Shortly after my friend's departure from India, I said my own goodbye to Rishikesh and the couple I had befriended during my time up north. By this time I had plenty of solo traveling experience but I still felt nervous and shaky (exacerbated by dengue I'm sure) at the thought of the journey ahead. I was excited about heading to Varanasi but I would be traveling by train and by then I'd heard my fair share of unpleasant stories about the rails of India. From accidents to derailments, to drugging and muggings and more, I was not excited about doing this alone.
But before I could waste too much worry on the upcoming train ride, I had to first get myself to the station. I crawled into a rickshaw and bumped along for a few miles before I made it to the bus station. At the station I wandered around aimlessly looking for the bus to Haridwar. None of the numbers or signs pointed me in the right direction and any person I asked told me I was in the wrong place or had missed it already. I knew this wasn't true and the deliberate deceptiveness caught me off guard. But I didn't have long to wait. Exactly on the half hour mark a bus rolled causing a sudden flow of commotion as travelers to Hardiwar swarmed around the vehicle. Chivalry was nonexistent as men elbowed elderly and elderly shoved women and children out of the way to ensure a spot on the bus. I joined the crowd, elbows out but laughing at the situation. My laugh garnered the attention of those near by who joined in pushing and smiling their way onto the bus until I planted myself in a standing spot in the aisle. With so much commotion and uproar I was surprised to see that there was enough space for everyone. The pushing and prodding subsided and we were off. I stood for about an hour and a half on the bus before finally pulling into the train station. By then I could feel the persistent ache of Dengue creeping into my joints making my body feel heavy. At the station I curled up into the women's second class rest area and waited for the train. All anxiety about the upcoming ride left as fatigue took its place. When the train signaled it's arrival with a few blasts from its horn, I boarded effortlessly, crawled up into my bunk and fell fast asleep hugging my backpack to my chest for safety and company.
The next morning the fear I felt earlier about traveling alone felt silly as I became immersed in the pleasure of the experience. I shared my six bunk cabin with the company of a lovely Sikh family traveling back from vacation. The daughter was eager to practice her English, and the mother maybe more so. I had several hours of conversation with them before we arrived at their stop. As they were preparing to disembark, the mother looked at her husband and with his nod of approval she took off a diamond studded bangle from her wrist before grabbing my own and forcing it on. I tried to refuse but they all insisted. I was grateful and we ended up exchanging information and occasionally still send messages back and forth. I was blown away by her and her families kindness. After they left, I jumped down from my bunk and meandered through the hallway of cabins before coming to the door. The train picked up speed and the scenery passed in stunning colors of sunset and greenery. This was incredible India.
I didn't know what to expect as new faces replaced those in the bunks of the family but ended up having a wonderful conversation with an elderly man translated by a young student from Delhi. They talked about politics and life and about how people move to Delhi and forget who they are. Apparently tourists aren't the only targets for Delhi scammers. Indians deal with it frequently as well.
After 19 hours I was glad to be off of the train having arrived in Varanasi. I was feeling chilled and feverish again and haphazardly piled myself into another rickshaw. I asked him to take me to one hostel but ended up at several others before I finally gave in and got out. My room was on third floor walk-up and I barely made it up the stairs before collapsing on the wooden plank serving as my "mattress." I hugged the covers around me to ward off the chills and fought a new nausea that was coming on as Delhi belly began to replace the ache of Dengue and signified the next wave of physical suffering I would experience for the duration of my trip.
My night was restless and I woke the next morning tired but ready to explore which began by first walking into the alley in which my hostel was located. I had to step over, and stumble around multiple cows before I made it out of the alley and on to the streets of Varanasi where my senses were immediately assaulted by the Chaos that put Rishikesh and Delhi to shame.
People yelling, cars honking, rickshaws speeding by. The smell of delicious street food mixed with the ever present street urinals to create a heavy odor. And the colors were eye opening. Clothing and buildings painted in bright washes that stood out in stark contrast against the gray of dust and grime.
Varanasi is considered the holiest city for Hindus and it is believed that if you die and your body is cremated in the Ghats of Varanasi along the Ganges river, you will immediately ascend to heaven. Walking through the city and making my way to the burning Ghats, I would've never guessed that a city full of life could be revolve around death. But once I reached the water, the feeling was different. The colors were still bright and vibrant but a level of calm and tranquility replaced the chaos. And death became more evident. My first experience was that of a cows corpse floating by several young boys with unaffected expressions.
A few ghats down I witnessed the preparation of a cremation. The fire was already burning and the body had been wrapped and dressed in religions and cultural adornments.
But even where the water carries the burden of so many bodies and so much death, live is ever present. I watched and laughed with a man and his son as they splashed about in the water. The father was trying to teach his son to swim as he was safely secured to him by a teal scarf wrapped snugly around the boys torso.
And other activities were much more mundane. The same Ganges known to be so holy is also used to launder.
Just like in Rishikesh, there is a ceremony worshipping the water and it's bringing of life and death. Here, the ceremony revolved around fire. There were fire dancers and those passing around fire that people could "bathe" in.
I, too, never felt close to life and death simultaneously than when I was in Varanasi. I struggled immensely with my health during this time and getting out of bed in the morning after such sleepless nights was difficult. Most days I felt completely isolated and life happening in abundance around me only reinforced feelings of isolation. But I pushed myself to continue to explore and down every unexpected alley, the most beautiful and happy faces would greet me.
Down one alley I encountered the faces of these children. At the time I was wearing my hair in a pulled back french braid. A teenage girl (not pictured) began touching my hair and gestured for me to do the same to hers. She brought me a brush and a bow and soon I was braiding her hair. The children around became very interested and started laughing and playing around me as I began braiding one girls' hair after the next. The girls were appreciative but too shy to be photographed. The younger ones were certainly not!
My last night in Varanasi was emotion filled. I knew it signified the end of my journey as I would be heading back to Delhi with a quick detour to Agra before boarding my flight home. I ventured beyond the three stories leading to my room and climbed up to the roof of the hostel. I watched as the sun set over the city and the crescent moon rose to take its place, glittering in the twilight. Dozens of kites danced over roof tops saluting the end of another day. It was a lasting image of India and reminded me of something I would have forever. I wasn't quite sure what I had learned from India or how it had changed me but I understood that it had. India broke me down physically and emotionally; the constant staring of strangers, the noise, the illness, the endless traveling. But it had instilled something new inside of me. My body was heavy with the weight of sickness but my heart was light and free like the the kites above me. I felt like I was flying, grounded by a thin rope. Trying to break free.