Saturday, February 11, 2012

Around the World: Karma in Varanasi

February 11, 1992

Feeling refreshed from a day insulated from the sensory overload of India, I decided to brave the streets of Varanasi.  Located on the west bank of the Ganges, Varanasi is the city of Shiva and a pilgrimage center for Hindus.  The river is lined with over 100 ghats, or steps leading down to the water where pilgrims take soul-cleansing soaks at the bathing ghats.  The eternal city of Varanasi is a center of learning and considered an auspicious place to die, ensuring an instant route to heaven.  It's not uncommon to see a body wrapped in white cloth being carried by stretcher to one of the two burning ghats for cremation.

Varanasi, formerly known as Benares and Kashi.

Wandering around the city, I found one of the ghats completely by accident, after trying to avoid the pestering of a drug-dazed Westerner begging for 5 rupees.  I strolled along a waterfront pathway watching men and women bathing discreetly in the river.  The pathway ended and I found myself in the old city of narrow, cobblestone streets lined by tall walls.  Lost and turned around, I eventually found my way out of the maze of alleyways, but not before dodging a few stretchers being rushed to the burning ghats and several encounters with cows that blocked my way.

Bathing ghat along the Ganges

Back out in the open of the main city, I found a shop that sold silk items.  The owner served me tea while his assistant brought out anything I showed the slightest interest in.  Eventually, I settled on a long, burgundy table runner and two white and purple pillow case covers.

Happy with my souvenirs, I head back to the hotel, and join the group enjoying tea in the garden.  Jane has met up with Fiona and the two of them will head to Nepal tomorrow and are gathering tips from Daniel and two English guys that have just returned.

The elder of the two Nepalese restaurant staff comes over and asks for our orders for dinner.  Everyone prepares to head into the restaurant when he offers to bring our meals out to us.  After some insisting, we learn that both men have left their families in Nepal.  They came to India to find work, hoping to make enough money to get settled and pay the fees required to immigrate their wives and children.  The story sounds genuine, but there are so many hard-luck tales here, it's impossible to distinguish an honest one from the countless scams.  Regardless if this is a genuine story or not, we unanimously agree that they make this sheltered garden sanctuary the haven that it is.  These two men from Nepal have been relentless in their efforts to make each of us as comfortable as possible.  While we wait for the food to arrive, we add our generosity and gratitude to a growing pile of currency on the table.

When they return with our food, one of the British guys presents each man with an envelope containing close to $80 in US cash and Indian rupee bills.  This is a little bit more than their salary for the month.  When they see the contents, both of them are shocked.  "I cannot accept this," says the older one and they both try to hand it back.

Good service deserves a good tip!

The British guy eloquently explains, "We took a poll and agreed that both of you have treated us so much better than just a hotel guest.  You have treated us like family while we are so far away from ours.  We hope this helps bring your family closer to you."

The elder man wipes his eyes and collects himself.  He explains in his language what has happened to the younger one.  They each bring their envelope held between pressed hands up to their chin and slightly bow in appreciation.  After the restaurant closes for the evening, the younger man arrives with cups of fresh tea, followed by the older man carrying a plate piled full of desserts.  We invite them to join us, but the elder man explains they are not allowed to socialize with the hotel guests.

The rest of the evening is spent enjoying the peaceful serenity of the garden.  As we are all heading in different directions tomorrow, we exchange coping strategies for traveling in India.  It is agreed that India is a fascinating place, with sights and experiences like no other, but she takes time to adjust to.  It didn't occur to me until it was mentioned that we will all go through a similar form of culture shock again, once we return home.

• ¤ •

"It is only when we silence the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts."
~K.T. Jong

No comments: