Saturday, 16 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 3

                                     “The good shine from afar
                                       Like the snowy Himalayas.
                                       The bad don't appear
                                       Even when near,
                                       Like arrows shot into the night.”
                                                                     Uddalaka Aruni

The light had changed so slowly we hadn’t noticed. Gradually, in under a week, with just a few hundred meters of elevation every day, the edges sharpened. The lowland glow crystallized into altitude glint. Clarity infected every experience. Climbing hearts pumped the sludge out of the deep white matter of previous existence. The new light ether brought us into the present, leaving the grist of guilt and shame and worry far behind.
Robyn had discovered the pleasures of that cloudy beverage known as chhaang, in the late Chame night. The Nepalis consider it a cure for a range of maladies, including alcoholism, a little like decapitation, as a cure for headache. The revelational enthusiasm Robyn woke me with, was repaid with the gift of a morning migraine. This was apparently the cure for Chhaang. Ama and Tushi sent us off with eggs and coffee and Tibetan smiles. My morning ablutions had taken place with Annapurna II in the foreground. It was like God watching you shit.
We crossed a sidestream and the Marsyandi on a cantilevered wooden bridge, through barley fields to Talung. Past an apple orchard, we dropped across a bridge to a steep and narrow trail through deep forest cover. Another bridge in space took us up a near vertical path to our first views of the Paungda Danda escarpment, a colossal slab of curved rock rising almost two kilometers from the river. Over the ridge, we began a steep ascent to the upper Marsyandi valley into the lower portion of Pisang.
A yak, laden with baskets and household goods, walked by us on the path, alone. We crossed wooden canals, used to power the two mills in the main village and, on the other side of the bridge, found a rooftop to camp on for the night.
There were two new recruits to our company of adventurers, sunning themselves on their sleeping bags. Dan was a law student from Florida, and his buddy, Bert, an Albertan roustabout. They were lighthearted fun.
What John brought back for me from the upper village was not. He took me through the rock walls of a narrowing path, into a sickroom. A woman lay dying from, as far as I could see, a large tumor ulcerating into her throat. It may have been a thyroid cancer but, whatever it was, it was winning. The family looked at me, and then to me. I had nothing but some kindergarten painkillers, and compassion. In their world, despite my own feelings of inadequacy, it was enough.
There were six trekkers in the Company that left Pisang next morning- Robyn and Julie, Dan and Bert, John and I. We had a gorgeous day, hiking through pine meadows, with intermittent views of Annapurna II and IV, climbing onto a spur, to find views of the drier upper portion of the Manang valley. The sentinel of Tilicho peak stood at the end. After a short descent into a forested valley floor, we passed a herd of yaks and horses into a broad valley with the two Annapurnas in the distance. Across the Marsyandi, through kani entrances and exits, were the stone houses of Bruagu, stacked one on the other, behind a large rock outcropping.
A massive white chorten, decorated with rust-colored swirls and swastikas, a platform, and the sun and the moon, dwarfed the Company walking below it. We didn’t know about the five hundred year old thangkas inside, or we might have stopped. The arid scenery was dominated by bizarre cliffs of yellow rock eroded into imposing pillars, and by the soaring peaks of the Himalaya, across the valley to the south.
We trekked along the adjacent stretch of waist high mani walls, and their phalanx of tall tattered prayer flags, rippling forward of the wind at our backs, across a stream with several mills, and onto the plateau of Manang village. Here we would need to stay for two days to acclimatize, before attempting the climb over the almost 18,000 foot Thorong La, to the other side of this side of Nepal. One of our Company wouldn’t make it over. One, not of our Company, would make it over, but not beyond. Like arrows shot in the night.
Manang was a collection of medieval flat roof houses, and poles and waving flags, hoodoo hanging on a northern slope. Below were terraces of buckwheat, barley, potatoes, and beans. Two hundred years earlier, King Ranan Bahadur Shah had declared the place a free trade town. Yak tails, sheep skins, herbs, and deer musk were transported on yaks and horses over the Thorong La, in exchange for gold and silver and turquoise. Trade occurred as far away as Korea.
In 1950, Maurice Herzog came in a futile search for food for his party, only to return empty handed and starving to his Tilicho Lake base camp. He eventually went on to be the first to summit a peak over 8000 metres, Annapurna, in exchange for the loss of all of his toes, and most of his fingers, in emergency amputations in the field.
We were more fortunate. Following the Israeli mental map through narrow alleyways, we ascended a steep notched log onto the rooftop of Michung Gurung and Tshering Dolma’s house. Robyn and I dropped our packs in the room with the single bed, while John and Dan and Bert and Julie remained transfixed at the panorama of the Annapurnas and Gangapurna summits, less than eight kilometers away.
The ceaseless noise of the huge icefall rumbling and crashing on the flanks of the peaks sent cracking chills and grinding shivers into our marrows and up our spines. It would wake us in the night, as if to warn us of the dangers to come.
I found a Nepali sarangi stringed instrument and, tuning it to a major chord, gave a minor concert on the rooftop. The Company ate good soup and salty chow mein, and came together under a full moon to watch the ceremonial dancing below. Every four years there was a fertility festival in Manang. We had arrived in time for prom night.
It was just the opening ceremony. The next afternoon, after a rock climb up the north face for views of the Glacier Dome and Annapurna II and IV, we descended into the main event. White vertical rectangular flags whipped furiously on long poles in the wind, above the cube shaped Tibetan rock dwellings on the edge of the high desert field. Throngs of locals crowded the rooftops to watch the festival. Old women in colourful costumes and headdresses, danced in slow motion to drums and cymbals.
All the eligible males of Manang had been blindfolded, packed together, and encircled with a long thick rope. Clusters of blushing girls teased them from different compass points, until the pandemonium of the body of blind bound bucks, pulling in various directions, tumbled them all over the rocky ground. If they could grab and hold the damsel they were chasing, she was honor bound to accept his advances. The festival occurred every four years, and we counted ourselves fortunate to have seen it.
There had been a more ominous festival every three years, called Badhe, during which everyone slept outside, and twelve virgins were sacrificed to the gods, to free the village from enemies, evil spirits, disease and natural calamity, and to ensure security, peace, and prosperity. I suspect the supply of virgins hadn’t kept up with demand. The surrounding snow covered mountains watched over the spirits of the exposed, taking the shame out of the shamanism. It was innocently beautiful.
The din of the afternoon left quietly. In the gas lantern miasma of Michung’s cellar dining room, we ate our fried potatoes in silent solemnity. Even the Israelis were as subdued, as I have ever seen Israelis subdued. We were all aware of the risks of crossing over the Thorong La. We knew about the strong winds that would come if our timing was off, the cold, avalanches, frostbite, the physical demands of the ascent, the chance of wandering off the trail into deep snow, and the possibility of Acute Mountain Sickness. We didn’t know that over thirty percent of trekkers were afflicted, and the only reason more of them didn’t perish was because of the rapid descent on the other side. The driest rarified air on Earth would do its unlevel best to quickflood your lungs and brain with water, and maybe kill you. Our next three days would be fueled with Tibetan bread, lactic acid, exhilaration and tears. We hardly slept.
The two porters, that Robyn and Julie and I had hired to carry our packs, descended into the cellar at six next morning. They were late, but it was just as well, as we had to wait for the Israelis to finish their tsampa, before we could get ours. We had met them on the rock climb the previous day. They were reserved and a little withdrawn, and I could see how they could be taken advantage of by the less scrupulous. I remember reading an article in which a Bavarian climber had stated that his party ‘hadn’t suffered any losses, just one porter was killed.’ I remember how angry it made me feel, that the death of a porter was no loss at all. The greater loss is what had died inside the Bavarian while his porter lived. For a hundred rupees, ours would prevent the loss of one of us.
Thirty years after we trekked the epic ten glorious days to the base of the Thorang La, they built a dusty road to Manang over where our footprints used to be, cutting the time to two industrial days, and the Annapurna Circuit in half. The gain of eight days and three vertical kilometers, came in exchange for the livelihood of village tea houses, porters, guides and craftsmen on the way, trekker acclimatization and most important, their formation of an irrepressible emotional attachment to this land and its people.
But the death of a porter was no loss at all. Like arrows shot into the night.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 2


