Varanasi, Benares or Kashi – take your pick (India report #1)

11 11 2010
Ganges sign

No caption necessary

Okay, finally a post on our recent trip to India. I’m breaking the trip into segments beginning with the biggie: Varanasi. Varanasi is the city’s official name but it seems most residents call it Benares because, as our driver informed us, Varanasi is a tongue twister. The city was historically/religiously known as Kashi, or “city of light”. How fitting, coming on the tails of my “festival of lights” post. Of Varanasi, the Lonely Planet guidebook says,

  • “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

They speak truth.

I’ll throw in a few images here and there, but you can see the majority on the Flickr link at right. It was really difficult deciding which images to include after photographing a colorful, chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet place! Either it’s impossible to take a bad photo here or I’m becoming a really good photographer. I suspect the former.

Altogether, we spent a week there between the couple days at the beginning and the few days at the end of our India tour. I packed for 70-degree weather but in most of our India itinerary it was 90 degrees. The trip might have been even more chaotic were it not for the fact that my husband Suresh is fluent in Hindi (in addition to English, his native Nepali and a smattering of Bengali and Urdu…doesn’t it make you sick?). Because even the northern part of India, where they predominantly speak Hindi, is so vast, he could pretend to be Indian. So even though he had me, the Westerner, in tow, we were still able to navigate the city and score much better prices for goods and services. And let’s face it, Americans buy most everything at fixed cost so we’re terrible at bargaining. Being from a part of the world where bargaining is common, Suresh is good at it so I let him do all the talking. The only problem we encountered with our travel together is that at every hotel, they kept giving us rooms with 2 single beds. We finally came to the conclusion that everyone assumed Suresh was my local guide instead of my life partner. I don’t know what that says about me if they assumed I’d be sharing a hotel room with my guide, but we got a kick out of it.

Ganges View

Parlor of Ganges View Hotel

Here’s an image of one of our hotels, the Ganges View, which was amazing! We had extra excellent service to boot because half the hotel staff are Nepali! The hotel is the former home of the Indian version of a princess and passed down to family over generations until the current family converted part of it into a guesthouse. It still retains a palatial air and they home-cooked delicious vegetarian dinners for guests in the spirit of this holy city. What made this place even more special is the attitude of the owners toward art and culture. The current owner studied art in school and maintains a large collection of artworks and books in every nook and cranny of the hotel. He and his family are true patrons of the arts in the traditional sense because they host a cultural lecture/peformance series, actively buy artwork, and employ 3 generations of artists on commission (where the transaction occurs before the artwork is created) rather than on speculation (where the artist finds a buyer after creating the artwork). The grandfather artist has been coming to the hotel to paint nearly everyday for 20 years, and now his son and grandson accompany him. They copy historical works, Indian miniature painting and the like, which are displayed in the hotel and (I’m sure) sold for profit to gullible tourists like me. So picture me drinking sweetened milk chai on the rooftop garden of our hotel with a river view while enjoying artists paint and monkeys scamper on the railings. Here’s an image of the grandfather artist copying a painting:Copy art

Part of the overwhelmingness of Varanasi is its association with the cycle of life and death. To die in Varanasi and especially along the banks of the Ganges River is most auspicious for Hindus and an almost guaranteed way to achieve moksha (release from rebirth). I’m sure you know that Hindus believe in reincarnation after death, but the whole goal is to escape that cycle of rebirth and achieve true union with God. So even though we think of Hinduism as polytheistic, at its core is monotheism. Those who want to achieve that spiritual union come to Varanasi to die in “death hostels” along the riverbank so they’ll be that much closer to the cremation ghats. This could be why there’s such a distinction here between hotels for Hindus and hotels for non-Hindus and foreigners. We were told that Varanasi has 84 ghats (access stairs or platforms at river’s edge) but only a few are reserved for cremations. However since this city is the beating heart and soul of Hinduism, cremations occur 24/7 with at least 30,000 cremations every year (around 100/day). These are done in open air and in public view, hence the overwhelmingness of the city. The same plein-air cremations occur in Nepal and the rest of India, but not to the same extent. The air is constantly thick with smoke and I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to cremating bodies…not exactly something I’ll report on my next doctor’s visit. The bodies of the deceased are prepared and carried through the small lanes to the water. In fact the morning we left, we were walking through the lanes to catch a rickshaw to our hotel when we saw a body just laying in the middle of the walkway as it was prepared and wrapped for the final journey. Seconds later, I was accosted by an overly aggressive postcard vendor who, when I told him to leave me alone and have some respect for the dead, barked, “Varanasi is a nice city and people like you aren’t welcome here and shouldn’t return.” This little story is probably a good example of the “take-no-prisoners” guidebook quote.

