark compacted part, it’s a nice smooth ride with no hills.

Cruising on the hardpacked sand
A little further up the beach away from the surf, the sand is deeper and powdery like flour. When you walk on it, the sand scrunches and squeaks and sounds amazingly just like dry snow on a cold winter day. It’s a weird phenomenon of dry sand that we last experienced on the singing sand beach in PEI.

When you start out on a bike from your beach hotel, first you have to walk the bike down the treed sand dune to the soft singing sand. It’s hard to push your bike through this deep sand, but it’s only 30 metres or so, and you’re laughing like a kid on a sunny winter day as the sand squeaks under your sandals. But it’s 35 C here.

Then you cross over the next stretch of soft wet sand until you reach the hardpack where the wave action has pounded the sand into a solid, flat, smooth roadway with only little crab holes marring its glistening surface. As you ride by, the tiny crabs peek out of their holes and then scurry back down sometimes dragging a small dead starfish along with them. A two-meter wide band of beach at low tide is littered with broken seashells that crunch and crackle under your tires as your ride over them.

The key to successfully riding on the beach, of course, is to time the tides just right.  The tides can come up 60 metres or more. And in Monsoon season, the entire 100-metre depth of beach will be covered in water right up to the tree line, and the beach restaurant shacks all have to be dismantled until next October.

Two days ago, our first excursion up the beach, north to Benaulim, was supposed to start at 9 a.m. at low tide. Unfortunately, someone, who shall remain nameless, needed her beauty sleep and slept in until 9. So by the time we got our rental bikes and headed down to the beach, it was already 11 and very hot.

No matter, we thought, we’ll find a nice beach restaurant an hour or so up the beach, have lunch, explore the town of Benaulim and head back before high tide. Good plan, but it didn’t work out that way.

Portuguese Style Fishing Boat
Once in Benaulim, we had to go inland about 2 km to find an ATM for some much needed cash. Benaulim is a small fishing village with a big Portuguese-style Catholic church. Surprisingly, this whole area is mostly Christian, a carry over from the Portuguese who only left Goa in 1961.

There are still lots of expats living here in rented accommodation or in their own condos. They’re mostly British with a few French thrown in, who come for the winter to bask in the sun and eat fresh seafood at very good prices.

The road inland was narrow, but there wasn’t much traffic, thankfully, and we were able to cruise along without difficulty until we hit the first crossroad where we found two grocery stores and a tiny bakery. The ATM was another kilometer inland near the main highway, but it was all a pleasant safe ride.

An hour later, back at the beach, we decided to try lunch at Pedro’s, which had been recommended by a British gent we had met the day before as he was walking his bike down the beach. He said he lived in Varca for the winter, but even he had misjudged the tide and was having a bit of a struggle pushing his bike through the soft sand to get back home. He recommended Pedro’s prawn soup for Rs100 (about $2), which he said was full of large, fresh prawns.

I had one of my favourite Indian dishes, butter chicken with rice, and Carolann had her new favourite, Dahl, which is a lentil curry. With a large Kingfisher beer, the bill came to under Rs500 (about $5) for the two of us.

Riding through the High-Tide Surf
By the time lunch was over, the tide was coming in and we had to rush back through the incoming surf to avoid the soft, wet sand. By 2:30, the tide was too high and we had to dismount and push our bikes through the slippery sand. But it was all good exercise and splashing through the surf was a lot of fun. Occasionally we’d startle a large crab, schools of tiny fish or a small flounder struggling in the surf.

Our second bike excursion was today and, having learned our lesson, we left even earlier at low tide and managed to ride all the way up to Colva where we briefly explored that much busier town with it’s greater selection of hotels, restaurants and stores.

Town of Colva
Colva is a favourite with Indian tourists and locals. There’s not a lot of nightlife here and it’s not as busy as the beaches of north Goa, which are cheek to cheek with sunbathing Russians, but it’s still far more crowded and hectic than our beach of Varca further south.