                   “This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of  
                    ‘free life’, traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm
                     acceptance of everything that comes; free because with defenses, free
                     not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the
                     Tibetan Buddhists’ ‘crazy wisdom’, of Camus’ ‘leap into the absurd’
                      that occurs within a life of limitations.”
                                                                Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard

Julie and Robyn and John and I were on the trail by six next morning, armed with an egg, glug coffee, and a mental map of the cosmic Ocean of Milk. Every muscle complained, loudly with each step. We made our way down to the river where we encountered our first obstacle. The river. It was churning. A ford in our future. We only found out about the suspension bridge a little upstream and a lot too late.
The morning percolated through rice paddies, one we lost our direction in, and on, through a hot flat mudslog that finally dissolved us in a river swimming hole to cool down. We climbed up a hill and across another suspension bridge, for a lunch of good dhal bat in Bhote Oralo. When our energy caught up, we set off high, above and then through a tapering wooded gorge, and finally across another bridge, into the Wild West town of Phalesangu, mid-afternoon.
Along the narrow flagstone main street, with its raised rock slab sidewalk, were double stories of shuttered windows and eaves, overhanging a continuous line of grimy whitewashed buildings. The yellow sign announced our destination, Hotel Lila, no relation to the beauty parlor in Kat, or my mother. It was the first name on the Israeli inventory, and for three rupees, we took the only rooms. The only water was the town tap, back across the bridge, next to the thatch-covered woodpile.
Refreshed and drenched and stripped to my shorts, I squinted down at the Grand Prix of soap bubbles, slithering down into a stream under the holes in the rock, and up to find the glint off the gold earrings of two bashful Nepali sisters in colorful dresses, watching my every move with all three eyes. Their mother stood sideways with a coiled headscarf, half-amused, clutching her sickle. All three were serenely beautiful.
Later, writing by the light of a kerosene lamp, waiting for dhal bat at the Moti hotel, we greeted the tired Israelis on their arrival.
“Are you staying here as well?” The short stubby one asked. I told them we were staying at Hotel Lila. He told me it was the best place.
We were up again stiff and early the third day, hobbling past the old fortress palace of Gaonshahar to the west, two hundred years after its fall to the kukri knives of the Gorkkhas.
A steep descent had to be repaid with a near vertical climb, along a deep river gorge. Huge conifers hung off and onto the cliffs, like a battalion of green trolls, charging up the bluff while trying to keep their heads down. A tired old suspension bridge, over the Khudi Khola, groaned beneath us. The few tin and thatch roofed houses that lingered around its anchors was the Mongaloid Gurung village of Khudi.
A wizened bearded Gurkha captain, with a hard silver, coral and turquoise tobacco pouch hanging from his waist, tried to sell me his kukri. There was something very sad about a failing warrior having to sell the source of all his youthful pride and strength.
We tramped on in silence to Bhulebule, and a nice inn on the river. The Israelis wondered how we knew.
Views of Himalchuli on the horizon crossed a suspension bridge to the east bank, and past a two hundred foot waterfall, on the morning of the fourth day. Manaslu and Peak 29 followed us through the stone settlement of Ngadi and across the Ngadi Khola scrub forest, to the horseshoe villages of Lampata and Bahundanda, the ‘Hill of the Brahmins.’ Our boots took us down to Khane, and then high above the river, in and out of side canyons, across a suspension bridge to Syange and back to the west bank.
We climbed further above the winding torrent, on a terrifying trail carved into near vertical cliffs, where only thirty years earlier there had been just a series of wooden galleries, precariously tied to the face of the rock. Forests of rhododendron and pine and nettles and cannabis swallowed us on the other side until, later in the day, we emerged, hobbling, into Jagat, and a room for four in the barn. John found the chickens. The Israelis failed to materialize that night, and had obviously settled some other promised land, further back along the track.
They snuck around us, through the fifth morning, before we left. After a clamber back into mountain forest, up a rough rocky path, we emerged under a huge boulder that formed a tunnel over the trail. It seemed the only inhabitants beyond the steep ridges of the east bank of the Marsyandi were lizards and stinging nettles, until we entered a picturesque open plateau, to the foot of a large waterfall in Tal village. Where Tibetans once hunted musk deer for their aromatic animalic glands, was a broad valley of buckwheat and barley and potatoes, and stone walls and rough timber houses. We had penetrated into the lower Manang region.
A stone staircase on the other side of the valley took us towering above the Marsyandi, cresting on a spur. The trail undulated up and down through oak and rhododendron, and spruce and hemlock forest, forcing us into an ascent across a suspension bridge, and under a kani archway to Dharapani. A final burst over a trailspur and past five exhausted Israelis, brought us into the hamlet of Bagarchap, the first village with typically Tibetan architecture and feeling.
Most of the closely spaced stone houses had flat slate roofs piled high with firewood, and only a few had sloping shingles. There was a whitewashed gompa with Tibetan Buddhist paintings and statues. John and Julie and Robyn and I found the family memorialized on the Israeli road map. Their laundry hung like prayer flags. They offered us a room big enough for six in their three-sided courtyard. It was a good thing. It was bitter cold at dusk. The temperature continued to drop, even below the spirits of the Israelis who, when they arrived to find us warming ourselves with vegetable noodle egg soup, and the fire that had been their inspiration for getting up early, frosted over to a less commodious dwelling. They were beginning to wonder.
Day six had us now walking in rhythm with each other’s steps, west up the Manang valley, with views of the high Himalayan peaks of Lamjun and Annapurna II, through the trees to the east. Summited only twenty years before our view of it, Annapurna II was the eastern anchor of the range, five feet short of the over eight thousand club. In contrast, Manaslu, a hundred and fifty feet high than that, materialized as a dramatic backdrop to the pine and fir tree-filled valley. Our entire world became a horizontal striped flag of blue and white and green. The bright sun threw silver steam off the white peak.
We trekked along the mule track, in the oak forest near the river, climbing and descending amongst river-worn boulders to Kuparkodo village, in a meadow surrounded by pine and spruce. My left knee began to throb, a torn medial meniscus injury I had never done anything about. It was too late now. Robyn took my pack, and I hers. I was amazed how well she shouldered it, just one of the many amazing qualities I was discovering. Maybe it was those mountains that gave me the clarity. Maybe it was Destiny herself. Even with my lightened load, I still gradually fell behind the others.
A thunderous roar landed with a spinning behemoth on an outcrop around a corner. The helicopter pilot had jumped out of his cockpit to take photos of Lamjung and Annnapurna II and IV. We shared our different perspectives. He had just completed a medical evacuation, and was heading back to Kathmandu. Almost as an afterthought, remounting his beast, he turned and opened his door.
“Hey, you want a loaf of bread?”
“Sure.” I said. He tossed it out the door.
“Baked fresh in Kat this morning.” He said. And his rotors started turning. The loaf was in the top of Robyn’s pack before he was airborne. I limp lurched to catch up with my tribe.
We arrived in the settlement of Chame by early afternoon. John was the first to find the Israeli-favored accommodation, among the closely spaced stone dwellings. There were barking dogs and scurrying rats, the smell of woodsmoke, and far too many bones hanging from the rafters but, compared to the other choices, Ama and Tushi’s hovel was a solid five star Himalyan Hilton.
With plenty of time to unwind, we immersed our aching into a delicious bath, in the two small hot springs across the river. In my pack was a can of Canadian salmon, and one of baked beans. I opened them both, heated the contents of the second, and served them out with thick slabs of fresh sliced bread. We sat on the steps in the horizontal fading sun.
I looked up into the ten eyes of five wasted Israelis. You could see the trouble they were having, figuring this out.
“How did you know to stay here?” Asked the tall thin one.
“Why are you so clean?” Asked one of the girls.
“Hot springs.” I said, with my mouth full. It was rude.
“You have hot springs?” She wanted to know.
“What are you eating?” Asked one of the other girls.
“Salmon sandwiches.” Said Robyn. Frankly, I thought they would ask about the salmon. I think it’s because of what they could smell.
“Bread?” The last one, full interrogation mode. “Where did you get bread?” I had been waiting all day.
“Off the helicopter.” I said, chewing slowly.
“Helicopter. You have a helicopter?”
We continued to eat quietly. Some are more Chosen than others.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 1