Prayag Ghat

Varanasi Ghats


Despite the emotional rollercoaster complete with guilt trip sales pitch, I still had a wonderful time. We went on several dawn boat rides to watch the sunrise on the Ganges. We visited a copy of Kathmandu’s Pashupati Temple for visiting Nepalis, where I could actually go inside to view the garba griha (temple’s inner sanctum) unlike the original Pashupati in Kathmandu, which is reserved for Hindus. We saw the evening aarti (river worship) ceremony and it was great even if it’s performed primarily for tourists. The food we ate was delicious and I took advantage of the range of Indian food that doesn’t really exist at Indian restaurants in the United States, where the fare is mostly Punjabi. I love Indian breads dipped into different dhaals (lentils), vegetables, or dairy products such as yogurt or paneer (cheese) and let me tell you, there’s more than just naan bread in India. Plain or potato parantha is my current favorite but chapati is a simpler but equally delicious flatbread. South Indian breads and snacks are very popular throughout India and I ate my share of idli, a fermented dhaal/rice bread, and paper-thin dosa breads scooped into or covered in rich sambars. Bread and sambar makes a perfect breakfast comfort food that may replace my American egg and hashbrown breakfast cravings! Thank god there are a few good South Indian snack shops in Kathmandu where I can continue to indulge my taste buds for the next couple months. Yum!

Varanasi is particularly renowned for their silks and brocades, so you can bet I took advantage of the silk factories and markets! If my “sis” is reading this, she can look forward to a fancy new silk outfit for next year. Varanasi’s silk industry is entirely run by its large Muslim population. Despite being a Hindi epicenter, upwards of 40% of the population is Muslim, which reminds me of the old Delhi Muslim neighborhoods. Close to Varanasi are several of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Sarnath, Kushinagar and Bodhgaya. I guess all that cosmic energy attracts a diverse crowd.

The cosmic energy on a holy water site was good for my art karma, and I was able to create a slew of new artworks in my water series. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m very excited about the the new body of work! Here’s a taste of images to come…

Kathryn Hagy splash

In process splash image from Varanasi's Scindhia Ghat

Critical Language Scholarships

11 10 2010

This post is specifically for MMU students but also applies to any American higher ed students out there who happen to read my blog.

If you’re interested in studying abroad next summer, applying for a Fulbright grant after college or in graduate school, or have career plans that might put you in contact with international communities (this could be in USA or abroad), you might want to consider the Critical Language Scholarship Program. The scholarships fully fund study of a critical language for 7-10 weeks in the country itself (in most, but not all cases). The languages the U.S. State Department considers critical are: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Persian (spoken in Iran), Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali (spoken in Bangladesh), Hindi, Punjabi, (Hindi & Punjabi both spoken in India), Indonesian, Korean, Turkish and Urdu (spoken in Pakistan).

The program is open to students in any major, and students in any major would benefit. In this global society, knowledge of more than one language will keep you competitive in your career as well as make you a more patient and understanding person. Plus, after reading about all my adventures and the adventures of fellow Fulbright students on the Blogroll links at right, don’t YOU want to travel to another country, too? I’ve met several people who’ve done this critical language training and it really opened doors for them. Seriously.

