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An American in Varanasi (Excerpts - rest at the site given below)
by Rod Eason

 As I stood on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat, the preeminent cremation grounds in Varanasi, and gazed out on the murky water of the Ganges River, I knew I was in another world altogether. "This ain’t Kansas," as they say, and although I had been in India for almost three weeks, nothing could have prepared me for the sights of Varanasi.

India’s oldest city lived up to its reputation as both wondrous and bizarre. The three days I spent there were the culmination of an incredible journey that took me from the noisy, crowded capital of Delhi to the spiritual heights of the Himalayas to the union of three great rivers in Allahabad and finally to the strange City of Light known as Varanasi.India?

Why would an American want to go to India? That’s the question everybody asked during the six months that lead up to my departure. Even the Indians I work with at a software company in Sunnyvale were surprised, particularly by my decision to bypass the more typical tourist attractions in Agra and Rajasthan and head for the holy Garhwal region in the Himalayas.

What attracted me to India was not the Taj Mahal or the lavish palaces of the 18th century, but rather the true essence of India as described in the Vedas. The Veda is a blueprint to India’s spiritual heritage. It has brought to light the practical value of meditation, Ayur-Veda and Jyotish. These disciplines are gaining wider appreciation in the West as they are beginning to be seen as a compliment to our own knowledge and experience rather than a contradiction.

I’ve been practicing meditation for 23 years. Although far from an expert in Vedic literature, I nonetheless have felt a closeness to this knowledge due to my own meditative experience. The desire to travel to the home of the Veda became increasingly strong in recent years. However, as a married father of a nine-year old with too many responsibilities and too little vacation time, a trip to India seemed as remote as India itself. I mean, this isn’t exactly like planning a week at the Grand Canyon. We’re talking about the other side of the world here. Across eleven time zones and the international date line. Yeah, India was a nice idea, but how do you make it happen? As it turned out, the fulfillment of this desire came from an unlikely source.

Here’s The Deal

For the last seven or eight years I’ve been playing in a monthly poker game. Five buddies, all married, holding on to a ‘boy’s night out’ once a month. Poker is really just an excuse to get together. The stakes are small, the talk is cheap, occasionally risqué and always interesting. We all look forward to it. And everybody thought India was a great idea. This could be our trip. We knew the wives wouldn’t want to go. This was for us. But at the same time we knew it would never work. The wives, after all, would never let us go.

   Next month it came up again. India just wouldn’t go away. We started planning the trip. We told the wives about it. They didn’t really object too much. It was a year away and I think they figured it was just some guy’s thing that we would eventually lose interest in. As the months went by, the interest grew stronger. We talked about India, bought travel books, exchanged email and surfed the internet. However, I also began to realize that due to circumstances, we wouldn’t all make it. Sure enough, two of our buddies fell out. We were down to three.

We made arrangements with a local travel agency to put together a package for the three of us—Frank, Charlie and myself. We gave them a list of places we wanted to go and they booked a guide to get us there. With three months to go, we scheduled a weekday lunch at an Indian restaurant to review the trip. That morning I received an email from Charlie. I called Frank and told him Charlie couldn’t make it. "To lunch?" he asked.

"No, he can make it to lunch," I said. "He just can’t make it to India."

We met at lunch, hammered Charlie for about an hour and convinced him that this was the trip of a lifetime and he had to go. As we finished lunch, Charlie said, "I don’t know what I was thinking. You guys are right. I’m in!"

As he drove away from the restaurant, Frank and I looked at each other and said, "He’s not going."Two weeks later Charlie was out for good. We didn’t even bother trying to turn him around. There would be just two to India.

Shots And More Shots

From our research, we gathered that northern India has just three main seasons—summer, winter and monsoon. Our challenge was to find a window of time that avoided the extreme heat of the summer, the torrential rainfall of the monsoon and the snow of the winter. That window appeared to be the month of September. We set our departure date for September 7 and continued our preparations.

With the travel arrangements made we turned our attention to the supplies that would be needed. We decided that we would take only a backpack and another small carry-on bag. We proceeded to fill our backpacks with everything from mosquito repellent to flashlights to toilet paper. You know, all the essentials.