                         “Pure heart is compared to the Himalayas, to the ocean of Milk, to a
                           chariot for the Divine.”
                                                                                                   Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Every culture has its legend of the origin of the species. In the Hindu creation myth, the nectar of immortal life came out of the churning of a cosmic Ocean of Milk. Gods and demons had each taken opposite ends of a gigantic serpent, wound him around Mandara Mountain, and pulled him back and forth in opposite directions, like a cosmic blender making a cosmic milkshake. The tug-of-war lasted a thousand years. When the milk ocean finally began to froth, the giant snake vomited a terrible poison, threatening to contaminate the sea of life. Shiva rushed to swallow it, but his consort, Pavarti, ran to choke him. Shiva’s throat turned blue forever. The Physician of the Gods, Dhanvantari, finally emerged from the Milky Way with a bowl containing the semen souply elixir, accompanied by the moon, Goddesses of Fortune, Misfortune, and Alcohol, a bevy of Apsara nymphs, a wish-granting divine cow, a white elephant, a divine 7-headed horse, the most valuable jewel in the world, holy basil, night-flowering jasmine (with blossoms that never faded or wilted), a powerful bow, a conch, an umbrella, a pair of earrings, and sloth. It must have been quite a party.
Our own rediscovery of immortal life began only after most other things had stopped churning. The Goddesses of Misfortune had become more fortunate, the Physician of the Gods had bought tickets on the chariot of the divine, and the moon faded behind us as approached the sharply rising mountains of the widening Seti Gandaki valley.
Until the completion of the Siddhartha highway, fifteen years before our bus pulled alongside the Phewa Tal shoreline, the two hundred kilometer trip to Pokhara had been only accessible by foot and mule caravan. It was still that beautiful green subtropical idyll when we arrived.
In no other place on Earth did mountains rise so quickly, from the bottomless canyons that the river had dug into the valley floor. Inside of thirty kilometers, the elevation soared from a thousand meters over seven times higher. With this sharp rise in altitude came four thousand millimeters of rainfall every year. Our year was no exception. It would be five days before the sky opened a hole big enough for us to walk through. Robyn and Julie and I walked our packs through an ocean of milk, looking for the Garden Guesthouse, another recommendation from Smiling Steve.
Finally, down a long muddy path, we found our family. The short Sherpa father sitting under the banana tree, wore a tall Dhaka topi cap, and a perpetual sunbeam, between his wingnut ears. Mother was thin and elegant with white dress and stone necklace, blue cummerbund, and a vermilion bindi to match her carmine shawl. She walked on air. Her four little girls smeared their own blood red dots on each other’s foreheads, as they flew by each other on their homemade swing set. Robyn helped bathe their baby brother in an aluminum bowl. We asked the name of their mongrel puppy.
“Dog.” Papa Wingnut replied. We called him ‘Rabies.’ As the drizzle turned to deluge, we piled further inside our rough brick and thatch lodging. Smiles and plates of dal bhat appeared under the eaves.
The next four days ran watercolors. We took guest house bikes uphill into town to cash travelers cheques, to pay for our trekking permits and gear. I bought a sweater, hat, gloves and socks, and rented boots and a compass. We met Thomas again without Tim, but with a new friend named Reine. We played chess over cake in the Babu, buffalo steak in the Cuckoo, and lemon meringue pie in the Swiss restaurants. But then we found Hungry Eye coconut pie, and our rainy day tournaments became serious. In the evening I played scrabble with the girls in the cozy comfort of our room at the Garden. On the 12th of October the downpour finally stopped, but it was too late in the day to start. Not so the next morning, though. Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.
Robyn was already up and packing at 5:30 am. Papa Wingnut had brought us a quick coffee, and we caught a slow bus to Dumre, where we forded the Nahala Khola, our first river of the trek.
“Namaste.” Rang out across the rice paddies, as we passed Newari smiles and hands folded in prayer. It was hard to maintain our balance and a consistent forward momentum with our loaded packs, on the hot mud paths between the wet terraces, especially when the Himalayan foothill backdrop wouldn’t let go of our eyes. We passed long thatched houses with covered annexes of stacked firewood. There were baskets everywhere.
Fluffy clouds and crisp-angled sunshine floated over green fountains of bamboo, mango and banana trees, and sal forest. A homemade ferris wheel hung ripe with kids. Mammoth banyan and pipal trees watched us from the side of the trail, offering occasional shade.
Our arrival in Turture, mid-afternoon, was drenched with sweat. We found the owner of the Nirjala Hotel, who opened up a dark crooked wooden room. I don’t know why we put our lock on the door, you could walk around the frame, but it made us feel more secure. We asked for a menu at the Beauty Hotel restaurant, up the stone path.
“Dal bhat.” He said. It was a geological epiphany. We had crossed the lemon meringue faultline. Across from us sat a Manchu moustache with coke bottle glasses, rolling a cigarette. He slid his tongue along it like he was playing a harmonica, and, firing up, exhaled with an extended hand.
“John.” He said. “Thunder Bay.”
“Wink.” I replied, shaking it. “Kenora.” We nodded like Northwestern Ontarians do, at snowmelt. We were going to travel together.
A group of five Israelis hunched over their diaries kitty-corner, clearing their throats like it was a form of speech. The tall thin one had been watching John and I, and started a conversation.
“Where are you staying tomorrow?” He asked.
“Dunno.” I said.
“You don’t know?” He asked, like Israeli’s ask when they’re not quite sure they heard right. “Why don’t you know?” He pulled his glasses down a bit.
“Do you know?” I asked.
“Of course I know.” He said, surprised I didn’t know he knew. And told me where they would stay. Of course.
“Where are you staying the day after?” He asked.
“Dunno.” I said.
“How can you not know?” He asked.
“How can you know?” I asked back. He told me they had this notebook, you see. From an Israeli friend who had just done the trek. Who wrote down the best place to stay in each village, on the twenty-day hike around the Annapurna Circuit. I told him I didn’t believe him. He showed me, but only for a moment.
My mother always boasted of my photographic memory.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Only Little Cholera 2

