India raptures me into an intense grip. The heat wraps around my neck and I find myself faced with a sea of people, an avalanche of both sound and colors
I have just passed the skeptical look of the immigration officer and entered Indian territories when I decide to exit the International Cochin Airport. My eyes barely have enough time to process the intense light that India raptures me into an intense grip. The heat wraps around my neck and I find myself faced with a sea of people, an avalanche of both sound and colors. I make my way to a bus that will drive me to Fort Kochi.
The bus ride turns out to be the stereotype that promises to print India into my mind for a long time. The sea of people is everywhere, hopping on and off different buses according to mysterious rules. Multiple-children families go by their business on scooters and bus attendants signal direction with a hand out the window. The highway is roofed with the skeleton of what appears to be an additional highway under construction. It is sided with people chatting in puddles of water. Luxurious villas elbow garbage fields in a chaos that creates a surprisingly beautiful blend of run down town and generous nature. Mindblown by the intensity of the place, I am most struck by the people of Cochin. They have confident bodies and beautiful black eyes that will look into your soul. They seem to be in tune with the buzzing craziness in which they live. A bus in full speed might be coming their way, they are not the least bit bothered.
I soon realize the dominant rule on the roads on India: never stop! Never mind the other car coming in for a frontal collision, never stop. You might be inserting into a street busy with rushing trucks. There might be pedestrians in your way- In fact, there will be pedestrians in your way: humans, cats, dogs, cows and a surprising amount of goats. Never fucking stop.
Two-way streets are used as three-way streets for the national sports of honking. Stuck in the middle of impossible traffic jams, I soon start losing track of who honks at who and for what. I look at the overwhelmed traffic officers with compassion.
Settled at the hotel, I soon realize that my first few days of travel will be shaky, to say the least. It is with realistic eyes that I have regarded the difficulty of travelling solo, yet I find myself flooded with an army of doubts. At times, I wonder if I don’t have too soft a heart to be stranded on the other side of the planet by myself. Taken on the usual emotional rollercoaster, to the highest heights and the lowest depths, you have to battle hard and remind yourself of the priceless silver lining the journey can unravel. And so you push through until it all becomes normal again. I decide to go exploring my first Kerala treat: Fort Kochi.
After falling into the most obvious tourist trap and adopting the word ‘no’ as my best friend, I stroll through the streets of the city, from churches to temples. My confidence is boosted by the curiosity and smiles of children having just escaped school for lunch break. After a quick stop at the historical museum, I return to my sea of Malayalam chatter and witness the life of people in this patchwork of a city. The coast of Kerala seems to be a tropical haven. In Cochin, you can feel the footstamp of the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires fighting for a place in the cool shade of banyan and coconut trees. The city is a peaceful blend of multiple religions where you might encounter a mosque or church as likely as you will visit a Hindu temple. I soon have the feeling that the spiritual dimension of the city will be hard to fully scan.
Contemplating the sunset over the famous Chinese fishing nets, I cannot help but contemplate civilizations, trade and history. At this crossroad of colonization, I picture a more ancient time when the Chinese empire had made its way to this coast and spilled a bit of their culture.
I am pulled back to the reality of present days the following afternoon when my wandering takes me through high wavelengths of social condition. I walk by fancy houses and turn a few corners into the heart of poverty. The weight of hierarchy in the country is something that has struck me as soon as I reached the hotel and met George-Peter and Ashok. The former man owns the hotel while Ashok cleans and serves breakfast in the room he sleeps. I imagine India as a twenty-storey building. If George-Peter lives somewhere around the tenth floor, Ashok is probably operating the laundry room in the basement. Some less lucky are even kept outside begging. As for me? I am paying to be visiting the lobby. It leaves me with quite a bit of pondering to do…
On a hot morning, I join a few of my fellow foreign people for a visit of the backwaters, some thirty kilometers out of Cochin. Once boarded, we are taken into the heart of natural canals where fresh and salty waters play a tidal battle, back and forth. A tall guide from the neighboring village makes do with his bit of English while two other villagers operate the motor-less boat. They stab the water relentlessly with what resemble bamboo sticks and move us forward.
