Thursday, May 8, 2008

Greetings from: VARANASI, an evening boat down the Ganges

The Lonely Planet warns of Varanasi as a city of hassles and organized crime centered around the tourist trade. I managed to escape the craziness of the train station by having my hotel send someone to pick me up, a seemingly mild-mannered auto-rickshaw driver named Monish. He’d lived all his life in Varanasi, but he struck me as the Indian equivalent of a older frat boy, with an interest in cricket, rather than football. This isn’t to say that Monish had no designs on me, but at least he didn’t pester me. Too much.

Instead, we agreed to meet later in the evening so that I could arrange a boat trip. I tried to hone my haggling skills with a boatman, but to no avail: I still overpaid by a ridiculous amount. This guilt was compounded when I met my rower, a young boy, Rahul, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Child labor laws be damned; this is a concern for the developed world. He rowed me first to the other side of the Ganges to watch the sunset. It’s strange: for all the life and activity on the eastern bank, the western bank is flat and empty, all sand and scrub. I walked briefly along it and came across a human skull. Should I have recommitted this washed-up part of someone’s corpse back into the river? Or will the monsoon season reclaim it? Boys sailed kites in the sky, small scraps of nylon and paper. I got the feeling that Rahul would have rather been doing the same. As we made our way north, he dutifully announced the names of the ghats as we passed them -- not that I couldn‘t have read the signs clearly painted in block letters on the walls. Groups of male bathers splashed around and swam about halfway into the river before returning to their friends. The water itself is murky, the color of army fatigues. It was warm as well, from the tentative finger that I dipped in the water. A finger, I hope, that had no open cuts or sores.

My main goal for the trip was to see the evening time ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. And indeed, spectators had gathered for the ceremony, sitting on the steps of the ghat as if they were bleachers. Five priests stood at their respective altars and performed their movements in unison. They rang bells and made circles in the air with various implements set ablaze: a censor, a tree of fire, a pan with metal cobra heads rising to form a protective fan. As the chants started, Rahul sang along , but he grew restless. His chants gave way to Hindi songs, and he called out to his friends, who were themselves rowing boats. We tourists held up our cameras and our video recorders, bobbing on the water, hoping for a clear shot, while all the boatmen along the river waited patiently for the night to end.

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