                                                “Rewards a long day's toil
                                                  Pulling into Katmandu
                                                  Smoke rings fill the air
                                                  Perfumed by a Nepal night
                                                  The Express gets you there”
                                                        Rush, A Passage to Bangkok

Kathmandu was named after an ancient three-storied temple in Durbar Square. Legend has it that it was built from a single tree, without any support. In Sanskrit, the structure was called Kasthamandap, or ‘wood-covered shelter.’
Tim and Thomas and I were looking for another, and we weren’t getting much support either. We had already been to the Kathmandu Guest House. The staff there finally found the note that Robyn and Julie had left me, indicating their relocation to the Om Guesthouse. The clerk at the Om said they had moved to the Earth House, so that’s where we headed. There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town; There's a tender-hearted woman and I followed every clue,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.
Julie met us on the stairs to tell me Robyn had been ill. We entered to find her still afflicted with the chip butty-resistant Varanasi strain of the flux. I pulled out my new stethoscope, and went to work.
“She’s got diarrhea, Wink.” Said Thomas. Tim just whistled.
“This never occurred to me.” He admitted.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I said.
Tim and Thomas agreed to meet us later, and I had a long shower, a game of Scrabble with Julie, and a successful search for antibiotics through Serendipity for Destiny. They had bought me a present of Bo tree leaves, to commemorate my return from the journey.
Tim and Thomas arrived in the rain, sharp on six, dragging a tall guy with a black beard, red baseball cap, blue t-shirt, and a Kashmiri leather bag in tow. It was my double, Neil, from Delhi, jazzed to have found us, a little despondent because Jan was laid up with dysentery. He said he knew a place, and we went.
Around the corner was a restaurant, named after a short novel, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, written by W.E. Bowman in 1956. It was a parody of the story of the first ascent of Annapurna. Sir Hugeleley Havering led an expedition to Yogistan, in an attempt to climb Rum Doodle, the world’s highest mountain (elevation 40,000 and ½ feet). The exploration’s physician, appropriately named ‘Prone,’ endured a never-ending series of illnesses. Everyone in our company had also experienced, or was still afflicted with, some form of enteric pestilence or another. We were all in dire need of a safe ingestion site in a stare-free environment for one special evening. Rum Doodle, despite its extreme elevation, or because of it, decorated with pictures from the book, was a staging point for expeditions to Everest, and for us, the end of the Indian famine. There were buffalo steaks and chips and salad, and mile-high apple pie.
Later, back in the warmth and wood and Japanese lanterns of the Earth House, we had a traveler’s jam session, with all the songs that had led us here. And there was Neil’s shaggy dog rendition of the falling sky, starring Chicken Little, Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Foxy Woxy. And they went along, and they went along, and they went along... There was better family for some than we had left, in the congenial kinship of the open road. Despite the wee hours fatigue, Tim was right: ‘They happen only rarely like this.’ We had become the Rum Doodle Society. No one could have taken the minutes from our meeting. Mosquitoes whined, dogs howled, roosters crowed. We slept.
The twisted dusty streets of Thamel threw that high altitude sun square into our faces next morning. The air smelled of freeze-dried shit at altitude. Our eyes squinted up at ornate carved wooden windows and multistoried temple roof struts. Kabuki cartoon eyes, with sinuous eyebrows, watched our every move. Instead of noses, under each third eye of the Buddha, was a corkscrewed question mark, actually the Nepali character for unity, symbolizing the one way to reach enlightenment, through the Buddha's teachings. It is the loneliest number, is it not? Pigeons and cows intermingled with images of gods and goddesses. The benign benevolence of elephant-faced Ganesh looked across to the blood red drippings from the teeth of the larger-than-death Durga bas-relief, with her six arms, potbelly, and fierce compassion. Tantric demons peered at us from masks and shop calendars. Among the monastic courtyards, pagodas and palaces, in this Hindu and Buddhist mélange promise of paradise, tourism was extruded as the third religion. Out of bulging storefront entrances issued enticements, of intricate thangka paintings, carved sculptures, mixed metal bracelets and other jewelry, Tibetan carpets, tall Nepali caps, shawls, Balinese jackets, beads, puppets, bags, herbs, prayer wheels, T-shirts, incense, and posters. One proprietor gave me one that wasn’t actually on sale, an advertisement for a nearby establishment, just down from Lila’s Beauty Parlor.

                                      ‘Let Us Take Higher
                                       Oldest & Favorite Shop in Town
                                       Serving you the Best Nepalese Hash & Ganja
                                       (Available Wholesale and Retail)
                                       Come Visit Us Any Time for All your Hashish Needs’
                                                       Eden Hashish Centre, Prop. D.D. Sharma

For if one didn’t have time for more formal lessons in enlightenment, the option of instant mind expansion was also available. And that indulgence would be guaranteed to stimulate the search for the perfect lemon meringue paradise in Freak Street’s Pie Alley. For all your hashish needs.
After I took Jan to the hospital and found her amoebas, Tim and I bicycled out the south side of the Bagmati River, to the third century Mallan city of Patan. Inside the bamboo scaffolding, and along its powdery streets, were over a thousand medieval monuments, Hindu temples and Buddhist vihars and royal palaces, with exotically carved gateways and windows, especially in the main Durbar Square. Witch doctor Jhankris, with their drums and feather hats, had come to bathe under the spouted conduits of the stone water tanks. We returned to play a late afternoon chess tournament with Neil, and an evening of enchilada experimentation at KCs.
By this time, Robyn and Julie and I had decided on a trek, and had chosen the Annapurna Circuit, out of Pokhara.
We purchased seats on the Swiss bus for the morrow, and spent the last day in Kat cycling the eleven kilometers out to Bodhnath, one of the most ancient and largest spherical stupas in existence. It had been constructed by the four sons of Jajima, an apsara in her previous life, but the wife of four unlucky men in this one. Each of her sons was from a different father, a horse trader, a pig trader, a dog trader, and a poultry trader, in that order. She had worked her way down the matrimonial menu.
The stupa the sons built ascended from earth to water to fire to air to space, up through the thirteen rings on the path to enlightenment. Om Mani Padme Hum was carved on the prayer wheels. Thousands of multicolored prayer flags tied to the top, like structural and spiritual supports on a microwave tower, fluttered in the wind, carrying mantras and prayers heavenward. It made perfect sense. Because that’s where we were going.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Only Little Cholera 1

