Buenos Aires bookends

Today has been our last full day in Buenos Aires.

A full day – we’ve been going since we got up and there will be an early start tomorrow morning to do the rest of the packing, hand back the keys to our temporary home and go through the process to get onto the plane that will fly us down to Ushuaia.

A full day, sometimes a challenging day, a good day.

A grey day – over cast and sometimes rainy. Which I liked.

Our first week here there was nothing but grey, and it feels fitting that we end our time in BA the way it started. Meteorological bookends to a place. I like the symmetry.

Maybe it sounds dramatic but I guess things are feeling a tad dramatic. I’ve been pretty emotional the past couple of days. It’s not unheard of for me to get all nostalgic about a place as it comes time to leave it on this trip, even as we are still there.

Will we ever see this city again? And it’s been temporarily home and now it’s time to uproot yet again and move once more into the unknown. All that sort of stuff.

But I’ve gotten better at it with time. Especially in this second half of the journey, I’ve been filled with momentum and more tuned in to gratitude and the hunger for more adventure has been sustaining and inspiring me through having to saying goodbye to a place.

But this time round the emotions are in full force. Everything feels more intense as awareness of the end to the big journey increases. As well, this little apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, is the longest place Roman and I have had been able to call (temporary) home since we left Zürich a year and nine months ago. And Buenos Aires and I have had to go through a process. From that pretty tough first week when I was really wondering what the heck we were doing here to now, where the city has been transformed in my eyes to a place full of rough beauty and soooo many things I would love to do, if only we had more time…

I am greedy; I always want more. But I am trying to learn how to be satisfied with what is, and so I will just enjoy the symmetry of my rainy days and focus on some details of BA that I’ve savored during my time here, with the addition of the one little rant.

BA – what I hate

Oh my God I hate the dog crap all over the place. It is everywhere and it is awful. You know when you were a kid and you played that game where you couldn’t step on a crack in the street and you’d be jumping all over the place as you walk? It’s like that here except everyone is maneuvering to NOT step on the poo. Some streets are better but some streets are worse and you cannot drop your guard. Some streets stink of it and you have to watch not to accidentally open your mouth ever cause you might just get a mouthful of poop-flavored air. I would rather walk in a cloud of Roman’s second hand cigarette smoke than breathe in poo-air, it’s that awful. Seriously, people of Buenos Aires, do not own dogs if you can’t or won’t pick up after them!!!! It’s just not right.

You see something like this in the street and you know someone’s day just got worse when they walked here….

BA – just some of what I love

Caca de perro was definitely one of the things I noticed first about BA, but thankfully, many other things joined the symphony of the city and managed to do a decent job drowning out that particular “instrument”. Once you get over the poo, or at least get adept at side stepping to avoid it, there are so many lovely details to appreciate. Here are just some of the little things I’ve collected and enjoyed while we’ve been here:

–       There are islands of good smells on the streets to counteract the poo. Small fruit and vegetable shops opening up to the sidewalk and street-side florists with stands bursting full of gorgeous blooms are all over the place and I love walking through the fresh, lovely smells and taking in the burst of bright colors while walking through BA’s streets.

–       Walking home from yoga. I take a different zig-zag to get back just about every time and I love discovering new streets, shops, views each time.

My favorite cobblestone alleyway on the way to/from yoga

–       All the PDA in the street! I love the young couples making out in public. This is still such a thrill for me since Asia is way conservative about that sort of thing and it was so tough for me to have to watch my actions with Roman while we traveled there. I love it that I can kiss, hug or hold hands with him when ever I feel like it, and that other people can – and do! – too.

–       I love the old American and European cars! There are plenty of standard modern cars all over the place but there are also all sorts of rusty gems – Fords, Citroens, Fiats – clunking along the city streets and I think they’re awesome.

–       No pictures of this but I love how the slanty light of mid morning or later afternoon filters through the arched roof of tree branches hanging over the city’s streets. Just gorgeous.

–       I love the street art!
Yes, that’s Alf

–       The awesome old-timey elevators with the accordion doors you have to pull closed before you can ascend/decent. The nifty apartment doorbells. The funky keys.

What a classy doorbell system!

