Saturday, February 19, 2011

Samaj gaya

Its been a bit of time since I've updated my blog, life has been fairly mellow with not much to report on. We've gotten into a life routine here in Banaras so we're not doing anything extra special or especially amazing, even though what we are doing is pretty special and amazing!

We've just returned this morning from a week in Puri. We left on the 12th after attending a really special puja ceremony at Panditji's house outside in the country. Panditji had a village ceremony to bless his temple and especially to bless the fire pit outside the temple, so we went and enjoyed the few hours we were there. We left fairly late as Martin was unwell and we had to check outo f our room in Godowli and head off to Mahmoorganj to drop off/pack up our stuff. As a result of us leaving later than everyone else, we got caught in absolute mayhem grindlock! It took almost 2 hours to go 25 km! We sat in horrendous traffic for about 45 min barely moving, and I wondered where we were in Varanasi. Martin looked out of the window and exclaimed that we were only close to the railway station which is only about 2 km from where we started! But we got to Panditji's village in one piece and when we arrived, it was worth waiting for. Panditji's beautiful family and all of their extended family was there, and a blazing fire surrounded by people lay in the middle. Two men were on a microphone saying prayers in Sanskrit and everyone was tossing offerings into the fire. Naganath sat at the head, pouring in ghee and offering other items like small chapatis and rice. The fire was alive, and poured out so much heat that the women around the circle had pulled their veils over their faces. I took a seat next to Nagnath and Martin and we joined the puja. The children eventually stole me away to the mustard fields where they picked mustard flowers for me and jumped all over me and each other. The kids are so happy and alive here, and completely free from the distractions of modern life like tv and playstation. There are so many of the kids at Panditji's as his family includes his 5 sisters and their families, and all thekids get along like they are all best friends. So sweet and lovely.

We caught our train later that evening from Mughal Serai, which is outside of Varanasi. The train station was really old school India, right off the backpackers trail. A pack of street performing children with matted hair and tattered clothes tried to earn a few rupees on the platform while amphetamine eyed young men trolled the platform, scratching their skinny arms. Finally the train came and we got on and both passed out til the morning.

The train was 7.5 hours late because there are problems with Maoist terrorists going through Bihar, so the train kept stopping for hours at a time. Armed guards paced the stations and came onboard to check the train. I was more annoyed than nervous as this train was dirty and this meant that we missed our day in Puri, instead spending it on a train full of dancing cockroaches. When we finally rolled in to the station at 7:30, I was in a right grump but once I stepped off the train and into the humid air I was happy. We caught a rickshaw right to the Pink House Hotel which is right on the beach, and thats where we found Choti.

Choti was curled up in a little ball with her ribcage sticking out. She hardly moved, or lift her head. She was a darling little 3 week old puppy, white with browny red spots and big brown eyes. She lay right in front of our door, and my heart broke the second that I saw her. I got some bread and milk for her and held her in my lap while she ate. She didn't have much energy, but I could tell that she was really sweet. Bedtime came, and we shut the door. Martin got busy hanging up the mosquito net while I unpacked our stuff. I heard a little whimper and then a huge wail, followed by a barrage of cries. I turned to Martin, who took one look at my face (which was now crying) and he said "Bring her in". And so she ended up next to our bed.

The next day, we went out to the school with Neneta, Umesh and a Portuguese lad named Orrille who is there for a month working on the school as part as his architect masters degree. I brought Choti along, where she slept in the sun and drank loads of milk.

The school has changed quite a bit since the last time we were there. There is another level that has been added, and the primary school wing (2 classrooms and a teachers room) has been built. We rolled up in a cloud of dust, and suddenly all the children ran out of their classrooms and came running toward us with beautiful handmade bouquets of flowers. We got swarmed with kids "Namaste! Como estas? How are you?" and many grabbed our hands and touched our feet. It was hugely moving, emotional, and so fantastic to see the kids.

