Monday, August 10, 2015


It has been over a month since Elise and I visited Varansi, the city regarded as the spiritual capital of India. Located on the banks of the Ganges River, it is a pilgrimage spot for many Hindus who come to bath in the Ganges holy waters or, as they near death, to be burned on one of the city's spiritual funeral pyres.

It has taken me a long time to write this account of our journey to Varanasi. Not only because I have been incredibly busy and short on time, but also because it has taken this long to process what we experienced there. Our trip to Varansi was a major turning point in our time in India. It was the beginning of the end of our time in India.

I had originally promised Elise a trip to the Maldives for her birthday. When she told me she, instead, wanted to go to Varanasi, I may have raised my eyebrows a bit, but I didn't question or second-guess her.

One reason we decided not to go to the Maldives was that it sounded really far. We would have to fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka and from there catch a flight to Male. That trip alone would have been five hours (On Sri Lankan Airlines which would have been a vacation in and of itself). Once arriving in Male, we would have had to take a seaplane to the remote island where we would spend two glorious, peaceful days the whole time wondering if something happened to the kids back home how the heck were we going to get off this island to get to them?

Though Varanasi sounded closer because it is in India, it didn't end up being a much shorter journey. From Chennai, we had to fly to Delhi and from Delhi catch a short flight to Varanasi (on Jet Airways, not quite as luxurious as Sri Lankan Airlines).

It amazes me sometimes how little it takes to feel like I'm on holiday. As Elise and I practically skipped through the Delhi airport, I remarked that I could fly back to Chennai right now and feel refreshed (in retrospect, maybe that is what we should have done). We stopped at Starbucks in the airport and I got a Venti Java Chip Frappacino. We have two Starbucks in Chennai, too, but they are both in malls on opposite sides of town and don't open until 11:00 a.m. so they might as well not even exist.

We frolicked, caffeinated beverages in hand, from moving walkway to moving walkway through the gargantuan Delhi airport. we had flown through Delhi before, but I don't remember it being nearly that big.

We arrived in Varanasi in the middle of the monsoon. Before we departed Chennai, Elise had been watching the weather and had seen that it was basically going to be pouring rain the entire time we were there. Who's bright idea was it to travel in India during monsoon season?? Anyway, we were guided to a waiting Toyota Innova, windshield wipers screeching reluctantly across the windshield, as we were blocked in. Every car at the airport had blocked every other car in in the airport, in an effort to get as close to the terminal and out of the rain. After some time, we were off and zipping through rural Uttar Pradesh.

As the landscape became more urban, the streets narrowed until--at one point--we stopped at the mouth of a river. Traffic halted as drivers and bicyclists surveyed the river ahead, pondering the wisdom in testing its waters. Many would not move forward. Rather they decided to execute u-turns that reminded me of the seen in Austin Powers where he tries to maneuver a golf cart out of an impossibly narrow corridor and only achieves through many, many forwards and reverses, to wedge the golf cart even more resolutely into the narrow space.

Finally, it was our turn. The Innova lurched forward and water lapped over the doors. We thought for a moment it might start spilling in, but we kept moving forward ahead of the shooshing whoosh of water. An auto puttered next to us, its exhaust pipe, completely underwater, like a snorkel sputtering bubbles.

We emerged from the narrow street/river, and drove through a square, feeling a wild sense of relief and adventure. At that point, I distinctly remember seeing a father, elbow on the counter of his tea stall, chin in hand, watching the rain. What ingrained the image in mind--even to this day--was that his oldest son was in the exact same pose next to him, and the boy's younger brother was in the exact same pose next to him, all three in a row, pressed together against the rain, no customers to be had.

Suddenly the car stopped, though it did not look as though we had reached anyplace that seemed like a destination. The driver got out and opened the door. Two teenage boys hopped into the rain and greeted us. They took our bags--smiling--and wrapped them in garbage sacks and held an umbrella over our heads though the rain had started to slow. We would go the rest of the way by foot.

We followed the two boys as the streets narrowed and we plunged into the winding passageways if inner Varanasi. Our hotel was riverside and only reachable by boat or foot. We leapt over rugged paths, dodging puddles and pile of cow manure. We followed the boys blindly, perhaps foolishly, through a veritable maze, passages no wider than an arm's-length across.

One of the boys was Raj, who we would come to know well, or as well as a person can know another in such a short amount of time. He would be our guide for the weekend when the guide we had arranged to meet us in the hotel lobby failed to show; a misunderstanding between myself and the tour company through which we had worked.