Our apartment key, like some sort of mini steam punk machine gun

–       Cheap and delicious wine!

–       The way the people here sing along with the music in their headphones while walking.

–       Beautiful sunsets from our apartment window.

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list, but it’s bedtime now – tomorrow is a new adventure! Good night folks! 🙂

Unfinished thoughts on India

While we were in Phnom Penh, we ate a meal that brought tears to my eyes.

I admit I am a bit of a foodie and really good eats can honestly make my day, but this was something different. This was the taste of a whole country – and my myriad of experiences there – in my mouth: India.

We’d eaten “Indian” food other places since we left India at the beginning of the year, but the meals we’d had were sad shadows of the glorious food we enjoyed so much as we traveled through that country. The flavors we experienced there were a significant and visceral part of our travel experience in the country that began this whole big adventure we are on.

So suddenly tasting the “real thing” again brought me right back. It was a reaction that I was not expecting and I was frankly shocked at its strength. The meal was a delight but I mostly ate in a stunned silence, flashing back to many scenes and vivid emotions with each bite of tikka or spoonful of raita.

The first destination of our world trip and the place we’ve stayed the longest and seen the most (so far), India is a bit like an impressionable teenager’s first love. For better or worse, the next few locations inevitably get held up against India for comparison. Is it as intense as India? As dynamic/ demanding/ dramatic/ dirty?

While it’s natural that our first stop in Asia was bound to make a deep impression, and our tendency to hold everything the standard of India is lessening as we take in more and more sights, sounds, tastes and experiences in other countries, the fact remains that the country has got a special place in my heart (and my stomach apparently feels the same way!), and I suspect that on our travels we will encounter no place quite like India.

The why and how of these strong feelings are hard for me to articulate. I know that as much as I tried not to, I had huge expectations at the outset of our big trip – for the trip in general and specifically for India. My assumptions and expectations have given way to actual experiences and the (ongoing) process of letting go of what is in my head to simply being more present where I am has often been uncomfortable. A lot of my lessons on this topic were in India, where I thought I would be floating through the country like a perfect, serene yogini, filled up with the beauty of the place but in reality was often bogged down by self-criticism and doubt, frustrated by emotions I didn’t want to look at and challenged by things like societal restrictions on women and how to feel about the massive class divides that dictate so much of people’s lives there.

The amazing opportunity we had to spend so much time in my friend Ritu’s home in New Delhi was a big part of this. I am incredibly grateful to her and to the women in her household who welcomed me and Roman like family. Our time with them still gives me a lot to think about.

On women in India

We were with Ritu and her family while they were going through some significant difficulties. That whole situation is not my story to tell – suffice to say there were legal issues and family dynamics particular to the Indian culture and judicial system at play.

My friend Ritu is smart, independent, and extremely well-educated. She is better off than most Indian women. Seeing what she and the women in her family had to go through in their situation – all the dead ends they ran into and the near-brushes with violence they thankfully managed to avoid as they had to play within a system of appearance versus reality (the external ‘noble’ tradition supporting behind-closed-doors abuse of power, the spheres of women’s movement and influence being limited to the men they can trust to act for them) sometimes made me despair for the state of the majority of Indians who are poor, unconnected, uneducated.

At the same time, I was in constant awe of the strength, grace and burning nobility of women we saw in India – from Ritu’s infinitely elegant mother to the gorgeous spunky, outspoken girls I danced with at the Pakistani border to the rural women doing backbreaking farm work in gorgeous, bright saris.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I am struck by the instinct towards fierce but graceful survival in some of the women I have witnessed here.

Circumstances that would have left me defeated ten times over are approached with an attitude that combines strength, patience, faith, integrity and above all, dignity. No matter what the burden, their backs remain straight, their shoulders poised, heads held high. Seriously, I believe the women in India, with time, could achieve anything. 🙂

On service in India

One thing that was really tough for me upon arriving at Ritu’s was the fact that her household had servants. This is totally normal in India; cheap household help is the norm in all of Asia in fact. But this was my first time encountering it in my life and I had no idea how to act or how to feel about it.

The fact is that in the beginning it made me incredibly uncomfortable and it felt wrong to have a young woman who was probably 30 pounds lighter than me lugging my massive pack about or waiting for me and Roman to go to bed so she could go to sleep on the floor of the living room where we were hanging out.

Because of this I am even more grateful for all the time we had at Ritu’s. The relationship between employer and employee in India is far more complex than I could imagine, and I’m glad I had the chance to see some of the nuances for myself.

Ritu’s mom employed three women. Two live-in and one part-time. As I got over my discomfort and got to know them better, I was able to see the shades of grey in the situation and understand the deep interdependency. For me the initial instinct was that “rich” people with servants = bad bourgeois (it took me a year to get over my internal angst and finally hire a cleaner back in Switzerland which made my life SO much better (even now though I feel the need to explain that I was working crazy hours which is why I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning myself!) 🙂 ) and I should feel bad for the women she hired.

But I was able to discover the deep love the women had for each other. When Ritu’s mom got into a dispute with a neighbor, all three girls were at her side in an instant, shouting insults and defending their mistress with all the fire in their big hearts. When the family situation got really tough, the girls were in the kitchen, crying in sympathy, or rubbing Ritu’s mom’s shoulders in support.

On the flip side, Ritu’s mother was more than just an employer. She taught the women to manage and save their money. If they were ill, she managed and paid for their medical care. Most of all though, her employment helped to get them out of desperate situations. Sheela left her abusive husband and was raising her children as a single mother. Pushpa escaped an arranged marriage to a man with psychological problems who had tried to kill her. Reeshma came from an impoverished rural family; with no education her job allowed her to send necessary money back home. How could I still pity these amazing women for working as servants in a household knowing what the job meant for them?

It makes me rethink the confusing feelings I had about other Indians working in service as we traveled. The countless hotel employees we saw sleeping at night in the lobbies or restaurants we sat in during the day. The rickshaw drivers’ whose homes were their vehicles. It seems like such a tough existence to me, but what was their alternative, what were they coming from?

We met one tuk tuk driver who said something that stuck with me. “The customer is God.” This is in contrast to what you hear a lot in the west where “The customer is king.” In India, it’s the customer who determine’s the fate of the guide, the driver, the porter. Our decision to employ them determines if they will earn any money that day, if they will have enough to eat that day or can care for their family. The employer is God.

But the employee can choose how they feel about and treat their “God”. I loved how many of the transactions in India were on the terms of the people in “service” – the number of tuk tuk drivers who refused to take us or the waiters whose attention we failed to get. That tuk tuk driver might have viewed customers as gods, but gods can be ignored, railed against, called on only when needed… It’s certainly not a simple, one-way relationship.

Unfinished thoughts

So, it’s a bit late now, but I don’t really know what the point of this somewhat rambling post is, other than to make it clear that India is still on my mind. I am loving our experiences in Southeast Asia, and there is lots that we have seen here that has made an equally deep impression in my heart, but I also love that India lingers and keeps me company as we move forward in our travels. I love the thrill my heart feels when I hear the pulse of the tabla or the breathy strum of a sitar. I love the jumble of emotions that well up if I look back at my photos from our time there. I love the associations that dance through my head when I’m some really good palak paneer or parantha. And I love the hope that I can go back to that country again some day.

PS – The restaurant in PhnomPenh that started all this was Mount Everest. I’m happy to report that we’ve found another Indian place that’s nearly as good in Siem Reap called Curry Walla. Also, I’ll post some photos of the lovely women working at Ritu’s home in my next entry.

Perplexed in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is kind of a funny place. Roman and I spent over a week there, and the whole time we were trying to get our heads around what made it feel so different from other capital cities we have visited on our trip so far. Of course a week isn’t long enough to figure things out. I want to strongly caveat this post – I know there is so much more to this city that we can’t possibly know; but I can only write from my own experiences (and if you have a different impression of the city, I’d love to hear about it!).