The school has grown in size, and there are about 300 kids that attend every day now. The school was able to buy a small minibus with a very generous donation so now the children who travel home everyday don't have to walk the 7 km to their villages. The school has (sometime) electricity and running purified water. Another generous donation purchased 4 sewing machines so some of the older girls are learning how to sew. For the children who live there permanently, music and traditional dance classes are offered on the weekends. The children are doing so well and are all so happy. I was thrilled to see that everything was thriving at the school. Neneta and Umesh work tirelessly for the school, trying to raise funds and take care of the business side while always keeping energy and love for the children. It is truly moving to see what a huge difference 2 people can do. In all of our busy lives, we lose sight of the fact that we are able to make a difference. Maybe its because we feel that it may be only just us, or maybe that really life is too busy or challenging to think of adding on something else. But people like Neneta and Umesh are just 2 people who put an idea in action, and 7 years later, they are still going strong. They get so much energy from people who come to the school and who decide that they want to help in someway. Some people paint pictures on the wall, or take photographs. Some people, like Orrille, come from Barcelona to spend a month helping with the planning and construction of the new add on. Some people like us, give money and become an advocate.

There are so many places to give money in this world. There is an endless need for help. Quite often, where the money get sent isn't actually where the money goes. Umesh and Neneta spend every last rupee on the school. This school gives children in this truly impoverished state a chance for something else. Some are orphaned, or from broken homes. Some come from agricultured families, where the expectation is that the children should continue with the line of work and help their fathers. The very chance that these children get to escape this life and attend a school where they will actually end up with something to go out into the world and offer is amazing.

The school needs your help. Money goes a long way in India. A donation of even $10 helps so much. I will be collecting money in Canada for the school and will cover the costs to have to the funds tranfered to India. If you want to make a donation, Neneta, Umesh and all the children would be so grateful. Neneta received word that the bank where she worked for 40 years and who previously donated 3000 Euros a year would be unable to help this year as they have merged with another bank who can't afford to help. This was especially disastrous news for Neneta, who spent the evening really quiet and sad. This chunk of money is meant to cover so many things for the kids- primarily food, books, and clothes. The fact that this money is not coming, means that she is going to have to find it somehwere else. And so Martin and I promised her and Umesh that we would help find it. The children eat 4 times a day at the school (those wholive there permanently) and all kids are clothed and given books, pens, paper etc. It costs nothing for the kids to attend, but means that these children are given valuable education. For a child who is from a broken home with no future, this education is priceless. I will be collecting funds upon my return to Canada. Like Isaid, even a donation of $10 helps so much.
Martin has been quite unwell, so our time in Puri was more restful and he spent it convalescing. This trip has been hard on both of our health. We rented bikes and went for a bike ride to the Jaganath temple on Thursday and woke up before sunrise to have a beautiful bikeride along the coast line Friday morning before our train. Puri is such a lovely place. Its got a wild, tribal feel to it. Every temple is decorated so vidily with strange looking Hindu gods and goddesses. The temples are protected by big smiling lions that don big handlebar moustaches. Its fantastic. Puri is also full of honeymooners, so you see many awkward couples walking around or eating together. The women shyly look at the floor while the men shift around in their seats. Some of the more loved up ones are openly showing affection in the streets - holding hands or catching eyes of one another. Its not something I have seen outside of Puri, and I love it that they feel comfortable enough to show affection openly. The tribal women come in massive processions, wearing brightly coloured threadbare saris that barely cover thier breasts. There are still many bare chested tribes here in Orissa.
I noticed a large white tourist popluation here in Puri that I didn't see before. Many Goa type backpackers as well as Hare Kirshna devotees. When we were here before, we didn't see hardly any other white tourists. But the secret ,ust be out about how great (and cheap!) Puri is. Shame really as I see that its already changing. BUt thats the downfall of travelling I guess.