In almost comical gestures, the guide explains local customs until we stop for a meal. On a small inhabited island, we join these villagers for a delicious meal which was –surely- being served when fire took down the city of London.
I am heavier with gorgeous Kerala food and lighter of a fair amount of tears when we set off into the canals again. I cannot help but marvel at the locals living in this magical place. Their small houses seem to be accessible through the water only and their closest neighbor couldn’t possibly bother them for sugar. In this place of silence, the government supports them to sustain the two local industries: palm tree-made cords and shell-based carbon powder.
Soon, the narrow canals open up to a larger space of water where we begin the last leg of this adventure. Having ventured through the brush of plants and the sounds of nature, we are now progressing into quietness. In this peacefulness open space, the pace of the vessel invites us into contemplation. In the corner of my eyes, I catch the guide dozing off and I am soon to join him. On this boat, in this magical corner of the world, we all let off our guard for a precious moment.
A tall guide from the neighboring village makes do with his bit of English while two other villagers operate the motor-less boat. They stab the water relentlessly with what resemble bamboo sticks and move us forward
I am taken for a five hours sportive ride into the land. The landscape becomes greener, the air feels wetter and we make our way higher up the hills until we finally cut through our first tea plantations
Cochin is a wide city and I lose my way around, from ferries to deserted streets. Eventually, I reach one of the many bus stations I was advised to attend if I wanted to catch a bus to Munnar. Before I arrived, I had not heard of the city further inland. Now I have been convinced that it was well worth the inevitable sorting of the many different directions I would be getting. Aboard the windowless bus, I am taken for a five hours sportive ride into the land. The landscape becomes greener, the air feels wetter and we make our way higher up the hills until we finally cut through our first tea plantations. In a blink, the fields snatch my heart into their green waves. I am taken aback by this special place and find myself impatient to discover more.
I reach the hotel under the usual sound of my doubt-bells. I have only just started feeling comfortable in Cochin and now here I am, in a new place. A man enters the reception room and informs me that “someone is coming”, so I sit. I look at the floor to measure the immensity of my doubting when I am interrupted in my thoughts. “What’s your name?” – asks a young man. The conversation invites his friends into the circle and soon I am asked if they could take pictures with me.
Ajay, Akhil, Arjun, Amal and Harif invite me into their room to share a drink. I decide to join them after a well deserved shower. They seem surprised to see a solo traveller, especially one who doesn’t water down his whiskey. They are quite a happy bunch and I soon learn that they are on what is likely their last reunion. After insisting that their hometown, Trivandrum, is the capital of Kerala, they go on to explain how they met in college and that now their respective jobs and internships had split between different cities. They expect to be married somewhere between one and five years from now. So long for the boys reunions.
Grown in confidence, I take a morning dive into the universe of tea territories. I am truly taken aback by the beauty of the hills. My eyes are treated to countless shades of green.At the tea museum, I learn about the history of this special place, which seem to have evolved over centuries, passing from hand to hand, from British explorers to billionaire-owned Tata. The museum -opened and operated by the Indian multinational company- would want me to believe that eventually the plantations went back to a cooperative of locals, though I am later to learn a significant detail. The land itself remains under the ownership of Tata and the cooperative gathers tea-related profits under a leasing deal with the giant. As for the tea workers, they struggle.
I decide to spend the rest of the day in a rickshaw, exploring the hilly roads around Munnar. My thirty-something kilometers of discovery take me to places that are more or less over-rated. But regardless, Kerala has decided to grant me a few wonders. The driver spontaneously stops on the side of the road for things I could not dream of spotting myself. Buffalos stroll the hills while black monkey share treetops with the biggest squirrels I have ever seen. We progress in the shade of wild bee hives, to Kundala lake where I receive a gift. I make my way through the bushes, hoping not to cross paths with a funny snake, and finally I reach an open field. I sit in the grass, stunned. A narrow leg of water separates me from wild elephants!
