Thursday, March 19, 2009

Shiva's big night

I remember as a kid reading about religions that believed in multiple Gods and thinking how silly, almost barbaric, that was. Everyone knows there's only one God. Hello! Then I would laugh sardonically, even though I didn't know then, and don't know now, what sardonically meant. I'm seeing a pattern! I knew nothing about one God or multiple, but it didn't stop me from judging. I never learned a thing about Hinduism growing up, but the paltry number of Gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies that I did study pale in comparison. Hinduism is said to have 330 million Gods. You can buy books that are filled with nothing but the various names of God. I could think of worse books to read..

A young boy here blithely commented that "God is one, but he has many faces." Of the many faces that are worshipped faithfully here, Shiva is the probably the big dog, and Varanasi is his city. So when the annual festival of Shivaratri comes ("ratri" means night - Shivaratri, then, is the night of Shiva,) it's a Big Deal. Religious celebrations in India are ear-splitting affairs, and Shivaratri is probably the ear-splittingest that I've lost hearing in. There is a giant parade of children dressed as Gods, monstrous elephants, and rolling discos that will make your ears bleed. I wonder sometimes what India must have been like only 100 years ago, when the loudest sound you could make would be ringing that huge bell or clearing your throat like that guy on the bus the other day. It's considered "good merit," basically good karma, to crank the volume when worshipping. So priests will broadcast their off-key singing to the entire neighborhood, even though it's four in the morning. We innocent tourists can't understand why we're the only ones who even notice how loud it is, or think it should be quieter. The locals never seem to mind.

On Shivaratri, it's considered a religious sacrament to drink "bhang lassi," a yogurt drink mixed with powerful marijuana. On that night ashrams are pouring them out of huge vats and giving them to everyone, including families with young children. I didn't see any young people who looked out of it, but I saw more than my share of young men, gyrating wildly to the disco soundsystems. Look at the photos - you'll see a few.

This rambling story has come to an end, because I have to catch a train tonight. A group of us are taking an eight-hour night train, then a two-hour jeep ride, to a Christian ashram, of all places, for a 17-day silent meditation retreat. I'll be back on e-mail in about three weeks time - around April 7th or so.

I hope all is well with you, and that your heart is open is these difficult times. It's a practice, you know. We can try....

I've pasted a few photos below, but follow the links for all 23 photos:

Pilgrims standing in line to visit a temple:

A busy day on the ghats of Varanasi:

Doing the happy dance:

I love this guy's face:

Much love,

Monday, March 16, 2009

Another Varanasi reunion

I have sort of a love/dread relationship with Varanasi. Since I got involved with the lepers when I was here in 2001, the place has always stretched me in uncomfortable and unexpected ways. Some of you will remember that when I was here last time I tried to help a little girl, Poonita, who had burned her arm very badly. It had been healing for a month when I first saw her, and she was not allowing her arm to bend even a little. I thought that her arm would freeze in that position and never improve without therapy. So on a chance, I paid for a month's worth of physical therapy (for $20!) that I was pretty sure would be a waste of time. If you want to read the original story and photos from three years ago, it's at this link.

The good news is that I saw Poonita, and her arm is as good as new. The strange thing is that although I didn't recognize her, she kept saying to me, "I'm Poonita. Poonita/Sunita. You remember?" I mistook her for some other street kids that I knew, but she kept up and I finally figured it out. She was only four (or so) when I took her to the hospital, so I'm amazed that she remembered me. Her living situation is perhaps just as desperate as it was last time I saw her. Her mother, who was also happy to see me, now has six kids, and all the kids are wild and caked with dirt. I asked around about paying for the kids to go to school, but it's so difficult. There's no structure to get money to a family like theirs, or to know that they're using the money like they should. And as soon as money gets involved, the relationships change and get complicated. I ended up spending time with Poonita and her sweet and beautiful sister Sunita - and I never gave them anything except my attention and love. That counts for something, for sure, but when there's such need it's hard to know what should be done.

