"I may not be much, but I'm all I ever think about."
~ Joe, last name unknown
Hey, did you miss me? What - you didn't know I was gone? Crikey, peeps, I'm still in India and have agonized over how long it's taken me to finally get out this newsletter, only to find out that you're all like, whatever. Well, maybe I'm all like, whatever about that. Yeah. What about that?
Yeah, whatever. I last wrote, on Valentine's Day, from the airport in Chennai, a whopping two and a half months ago. New recordwhatever for me on the roadwhatever. It hasn't been the easiest time since then. I was hanging out at the burning ghats in Varanasi, where the bodies are placed on stacks of wood and burned to ash or until they get tired of it and toss the leftover pieces into the river. True story. At the same time there were hundreds of naked, ash-covered holy men camping all around, after having come from the largest human gathering on the planet, the Kumbh Mela. All the tents were full of smoke from the "sacred fires" and a fair amount of the sacred marijuana being smoked. Between that, the smoke from burning bodies, and the fact that a large percentage of travelers get sick in Varanasi - I got a massive hacking cough like I've only had a few times in my life. The difference this time is that it didn't respond to antibiotics like it has in the past. Long story short - I was on antibiotics, in five different series, for five weeks before my cough really started to clear. I had six-pack abs, I'm sure, underneath the fat, and my ribs hurt from coughing so much. I was a mess. If the doctor's scale was accurate, never a given here, I lost 30 pounds (14 kilos) in three months.
One thing that surprised me was how quickly I became The Sick Guy, and that became my point of reference. Every e-mail I wrote, every friend I saw, "Oh my gosh - I've been so sick!" People were sympathetic as they backed up and tried to get away, but I wanted to tell My Story. I'm sick dangit, hear me roar, between coughs! And though I was pretty sick, probably the longest I've been sick in my life, it still wasn't that bad. It made me more compassionate for people who really have long-term chronic conditions. I'll still backpedal and try to get away, but with a soft spot in my heart; bless 'em, at a distance.
I have another more dramatic story involving concussions and broken jaws (not mine, thankfully,) but that will have to wait for my next delayed missive. In the meantime, try to remember who I am. I'm the guy who used to be sick who's in frickin' India!
All the photos below are from Varanasi, even though I'm now in Rishikesh, and have been here for six weeks. Did I mention I was sick?
You can hardly recognize me covered with all that ash. Forgive me, gentle readers, for disturbing your otherwise pleasant day with this image. These young "saddhus" or holy men (they could also be called Hindu monks) live an ascetic life. As part of that tradition, many will intentionally damage their boy-bits so they can no longer get an erection. The one in the lower bunk, shall we say, let's call him Willie, has a stick wrapped around his William while his friend stands on the stick. That's a cremation fire burning in the foreground. Wow.
This is an HDR photo of two gentlemen watching the world go by at the burning ghats. Cremation grounds seem like a funny place for hanging out, but not when you're here.
Life on the ghats. "Ghats" are the stone steps and walkways leading down the river.
There's an annual festival in Varanasi, the origins and meanings of which are still a mystery to me, where elaborate statues of the goddess Saraswati are thrown into the Ganges on a particular night. Drumming, crazy-dancing, and excitement abound.
Saraswati is about to go for a plunge. The remnants of the statues will be show up along the ghats on the next days.
Hundreds of these Saraswatis are brought to the river on this night, each with their own dance troupe!
Shake it don't break it!
The nightly "aarti puja" has been going on for as long as I've been coming. And maybe a thousand years before - I don't know.
The priests who perform this ritual are typically light-skinned and handsome.
I saw a photo of Varanasi's waterfront in 1925 and it didn't look much different than it does now.
These photos were taken relatively late at night, like 10 p.m., when hardly anyone is still around.
Looking out one of the gates to the ghats, coming through a former palace. Most of the buildings along the ghats were built by wealthy maharajahs from all over India. Prior to India's independence in 1947, these maharajahs had the status (and wealth) of kings.
It's always laundry day in front of my guest house. But today it was REALLY laundry day.
I'm still amazed that sheets, saris, and other flats clothes get laid down on the dirty steps to dry. Just to the right of the hanging clothes you can see the stone slabs where the clothes are nearly beat to death to clean them.
The Kumbh Mela was held nearby, and traditionally many saddhus come to Varanasi afterwards and pitch their tents on the ghats. It's quite a scene. Many are just covered in ash or minimal clothing. I don't know why this guy is so fancy. These necklaces are made of the seeds of the rudraksha tree. Holy as hell, those seeds are!
I still don't know who these guys are, but when I refer to them as the "feather duster saddhus" everyone knows who I mean. They make the most incredible rhythmic music, accompanied only by a tiny hand-held drum.
One of the standing babas. Baba is a term of respect for an older man, and saddhus frequently get referred to in this way. His ascetic practice is to never sit or lay down. He uses this suspended swing to support his weight, including at night when he sleeps, I gather with one leg on the ground at all times.
One of the Saraswati statues the next day. They're fished out of the water to strip them of the wood that has any value, then the rest is burned. It shows the amazing amount of craft that goes into making them.
Some babas, chillin'.
The fires you see on the left are of the smaller "burning ghat" where people are cremated, more or les 24 hours a day. The horizontal stream of light just below the fires is someone carrying a burning log across the photo as I took a long exposure.
Hey - he's not a saddhu! What's he doing here. Oh, right - he's cute, and I like him!
The well-worm door to a temple.
I'd have that sad-sack expression too if I hadn't been able to lay down to sleep for years. When I volunteered with the leprosy group in 2001 in Varanasi we had a baba like this with big sores covering both his legs. We tried to talk him into not going for his holy dip in the Ganga every day. Not a chance.
This lovely man was part of a big camp of saddhus sitting around a fire, smoking lots of marijuana, and singing devotional songs to Hindu gods. It sounds like some of the tourists I know!
I saw this guy several nights feeding the dogs just in front of the burning ghat. You might be able to imagine what the dogs eat when he's not there. It's not very pleasant to see a dog gnawing on a piece of mystery meat and imagining its source.
Just across the river from our guest house someone put on a big fireworks display.
The full moon rises on a busy ghat.
Sight-seeing on a river boat trip, as people no doubt have for thousands of years. During monsoon the entire banks across the way are under water.
A young Muslim man walks along the narrow lanes just behind my guest house. The lanes are extensive and its easy to get lost. There are some areas which are mostly Muslim, while the majority in Varanasi are Hindu. They seem to get along well generally until something happens to stir things up. There's a famous dispute overa piece of land where the Hindus think it was a temple first and the Muslims think it was a mosque first.
Moonrise past what appears to be an ancient temple, submerged in the Ganga, the local name for the Ganges.
Peace out, brother. I know what you're saying.