Colva Beach
Frankly, Colva’s not much to write home about. There’s some parasailing and sea doos and the same soft golden sand, but it’s still too busy for us. We prefer the quieter stretches further south.

But at the north end of town we did find a small fishing “village,” really just a collection of squalid tents and shacks where migrant workers from other parts of India make their home during the non-monsoon fishing season.

Fishing Village

Fields of fish were laid out to dry in the hot sun and workers were sorting fish into baskets for sale or drying. The stench of rotting fish and fish guts was almost unbearable, but the activity was fascinating to watch.

Fish Drying in the Sun
Sorting Fish
A couple of tiny urchins ran over to us from their hovel and asked for chocolate, which we didn’t have, so we gave them some bananas instead and they happily shared them amongst themselves.

On our way back – before high tide this time – we stopped at another of our favourite beach shack restaurants, Pereira’s Sweet Hut. The staff here explained that they shut down in May when the really hot weather comes and dismantle the whole restaurant before the monsoon starts in June. Then they reassemble everything in October or November when the tourists come back.

Pereira's Sweet Hut (temporary)

Fresh Crab at Pereira's
As I said earlier, the beaches south of Colva are usually almost empty, except for a few Russian tourists and the ubiquitous roving packs of friendly dogs, but this day, as we sat eating our lunch, we were surprised to see an enormous water buffalo with long sharp horns wander down to the beach where he laid down in the surf while his owner cooled him off and washed him down. He made quite a contrast with the red bikini clad Russian girls and the pink beach umbrellas at the restaurant.

The next morning, back at our quieter Varca Beach, we discovered that if you get up early enough, you can see the fishermen bring in their nets fully laden with shiny silver fish of all shapes and sizes, from tiny fingerlings to larger mackerel and red snappers, as well as a long, skinny, slender ribbon fish that looked like snakes.

Bringing in the Catch
They sort the fish by size and type, right on the beach, rinse them in sea water and then women cart them off in baskets on their heads to sell in the markets. Pairs of fishermen carry the last baskets between them on their oars.

Sorting the Fish
Rinsing in the Ocean

Baskets Loaded onto Heads

Off to Market Down the Beach

Last of the Baskets
Crowds of crows, the local replacement for seagulls here, swoop down and fight off the fish hawks to snatch small fish from the nets or scoop up the leftovers after the nets have been strung out to dry on the beach.

Kilometers of Nets are Strung out to Dry on the Beach
At first we didn’t believe that the dirty, old, black fishing boat on the beach was actually used for anything more than storing the nets overnight. In fact one of our hotel waiters told us that was the case. But on the second day we noticed that the boat had moved from its previous location high up on the beach. They had been out all night and had just returned with the tide around 6 in the morning. By 7:30, all the fish had been sorted, the nets were strung out to dry, and only the crows and dogs were left to pick over the fish too small to sell.

During the day, further out to sea, we could see larger, more modern trawlers slowly plying the waters with their nets trailing behind. But we never saw them land anything and assumed they must take their catch into a bigger port somewhere.

Further south of Varca Beach we stayed at Palolem Beach, which is quite different again. Where Varca Beach was almost too quiet and we we’re limited to one or two beach shack restaurants or our own hotel, Palolem is wall-to-wall restaurants, bars and coco huts, or small B&Bs.

Temporary Beach Huts on Palolem Beach
It’s still very pleasant and never too crowded. Most of the tourists here are European, not Russian. Our neighbours at the Palolem Beach Resort were Spanish, French, English, and Swiss, a very nice eclectic mix of retired travellers and storytellers with whom we had a lot in common. Interestingly, we never met any American or Australian tourists in Goa.
Palolem Fishing Boat

Palolem Beach is smaller than Varca and Colva Beaches and curves between two rocky headlands. It’s not as deep as those Beaches either. But the swimming is better because the surf isn’t as rough.

Dozens of fishing boats in the bright colours of a Portuguese fishing village line the beach to take tourists out for dolphin watching or a leisurely ride up river into the quiet backwaters.