My luck in Munnar hasn't run out. On the second day, I meet Ajith who guides me through a thirteen kilometers hike across the tea territories. We make our way through the fields and catch breathtaking views of the green waves. Ajith spills knowledge along the way and I pick up the pieces of information. From the workers' lifestyle to the difference between tea leaves (black, green and white tea), I absorb as much as I can until we come across the workers. The women are chatting across the field and picking up leaves at a frantic pace. Every now and then, they throw a full bag of tea on top of their head and make their way down the hill. The guide explains how the working conditions evolve across seasons and how salt spares them fairly of the many inevitable monsoon leeches. The hike continues and, as we progress along mountain peaks, I am told about a fair amount of encounters the tea workers have in the fields. They share the land with a few short-tempered wild animals, and Ajith tells me how he also has stumbled upon wild elephants on the very track we're taking. My heart is torn between the desire of seeing one of the giants from up close and my awareness of the danger. Finally we reach the forest where the last leg of our adventure awaits us. As we progress through the woods, I am told about the local plants we come across. I smell fresh cinnamon and taste more or less mature coffee beans while Ajith exposes different plants used in Ayurvedic medicine.
My Munnar break comes to an end when I board the five-hours bus back to Cochin, where I have arranged accommodation for a few extra days. I was told about the Onam festival and decided that the North of India could wait. Besides, I have learned a lot more about the country and I am finding it hard to decide on an itinerary. Of course, I have the answer in my heart and it looks like plans have changed.
I am back in Cochin and starting to feel an all too familiar feeling. The misty hills of Munnar have worked their magic on me and I am starting to feel under the weather. Regardless, I decide to venture out into an area of Fort Kochi that have left me curious. On my way, I pass a group of boys playing with a kite and I tell myself that they were in the exact same spot a few days back. This time though, one of them seems to be leaving the group and crossing the road when suddenly he spots me. He waves and asks me to follow him. He seems to be finding it hard to contain his excitement. My few meters of wondering lead me into a very modest house and I come face to face with a family that seem as surprised as I am. They wear a resigned smile and I understand this must not be so surprising to them after all. Indeed, the funny ten year old guy I am introduced to is clearly one of a kind. In the room, his parents, big sister and grandmother all gesture for me to sit down. As if I was a new toy he'd pulled from the street, the boy I come to know as Achu puts me on a chair and makes sure I am comfortable. I feel a little bit on display and return the family's curiosity into the humble room. Their lack of resources contrasts with their obvious generosity. The mother has only returned from making us all Chai when I am invited to have lunch for Onam the next day. I accept the offer and drink the delicious tea. After a while, I leave the house feeling like they would have given me the world if they had it.
In my culture, it is a nice thing to bring a gift when you are invited for lunch or diner. I pick up the chocolate, tea and soap that would teach me how culturally naive I still am at this stage of the journey. I then decide to head to the house in a mix of cool rain and fever. Achu heads out of the front door as I approach. Clearly he has been expecting me and now I am directed to a chair to sit. God forbid the guest had to stand. He sees to it that my things are put somewhere neat and I meet more of the family. An uncle and his family have joined in and I am told that even the handicapped grandfather would be making a rare stop by to see me with his own eyes.
I am served a crazy amount of food and eat the delicious Kerala dish in front of an audience. Everybody watches and gives me directions on what to eat and how. Achu is still keeping a discreet eye on me and sees to it that I have everything I could need. My tongue makes it through the flaming spices of the meal and comes the turn of the family to eat. On the floor. They won't let me sit down with them, a guest should be treated like a king. Shy as I feel with such treatment, I understand cultural differences and go with the flow. Thankfully, their meal comes to an end at a typical Indian pace and I soon see my chance to repay their kindness. It is time for Chai tea and I seize the opportunity I have to give them the chocolate and other gifts. As I pull the small things out of my bag, gradually I realize I have made a faux pas. Of course it is way too much. The small gifts seem unexpected on their side and I feel embarrassed for what might comes across as showing off. I try to cover it up with plausible yet clumsy excuses.