                       “People who are not in love fail to understand how an intelligent man  
                         can suffer because of a very ordinary woman. This is like being  
                         surprised that anyone should be stricken with cholera because of a
                         creature so insignificant as the comma bacillus.”
                                                                                                        Marcel Proust

I kissed her goodbye so she’d remember. Our hearts flipped and our tummies rumbled.
A slow-moving swarming caterpillar of humanity had groaned to a final stop in front of us. Closer inspection revealed the rough shape of a train. The Doon Express, in the flesh. Baggage and people surged off, and jostled back onto, the overflowing roofs of the coaches. I pushed into the teeming mob where I thought a carriage door might be, and eventually found myself scrunched up in a roof rack space that, only a moment before, had been a large jute bag of rice. A big dragonfly was caught in the light housing beside me. I wondered why I had even paid, for the same amount of space. After three hours of yogic torture (all the more enjoyable with dysentery and nowhere for the cramps to go), I emerged onto a sea of sleeping pilgrims and a maze of turnstiles. Gaya, literally, The Demon. Lord Vishnu had left a sacred footprint somewhere near here. I never found it. Three others were thought to have created the belt of Orion. Vishnu. Nothing. Vishnu with you.
In the station darkness, I could just make out the silhouettes of uniformed officials sticking sharp objects into the arms of fellow disgorged passengers, in the line ahead of me. As the queue advanced it became apparent that, while the syringes were occasionally changed, the needles were not. Then, much too soon, it was my turn. A hand grabbed my left arm. My right hand grabbed his.
“What’s going on?” I inquired.
“Oh, nothing.” He responded.
“Then why the injections?” Says I.
“Only little problem.” He offered.
“What little problem? I asked. Because, now I was curious.
“Only little Cholera.” He finally admitted.
“I probably already have Cholera”. I said. And he let go.
The Ajatsutra across the street charged me thirty rupees for a double, with no water to wash away my loostoolspatter. By this point, hitting the fan, it was all one word. I realized that, in my next life, I was coming back as a fly.
The next morning, after an omlette and chai, I headed for more holy shit. On my way towards the bus station, a rickshaw walla, with a crewcut and a ponytail, sidled up alongside. He spoke no English but we finally negotiated a price that, I had thought, would take me to the terminal. It seemed a little exorbitant, but he assured me with backhand gesturing that my destination was a long way off.
I climbed on up, and he began to trot along bumpy rugged streets, and then the ghats and temples and banyans along the sylvan banks of the Falgu River. His ponytail bobbed in rhythmic synchrony with his trot. Local boys ran alongside, and a bicycle rider pleasantly practiced his English, until he turned off.
As the road smoothed, I gazed up, under and through the saccadic branches of sunlit leafy mimosas, to the cottonball clouds beyond. It became a drug, the perfect soporific calm of the little mechanical noises, warm air resistance, and rolling glide through the Bihar countryside. Sun-splatterd tranquility. I awoke to the sight of rivulets of perspiration running down a naked back, running around a sacred pool, along a river lined with coconut palms and umbrella’d monks, against a floating landscape of rice paddies receding into distant mountains.
We pulled onto the main street of Bodhgaya before I realized he had run, not to the bus station in Gaya, but to my ultimate destination of the day, thirteen kilometers away. For seven rupees and a Limca, which he drained in one gulp.
I wandered the skyscraper temples, mesmerized by the frescoes, wreath-laden chanting pilgrims, birds, white scarf serenity and the most venerated tree on the planet.
Ficus religiosa, a third generation descendent of the original Bodhi tree, under which Siddartha Gautama had attained enlightenment two and a half millennia earlier. A handful of leaves the priest handed me would ultimately make the journey to my library.
It took Siddharta three days and three nights of meditation to achieve insight, the same length of time it took Jesus to achieve reincarnation, and roll away the rock occlusion to his cave. It took me three hours, tops.
After my class under the Bodhi tree, I paid my respects to Gautama and his mother, draping their images with white muslin and five rupee notes. I left the Mahabodhi Complex for the searing heat, and the other temples scattered along the dusty trail. The Tibetan temple was colorful, and had an impressive law wheel fresco; the Chinese temple felt neglected, the red-tiled Thai temple was sharply sloped with golden atmospheric projections, and the Japanese pagoda’s highlight was a Buddha of serene proportions.
My Limca rickshaw wallah had waited for my enlightenment, and jogged me another thirteen kilometers back to the Gaya station. Dysentery had taken over the planning for my next reincarnation from Destiny. I spent most of my time, waiting for the Bihar Express to Patna, in the toilet, slowly working my way through an entire Bihar newspaper. No reading activity was involved. The station manager fished what was left of me out of my squat, and advised me to find a seat on the train. This would not be easy. This would be impossible. There was a difference between the Orient Express and the Bihar Express. There were not whole cities occupying every carriage on the Orient Express.
My previous day’s tactics got me into the interior of the coach, but I had to dislodge three jute bags off an overhead luggage rack to find any space at all. The owners were unimpressed. Drove my karma to the dharma but the dharma was dry.
The fans didn’t work. The overhead light bulb in my face went stroboscopic. The train lost its race with the humidity and its appellation. The only ‘express’ thing about it was the wish to die and the temporary gratitude for its arrival in Patna.