Choti has developed into a proper little puppy. We spent the rest of the week caring for her, bringing her everywhere we went. She became quite the celebrity around the town. In only a few days, she started to get fat and rolypoly and started to play with us. She was especially sweet in the mornings, where she would prance at our feet and yip while wagging her tail feriously upon seeing us. We decide to bring her to Varanasi in the hopes that we can leave her at Panditji's house out in the country where she would have fields to run in, lots of kids to play with, and a tranquil lifestyle. We put her in a box and brought her on the train, where again she became the little celebrity onboard. I had to take her to wee either in the western style loo or out on the platform when we stopped, and aside from 1 accident in the carriage, things went well. Martin was adamant that I use the western style loo with her as he didn't want me to lose her down the hole onto the tracks if we used the squat style toilets. He said he didn't want to deal with me after a situation like that! Choti is now here in Varanasi with us, and is doing well. She is playing and biting verything in sight, and has taken to nuzzling up in Martin's elbox or pulling on his massive beard. Its hilarious and darling. I just love this dog!! I wish I could bring her back to Canada, but its impossible. So lets hope that Panditji can take her in.

The last 6 days I have here in India will be spent in Varanasi. I have a flight booked on the 25th to Bombay, where I have 13 hours to wait before flying to London on the 26, where I arrive at 7 am. I have the 26th in London getting sorted and then flying back to Vancouver on the 27th. Its going to be a long 3 days of travel, and I'll be very sad to leave India, Choti, and Martin behind. Martin will stay for another month before returning to the UK, and then *hopefully* Canada sometime in late April. I imagine that these last days here in Varanasi will be full of yoga, Choti time, and spending time at the temple. I also want to get my chai and chili paneer fix in so I will make sure to fit these in as well.

Hard to believe that my trip here is nearing the end. But I must get on with stuff back at home and as Nicky always says "India isn't going anywhere". I can come back anytime I want. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone in London and Canada, and getting back to work (and getting a paychq!!). My time here in India hasn't been the adventure that it was last time, but I feel a deeper connection to the land and its people. I'm seeing it all in a way that I only glimpsed before, and its wonderful.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rest time

Sorry I've been offline for the past week, I've viciously sick and I haven't had the energy to email, call or even do schoolwork!
I accidently drank Ganga water at the temple last Wednesday, that was given to me by a fill in at the temple as Naganath was in Allahabad. I thought that it was mineral water as it was sweet, tasted very clean and was actually delicious. Martin told me (after I told him that I drank from the brass pot) that that water was the water he collected right from Manikarnika (the burning ghat!). I was fine for the rest of that night and Thursday until we got to Allahabad.