The rest of the afternoon is a continuous flow of Chai, snacks and curious neighbors. I observe this family and admire their closeness. Adults and children take turns minding the baby and showering him with kisses. Hands rest on shoulders and the small space is shared in a natural dynamic. Nowhere seems to be nobody's to sit except for the one chair which is offered to the guest. I leave it for the grandfather who arrives after a while. I am invited to move to the edge of the bed where I can still observe friends and neighbors spontaneously popping into the house to say hello. This spectacle of admirable human relations continues until I decide to call it a day. My cold is getting the most of me and time has come to surrender my feverish body to the hostel bed. I am escorted to the door in a parade of thank-yous and goodbyes. Achu walks me to the main road. He doesn't seem too keen on letting his newest discovery disappear around the next corner. I wave goodbye to the family and promise to return the next day with printed pictures. The frustrating hours I would spend looking for the digital photography boutiques will be my last Cochin expedition. Over the parades of Onam the fever has won.
Their lack of resources contrasts with their obvious generosity. The mother has only returned from making us all Chai when I am invited to have lunch for Onam the next day
We talked and realized we were both heading in the same direction. My Goa rest was short-lived but we embarked on a shared adventure through the North of India
I boarded a night train out of Cochin after a long afternoon of waiting on platform number one. My change of plan was sending me to Goa for a rest, before I headed to my new destination: Rajasthan. Now I find myself sitting on yet another train, for the last leg of a two and a half day commute from Goa to Udaipur, by way of Mumbai. In front of me, my new travel companion: a late twenties Chilean woman who has been travelling and living around Australia and South East Asia for a good while. Her name is Aurora, she goes by Loly. Out of the blue, she turned a corner and found the muddy sidewalk one which I was expecting the bus to Palolem beach, in Goa. We talked and realized we were both heading in the same direction. My Goa rest was short-lived but we embarked on a shared adventure through the North of India.
We arrive at the Udaipur train station and exit into the usual pack of rickshaw-driving vultures. After passionate negotiations, we board one of the three-wheelers and are taken to a key area around the lake. The city exhibits a lot more architecture than the South of India has shown. It all looks more ancient and I can tell the place is a historical epicenter of art and culture. Overall, Udaipur feels more faithful to what one might envision of India.
We decide to wander a few streets and prospect for possible places to stay. We come across a young man who is clearly not India. My fellow European tips us on a nice guesthouse with inside garden and roof terrace. We will spend a few days at what the owner, Jitu, calls Jitusthan.
Udaipur is a white jewel of architecture. The impressive palace looks over a beautiful lake and temples shadow busy crossroads. We spend our city time haunting vivid markets and admiring the many artist workshops.
We learn about the spices in the base of Indian cuisine (coriander powder, red chili, turmeric, asafetida and cumin) and the many chais, masalas, curries, tandooris, biryanis or chutneys. Later on, we encounter monkeys on our way to breathtaking Sunset Point.
We enjoy the stay at the misleadingly named Pleasure Guesthouse. In his very Indian way, Jitu can be overbearingly caring. He chants a conflicting mix of "shanti shanti" (no stress) and "full power my friend". When he offers us a visit of rural villages though, we see in it a chance to meet authentic India.
Onboard a rickshaw loaded in biscuits, we race through thirty kilometers of damaged road. The vehicle struggles up some hills and shoots down the other side. We are told that the road is deserted after night falls. Leopards reside in the area and "they are dangerous because they attack from behind and usually from above". The driver explains how, with a tiger, at least you stand a chance because you see it coming. "Your rickshaw better not break down around seven-ish man!" - I answer telepathically.
After a while, we reach the first few houses of the village. Children are running towards us and I understand why Jitu is called "Uncle Biscuits". We start distributing the cookies we were advised to buy to a sea of children who pout for the most part. It is hard not to feel conflicted and this act of kindness seems superficial. Among us, we debate how biscuits are not really helping improve the situation for these extremely poor villagers. I ponder how, on the one hand, the gesture is sweet because biscuits are a treat in the eyes of children. On the other hand, they likely receive biscuits on an almost daily basis when the tourists are plenty in the area. What good does it make? It doesn't seem like a sustainable option. We decide to enjoy this encounter with locals and return to Jitu with more sustainable suggestions.