Reasons most students give me for not studying abroad:

  1. I don’t have the money.
    Guess what? This scholarship fully funds your language studies, and provides housing and a stipend to cover food and living expenses.
  2. I’m a little worried (or my family is worried) about traveling somewhere by myself.
    Before your departure to the host country, you attend a pre-departure orientation in Washington D.C. (the scholarship covers your travel expenses for this trip, too) where you become acquainted with other students traveling to the same country and other world regions. I had to attend a similar pre-departure orientation in D.C. for my Fulbright and it was totally awesome and relieved about 80% of my anxiety. Plus, if you want, you can arrange travel plans with your new acquaintances so you’re not actually traveling to the host country all alone.
  3. I need to work all summer to cover my college/living expenses.
    Just as you’re sacrificing part of your life now by attending college to make bigger bucks later and have a more comfortable life, you could sacrifice part of your summer for a bigger payoff later. Remember that we’re living in a global society so just about any career puts you in touch with other cultures. And with the economic downturn, the ability to live and work in another country gives you additional job-hunting options. Check out these two articles from ABC News for more info:
    Have Resume, Will Travel
    How to Find Work Outside the U.S.

Spoken too Soon

9 09 2010

I spoke too soon when I said I’d begin teaching today. But I did have a chance to informally chat with some sophomore printmaking students at the Tribhuvan University Lalit Kala campus today. Yes, the strike is over, but the current session (i.e. semester) ends next week. So I’ll show up next week for the last day of class until the next session begins in November after the holiday season ends. And I’ll help Master’s-level painting students on the main TU campus for the next 2 Fridays until their session ends.

I do wish I could teach more at the downtown Lalit Kala campus because they have so little. The Campus Chief was jokingly and yet proudly showing me his filing cabinet today. It’s an old, rusty, metal oil barrel with a jimmy-rigged locking lid. In a way, it’s ingeniously secure. I mean, who would ever think to look inside it for files? When I spoke with the Nepali students, they were bemoaning the lack of colored inks they have to work with in their classroom.  I said, “We only give our American students a few colors, too. Having fewer colors forces you to learn color mixing.” They gave me this look like, “Oh no, she’s one of them!” (It’s true, I am a teacher. Can’t help it).

Lalit Kala entrance

Front gate of Tribhuvan University's Lalit Kala campus in Kathmandu's Bhotahiti neighborhood, sleeping dogs and fruit sellers included.

And speaking of students, all the American Fulbright students arrived in the last week and, like American students, have already planned their first party. However the party is postponed because the student hostess discovered bed bugs in her new apartment and needs to move. This was supposed to be her birthday party. What a gift to receive on your birthday. And the airline lost another student’s luggage. Everything she’d packed for the next year is gone. Hopefully it will turn up. Now I don’t feel so bad for going the last 2 weeks without hot water and a working refrigerator, but the electrical circuits were fixed today and I finally took a long hot shower instead of a quick cold one. It’s 80 degrees here, so cold showers aren’t as bad as they sound. Sorry if I’m not doing a good job selling the Fulbright program (or Nepal), with all these lovely tales of life gone wrong. This is all part of the living abroad experience. I heartily encourage students especially, to check out the opportunities available to you via Fulbright. You can get funding to conduct research, work with non-governmental organizations, and/or teach English abroad. Check out this link for student Fulbright grants!

The first person you meet when you go abroad is yourself.

31 08 2010

I’m paraphrasing E. M. Forster for this post’s title, because the quote may end up being the main theme of my travels after “ke garne”. Forster was a great traveler and spent a good amount of time in India, whose culture is similar to Nepal’s in many ways, both being predominantly Hindu nations (if you haven’t read a Forster novel, I highly recommend it. If you’re not a reader, several of his works have been made into very good films such as A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Maurice). Forster’s quote foregrounds the best reason to travel anywhere, because you learn (or re-learn) so much about yourself. I’m learning so much and I’ve only been here 2.5 weeks! Imagine how “smart” I’ll be after 5 months.

With my internet down for most of last week and without hot water for the last 2 days (going on 3), I’ve had plenty of opportunity to adjust to doing without. My refrigerator shuts off several times each day so that my food remains a few degrees above room temperature, at best. This  forces me to carefully consider my grocery purchases and to shop more often. All of this and we’re not even to the post-monsoon season electricity rationing period yet when I’ll only have 4-8 hours of power each day. But then, I actually have a computer with internet access, a small water heater that provides enough for a 5-minute shower, and a refrigerator. I’m lucky.

In my last 2.5 weeks, I’ve seen and heard the horrible and wonderful.