We were struck by the proliferation of Western influence – the large number of high quality international restaurants, the cute and trendy cafes and bars, the feel-good NGO-run boutiques that seemed to be on every block selling purses and hair clips made from recycled material by disadvantaged women…

Of course there is a mixing of Western and local food, businesses, etc. every where we have been; between tourism and general globalization it’s inevetable. But in places like Vientiane or Delhi, it’s felt more organic to us. Bangkok is massively metropolitan and feels like a true international city – one that can encompass residents, visitors and influences from all over the world while still keeping its Thai heart.

In Phnom Penh, however, it felt to me like the pockets of Western-style business and values were somehow superimposed on the city. Although you see Westerners all over the place and most of the staff we encountered was Cambodian, whether at restaurants, monuments or shops, there was little feeling of integration in the neighbor hoods and businesses we saw. We did the city on foot and rarely encountered non-Cambodians on the street – inevitably the Westerners we saw were either at tourist spots or being shuttled somewhere in a tuk tuk.

The massive number of NGOs that are everywhere in the city are no doubt doing a lot of good for the people they are involved with, but their overwhelming presence, too, feels a bit weird. We’ve seen NGOs everywhere we’ve been, but never to this extreme extent. Roman helped to encapsulate why it felt somehow weird to us when he talked about how the West seems to be imposing its values here, and how different it might be if it was Cambodians who were choosing and directing their own protection, values, change and growth.

We wondered too, what it might be like if there was a larger middle class in Cambodia. As it is now, the divide between western-standard, westerner-friendly Phnom Penh and the city that is accessible to the most of its residents seems unnaturally large, even by South-East Asian standards.

Over all, we got a lot out of our time in Phnom Pehn and enjoyed many of the comforts the city offers to people like us who can afford it, but our visit left us with lots of questions we are still trying to find the answers to.

Random notes on Bangkok

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I know not everyone is a fan of Bangkok. It has a bit of a reputation for being filthy, overcrowded and a bit sleazy, with neighborhoods dedicated to strip clubs and worse. There’s no question it is massive, and there’s plenty that I didn’t see (which may contribute to my high opinion), but I really enjoyed the city.

All together we ended up spending a large chunk of time there. We used it more for down time and transit, so I actually have very few photos from the weeks there (Bangkok was our first stop after Myanmar and my camera was so worn out after the three plus weeks there that I think it needed a break more than I did! 😉 ).

I’ll write more about our first visit to the city another time, but here are some more mental snapshots from the long weekend I had there on my own before coming to Laos, plus some of the few photos I did take.

Little things I want to remember:

The street musician with the tattooed face, pilot-style hat (close to the scalp, with ear flaps) and sunglasses who played beautiful music on a bamboo flute and looked more like a fantastical anime character than something of this world.

The wonderful taxi cabs – spotless little Toyotas in different colors with all the subtlety of a child’s first set of markers. Besides the most common sun-flower yellow topped, light forest green bottomed cars, there were plenty of smurf blue, cherry red, grape purple, frog green, juicy orange, cotton candy pink or, my favorite, super shiny iridescent hot pink cabs roaming the streets.

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Catching a cab in my favorite hot pink from the airport

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Labels on the cab window – including no drinking, no smoking and, in between those, no DURIAN

A street vendor in a massive bamboo hat pushing a cart with a bell tinkling from the corner, from which he sold mini balls of ice cream loaded with toppings and served on what distinctly resembled (but I hope was not!) hot dog buns. He was pretty popular so those must have been some really tasty buns…

Three well-fed rats who seemed to have won the rubbish jack pot because they were out in the light of day (usually we’ve only seen them after dark) happily weaving in and out of a card board box that must have been filled with a rubbish version of ambrosia.

One brave, or foolishly un-self-conscious, woman in a skin-tight, leopard print jumpsuit. Thai women have a knack at pulling off quirky fashion but even they have their limits…

The physical enjoyment of warming up in the extreme heat of the sunny afternoon reflecting up from the pavement after too much time in an overly air-conditioned store or restaurant – and the deliciousness of being engulfed in frosty cool inside air after a bit too much time out doors.

The amazing monitor lizards living in Lumphini park

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iPhone photo, not the best quality, but this monitor lizard is still impressive at somewhere between 4 and 5 feet long!

Yoga notes

I found a yoga studio in the city that I really like. It’s called Yoga Elements and it’s a well run studio with teachers who really know their stuff.