Martin was asked by Naganath to come join him in Allahabad for a huge mela (festival) that happens every year. The festival is in Allahabad, at the site where the rivers Ganges and Yamuna meet. There are certain days where it is most important for pilgrims to go and bathe in the meeting spot where the two rivers meet. It is very important to take a dip at this spot regardless, of the date but on some days it is even more beneficial. We decided to go for one night, so Martin arranged a driver and off we went to Allahabad.
We had a really great driver Ramballak who spoke no english but was very enthusiastic and wonderful. The drive to Allahabad was about 3 hours, and we drove through many small villages where we saw families making beautiful carpets, elephants on the highway and goats in turtleneck sweaters! I found this to be particularly amusing, and kept entertaining Martin about this the entire trip.
As we hit Allahabad, we were stuck in the most ting tong traffic jam I have ever encountered. The street was jam packed to the point that I do not understand how cars made it through the throng without injuring anyone. This was only the beginning of what madness Allahabad was!
We drove over the bridge and for as far as the eye could see on both sides of the rivers where tents and little shanty huts. At first I thought it was a slum, but then as I looked closer I realised how uniform and in good condition everything was. It turned out that this was the festival that we were going to. the festival ground spans up to 25 km on both sides of the river, and the previous day (which was one of the auspicious dates) had over 800,000 pilgrim bathing in the river!!!! I started to get nervous as 1) This was a really important festival 2) I didn't realise that we'd be "camping" so I didn't bring along enough clothes (the nights are still cold here) 3) I felt really unprepared for this festival and what it means. We followed many buses and rickshaws stuffed to the gills with people to the festival site, which was absolutely flooded with people. People sat by the roadsides selling everything- from religious tat to cheap Chinese made toys. Loud speakers belted out announcements and music, while ice cream vendors sullenly pushed their carts past their competitors. Horse drawn carts carrying 2-3 entire families passed by as holy men waved incence. We didn't know where to go, so we turned down a road and parked until we could get ahold of Naganath or someone in his group that could tel us where to go. we didn't even know if we were on the right side of the river. We sat in the car for hours waiting for someone to either show up at the meeting spot or for us to know where to go. I amused myself by watching the scenes outside our window and watching the people watching us.
martin and Ramballak eventually left to go to the meeting spot, so I waited alone for about an hour and became increasingly nervous about being at the festival. I felt really unprepared about being there, and suddenly felt flung into a situation that I wasn't ready for. I described it to Martin like I had been invited to sit and have lunch with the Pope in the Vatican City- I don't speak the language, I don't know what all the rituals, movements, and ceremonies mean and I ultimately was surrounded by strangers. By the time Martin got back with Trouble #1 (more on him later) and a man we called Punditji- I was in a full on bad and stressed out mood.
Punditji directed us to a campsite that was miles away (good thing that we didn't try to find it on our own!) and we drove literally into a whole new city. It was madness.
It was full and I mean full of people, shopping, little makeshift halls for religious people to go and have a rant, music caves, statues of deities, dabbhas...everything. Martin said that it was like rolling into the Indian version of Glastonbury or Burning Man, but add 300,000 more people. It was insanse.
We ended up in the "VIP" area, a privately guarded area that was really serene and peaceful funded entirely by a right mad man Baba Boginath. Baba Boginath was a chubby Brahmin priest that wore a rick collection of necklaces and rings while scratching his belly and talking about how he was going to take over the world. By day, he is a Bollywood executive producer, by night a full on Brahmin priest. He was the epitome of the "Guru" that naive Westerners may be taken in by, he commands a strict and pious presence while he goes off on huge tangents. He was intimidating, impressive, crazy but very very very generous. He pays for everything in this area- music, servants, the tents that are equipped with straw and blankets and mats, food etc. The area had about 10 tents, ours being the biggest one, and was closely guarded. His servants were lovely men who took good care of me, when I became ill.
Naganath was in the large tent resting when we arrived, and it was lovely to see him. He had a few people from the temple with him- an American woman who was his new devotee, his newphew (Trouble #1), Punditji and a few others. We had some chai and went down to the river so that everyone w\could have a dip and so that I could see the rivers. I was in a really bad mood out of fear from the situation and tried to talk myself out of it, but the person that broke my mood was Trouble #1. He is a 17 yr old Brahmin boy (Naganath's newphew) who was so sweet, cheeky as hell and took a shining to me. He became my instant bodyguard and tourguide of the area. He was then joined by Trouble #2 Punditji's newphew who was 16, so sweet and eager to please, and politely cheeky. These two boys turned my experience around in a heartbeat, and thus I began to relax.
Punditji, Martin, Trouble #1 & 2 took us out for food and an evening walk so that we can check out a minute view of the festival. Martin and I were in disbelief about the festival, it was so insane but so so beautiful. However, I started to feel ill and we went back to the tents, where I ended up getting very sick. Baba Bolinath took me and Martin into his tent so that he could talk to us and give me medicine. It was overwhelming for me to be in his tent sucking on horrible tasting sulphuric tablets while listening to his rants, but Trouble #1 & 2 popped in and secretely made fun of him when Baba Bolinath wasn't looking. It was supremely hilarious and horribly cheeky!!!
I went to bed early and had the longest and more uncomfortable "sleep" of my life. Speakers blared music and religious mantras all night long and my bones ached and ached. I felt so nauseous, and ended up being sick in the night. Baba Bolinath generously offered me use of his toliet which was convienently close to the tent so I made sure that offer was taken! At 4 am, everyone woke up and went for a dip in the river. I curled up in the warm spot that Martin left behind and slept for a few hours. At 6 am, Martin came and woke me and took me outside into an absolutely surreal scene. Thick fog had infiltrated the camp and you couldn't see anything except the rising ball that wasthe sun. It was amazing and so dreamlike.
I went to the river with Punditji, Martin, and Naganath later on in the morning for a dip and a littl eprayer. There were so many people in the river, boys splashing around, women cleaning themselves, men sitting on the bank and staring over the sea. sadly, I started to get sick again, so we returned to the camp where I took to bed for the rest of the day.