  • My daily walk to the campus where I’ll (theoretically) be teaching takes me past at least 2 beggars afflicted with leprosy, and more beggars with other unidentifiable social and medical problems.
  • Nearly every cab ride with a driver who speaks English involves the telling of his life story and in these life stories, there is always death, disease or family strife with occasional happy moments.
  • I was eating lunch the other day in a lovely little cafe when I heard a dog being hit by a car. There are stray dogs everywhere and accidents (or purposeful poisoning of dogs) is fairly common.  The dog began yelping and I ran out to find her but she must have slunk into an alley or dark corner, as animals do when they’re sick. There was nothing I could do, so I ate the rest of my lunch while listening to the yelping slow to a quiet whimper, until it stopped.
  • A local ethnic group living near the garbage dump is protesting their conditions by blocking dump access so garbage is piling up on street corners everywhere. Cows have emerged from nowhere to feast throughout the city, which is beautiful and sad.
  • Teenage boys in a tourist neighborhood accosted me for money. I noticed their bags of glue immediately. Click here for more on Kathmandu’s glue-sniffing street children.
  • Boys of about 7 years, one carrying a baby in a sling on his back, wove through multiple lanes of heavy traffic begging for money and playfully pushing one another. The baby nearly toppled from the sling with each shove. If I gave them money, would they also sniff glue?
  • Out of work necessity, I bought a computer printer yesterday. The salesman unpacked the printer, installed the ink cartridge, demonstrated every feature of the machine and its use, and printed a test page for me before re-packing everything. If I had brought my laptop with me, he would’ve installed the printer driver as well. Even American Geek Squads don’t provide this kind of service when customers purchase electronics.

And these are only some of the highlights to meeting myself.

Garbage pile

Growing pile of refuse near my apartment.

Immersion Illness

19 08 2010

After moving into my apartment, there was shopping to do and one of the hallmarks of an international experience is determining in which store to buy things. Students from our Mount Mercy Mexico trip 2 years ago have fond memories of the 2-hour excursion to find bubble wrap. One would find bubble wrap in shipping or office supply stores in the U.S., but where does one find bubble wrap in Mexico if the same stores don’t exist? Each of these shopping trips requires a walk or a taxi ride. If you’ve ever played the video game “Frogger” you’ll understand what it’s like to cross a Kathmandu street. Navigating the streets is an artform. It can be dangerous to react by moving suddenly because most drivers anticipate your direction and move to avoid you. If you stray or stop suddenly (my natural reaction) you’ll get hit. Most streets are very small and congested with cars, trucks, and tons of motorcycles weaving their way through. There are almost no sidewalks anywhere and where there are sidewalks, they end abruptly or contain gaping holes and debris so that most people walk on the road anyway. Running a simple errand can be exhausting because you must be alert at all times.

I had good taxi experiences up until yesterday when a driver quoted me too much for a ride back to my apartment. I knew it was too much so I asked him to use the meter.  He compensated by driving me around to a completely different neighborhood so that the metered price would match the quoted price he wanted. I knew we were in the wrong neighborhood and there was no excuse for it. If there had been a bandh (strike) or something I would understand, but I’m notified by the American Embassy of all bandhs via text message and email and there was nothing happening then. Irritating.

Being married to a Nepali with relatives in Kathmandu makes my Fulbright experience a lot different from most Nepal Fulbright scholars and students. I’ve been here one week now and I realized I haven’t been to any tourist sites yet. I’ve spent most of the week in meetings, running errands or hanging with my in-laws, eating Nepali daal-bhaat-tarkaari (lentils, rice and curried vegetables) at least twice a day, drinking chiya (sweetened milk tea), watching Bollywood soaps and videos on TV, and passively engaging in a favorite Nepali pastime: gossip.

To cap the total immersion, my mother-in-law was in the hospital. After going to two different hospitals to find her, I visited several times and spent the better part of yesterday morning waiting to speak with her doctor. I had to leave for an appointment before he made the rounds to her room, which she shared with three other people and a host of visitors who were very curious about the white woman (that would be me) in their midst. A Nepalese hospital is an awfully strange place to find a foreigner.

After all this, I needed a break so I confined myself to my apartment today and did very banal but comforting things like cleaning the bathroom.

Better than any relaxation CDs or sound machines, the nightly monsoon rains are calling me to sleep.