In the last year of his life, Buddha passed through this place, bestowing on it a double prophecy. Patna would have a great future but, at the same time, it would experience ruin from flood, fire, and feud. I had clearly arrived during the second prediction. The station platform was in full flood, and looked like Kafka and Conrad had collaborated on a design for an overcrowded refugee camp. In a surging swell of cacophonic cotton, my height was the only thing that saved me from drowning. I dogpaddled my way out to a rickshaw wallah, who peddled me, past numerous open fires, to several places, before I found room at the Hotel President.
If it is the same stark shelter I paid far too much for in 1983, its current advertising doesn’t reflect the choleric cholera collation I consumed there, just before midnight. ‘In the evenings you can enjoy a romantic candle light dinner at our restaurant where vegetarian/non vegetarian foods are being served.’ My own romantic candlelight dinner was slightly less than total culinary fulfillment. The candles were necessary because there was no power. The vegetarian thali was the same temperature as the subzero air conditioning, which was the only thing connected to a backup generator. The feud over the bill was the only passion.
My rickshaw wallah woke me at five, and peddled us to the bus on which he had arranged a seat for me the previous night.
“Salaam Aleichem.” I said, greeting the obvious Moslem driver, on boarding. The busload of Hindus broke into riotous laughter. I was on the final leg of my north Indian Odyssey. A cricket pitch went by, followed by a thousand flat fields of rice.
By midmorning I had traversed a gauntlet of border points, and had made my crossing into the Terai plain of southern Nepal.
The red and blue banner waving above me at the last frontier post, was the only national flag in the world that wasn’t a rectangle. I had left chaos for contrast. The subtropical lowlands would ascend sharply to more than 240 peaks over twenty thousand feet, and eight over six thousand feet higher. The names were legend- Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, and one more. Sagarmatha to the Nepalis, Chomolungma to the Tibetans, I grew up learning of it as Everest, and its association with Edmund Hilary, the humble Kiwi who had ‘knocked the bastard off,’ long before the climb had been appropriated into the yuppie bucket list checkbox.
Nepal was the homeland of Buddhism’s peaceful founder, Prince Gautama Siddhartha, and fierce, ruthless Gurkha warriors. It was red rhododendrons flowering through the snow. It was the living goddess and the Grateful Dead. It was boring dal bhat, and exotic Newar cuisine, with mustard oil, cumin, coriander, black peppers, sesame seeds, turmeric, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, chilies, and all the western food versatility of the Kathmandu cafes.
Where I stood, the small houses around me were made of bamboo and mud and cowshit. As my journey gained altitude, they would toughen into unbaked bricks and tiled roofs in the hill country, and stone and slate in the Great Himalayan Range. I had come to see the mystical magical majestic mountain kingdom of my imagination. And I was in a hurry. Destiny was waiting. ‘Katmandu, I'll soon be seein' you, and your strange bewilderin' time will hold me down.’
But I was still closer to mother India. My rickshaw wallah didn’t only slow for the potholes, he savored them. I still had an overnight stay in Birganj, before one last bus would get me to the kingdom’s medieval capital. My snail-paced conveyance finally dropped me at the entrance to the ‘Deluxe’ New Sagar Lodge. I shuddered at the thought of what the ordinary version might have been. Heat up the clutch, set at 50 deluxe. I woke the attendant. Three times. He took me the long way around the corner, to a blue, green and orange box with dirty sheets and a broken ceiling fan.
I went out for a bad fried egg, and the discovery of a shop whose purpose was clearly nonprofit. I was paying for a brand new stethoscope when a voice surfaced from behind me.
“What are you going to do with it?” It said. I turned to find two smiling travelers, one an ascetic bearded long-haired Briton, the other a clean-cut stocky German. You could just tell.
“It’s only four dollars.” I said.
“Yes, but what are you going to do with it?” Asked the hairball. He told me I was obviously a fellow traveler, heading to Kathmandu, or I wouldn’t still be in Birganj at this time of day. If I were heading to Kathmandu to work in anything that required a stethoscope, I would have brought one with me. Since I wasn’t heading to Kathmandu to work, I was either going there to slip into the drug culture, or to go on a trek. I wouldn’t be purchasing a stethoscope if I had been a drug addict, so I must be a trekker. But I still wouldn’t need a stethoscope to go on a trek, so what the bloody hell was I going to do with it.
I told him that it was none of his bloody business, but if it turned out that I would become favorably disposed to him, I might tell him, after we got to Kathmandu.
I told him that I knew that he and his friend were going to Kathmandu for the same reason he knew I was going to Kathmandu. I told him that, despite his hirsute appearance, I knew, from his vocabulary, that he was a nurse and, from his accent, that he was from Leeds and, from his slang, that he was less than twenty-five and older than twenty and, from his dress, that he had been in India for just over six months. I watched his eyes.
“Tim.” He thrust out his hand. “This is my friend Thomas. He’s a computer programmer from Berlin.”
“I know.” I said. And introduced myself. We were instant friends. I took Tim and Thomas to the bad fried egg restaurant at dusk, through the clouds of insects. We had sag paneer, and Coca Cola. I never thought I would miss it. It tasted like the burger I had on my escape from East Germany. The mosquitoes that breeched the dirty sheet defense I had constructed that night were after blood. My wake up call intruded after only an hour of sleep.
Tim and Thomas were waiting downstairs in a rattrap for the final push to the Land of Gods. We entertained each other so completely we didn’t notice the hills sneak under us, or the oak, elm, beech and maple trees, or the sky-stretched Himalayas, off in the distance. We were leaving the heavy light of India for lightness of Being. She was receding behind us, not only in miles, but in centuries.