The day at the village has taken me further into the depth of poverty. The people rely on the thin Rajasthani rains to collect crops, they live in windowless houses and their struggle with health is apparent. Sitting in the back of the three-wheeler, headed back to the city, I contemplate the striking difference between the South and North of the country. In a few days, Rajasthan has acquainted me with serious poverty, illiteracy and child labour. I look back at our visit to the market, when we stopped into a tiny shop and the man asked his twelve year old 'help' to fetch us chai. That night, I confront Jitu who explains that many teenage boys, given their situation, find interest in leaving their village and making small money around the markets. The shop owner has given a room to the boy, and food, and he doesn't seem to be asking much. It appears to be a kind gesture. The boy finds in it a roof and an opportunity to learn work. I try to look at it through the prism of contrasting cultures and manage to see where they come from. Still, I cannot help but debate the issue with Jitu. This is clearly not heavy work, but my concern goes rather to the lack of opportunity for these children to get an education. I learn that the government has made school free for all children around the country. Only, these children have no interest in going to school, that is their reality.
Sitting in the back of the three-wheeler, headed back to the city, I contemplate the striking difference between the South and North of the country. In a few days, Rajasthan has acquainted me with serious poverty, illiteracy and child labour
I marvel at this new world we found, only a night drive away from Udaipur. Walking through the busy streets, I am battling with the blazing heat to have my share of this Rajasthani daydream
The night was rough. I have been bouncing in and out of sleep, in tune with the pace of the rushing night bus that took us on the chaotic road to Jaisalmer. We had not planned to visit this town so early. When our commute to Jodhpur was canceled, we did a last minute trade for a mix of damaged tarmac and dirt road leading to Western Rajasthan.
If Udaipur is the white city, Jaisalmer is a sand-colored Thousand and One Nights tale. It doesn't take long until I fall under the spell of this town, gateway to the Thar desert. Though it is also an unforgiving place and I have the feeling that I will be needing a rather thick skin.
Everything here is different. I marvel at this new world we found, only a night drive away from Udaipur. Walking through the busy streets, I am battling with the blazing heat to have my share of this Rajasthani daydream. We make our way to the fort and wander the narrow streets where merchants call us left and right. The walls of the fort are overtaken by colorful carpets and shops proudly display the leathers and metals of Rajasthan.
Back at the hotel, we sit and have a conversation with the twenty-one year old assistant who runs different errands and cooks meal for the restaurant. The conversation moves past his delicious lassis and we learn that he has been working here and there since he was thirteen. He comes from a small village out of Jaisalmer and moved to the town to find work. He feels grateful for having a job, especially since he is "handicapped." We come to realize that his few missing fingers are closing quite a few doors in India, and I guess at a deeper issue. In fact, I ask if he is related to the owner and he answers that he is Muslim while the owner is Hindu. In this part of India, so close to the conflictive neighbor Pakistan, I can't shake the feeling that I'm witnessing yet another dimension of the big unclimbable Indian ladder.
I carry this pondering away to the lake, where I am to watch the sunset. The lake is bordered in half by ancient constructions and the water is dotted with ruins. Before long, I greeted by three curious twenty year old men who take a sit around me. Cautious as always, I wonder if they have something to ask or sell, this time. Soon, they build up the courage to ask me for a selfie, and we resume the conversation. The charismatic Sumil shows me a handful of pictures of the cobras his father is breeding in honor of the god they worship. I ask them about a matching tattoo I have noticed on each of their arms and I learn about their cast. "It's middle" - they explain. For the rest of my learning, I find myself repeating naughty words in their dialect as they burst out laughing. The last sight I'll have of this encounter is a joined "goodbye", the three of them on a motorbike.