Portuguese Fishing Boats on Palolem Beach
No one rides a bike on the beach here because of the steeper slope down to the hard sand and the presence of the fishing boats. But it’s great to walk from end to end of the two-kilometer-long beach on the soft sand. We saw people jogging or doing yoga on the beach every morning and at night we watched the sunset from one of the many ocean view restaurants.
Bridge and Tunnel Restaurant for Sunset Dining

We quite enjoyed this beach because of the greater options for dining and accommodation.  But we found an even quieter beach a half-hour walk south on the other side of the rocky promontory.

It’s called Patnem Beach and it is a u-shaped beach about 900 metres long with only a few small B&Bs or coco huts and no large hotels. It seemed to have the perfect mix of that quiet relaxing beach vibe and dining and accommodation. Our favourite restaurant here was at the Home B&B, which served only vegetarian meals, but with a nice European twist. Soft meditative music played in the background and it was oh so relaxing to sit and watch the waves crashing in.

Patnem Beach is Even Quieter
The beaches of Goa are as varied as the tourists who flock to them. But there is sure to be one that suits everyone’s style. All of the beaches seemed very clean and we rarely saw a cow, unlike the beaches on the east coast of India around Pondycherry and Mamalapuram.

Sunset on Palolem Beach
We like the more private beaches of Varca and Cavolessim and we really enjoyed our bike rides, but when we come back to Goa, I think we’ll be staying at Home B&B on the mellow Patnem Beach and just chill out.
A Nicely Chilled Carolann

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fast Work in Thailand (Carolann's Thoughts)

Carolann's thoughts on the Thailand tour

It's our last night in Thailand and we're having dinner poolside at the restaurant of the lovely Tamarind Village Hotel. It's a starry night above and a twinkling one below with dozens of candles running the length of the pool. And drifting high above, we see five rice paper lanterns (in a week or so, I'll post pictures on the blog). These delightful fire hazards have been launched somewhere in the old city and will last, airborne, for perhaps thirty minutes. You can buy them in the market, large stiff and crackly bags made of white rice paper with an internal bamboo frame holding two paraffin coils. You hold the bag open-side down, light the coils, and wait until the air heats up and puffs out the bag. In a few minutes, the air will be hot enough that when you let go, the entire cylindrical white bag will rise on its own, skyward. The giant candle effect in the sky is magical. I expect they are banned back home; in a wind, flaming paraffin would spill downwards. A few years ago, Chiang Mai lost a brand new library building to such a candle that got stuck on its roof. 

But it's delightful to see in any case. We're lucky this year that we can enjoy a clear night sky. Eight years ago, we had spent two weeks in these northern parts under a smoky haze created by uncontrolled burnings.

As the evening wears on, the waitress offers us tea, dessert, and mosquito repellent. Dengue fever is a real concern in the tropics, especially in populated areas. It's a blood infection in humans transmitted through certain mosquitoes. Because it's a human virus, the more populous the area, the more opportunity it has for transmission.

But here at the Tamarind I'm not thinking about dengue fever.

I am thinking, however, about another fear that's on everyone's mind. Fear of civil strife. The elderly King of Thailand is unwell and people are holding their breath.

All the Thais we meet have good things to say about the King. Of course it's against the law to say bad things, but the respect seems authentic enough.

A few days ago we were departing from our hotel in Rayong. The soft spoken Thai woman asked Dan the usual check-out questions.

"Did you use the mini-bar, Mr Cooper?"


"Will you be paying with cash or credit card Mr. Cooper?"


"Thank you Mr. Cooper. I love my king."

Not knowing how to respond to a non-sequitor, Dan thanked her in Thai and turned away to join me. I saw her put her hands together in the classic Thai wai, her lips moving inaudibly, "I love my king."

There's a kind of cohesiveness here because of the King. I picked up a piece in the Bangkok Post's annual review which was written by Michael Ignatieff, syndicated through the New York Times. He spoke about the politics of shame when two factions are persuaded to get along if shamed by a stronger third party. The story in Thailand goes something like that. The King by his very presence has been able to keep peace in this country, notwithstanding news-making bloody flare-ups from time to time.