                             “That's why I'm goin' to Kathmandu
                              Up to the mountains where I'm going to
                              If I ever get out of here
                              That's what I'm gonna do”
                                                       Bob Seeger, Kathmandu

Monday, 11 August 2014

Ghatnapping in Benares 2

                               “Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the
                                 primary business of Varanasi.”
                                                                         Tahir Shah, Sorcerer's Apprentice

“Baksheesh.” Whispered the captain.
I told him that the last thing I felt like, among the ignoble beggars and emaciated cows and stench of shit and urine and shit and sick bodies and shit and burning bodies and shit and smoke and shit and incense, was leaving a tip. Head bobble.
Extricated from the ooze, we climbed back up the ghat steps, into the maze of grime at the top. My eyes fell on an ancient dragon with crazed eyes, talking to herself in Hindi, and pulling a cat behind her. It was upside down and stiff, paws in the air. She had dragged it for so long, there was no longer any fur on its back.
“Hey, lady.” I said. “I think your cat’s dead.” She didn’t stop. We followed the cat down the street to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. A ton of gold had been used to construct its fifty-foot high spire three hundred years earlier, and Hindus from all over India tried to visit, at least once in their lifetime, on their path to moksha liberation. They seemed to have all arrived at the very moment we did, and our own liberation couldn’t come fast enough.
The next temple had been built in 1964. A rich industrialist’s white marble commemoration of Lord Rama, the Tulsi Manas was either a tasteless monstrous monument or a monumental monstrosity.
But the action all occurred next door, in the multi-tiered red-stained ochre Durga Monkey Temple. I was just over three months down the road from the Munich monkey massacre, and my left leg began to throb strangely, on the black and white checkerboard dais inside the gold pillars. I looked down to see a baby rhesus monkey, hanging off the book in my hand. I looked down further to see his mother macaque wrap her arms around my leg, and then, in slow motion, tilt her head to the side, bare a set of razor canines larger than should have fit in her mouth, and plant them bone deep into my calf. The red-staining flowed to the checkerboard.
We navigated the swimming pool size marble relief map of India at the Bharat Mata Temple, fascinated by how high the sheer wall of the Himalaya shot into the air above the plains below. This is where we were heading, if I survived my primate punctures.
Inside the industrialist Birla family’s New Vishwanath Temple was a Disney animatronic swami singing mantras and turning the pages of his book. On the way back to the Tourist Buglaow for a ghatnap, we migrated through a ‘just for looking’ emporium and the Bharat Kala Bavan museum, for its old playing cards, Moghul miniature paintings and meager collection of modern art.
The small bus that waited for us outside was already a near riot when we emerged from our refuge mid-afternoon. The thirty tourists competing for seats were mostly rude Indians. Robyn had to sit in my lap, beside the two French and an Argentinian on the floor beside us.
We were headed to Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha first taught the Dharma, innate laws that determined the necessary decent behavior to maintain the natural order of things. Those living in accordance with dharma would proceed more quickly toward justice, social harmony and human happiness and personal liberation.
When he traveled to Sarnath, Buddha had to traverse the Ganges. Having no money with which to pay the ferryman, he crossed through the air. When King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. We only got halfway to dharma before our own natural order went to deershit. The money collector with the bad teeth, climbing over seats and under appendages, held out his hand to Robyn.
By this time she was more interested in personal liberation than social harmony. She refused to pay. The news, spreading forward at the speed of sound, stopped the bus on a rupee, throwing all the human happiness through the air. The justice landed on the head of the money collector, who said he was not responsible, a concept with which everyone agreed. Destiny was recognized as an ascetic, granted a free ride, and we all continued on our way to Sarnath. Here, our trio walked around the Great Stupa, before returning to the natural order of things.
Robyn played with the deer in the park, Julie bargained for a photo of a local woman, laden with a grass burden, and I sought out the remains of the Lion Capital from the most famous of Ashoka’s pillars. Only nineteen of these columns survive, each carved out of a single stone. Fifty feet high and as many tons in weight, some were dragged hundreds of miles, to commemorate the edicts of the 3rd century BC Mauryan king. The one at Sarnath, with the four lion capital, with its chakra cartwheel, was adopted as the national emblem of India. In the early years of his reign, Ashoka was a tyrant, He had killed a hundred thousand people and deported a lakh and a half more. After his remorseful conversion to Buddhism, he erected his pillars, and eighty-four thousand stupas, with interior walls in the shape of a swastika, a lucky charm representing the cosmic dance around a fixed centre, guarding against evil. Twenty-two centuries later, it was adopted as a symbol by another tyrant, and the dancers let their guard down.
We squeezed Limcas into our bus for the long drive to the sandstone cream of Ramnagar Fort, and the Maharaja of Benares’ collection of weapons, robes, ivory carved paper thin in various ornaments, and a mind blowing coach made of the same material.
Through the ubiquitous bat droppings, we dropped down the ghat to the Ganges, just before sunset. I sat in front of a funerary barge and looked to reflect on what the four hundred million people living along this river took out of her, compared to what they put in. There was no reflection. In a smothering dusk, Robbie rocked uncomfortably on my knee, all the way back to the bungalow.
The next morning would separate me from my Destiny. She had developed diarrhea overnight. Her color alternated from white to green, depending on the light. Robyn had been subsisting on a creation she called a ‘chip butty’ which, at Lords Restaurant, next door to the bungalow, consisted of white bread filled with French fries. I had first learned of the animal from Yorkshire Dave, who sang his footie theme song about it, while the rain spider had been crawling up his leg:

                                       “You fill up my senses
                                         Like a gallon of Maggots
                                         Like a packet of Woodbines
                                         Like a good pinch of snuff
                                         Like a night out in Sheffield
                                         Like a greasy chip butty
                                         Like Sheffield United
                                         Come fill me again...”

It was no salvation. The dehydration took the legs out from under her, in the morning muggy. She fainted so hard, I heard the floor connection across the bungalow foyer. I left her to recover, wading out through the mud and cow shit to buy a third class ticket on the Doon Express to Gaya. From my later experience with the transport, it had been deliberately misspelled.
We had planned on separate paths at this stage in our journeys. Robyn and Julie had no interest in visiting the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. They had India Fatigue, and wanted out. Nepal offered the promise of soft beds and solid stools and the cool mountain air of Katmandu. Lemon meringue pie already danced on their tongues.
Shiva stilled danced on mine, and the plan was that I would meet up with them in Kat, after I had found my enlightenment in Bodhgaya. My determination not to go with them to Nepal would prove to be a clear sign that it was missing.
By mid-afternoon Robyn was feeling well enough to join Julie, and accompany me to the Cantonment Railway Station. It was a carnival of chaos.
Twenty-three years after we drank chai here, a terrorist Moslem group, named Lashkar-e-Kahab, would detonate an explosive device at the entrance to platform one. I’m not sure how you would have known. Empty rust-bucket carriages were connected by clotheslines and drying laundry, across platforms, to mirror image cars, sidetracked on adjacent railway sidings. Bands of thieving monkeys roamed the crosswalks, looking for victims. A Braham bull climbed the stairs on track number five. Robyn brushed out a space near the white painted brick toilet with a panni broom. Workers peeled potatoes on the floor beside us. A bovine beast with wool pom-poms on its horns began eating the peelings. I put my hand on his head, and before I went over to kiss Robyn goodbye, and bid farewell to Varansi.
“Have a nice day, cow.” I said.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ghatnapping in Benares 1


“The early Christian missionaries were not paranoid. Heathens do dabble in the irrational, and none more irrationally than Indian heathens, who have in their long evolution spent a couple of thousand years cultivating the transcendence of reason, another couple of thousand years on the denial of reason, and even more millenia of accepting reason but rejecting its authenticity. To be cast adrift in this whirlpool of differing views on the validity of simple mental activity seems a very high price to pay for cheap airfares.”
                                                                                  Gita Mehta, Karma Cola