The studio is fancier/more western than most of the ones I’ve been to so far on the trip. It’s on the 23rd floor of a corporate high rise, just down the street from the Chidlom Sky Train station, and has two large studios with floor to ceiling windows and some pretty great views of the city. The reception area is tastefully decorated and has new-age music playing. The studio provides mats and towels and complimentary tea, all of which are constantly refreshed by a sweet little Thai grandma who weaves between the students in the reception area in black-stockinged feet. All very professional.

Which is why I had to giggle when we were in the middle of a very-zen breathing exercise and a little gecko started chirping from some hidden corner on the ceiling. How he managed to find his way up tot he 23rd floor is beyond me, but he was a great reminder that despite how western the studio and even Bangkok sometimes felt to me, I am definitely in southeast Asia!

Dreams of yoga and Thailand

Roman and I used part of our Goa beach break to plan our next few moves. We’d already had it in mind that we would go to Thailand next. What we’ve decided is that I will fly there ahead of him.

I’d been thinking of finding some yoga in Thailand.

Ironic, I know, daydreaming about doing yoga in Thailand while I’m wandering around the birthplace of yoga itself…

I was open to trying some yoga courses or even going to an ashram while we were in India, but doing research while still in Switzerland, I couldn’t find anyplace that interested me. I’ve been spoiled in my practice; I’ve been lucky to have some amazing teachers over the years. And having done the teacher training course at Air Yoga a few years back, I have a decent amount of knowledge and have become a bit of a stickler for proper alignment and attention to detail in the asanas.

From what I’ve heard, this focus in a yoga practice is often more of a western phenomenon. There probably are plenty of teachers in India that instruct with an awareness of anatomy and injury prevention, but from stories I’d read and been told, it sounded like the standard yoga lesson in India involves less explanation and more just doing it. Certainly the couple of classes I took at the hotels in Kumarakom and Rishikesh confirmed this.

The teachers were sweet and earnest and clearly passionate about yoga, and I enjoyed the practices with them. However, there was very little explanation given about what we were doing and why, and not a word about alignment during any of them. I had to fight the urge to offer adjustments or suggest modified poses to some of the first time students in Rishikesh who of course couldn’t know the intention of the poses they were doing.

Finding improved alignment in poses in my own practice completely transforms my experience of the asanas. Practicing with awareness and with the breath is what makes the practice yoga, rather than just exercise. So I wasn’t going to sign up for just any yoga program simply because we were in India. I’ve kept my eyes open while we’ve been traveling though, in case anything might catch my interest, but I never did get that feeling of “Wow, I really want to do that” from any of the programs we came across during our stay here.

My body has been seriously missing the practice though. The time in India hasn’t been particularly active, and, especially during the more sedentary portions of the trip, I’ve felt my joints starting to complain while my muscles have begun dissolving into jelly.

So – some healthy living is needed. Some yoga is in order. Some yoga in Thailand.

This I have heard good things about. There’s aparently all sorts of western style schools, programs and retreats there, often with teachers from the west. Ritu mentioned one particular spa hotel that a friend of hers had just been to and highly recommended. When I read that they teach Anusara inspired yoga (my favorite style :-)), I thought this might be the place for me. When Ritu said she’d join me for a retreat there, the deal was cinched. 🙂

So, a nearly two week stay there will be my birthday and Christmas present to myself and especially to my body. As you may have noticed from my posts, I’ve been very indulgent on the food front while we’ve been in India – with good reason of course 😀 – and this place also focuses on healthy eating, with things like raw food and juice fasts available. So that should be great too.

We’ve decided that Roman will fly to Thailand to meet me at the end of my time at the spa. Yoga is not his thing at all and two weeks at a spa would just be too long for him. Beyond that, there are still parts of India he is keen to see. Although I am still loving what we are experiencing and am looking forward to all we have planned for the next week or so, I feel like I have “eaten my fill” of India – figuratively and probably literally too 😉 – and feel ready for something new.

It’s also a conscious decision that we build in parts of the trip when we do separate things. So far it’s been even easier than I expected traveling with Roman, but we still have the majority of our adventures ahead of us (Amazing!!), and it’s healthy and probably necessary to mix things up from time to time.