People are worried about the transition. It's good for us to leave now.

Today, we're on our way to Singapore. It's been a busy week in Thailand, first down south in what's called the eastern economic zone and then in Chiang Mai near the Burmese border. We had not originally planned to come to Thailand this time but Dan secured us an all-expense paid sponsorship from the Thai Tourism Board. The Board asked us to cover, among other attractions, half a dozen gardens, Dan's specialty. I tag along, writing about the touring aspect from the lens of a mature traveler for my blog. We come as a package for a tourism board. It's work. We're on a schedule. There's elephants that need washing, plantings to be admired, Lanna specialty dishes that must be consumed.

So it's been busy and the last stop along the itinerary yesterday was the Oasis Spa. We were each given a two-hour Thai massage, specifically, The King's Oil Massage, characterized by a 90-pound waif applying a hot oil compress to the body and kneading it in like the King's own puff pastry chef.

As I said, this is work.

Carolann's travel stories can be viewed at

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Burning Ghats of Varanasi

Drying Laundry on the Ghats, Varanasi
The chanting started softly in the distance, a murmur that grew louder and louder. As the group neared us, the rhythmic chants reverberated off the walls of the dark, narrow laneways.

We quickly scampered up onto the steps of a tiny shop, anticipating the onrush in the confined passageway that was barely wide enough for the motorbikes or Brahma cows that had squeezed by us earlier.

Suddenly the group of chanters burst around a corner and Carol raised her camera to take a picture. I pulled her arm down as the last bearer turned his head and scowled at us. Photos are definitely frowned upon in Varanasi.

Just as quickly as they had appeared, the litter bearers disappeared around another corner heading toward the holy waters of the Ganges. On the litter was a body wrapped in bright gold cloth, which made it all the more startling in the dark laneway.
Carolann's Blurry Photo (thanks to me)

“Don’t worry,” our guide Prashant consoled her, “there will be another one in a minute. Every minute there will be one more. Everybody wants to be cremated on the Ganges.”

Sure enough, a second and then a third group of male mourners shuffled by carrying a body covered in garlands of flowers on a bamboo litter and chanting to their God to accept the deceased on its journey to Nirvana.

We were following Prashant through a dark maze of ancient laneways lined with tiny shops selling iced milk, lassi drinks, and paneer dipped in sizzling pans of hot oil. It was so close that I could feel the heat of the charcoal burners as we passed.

Iced Milk Vendor
The lanes wound down to the fabled burning ghats, a series of long, wide steps leading to the holy river Ganges. Without our guide we would have been totally lost in the narrow confines of old Varanasi. But then I realized we could have just as easily followed the steady stream of chanting mourners. Getting back, however, would be a different story. A guide is a must.

Varanasi is the home of Shiva, the destroyer God of Hindus. And it is every Hindu’s wish to be cleansed with the holy waters, cremated at the burning ghats with the sacred eternal fire, and then have their ashes tossed into the sacred waters of the Ganges. This allows the soul to proceed directly to heaven, without having to deal with karma and reincarnations.

We arrived at the top of the biggest burning ghat, Manikarnika, and saw a huge pile of firewood stacked 12-feet high that blocked our view of the water. Prashant told us that they imported the wood from southern India at great expense. Sandalwood, teak and other precious woods are used by the wealthy; ordinary woods by those who cannot afford the heavily scented imports. People plan their cremations well in advance in order to get the right wood or to save the money for transporting their mortal remains to the Ganges.

Stacks of Firewood
We turned a corner around an ancient temple that housed the eternal flames and saw several columns of grey smoke spiraling up from the steps of the ghat. Oddly, and much to our relief, there was only the normal smell of burning wood. We peered over the edge of the top landing, and saw 10 separate piles of burning funeral pyres on different landings, high above the water.