The following day, we make a long-awaited escape to the Thar desert. I throw a leg over the back of a camel who lifts me higher in the air that I had imagined. I can feel the paradoxal blend of short-temper and calm in the animal. For two days, he will be freeing me from the hectic streets of Indian cities.
After a short ride, we take shelter in the shade of a tree, near a water point. The camels swallow great quantities of the water they share with goats and cows. The guide, Dao, builds a small fire to cook lunch. We are joined by a few shepherds. One of them catches a goat, he returns with the fresh milk Dao uses for chai.
A nice meal and a quick nap later, I join the guide to find the camels. They have scattered during our break and I enjoy the search. The afternoon ride takes us deeper into a desert that is nothing like I had imagined. The dry heat matches my expectations but the desert is a lot greener that I had envisioned. Small trees tickle bushes and cactus in these territories patrolled by flocks of livestocks. The farmers let goats, cows and camel wander freely among the wild deers, birds and cobras. We progress through endless fields of power-generating windmills which spoil the scenery. I tell myself it is for the best.
We take a well deserved break when we reach our destination: a more stereotype-looking dune overlooking the dry vegetation of the Thar desert. As soon as the camels are freed of their load, Dao builds a fire and works on the chai. We chat him up and learn that he is twenty-five, though he looks fairly older. He has a daughter and hopes to have a son. He explains that boys can help get an income. I can see where the guide comes from, working as he has been since he was ten. As the conversation progresses, I find it striking how his lack of opportunities is sealed by his illiteracy. We talk about micro-loans and other things that would allow him to build up his income but the internet eludes him. "What are his perspectives? Who do you turn to if you cannot read the simplest contract or message?" - I wonder, realizing all the basic things we take for granted.
Diner is finished and I know that I will be sleeping on a thick mattress of questions. Dao walks us to our duvet in the sand and sits with us for a while. He is silent and seems to be caught in contemplation, on this dune.
There is truly something about the desert. The vast emptiness has a presence. The winds fill the immensity and whisper the many secrets of the world. The desert, it gifts you the bluest of skies and lets the sun bows down in farewell. In the shade of the world, it grants you a sky full of star and liberates you from the stalking heat at last.
I wake up in the night. The many stars are still looking me in the eyes. I sit up and look around. The air is fresh and humide. The dune is surrounded by dark clouds that I find threateningly low. Suddenly, I catch a glimpse at an agitated shadow. It seems to be Dao, gesturing for the camels, freed now, to scatter. For a second, I worry that he might, instead, be trying to catch them. The sky is threatening and they might be panicking. I quickly come back to my senses and fall back to sleep. The camels simply have to feed before we leave camp.
After breakfast, the camels are loaded and ready to go. I throw a last look at our spontaneous camp, less than fifty kilometers from the Pakistani border. Our caravan will be progressing for half a day, through dunes and villages, between windmills and cactuses.
The desert, it gifts you the bluest of skies and lets the sun bows down in farewell. In the shade of the world, it grants you a sky full of star and liberates you from the stalking heat at last
Jodhpur's hilly landscape surrounds a magnificent fort which plays hard to get. The heat will push back on your ascension to the entrance gate, where you overlook this blue city of paradox
I move to the shade. We have just escaped a five hours long bus ride I thought would be the end of me. The rickshaw vultures of Jodhpur are already praying on us and we feel overwhelmed.
After battling with a few unexpectedly pricey accommodation options, we settle in a family-run guesthouse for a short stay. "Not more than a full day" - we were told the city was worth. Upon arrival, we survey the area for a while and decide to call it a day. The bus ride of hell has gotten the best of us.
The next day, I give a dead ear to my upset stomach and we pilgrim to a vantage point. From there, I spot two lakes at the foot of the Jodhpur fort. One of them reaches a ghat where I can see people bathing. We later learn that the men bathing are sending blessings to the loved ones they lost. We observe them in silence and decide we shouldn't overstay our welcome. We head to the other lake and through the cut of a closed wooden gate, we enter a true haven. This silent ghat is haunted by a group of monkeys, squirrels run over the many walls and the one dog keeps an eye on us. Overlooking the lake is the fort where I am later to witness the different art forms and weapons of old Rajasthan.