Although Roman pointed out this means that for the first time since the start of our relationship, we won’t be together for New Year’s. We have a pretty exciting treat in store for Christmas at least though: we’ll be celebrating the holiday together on a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters. Not a bad way to spend Christmas or to bring to a close my time in India! 🙂

Digesting Varanasi

Varanasi revisited

Varanasi is quintessential India. Synonymous with the Ganges river, mother Ganga. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world. The home of Lord Shiva. The heart of the Hindu religion. A place of life and death, simultaneously sacred and profane.

It’s all terribly dramatic, and Roman and I both bought into it in our own ways. He’s been very relaxed about our India itinerary, but after everything he’d heard about Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Kashi), he was determined to see it for himself. I’d been told about the intensity of this city too, but was happy that it was on the itinerary for my group trip back in September.

Having 48 hours we only got to sample a smattering of the city – Varanasi-light. Still, those two days were among the most theatrical, colorful and crowded of the three week journey.

The sacred Buddhist site and artifacts outside the city at Sarnath. A dramatic arrival first by cycle-rickshaw through chaotic night markets and then by foot during the narrow, twisting, pitch black alleyways (there must have been a blackout that night, because the same streets did have some lighting upon my return) of the old town to arrive at Dasaswamedh Ghat all lit up by the luminous evening Hindu ceremony on the Ganges River. Up at 4:45 the next morning to witness the sun rising over the sacred waters. Going through the security check to catch a glimpse of the Golden Temple and Silver Mosque. Drinking spicy chai at silk shops from doll-sized ceramic bowls. An afternoon in the company of an articulate but elusive street boy named Deepak, trying not to get lost as we walked around the sun-baked markets and shadowed old town.

It was wonderful and intense and yet I admit I felt a certain relief after we left. Two days in Varanasi and I made it out without seeing anything more shocking than a dead pig floating in the Ganges during our morning boat ride. Allegedly the most moving place in India: been there, done that, and made it out unscathed and – surprised at the relief at this realization – without getting near the burning ghats.

Still, I’m not sure why I felt so very nervous as Roman and I discussed and organized our trip there. Or why I felt waves of skittishness while we were there, even as I was able to take in the city’s beauty. It’s still nothing I can logically identify or understand, but gradually during our days there I was able to just accept it, and eventually relax more and more.

There was lots I loved – the peaceful view of the ghats and river from high atop the Dolphin Restaurant, the squishy coziness of the Brown Bread Bakery (with awesome bread and the best coffee in town, it became our morning ritual. Especially sweet was the little mouse that lived in and among the cushions), and especially the vibrant, colorful life in the labyrinth that is the old town.

But the burning ghats, sites of 24-hour a day cremation and funeral rituals, made my spirit squirm. Conceptually I have no issue with it – I appreciate the beauty and importance of the ritual and I am as at peace with the concept of death as the average person. I didn’t feel massively uncomfortable with seeing the funeral pyres and being passed in the streets by the processions bearing the bodies to the river didn’t faze me at all. But at each visit to the location of the burning ghats, this instinct rose in me after a few minutes: I wanna get out of here now please!!

While I don’t understand what this was about, what I can say after my second visit to Varanasi is: been there, done that, spent a lot more time at the burning ghats than I thought I could handle – and made it out unscathed. In fact, I even found more to love about the city than during my first visit.

Highlights from the second visit

Dev Deepavali

We just happened to arrive in perfect timing for the spectacular Hindu festival Dev Deepavali. This link can tell you more about the religious significance than I can, but what I can say is that it was simply magical. Roman played hardball and negotiated a fantastic price with a boatman so we were able to watch all the action from the Ganges.

We pushed off from shore just before sunset and watched the riverside come alive with music, ceremonies, parties and lights. The ghats were packed with an incomprehensible number of people.

Nearly every ghat on the riverside was alight with thousands upon thousands of small oil lamps. A small stream of paper lanterns were drifting in the sky above the water and everyone was reflecting the lights on the ghats by setting small leaf bowls filled with marigolds and a lit oil candle to float on the water of the Ganges as an offering. Everything was warmth and beauty and a million points of shimmering lights. An absolutely incredible sight to see.