I put it off as long as I could, but after constant pressure from my wife and a weekly reminder from my mother—"Rod, have you gotten your shots yet?"—I broke down and visited my doctor. My hopes for an easy way out quickly vanished when he launched into a list that included hepatitis A, hepatitis B, cholera, tetanus, typhoid, polio, meningitis and malaria.

"That’s it?" I asked.
"Well," he continued, "There are other diseases that we don’t have vaccines for. Like dengue fever for example. They also call it broken bone fever because when you get it you feel like your bones are being broken."
"Swell," I thought. Maybe I should go to Hawaii instead.

Turns out my doctor had traveled quite extensively in Southeast Asia. Although he had never been to India, he knew a fair amount about the country. When I told him I was going to Varanasi, he said, "Ah yes, the holy city. Get the shots."

In the end I met him a little more than half way. I passed on hepatitis B because the Center for Disease Control indicated travelers to India were of little risk as long as they took basic precautions. Same thing with cholera, and the vaccine is only 20-30 percent effective. "20 to 30 percent is better than nothing," my doctor said.

"I’ll take my chances," I bravely replied as I thought about the prospect of two additional shots. Despite some flu-like symptoms for two days and a couple of sore arms, I survived the shots in pretty good shape. The last vaccine was for malaria. It consisted of a series of tablets taken once a week for eight weeks. "Are there any side effects?" I asked.

"Well," my doctor began, "It’s somewhat rare, but there is one thing that I should tell you about because it can sneak up on you."

"What’s that?" I wondered.
"It sometimes can create the symptoms of mental illness," he said.
"Swell," I thought. Just what I need at 10,000 feet in the Himalayas.

On Our Way

We boarded United Airlines flight 805 in San Francisco on Sunday, September 7 at 1:30 in the afternoon. Fourteen hours later we were in Hong Kong. Having never been there, I was hoping to at least get a nice view of the city as we landed. The weather didn’t cooperate and we landed smooth as silk in near fog and a driving rainstorm. "It doesn’t get any better than this," remarked the flight attendant that had cautioned us to expect heavy turbulence on the way in.

About nine hours later, just after midnight local time, we landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Touchdown. We were in India.

We were met at the airport by our guide, Mr. Kapileshwar, and two drivers he brought along, Vijay and Nitin. Mr. Kapileshwar, or Kapil as we came to call him, was a pleasant man with a round, clean-shaven, smiling face. He had served as a tour guide throughout much of India and had been to the Himalayas on many occasions. A strong trekker, Kapil had also taken an expedition to Everest base camp.

Vijay was an older gentleman, large for his size with broad shoulders and a strong back. He had a warm glow on his beard-covered face and a twinkle in his eye. He spoke little English, but we knew right away that we were going to like him. Nitin, in his early twenties, was much younger than the others, but seemed quite friendly.

The fifteen-minute drive to our hotel was our first exposure to Indian traffic. Our first surprise was that not all vehicles had working headlights. After the third large truck appeared out of nowhere, Frank asked Kapil if this was normal. "Actually, they are required to have lights," he explained. "But some drivers, they don’t."

We spent our first night at the Jukaso Inn in the Connaught Place section of central New Delhi. Moderate by Delhi standards, the Jukaso Inn was comparable to a Motel 6 in the U.S. Little did we know at the time that this would be the only night during our three-week stay in India that would not have a power outage.

We never intended to spend much time in Delhi. And the intense humidity and a confusing trip through the center of the city to find a bank to exchange currency did not change our plans. We made only one stop at a large park called Jantar Mantar. Built in 1725 by Jai Singh II, the former ruler of Jaipur, it stands as the first open-air Vedic observatory. The park has several large red and white sundials along with other instruments carved out of stone, once used to calculate time and the astrological position of the planets. Viewing these instruments through the sense of sight is said to directly affect the physiology and awareness of the observer. Frank and I did notice that several of them were quite mesmerizing. You didn’t want to take your eyes off them.

The Hierarchy of the Road

It’s about a six-hour drive north to Haridwar. The fact that the road condition was poor didn’t seem to deter the drivers, ours included, from driving as fast as possible. With constant use of the horn, we raced through the countryside, swerving to pass slower vehicles and narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the on-coming traffic.