One day I was saying hello to some of my leper friends and an Indian man asked me to go look at someone who "has been hit by a truck or something. I don't know. You see. Maybe you help." Yes, boss, but I'm not a doctor - I just play one when I'm on vacation. "You just see. Maybe you help." It was like deja vu from working on the ghats - walking up to where this man was, laying on the street next to other beggars, not knowing what we'd see. He had one missing foot from and injury years back, but had apparently recently.broken the femur of his other leg, so he couldn't move at all. As we're standing in the baking sun, wondering if there's something we could do, an Indian man who I've known for years (and who I don't really trust) started translating. He said he's just a beggar, and not to get involved. We said, yeah, but he can't even move. He said "Of course he can! He's here now - he wasn't here yesterday!" Geesh. We slinked off, not getting involved mostly because no course of action seemed reasonable for tourists. That didn't feel so good. But just to torment myself, I walked by him the next two days, and he was still laying there in the sun. And he still gave us a palms-joined namaste greeting, in spite of our inaction. This place - I'm tellin' ya.

The same Indian guy who I don't trust so much looked at me when we first met and looked surprised. He got a puzzled look on his face, and said, "What happened? Something's wrong - you look different. You look like you lost some family or something." I told him I'd lost both parents in the last few months. He said, "Oh, well, that explains it. It happens to all of us once." He wasn't surprised at all that he "guessed" correctly. But I'm still surprised. This place...

A few photos are posted below, but follow the link for 28 photos from Varanasi:

Beautiful Poonita!

Sonnu, son of Anita, who I've known for years. He lost an eye when he was cut with a broken bottle.

One of the lanes of Varanasi.

Dhobi wallahs washing clothes in the Ganges.

Much love,

Friday, March 06, 2009

Photos from Varanasi

I've been in Varanasi, India, for just two weeks today, and for 10 of those days I've been fairly sick. Nothing dramatic, but not all that pleasant, either. I started out with a stomach bug, followed by flu and cold symptoms, which turned into a chest infection, which was followed by another round of stomach problems. After an antibiotic, now I just have a lingering cough. Is this even worth writing?

I have some stories backing up that need more attention than I can muster right now, so I'll fill you in on them later. I've been reunited with so many friends here, some of whom are neither lepers nor prostitutes, that it  takes time to walk down the lanes to get a meal. The children are as beautiful and dirty as ever, and my heart breaks, or breaks open, with a wonderful regularity while spending time here.

It's easy enough, and tempting, to close down to the poverty and despair that is the foundation for so many lives of the poor. It's really only painful if you care. But open those doors of compassion, and watch out. It's just too much to take in some times. I was sitting with my friend Julianne at a chai stand on the stone steps (called ghats) next to the Ganges river, when a woman in her late-thirties came and stood in front of us. You get used to beggars here, and they range from the truly destitute to the needy-without-alternatives to mafia-managed professional beggars with their rented babies. You can never really be sure who is who, though it's tempting to think otherwise. But this woman stood in front of us as still as a pool of water. She wasn't dirty, like many of the beggars, and she hardly indicated that she was begging. But she had an expression like she wasn't used to this, and if there was any other path she could possibly take, she would. She seemed vulnerable, too, in a way that was unsettling when you're used to the faux drama that most beggars employee.

We didn't give her anything, but the chai vendor gave her tea and a biscuit. A very sweet young guy approached us about renting a boat, and we asked him to talk to the woman about her situation. It turns out that she'd recently lost both her husband and her child, and she'd come to Varanasi four days earlier because she didn't have family and didn't know where to go to or what to do. She started really crying hard, and it confirmed all our suspicions about her vulnerability and insecurity. I asked Deepu, the boat man, some questions for him to translate, and he said he didn't want to ask her, because she was crying too much. He said, "Before, she not thinking about her husband. Then I ask, and now she crying. Better I should not ask more. This woman, she's like my mother." Deepu told her where he keeps his boat, and offered to watch out for her. We gave her a pathetic $2 donation, which is almost too much to just hand someone on the ghats - 5 cents to 20 cents is more typical. But after Deepu's care and our obvious interest and attention, she smiled in a way that showed that she dared to hope that things might improve. We saw Deepu the next day and he'd given her a blanket, since she's sleeping outside. I thought for sure she'd come at sunrise again to see if we'd give her more money, but we haven't seen her yet. Hopefullly we will tomorrow.

What's an appropriate response is the face of such despair? I have no idea. I'm happy that I still open myself to these kind of experiences, and I also hope that I'm not "collecting" them for the sake of story-telling. Would it be better or worse if I didn't write about them? Boy, there are so many things I don't know.

I've included a very few photos below, but you can see 18 photos here, including a sidewalk orthodontist! (Brace yourself:)

Too much love,