Everyone took such care for me. Punditji went to the onsite hospital to get me some medicine, while Trouble 1 & 2 kept me thoroughly amused. Naganath kept me by his side, and Martin fretted and fretted. The servant boys came and sat and stared at me (what I fright I must have looked!) and got me water anytime my bottle got 1/2 empty. The care and kindness I experienced by strangers made me ashamed of my thoughts and mood from the night before. Martin decided that I should get back to Banaras, so off we went.

We went to Punditji's house yesterday, which is 20 km outside of Varanasi in a vibrant and lush agricultural area. Sadly, I was sick for the entire visit so I missed out on the walk, the beautiful lunch, and generally enjoying the serenity. But all the children kept me laughing, and they were all full of cuddles and games for me while I rested. It was fantastic to get out of Varanasi for a day though, and meet Punditji's family.

We are staying put here in Varanasi for another week and then we will go to the school in Puri for 5 days next Monday. Nenetta is here in India and will be waiting us in Puri. Nenettasaid that so many advancements have been made at the school, so we are excited to go and see what's happening. I'm keeping a low profile, resting and trying to do schoolwork. Martin has goe off to get me some medicine this morning so hopefully that will help me. I am feeling better though thi smorning, and managed to eat some toast so hopefully I'm on the mend. Being sick in Varanasi is NOT the place to be if you have a queasy stomach. The only place where I don't get sick is on the ghats where there is a fresh breeze. But I have to get through a few tiny and twisted streets full of garbage, cow poo and other rancid things first!!! Ah well. Lets hope I'm on the mend.

Love to you all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


In Varanasi. Full of chai. Dangerous combination.

We made it to the land of utter havoc and chaos (a.k.a Varanasi) in 1 piece on Sunday afternoon after a long 2 days of travel. Our night bus from Goa to Bombay was a very rough, uncomfortable and cringeworthy trip consisting of trecherous and sharp hairpin turns, forcing me, Martin, and our luggage to crash into each other, dirty condensation from the filthy ceiling to drop on my head and the utterly enjoyable feeling that we were "sleeping" on jackhammers- every possible bump on the road or shutter of the long gone brakes we felt to our very core. If I had had false teeth, they would have been good and rattled! Alas we didn't sleep a wink but it all makes for an amusing memory and a laugh!