Especially striking to me was the wave of heat and smell of the oil from the lamps when we walked up the ghats after our boat ride and the fact that the biggest party of all – massive speakers blasting incredibly loud, joyful bhangra music and a ghat throbbing with a dancing crowd – was right next to one of the burning ghats.

The old town

During my first visit, we stayed in a nice hotel outside the city center and away from the action. This time, Roman and I were in the midst of the old town, the tangle of streets too narrow for any vehicle bigger than bikes or hand drawn carts. I’m pleased to say that even Roman got lost in these streets, and we had a great time wandering around, trying to find our way and discovering unexpected nooks and crannies along the way.

I loved these explorations so much. There is so much life going on in those narrow streets, so much to see. And still there were unexpected moments of stillness and peace too. Finding an ancient tree growing out of a decrepit rooftop, a shaft of sunshine managing to find a way to pierce the shadowed alleys, walking and chatting with a schoolgirl through quiet lane.

The people

Varanasi seemed to be full of philosophers and of people looking out for us.

Folks were so eager to share the history and meaning behind the traditions. We had many willing teachers on the topic of the burning ghats. “Cremation is education; burning is learning” is something we heard over and over again.

So many of the Indians we met there warned us that there were plenty of unsavory characters in Varanasi; that we had to keep our guard up. But any time we looked the slightest bit lost, people would approach us to give directions. When cows blocked our path in the narrow streets, folks would come to help get them moving. People were happy to help and I found support and company even as I was feeling nervous at the burning ghats.

I had gone there with Roman but didn’t feel comfortable staying as long as he wanted to. A lovely, chilled out young guy named Deepu kept me company just outside the burning ghats while Roman took in the sights. He told me lots about the funeral ceremony and Varanasi in general, and about his German girlfriend and his dreams to move to Jamaica and we laughed and smiled together in the sunlight and were eventually joined by some lovely old men who were there to bathe and who enthusiastically explained the ceremony to me all over again. After they all left, a tough little boy about ten years old came up to me and let me fly his kite while spitting out streams of brown chewing tobacco juice and getting into scrapes with his friends and other kids on the ghats. It was so sweet to receive all that unconditional company and it really did me good.

Around the burning ghats

As challenging as it was for me to be at the cremation ghats, I was still in awe of all the life that happened directly in the face of the ceremonies of death. Just next of the ghats, people carried on the business of living in earnest. Pilgrims bathed. Children played. Laundry was washed. Food was prepared, sold, eaten. Widows with their shaved heads moved through the old town’s alleyways, gossiping and shopping with apparent relish. Even directly at the ghats, mourners were talking on cell phones, people were playing cards, cows and dogs were wandering among the pyres on the constant lookout for food. I am sure there must have been people there who were sad for their departed loved ones, but we sure didn’t see them. There was one funeral procession we happened upon that was preceded by musicians playing celebratory music. Roman had been told when the departed person is past a certain age, the funeral becomes a happy celebration for a long life, well lived. Seems like a great idea to me.

Wherever you go, there you are, even in India

Ok so all that stuff I was saying in the previous post about grace and openness and all that seams to be unravelling at the seems these past days. It’s not about India or anything that’s happening externally. Rather, I’m feeling totally uncomfortable in my own mind and anxious about just about everything we are doing, or not doing. I’m most likely too deep in it to have clear perspective but I have some theories. (Boys, please avert your eyes if you can’t handle women discussing their particular bodily functions.)

I’ve figured out some things about my body over the years, and I can imagine that all the sitting I’ve been doing for the past month plus all the yoga and jogging I haven’t been doing has helped contribute to one of the most unpleasant periods I’ve had in years. I can’t remember the last time I have felt so massivly PMS-y or had such bad cramps – I even had to stop walking today while we were out when they were just too much which never happens to me. I’m breaking out, sore and sensitive and just feeling generally blah.

On top of that I think I am missing the momentum and support of the group travel and I know I am having a hard time sitting still and accepting the generosity of our incredible hosts (As some of you may know, I sometimes am challenged by receiving… On another note, more on our incredible hosts once I get my self-gripe out of my system.). And I’m feeling the need to sink my teeth into the this travel thing and really start exploring (while simultaneously fearing that I might end up being a bashful and lame traveler, oy).

