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 aint 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.
Indias 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? Thats 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 Indias 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.
Ive 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 isnt exactly like planning a week at the Grand Canyon.
Were 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.
Heres The Deal
For the last seven or eight years Ive been playing in a
monthly poker game. Five buddies, all married, holding on to a boys 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 wouldnt 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 wouldnt go away. We started planning the
trip. We told the wives about it. They didnt really object too much. It was a year
away and I think they figured it was just some guys 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 wouldnt 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 usFrank, 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
couldnt make it. "To lunch?" he asked.
"No, he can make it to lunch," I said. "He just
cant 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 dont know what I was thinking. You guys are right. Im in!"
As he drove away from the restaurant, Frank and I looked at each
other and said, "Hes not going."Two weeks later Charlie was out for good.
We didnt 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 seasonssummer, 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.
"Thats it?" I asked.
"Well," he continued, "There are other diseases that we dont 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
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.
"Ill 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, "Its somewhat rare,
but there is one thing that I should tell you about because it can sneak up on you."
"Whats 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 didnt cooperate and we landed smooth as silk in near fog
and a driving rainstorm. "It doesnt 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 dont."
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 didnt want to take your eyes off them.
The Hierarchy of the Road
Its about a six-hour drive north to Haridwar. The fact that
the road condition was poor didnt 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 dont 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,
Indias version of a sport-utility vehicle.
That doesnt mean that Frank and I werent freaked out
by our first encounter with the Indian system of driving. To begin with, its all
backwards. The steering wheel is on the right and you drive on the left; that is, when
youre 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, theres
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. Its 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
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. Theyre 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. Theyre comfortable enough for
in-town driving, but lack the power needed for efficient hill climbing. Thats not to
say they dont 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 drivers 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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