Jodhpur's hilly landscape surrounds a magnificent fort which plays hard to get. The heat will push back on your ascension to the entrance gate, where you overlook this blue city of paradox. The narrow streets will capture your eyes for a stay you have been advised to keep short. The city, as beautiful as it is, doesn't have much to offer. Jodhpur will have you, show you a few nice things and send you on your way again.
We stopped in Pushkar for a well deserved rest. The holy lake city of the fifty-two ghats was a pleasant, though somewhat dull, break before we ventured into the heart of India.
In Agra, a page is turned. The strong Rajasthani identity leaves its place to the truest, rawest India. We are progressing further yet into the depth of poverty. A few small streets contrast the opulent surroundings of the Taj Mahal with garbage-ridden alleys. I am left speechless by the poor conditions I find, just a few streets away from the country's national treasure.
In no corner of the city do we find shelter from the harassment of rickshaw offers but our patience is rewarded early the next morning. We sacrifice a fair amount of sleep to pay a sunrise visit to India's priceless jewel of architecture. Zigzagging among our many tourist peers, we stroll the symmetric gardens on our way to the famous mausoleum. Everything seems to be a reference to the birth of this true wonder. Parts of the gardens and constructions symbolize the amount of workers and years it took to build the Taj Mahal, or Crown Palace. Standing in between the identical Mosque and guest quartier, the marble edifice stands proudly in the name of Mumtaz Mahal, the third and only chosen wife of Shah Jahan. The tombs of the two lovers rest in the compromised silence of the monument which should have been Mumtaz' only. Before he was arrested by his son, Shah Jahan had ordered the construction of his own insanely opulent mausoleum: a black marble replica of the Taj Mahal, proud shadow on the other side of the river. That one we will never see.
We sacrifice a fair amount of sleep to pay a sunrise visit to India's priceless jewel of architecture. Zigzagging among our many tourist peers, we stroll the symmetric gardens on our way to the famous mausoleum
Varanasi is a one of a kind place of extremes. It makes it clear that nowhere in the world will you find anything remotely similar
"Varanasi makes the rest of India look like a five star hotel" - someone has once told me. My expectations have lowered with the comment, as well as the many accounts echoing through my Indian travels.
We arrive and exit the train station with a feeling that we are just about to be eaten alive by a pack of wolves. We wonder if perhaps we haven't been too optimistic with the amount of days we would be spending dodging the many scams of Varanasi. Regardless, we make our way to an area we have marked down on the map and find a place to settle for a few days.
As fate would have it, our first venture out of the hotel has us come across one of the cremation site: Manikarnika ghat. The first sight is quite unsettling until we learn more about the spiritual dimension of ceremony. An old man meets us for a short lesson on the holy place. Manikarnika ghat is one of the two burning ghats in the city. Believers who have suffered a natural death are cremated outside, on piles of wood, and their ashes are spread into the river Ganges. The ceremony grants them Nirvana. The second burning ghat is for the unlucky believers who have been killed in assault or accident and have to reincarnate. It also has an electric facility for the poor, who cannot afford a pile of wood. We watch a group of men loading a body onto a boat and ask the old man what they are doing. He answers that five categories of people cannot be purified by fire: holy men and children under the age of fifteen, because they are already pure; pregnant women, because their child's skin is like a flower and they do not burn a flower; the ones with leprosy or bitten by a cobra, because it is believed that the smoke would contaminate people in the surroundings. Along with holy animals, these people are tied to a rock and given to goddess Ganga.
Hindu pilgrims from all around the country to either gift their dead ones a cremation or offer their ashes to the holy river. The fire is started by a close relatives, and I can notice that no family member cries. Indeed, it would prevent the soul of the dead to go into Nirvana. The holy man explains that death is perceived as part of life in his culture. It is not a sad thing. Besides, the dead of Varanasi are considered extremely lucky to be given to the river. According to the belief, a desperate man in search of water came across Shiva meditating in the mountains. When he begged the god to help him tackle his thirst, Shiva agreed and the Ganges was born from the top of his head. Anxious to keep the man safe from thirst again, the God of Destruction made the river follow the man all the way down to the Ocean.