All this while Roman has arrived exhausted from so much work and wants nothing more than to just be for a while – to sleep, take it easy, ease into being in India and finish up on the last of the tech prep which he ran out of time for back home. So basically our instincts right now are to want totally opposite things while I am also overly sensitive, verging on crabby – please send the guy your sympathies! He’s managing to stay patient and sweet, and I to my credit can at least understand with my mind why it’s important for him to have down time and can grasp the fact that for once in my life there isn’t any time pressure. So even if the rest of me is feeling totally impatient, there is a small voice of logic fighting the good fight.

So, enough griping and here is where we are at now: we’ve been in Delhi for nearly a week. We are staying in the apartment upstairs from my friend’s parents in the south of the city. It’s a detatched apartment and we can come and go as we please, but are welcome in the big house at any time. Her parents are just lovely. Generous, interesting and articulate with their insights on their home country. Generous in all other ways as well – we’ve been taking full advantage of their WiFi and have been having all our meals there.

The food is just incredible. The family has three women working in the household. I’m still getting used to this – coming from a typical Western upbringing it feels kind of weird to have someone do everything for you rather than being able to help myself to something out of the fridge or clear my own dishes. At first it made me squirm with “privileged white girl” guilt but this is being tempered with trying to find out how to be a gracious guest by Indian standards (i.e., not wanting to offend our hosts and their staff by doing anything that might imply their hosting/serving abilities are poor) and trying to understand the situation in general by the values and culture of the people in it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m glad to have the chance to take a closer look.

These women are incredible cooks and every meal is a feast with numerous vegetable dishes, a different dal every day, home made yogurt, cut raw vegetables, piping hot freshly made chapatis, and often a meat dish at dinner. And then a different Indian sweet from a local pastry specialist every day. It’s really just incredible and I have been eating past being full at every sitting just being everything is so tasty. Some of the vegetables I’ve never even heard of before, let alone tasted. Of these my favorite is something I think was called bitter gourd – you can guess how it tastes. 🙂 There have been a bunch of paneer (a type of mild Indian cheese) based dishes that are also high on my list of favorites.  And all the dals (basically legume stews) have been outstanding. I haven’t been in the mood for much meat so I’ve mostly been sticking with the veggie dishes, but I did try a bite of and was pleasantly surprised by goat. Today for lunch we had a more simple dish which may become one of my comfort foods in India. It’s called parantha and it’s basically a stuffed, grilled chapati. Ours had fillings of lightly spiced cauliflower or potato, but they can be filled with other things too. As far as I could tell, once filled, the parantha is grilled in butter, which to me made it reminiscent of and just as comforting and satisfying as a grilled cheese sandwich .

So, with all this eating to be done and the various IT stuff Roman has been setting up for us, we haven’t been out that much in Delhi yet. We have explored the surrounding neighborhood some – it’s quiet and lush and lovely – plus the nearby shopping area and we went on a field trip to another shopping district to get ourselves set up with local phone numbers on our cell phones. We’ve become big fans of the auto rickshaw (also knowns as a Tuk Tuk in some parts of the world). Much more fun than a cab plus better ventilation (which can be a good or a bad thing, depending!). 🙂 Today we finally did something touristy, and went to the Red Fort, which was lovely – although I have to say I was more struck by the Red Fort in Agra.

Tomorrow we have another full day here to finish any last bits and pieces and maybe fit in another sight or two, and then the next day we are hopping on a plane to Dharamsala and we’ll head up to McLeod Ganj and see if we can’t find a hotel (booking ahead at the budget places doesn’t seem to be an option – booking online was impossible and the one place I was able to reach by phone told me they didn’t know if they had anything free but that I should stop by and see. The impression given was not that they were booked out, but that booking ahead was a foreign concept. 🙂 Wonder what we will find when we get there.). That was my favorite place of all the locations visited on the group trip – I’m looking forward to being back in the cool, green mountains (and hopefully out of my messy head and out of my own way).