As we stood watching, a steady column of bearers carried bodies wrapped in gold cloth down to the river. One after the other, they immersed the body in the Ganges, sometimes wading into the river themselves. At other times they merely doused the cloth with handfuls of the sacred water.

After this ritual cleansing, workers stacked firewood in neat piles, laid the body on top and then stacked on more wood in orderly rows. A worker from the temple brought down the eternal sacred fire that had burned in the temple for centuries and lit the wood. The dry wood caught quickly and the flames leapt up, mercifully hiding the body, which was still wrapped in a white cloth.

The amount of wood, not just the type, is critical to ensure complete cremation. If a poor family cannot afford enough wood, and the body does not completely burn, a worker will use a long pole to deftly reposition the limbs over the burning flames.

At some of the fires, a lone man circled and recited a prayer. We learned that this would always be the son or other male member of the deceased’s family. Women were banned from the ceremony for fear that their cries or sobbing would harm the ascendency of the soul to nirvana. The transfer must be pure and not sad or painful.

The Burning Ghats of Manikarnika
Near the water’s edge, a huge pile of grey ashes was waiting to be spread onto the holy Ganges. After a cremation, ashes and bits of bone are gathered up and “untouchables” sift them for bits of gold jewelry. We were told by one of the workers that the recovered gold is used to purchase wood for poor families.

But, having been forewarned, I was suspicious when that same person asked for a donation to the cause. This is a common scam in Varanasi and, in fact, was one of the reasons we had hired Prashant to escort us down to the ghats.

Photographing the cremation is forbidden because the act of “taking a photo interrupts the soul’s journey to nirvana.”  Our friend Dave had warned us about taking pictures and about the scam after an unpleasant encounter with touts on the ghats during his visit to Varanasi the year before. And we were cautioned by our guide and by workers at the ghat to be respectful and to be wary of the touts and their aggressive requests for “donations”.

Our guide, however, told us that taking pictures would be acceptable from a discrete distance. Just the night before, in fact, we had taken a boat ride on the Ganges to see the burning ghats from the water. Our guide then had told us the same thing and I had taken photos from a good distance away in order to avoid offending the families.

Burning Ghats at Night
So I waited this time until we had walked quite a ways from the ghats and the burning funeral pyres. Before taking any photos, I checked again with Prashant to ensure I was far enough away from the grieving families and the ritual. I wanted to be as sensitive as possible.

As I raised my camera, a hand suddenly shot up in front of me and a "tout" who claimed he worked at the ghats suddenly started shouting at me. Another rushed over and tapped me on the arm. I protested that I hadn't actually taken any photos and offered to show them the proof on my digital camera. They waved my camera away, called me a liar, pointed a lit cigarette in my face and threatened to take me "inside," whatever the hell that meant.

I was ready for a serious punch up and told them that if they touched me again or jammed that cigarette in my face one more time they would be sorry. Fortunately, for all (but I suspect especially for me), my guide stepped in between us and I decided to walk away, furious but unharmed.

The surly tout followed me along the ghat with his lit cigarette. I turned and jokingly asked him how much he wanted to allow me to take a photo, because he really wasn’t concerned about anybody’s soul he was just using the guilt factor to get money from tourists.

Suddenly his tone changed, "Oh, if you would like to take a photo, you can do so over here, but only if you make a donation to help buy wood for the poor."

"How much," I asked. "Whatever amount you feel is good," was the reply. I was offended by his hypocrisy and money-grabbing approach and wondered aloud, "How much does it cost to pay for a destroyed soul?” He just smiled at me.

Anyway, lesson learned. Always hire a guide to protect you from the aggressive touts at the ghats, be extra sensitive taking photos at religious sites, and don't get thrown in an Indian jail over something stupid, no matter how angry you are! 
Holy Man (Sadhu)

One final note. Not everyone is cremated at the Ganges ghats. Children under five, sadhus (holy men) and pregnant women are considered pure and do not need to be cleansed by the sacred fire. They are simply set adrift on the Ganges.