The following morning, we join the crowd for a happier ritual at the Ganges: bathing. Groups of teenagers play in the water and families enjoy a shared spiritual moment. Holy men meditate on the steps overlooking the noisy bathers. I am amazed by the paradoxal use of soap in the world's second most insanitary river. We travel from ghat to ghat, between steps and mud. The Ganges is still ten meters too high after a rich monsoon season and it is clear that a fair part of the ghats are hidden in the water. Men are still busy cleaning the thick layers of mud brought in by the late summer floods.
Varanasi's name is a combination of two streams reaching the Ganges before and after the seven kilometers length of town along the water: the Assi and Varuna rivers. The former also gave its name to a ghat in a more recent part of town. By mid-afternoon, we reach this quieter part of the city for a rest in the shade. Before long, a homeless boy comes begging for something to eat. In a soft voice, he insists. His sad eyes are looking into mine and his tiny fingers are pinching my knee softly. I suspect he might be acting out a little but regardless, it is too much for my soft heart. I buy some food and water and watch him proudly run away to share it with his father and sister. After a while, he returns and sits down to play a game of hide-the-potato-crisp. He pretends to be out of food again and laughs when I call him out on the crisps he is hiding behind his back or under his knee. He plays for a bit and escapes again. The encounter breaks my heart. The poor boy with burn scars and dirty clothe I come to know as Noku haunts my mind. I will be returning to provide him a humble meal on different occasions.
We explore Varanasi through the narrowest of streets and visit hidden temples. In the evening, we struggle through the crowd of the Puja ceremony in the main ghat. In the early hours of day, we embark on a boat ride with a smiley young man named Machu who fights the heavy currents of a high Ganges. In between these special moments, we navigate dirty streets and witness things I will not care to recall.
Varanasi is a one of a kind place of extremes. It makes it clear that nowhere in the world will you find anything remotely similar. People are harsh and, with a few rewarding exceptions, almost all conversations with the locals seem to have the more or less direct -more or less honest goal of getting money out of you. The place has you let go of the idea that you will ever know which of the versions of "this shop" or "that price" is true. That is not all there is to Varanasi though. It is a beautiful place of reunion, where people converge into shared beliefs that are strong enough to define their very way of life. Wandering along the many ghats, you can sense the spiritual dimension of this holy place. The bathings show you a celebration of life. The cremations show you one of death.
I am sitting at the Indira Gandhi International airport, ready to let another plane take me away. Inside me a strange feeling. Is this goodbye, then?
India and I are splitting ways and I miss the beautiful beast already. Wild, unforgiving India, rain of sound and color. I am getting myself ready to go, and yet I leave a piece of my heart behind.
In the last five weeks, I have been places, seen the life of India and most importantly: met the great souls of the country. I reflect on the experience and can now appreciate the many impressions the country made on me.
India is cruel, it will push you from side to side and, at times, you will feel like you are losing your breath to the buzzing chaos of crowded streets. Your eyes will be shown the riches of culture and the rawest of lives. You will cringe with the harsh treatment strangers give each other on the street, and yet you will turn a corner to be granted a jewel.
India is a stranger family inviting you for lunch. It is a woman rescuing you from a hard rickshaw negotiation. India will offer to sell you something and, should you decline, it will still help you with direction. Sometimes it is two sixty years old male friends holding hands to cross the street, sometimes a group of young brothers resting their head on one another's shoulder. India simply has a good heart.
India is cruel, it will push you from side to side and, at times, you will feel like you are losing your breath to the buzzing chaos of crowded streets. Your eyes will be shown the riches of culture and the rawest of lives. You will cringe with the harsh treatment strangers give each other on the street, and yet you will turn a corner and be granted a jewel