We finally arrived at the hotel around two in the afternoon, completely famished. Neither of us had eaten anything all day, after leaving the house in the early morning. There was a restaurant in the hotel, but disappointingly, the food (nor the service, truth be told) was commensurate with how nice the hotel was. We ate mostly french fries for lunch and a crappy tomato sandwich in a dreary restaurant on the rooftop, watching rain run in thin rivulets down the window panes outside.

When we got back to the room, we may have napped; I don't recall now, but later in the afternoon we went out exploring. We had arranged for Raj to loop back and pick us up at five. I'm not sure if he ever left; we had a view of the river from our room and he waited with his friends at one of the ghats, passing the afternoon.

He didn't strike me as a typical boy eager for a hand-out or to glom on to a foreigner flush with cash. He spoke English well, had an iPhone, and was familiar with American movies....recent ones, too. He was passionate about his home town and knowledgeable. At the end of our stay he asked Elise if she was on WhatsApp, a social networking site. She's not, but they're friends on Facebook now.

We set out to see the sites, walking along the river. I won't try to describe the scene. Pictures speak a thousand words, and Elise's ten thousand. Raj immediately took us to one of the ceremonial pyres. Amidst the swirling chaos, I glimpsed a body in shroud this as gauze. Dressed in yellow, I saw his or her brown skin and bone-white hair.

Elise pulled up short of the funereal pyres. I don't think either of us had properly steeled ourselves for this, much less to be thrown in so soon after our arrival. We felt like it was something we had to build up towards. You don't go to Disney and immediately hop in line for Space Mountain. Or maybe you do. I don't know.

When we got back to the room, Elise was visibly shell-shocked. I think we were both feeling like we'd maybe gotten in over our heads a little bit. We showered and decompressed with something mindless on television, American Idol, and I admitted to Elise that maybe I felt bad leaving the kids behind. Obviously, we could not have brought them to Varanasi with us (a city where people go to die isn't exactly Legoland), but I did feel as though something was missing. Maybe it was a mistake to share this with Elise at that time, feeling as vulnerable as she was. She wanted to go home. I never feel as though the children are a burden, but it goes without saying that it is nice to get away and it's something that we have been able to do only a handful of times before: to Rio, to Mumbai, on a wonderful trip to Kerala, and it is an opportunity that living with three small children rarely affords; we are not able to make such trips in the States. To spend a weekend alone, focusing solely on one another is vital to a healthy marriage.

I cherish date nights and weekends alone, but maybe I was feeling something different this time around. Maybe I didn't feel like I was leaving behind three loud, high-maintenance kids. I was leaving behind my three loud, high-maintenance kids, and as loud and high-maintenance as they are, they are not little babies anymore. They are small people who you care about and when you go away you miss them, you think about them, most everything you see or do relates back to them and you wish they could see and do the same things you're seeing and doing. It's hard to describe (obviously), but this time away from them felt distinctly different than previous times. It wasn't the huge relief I was expecting it to be. It was neither worrisome nor troublesome, but it was a sensation than I wasn't used to experiencing, and come to find out Elise felt much the same way.

Before we'd come upstairs, we'd asked the concierge to deliver Kingfishers and a bucket of ice to our room, and those arrived soon after we snapped the TV on. We ordered room service, and eventually called it a night.

By the next morning, we were both feeling better, and abandoned thoughts of fleeing Varanasi presumptively. The rain clouds miraculously parted, and the sun came out, and Elise and I (guided by Raj) took the streets of Varansasi, Elise clicking away madly. It was hot, and at one point we pulled in to a small two table restaurant for cold water and bottles of Mountain Dew. We spend much of the next day and a half that way, wandering up and down the ghats.

Mid-day, we escaped the heat and napped. That evening, we climbed into a boat and were rowed down the Ganges at sunset, thunderclouds sparking in the distance. We joined a giant flotilla (part of the aforementioned pilgrimage) to take part in viewing a Hindi fire dance taking place on shore.

The trip to Varanasi was intense. It was intensely beautiful and intensely emotional. The afternoon of the second day, Raj guided us through a winding snafu of garbage-filled, shit-lined streets with no beauty or purpose. The walls swirled around me as I became overwhelmed. Later that same afternoon, we emerged within the courtyard an apartment building with lines of multi-hued clothing criss-crossing overhead. There, we bought me an Afghan-type scarf to wear this winter in Washington, D.C.

The month since we have returned from Varanasi has not been fun. Sometimes, India is a hard place to live, and as much as we loved living here, we understand it is time to go home.

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