We rolled into Bombay and went directly to the train station Lokmanya Tilek to try our luck to see if we could get on the 12 noon train to Varanasi. Maybe it was because life in Goa was truly shanti and things were relatively easy, but Bombay felt like an assault on all my senses. The air is thick with smog and dirt, the streets are screaming full of honking horns, people eye you with a glint of curiosity and potential schemes, men having a wee at every possible wall and some even pulling down their pants to defacate on the shoulder of the road not caring who is getting a real good look at their nether regions. Getting to Lokmanya wasn't too hard, but once we got there people tried to convince us that we couldn't get tourist quota tickets there (an obvious ploy to get us into their taxi and take us to CST). The waiting room was jam packed full of people sitting with their extended families, sleeping on cardboard and tatty blankets while the mosquitoes and flies circled their heads. We were the only westerners in the whole terminal and so we got watched every move we made. The terminal was the dirtiest place I had experienced since coming to India. The bathrooms were gag worthy and completely rancid (with women actually sleeping on the floor), dirt everwhere and people spitting paan or shooting snot out of their nostrils. I was horrified, and tried to sit as still as possible, trying not to touch anything. We ended up waiting at Lokmanya for 4 hours, while we tried to get a reserved seat on the train to Varanasi. In the end, we scored 2 tickets in 2A/C (!!) and off we went. The train journey was really pleasant actually and the train was quite clean, especially after sitting in th etrain terminus for 4 hours. Martin and I ended up in a quiet carriage, me on the upper bunk, and we watched movies on our laptop, slept, I did some school work and we ate and drank loads of food and chai. I slept the best that night since arriving in India and the journey passed off without a glitch. The scenery was amazing - we saw gorgeous jagged finger-like hills pointing up toward the skies, and many many rivers and dusty villages. Passing through Allahabad was quite dismal and depressing, and brought me to the understanding that we had indeed entered Northern India. Piles and piles and piles of broken plastic bags, empty water bottles, and misc. trash piled up everywhere with kids aimlessly kicking it, women cooking in it and changing babies, dogs scavenging and cows eating it all. One poignant picture was of a man sitting in a bright red plastic chair reading the newspaper in a stream of sunlight, behind him a massive garbage heap and in front of him a rotting away home. Very dismal indeed.

We rolled into Varanasi 28 hrs later, and arrived through a thick brown haze of smoke. The second we exited the train, a fight broke out between 2 men who both tried to talk to us and get us into their taxi. The winner of the fight then joined Martin and I and tried to convince Martin that we should let him take us to his place. Martin told him off and we fought our way to a cycle rickshaw further down the road to the station. We are in Varanasi, fully primed and on constant alert.

We've been here now for 4 days, and I am slowly adjusting. I have forgotten how hard this city is on the body, and how much energy it takes out of me. North India is very poor so the people are aggressively hungry, pestering you every second and trying to take you off to their shop, their uncle's shop, their sisters' husbands' son's brother's shop. There is cow poo everwhere, and my left foot has had the unfortunate opportunity to continuously slide right through it. The streets are full of paan juice and spit, garbage, goats, puppies, food, motorcycles, barefoot pilgrims, tourists, touts. If you have ever been to Varanasi, you will know how tiny the streets are just off the ghats. I'm not sure if it is because I am older, or if it's because I am here with Martin or if its because I remember this all before, but I have lost my luster in trying to deal with people as everyone just wants something (money really) from me and I don't have the energy to bargain or even attempt to engage with most people. I'm just sticking to dealing with people I know (like Prem & his wife) and not relly getting involved with anyone else. It may sound like I am not happy to be here, I am indeed, its just that this place takes so much out of need an adjustment time once the magic of being here has started to wear off. Varanasi is a very dark place, I mean after all its the place where Hindus come to die! I just need a bit of rebalancing thats all.

Speaking of which, Premu told me about a yoga college close to his place in Mahmoorganj that I went to yesterday to check out. Its a proper school, which is a relief after all the crazy fake yoga tourist traps! The school is called Brahmavarchas International Yoga Academy and is run by a man named Yogi Vikas. The school offers 6 classes a day, and is open to men, women of all ages. It was really refreshing to see who comes to the classes- its a mix of young and old, able bodies and disabled. the best part is that for 6 days a week, it is only 1600Rs a month each! fantastic. We went to our first class today, and had private instruction by Yogi Vikas and one of his teachers. In the hour class, we only went through 4 poses, but did 5 repetitions on each. Its not very vigorous, but it is very very good and you can get the full benefits of the poses. We will add 4 asanas each day.

We are off to Allahabad tomorrow for a day or so for a festival, and then will head to the orphanage in Puri at the end of next week.

I will be flying back to London on the 26th of Feb and back to Vancouver on the 27th, so I will see most of you soon. Bit of a bummer that Ican see the end already but nevermind, I got to India in the fisrt place!

Also got some good news today that the first stage of Martin and I's application of Martin's perm. residence has been accepted! I'm happy and relieved. So hopefully London will be as accomodating and Martin's papers will come in soon.

Big love to all.