No American should ever attempt to drive a car in India. There is nothing in the U.S. that can possibly prepare a person for Indian driving. Even most Indians don’t drive. Those that do are artists. Well, most of them. Ours certainly was. Vijay had driven taxis, buses and large trucks in his lifetime. "Forty years driving in Bombay," he proudly stated. He could easily handle our Tata Sumo, India’s version of a sport-utility vehicle.

That doesn’t mean that Frank and I weren’t freaked out by our first encounter with the Indian system of driving. To begin with, it’s all backwards. The steering wheel is on the right and you drive on the left; that is, when you’re not driving down the center of the road which is what everybody does. There are few lane markings and the ones that exist are ignored. The idea is to drive up to the rear bumper of the car in front of you and honk the horn until the car moves over enough to let you by. Never mind that the on-coming cars are doing the same thing. At the last second everybody moves back into place and traffic continues without a hitch.

To Frank and me it seemed chaotic and out of control, but in some bizarre way the whole system works. One of the things that holds it all together is the trust and mutual respect drivers hold for one another. No one drives with an ego in India. Harsh words are never exchanged on the road. Unlike the U.S., there is a huge reliance on the other driver to do the right thing. As two cars approach from opposite directions on a narrow road, neither is forced to reduce his speed due to this implicit understanding that every driver will act responsibly in a tight situation. Well, most of the time. Just outside Haridwar we saw the mangled ruins of a couple of buses that collided head-on. A not-too-subtle reminder that sometimes the system breaks down.

With so many people and so few roads in northern India, everyone competes for the straight line, the shortest distance between two points. Cars, trucks and buses all maneuver along the narrow twisting roads of the Himalayas. Drivers are constantly jockeying for position. As if handed down from generations before, there’s an unwritten hierarchy that governs travel on the Indian roads. From the animals on up, everyone seems to know his place and accepts it. Larger faster vehicles have almost an obligation to overtake smaller slower vehicles. It’s not exactly survival of the fittest, but Darwin would be proud nonetheless.

The cows are the slowest so everybody passes them. They are however, given their due respect and a small measure of space on the road. For 5,000 years these animals have roamed the land unthreatened by man. The look in their eyes as they lie down in a busy intersection as much as says, "What, me worry?" Ever present, but only occasionally a nuisance, they will move after a few blasts of the horn. They know the routine.

Next come the pedestrians. Slow of course, but usually intelligent enough to watch out for passing cars even if it means waiting until the last second to move.

For many, a bicycle is the common mode of transportation. These rickety contraptions can only hope for a smooth section on the shoulder of the road as they are the first ones forced off in the ongoing competition for space.

The next step up is the motor scooter. To refer to them as motorcycles would be too generous. They’re basically underpowered mopeds, but they are nimble and able to move in and out of traffic rather quickly. In many cases this becomes the family car. Three or four on a scooter is not uncommon. Helmets are rare and reserved for the driver only. Ladies ride side-saddle with children in the drivers lap.

Ford Escorts and Geo Prisms dominate the sub-compact car field. More roomy are the older style Ambassador cars. They’re comfortable enough for in-town driving, but lack the power needed for efficient hill climbing. That’s not to say they don’t make a strong effort, if exhaust emissions are any indication.

Our Tata Sumo seemed to be the ideal vehicle for five people to navigate through the hills in relative speed and comfort. We passed everything except the Jeeps. Because of their response and ability to handle various types of terrain, the Jeeps were the most capable vehicles on the road. They were also the most dangerous. Their mostly young drivers tended to display a touch of cockiness to go along with a lead foot. Fortunately, the responsiveness of the vehicle and the driver’s quick reactions were usually enough to avoid any real trouble.

There is no shortage of trucks and buses on the roads in northern India. With thick black diesel smoke following in their path, they emerge as a stark contrast to the pristine beauty of the Himalayas. To be stuck behind one on an uphill climb is truly nauseating. The downhill is a different story. No one wants to mess with a large bus on a downhill slope. They travel the middle of the road and force all other vehicles to cower meekly to the edge in some kind of twisted payback for every car that passed them on the uphill climb. Any car foolish enough to challenge them is usually forced to surrender by one strong blast of the horn.


Haridwar (‘gate of God’) is one of the seven holy cities of India. The site of the Kumbha Mela every twelve years, it attracts pilgrims from all over India who come to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges. For Frank and I it was the first stop on our journey into the Himalayas.

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