The route, to the antithesis of reason through Mahoba, would prove to be as unreasonable, as the preceding path to divine ascent had been through erotic sculpture.
We left the creature comforts of the Jass Oberoi to encounter creature discomforts on the way back to fetch our packs. Several rickshaw wallahs were trying to rescue a baby goat from the jaws of a hungry dog. Our hotel owner brought an orphaned fawn onto the steps of the Apsara, as we waited for the bus outside.
The first destination was famous for it’s betel nut cultivation but, at ten kilometers an hour, our half-asleep driver was clearly unfamiliar with its stimulant properties. By the time we reached Mahoba, over four hours later, it was dark. The tonga ride to the train station was all the more splendid because of it. Streetlights were out, and the sound of our horse’s hooves on the cobbles, through the fireflies, was entrancing.
In the station we met Nigel, an English chef working in Berlin, who was experiencing an acute adjustment disorder, to the disorder of India. I tried to explain to him that chaos may not have actually been invented here, but it was certainly made to feel right at home.
There were 330 million gods in India, and 3300 trains. It worked out roughly to a hundred thousand gods per locomotive, a unit of what, in India, was referred to as a lakh. The only lakh that Nigel was concerned about, at ten o’clock that night in Mahoba, was a lakh of movement.
I told him about anandatandava, the cosmic dance of Shiva, the movement of every subatomic particle in the Universe, and every train on the subcontinent- and the continual cycles of creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion, common to both. Possibly because of his Teutonic timeline temperament, Nigel had been more preoccupied with seeking salvation than accepting illusion, vibrating but not quite dancing. He took on the stationmaster for tickets, without nuance. If I hadn’t intervened on his behalf, he would likely still be cultivating the transcendence of reason, in Mahoba station.
We boarded the Bundelkhand Express just after midnight. It was scheduled to arrive in Varanasi ten tedious hours later. In the midst of movement and chaos, we were supposed to keep stillness inside of us. In the midst of stillness and chaos, Nigel kept movement inside of him. As we fell behind and beyond the timetable’s prophecy, he began pointing at his watch with increasing agitation, to propel us faster. It may have worked. Nigel and his watch both pulled us into the station only seven hours late.
We had arrived in ‘the city of lights,’ ‘the city of learning,’ and ‘the oldest living city on planet earth.’ Mark Twain had called Varanasi ‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looking twice as old as all of them put together.’ One thing was for certain. It was old. Not quite as old as the rickshaw wallahs, that pedaled us to the Tourist Bunglow perhaps, but old.
We ate bad vegetarian. It occurred to me that Hitler was probably a vegetarian not so much because he loved animals, but because he hated plants. I fell into a sleep of sausages and sirloin.
The Bungalow boss had convinced us to sign up for a tour next morning. By now, Julie and Robyn and I were a subculture of our own and, as such, our tradition was to avoid tours. But we already felt the chaos, in the visceral Varanasi vicissitudes we had already encountered, and an ‘organized’ tour would, by definition, be well structured, well ordered, and well run. Well, no.
The minibus arrived an hour late, at 5:50 am. We asked the tour leader why.
“Winter time.” He said. It was September. “Now we must be hurrying.” Shiva danced.
We took off like a Gwalior bat, through the narrow streets of the Old City, until our crowded conveyance ran smack into a wall of cows and the rest of the human race. We disembarked into rolled fat extruded from silk saris, saffron sagging from skeletal sadhus, brass bangles and Bodhi beads, and tinkling bells and flower garlands and candles, all accompanied by the chanting. Rama nama satya hai.
An endless procession of pilgrims and tramps, hawkers and fakirs, Brahmins and Rajas, bankers and beggars, profane crones and sacred bulls and pariah dogs melted into us. Rama nama satya hai.
Above our heads flew shrouded bundles, like kayaks or surfboards, and, over them, pigeons. Rama nama satya hai.
A rainbow stream flowed down flights of steps to the cremation ghats of the Ganges, and us with it.

                 “I come to you as a child to his mother,
                  I come as an orphan to you, moist with love.
                  I come without refuge to you, giver of sacred rest.

                  I come a fallen man to you, uplifter of all.
                  I come undone by disease to you, the perfect physician.

                  I come, my heart dry with thirst, to you, ocean of sweet wine.
                  Do with me whatever you will.”
                                                                                                Ganga Lahiri

At the bottom of the stairs was a metaphysical metaphorical metamorphic metastatic metabolic molten multitude, massed along the river’s edge. The oily emulsion flowed downstream almost reluctantly, desperate to keep up with demand, washing clothes, brushing teeth, bathing bodies, performing ablutions, receiving half-burned human remains and hundreds of millions of liters of untreated human sewage each day, and providing three long sips for each pilgrim. This was supposed to confer immortality. The way I figured it, if you could drink three sips from the Ganges and not immediately die an agonizing death, you were already immortal.
The poor few remaining Ganges river dolphins couldn’t even rub their eyes.
At the bottom of the stairs was an escarpment of ascending congealed masonry, encrusted from waterline to skyline with vertical red and white striped sculptured temples and brown stone palaces, softening into the transcendence of reason and distance.
At the bottom of the stairs was a disheveled, plump, unshaven rogue, with a white dhoti between his legs, and a red dot between his eyes. He spoke no English, but motioned for us to follow him. I asked the guide who he was.
“He is the captain of your boat.” He said. Julie let out a long low whistle.
We followed him down into the mud squish that led to an exposed flat-bottomed wreck, rowed by two oarsmen who could have been similarly described. One of them was designated to provide commentary, as we headed out into the river, along the mud-colored sunrise.
“What is the difference between a university and a ghat?” He asked. We were sure we didn’t know.
“One is to learn, the other is to burn.” He laughed. Well, no.
He explained that only lepers, sadhus, those with smallpox, and babies go into the river unburned.
“Why babies?” asked a middle-aged Brit.
“Too much heat.” Replied the oarsman. Well, no.
Small children are not cremated because their souls don’t need purifying. Holy men are preserved with salt and buried vertically, like kippers. Victims of murder, suicide, snakebite, or other violence are also buried, because their souls will never rest, no matter what. Families who can’t afford the wood for cremation sometimes throw unburned corpses in the Ganges. One floated by, bloated. We were out where the current was strong, and the rowing commentary began to be delivered between breaths and strokes. Hordes of other tourists in other boats bounced around us, vying for position. As we approached one of the shmashana cremation grounds, divers shot over our bow, and into the water. This was where every other caste in India got to meet the Dom untouchables that burned their relatives.
Funeral parties waited for their turns on the steps of the ghats. The eldest son led the procession, and carried out the rites. The body was immersed once in the Ganges and then anointed with clarified butter, lashed to a platform and wrapped in bright yellow fabric. Wood was piled on the pyre, until only the head was visible. Mantras were recited, to purify the cremation grounds and scare away ghosts. Sometimes a wife climbed on the pyre and climbed off again before the fire was lit, in a kind of suttee-tease.
The son had to get ignition from the Dom keeper of the sacred temple fire, an eternal flame, some of which had been kept burning for over two thousand years. The son placed a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased, before lighting the main pyre. The funeral pyre of corkwood, with offerings of camphor, sandalwood and mango leaves, weighed almost three hundred kilos. A hundred thousand cremated bodies were thrown in the Ganges every year, and required thirty thousand tons of wood to burn. Rich families sometimes paid for the entire pyre to be made of sandalwood. Men were cremated face up, women face down.
The fee the eldest son paid the Doms depended on the wealth of the family. If he couldn’t pay the full price they held back on the wood, and their loved ones end up half-burned. Dom boys poked the embers with six-foot poles continuously, keeping the home fires burning. It took about three hours to incinerate the corpse. After the family of the deceased left, Dom children descended on the on the ashes, looking for coins, rings, nose studs and gold teeth. So terrible was the work that the Doms were expected to weep when their children were born, and party when death finally released them from their macabre duties.
Through putrid water, thick with froth and decomposing flowers, and shallow oil-filled clay dishes lit with wicks, we drifted towards the burning ghats, and docked.
The sight was sickening, even for me. Dogs groveled through the smoking charred remains of bones and ashes. A cow warmed itself by the residue, munching on a marigold wreath. It was here the oarsman told me of the snapping turtles, weighing up to seventy pounds, bred and released into the river to scavenge those partly burned body parts not completely consumed by the fire.
Robyn handed me her Limca. Before I gave it back, I had taken three long sips.