Our taxi deposits us on the side of the main road, still bustling with rickshaw, car, and foot traffic at nearly 10 pm. There are no streets in the old town wide enough for cars, so we hoist on our backpacks, the driver points to an unlit walkway barely wide enough for us to stand side by side, and in we go. Somewhere here in the thicket of ancient walls is the Lotus Guest House. The stone pathways of Varanasi crisscross and wind inward like a labyrinth, and people squeeze up to the walls as mopeds and a steady stream of Royal Enfield motorbikes weave between bodies, several cows, and more dogs and puppies than I can count, most of which are already curled up for the night amongst the litter, some in the middle of the pathway. I wonder how they survive with so many tires, feet, and hooves, but they seem too exhausted to care. I am struck by the shadows, the contrast of vivid color and monochromatic dirt, and the constant vibration of voices and barking and horns and laughter from rooms up high, all of which are already forming a dull hum in my brain.
We are greeted at the door to Lotus by Kandu, a handsome young man who smiles at us and immediately takes Brendan and I up the wide stone steps to our rooms. We stop at the “Rose” room where Brendan has a queen en suite with a new bathroom. His bed isn’t made up yet (at 10 pm), so we continue up to the third floor to my room “Sunflower,” the smallest of the rooms at Lotus with a shared both across the hall, and the last open room at the time of our booking. It is clean, sweet, and at 500 rupees a night, it’s a deal. Kandu tells me I can shift rooms in two nights, if I want to upgrade to a bigger bed. Eventually Brendan’s room is ready, and as he heads back down the stairs, we agree to sleep in and catch sunrise another day.
I am awake most of the night. All of the eight rooms at Lotus are full, and my floor is all young men who are awake late into the night, and one guy is hacking up mucus in the shared bathroom just outside my door, which, by the way, has only an in-floor toilet, a sink and vanity full of messy guy toiletries and with their wet underwear and tee shirts hanging from the few hooks on the wall. There is a shower spout, no shower stall or curtain, and I wonder if I will shower in Varanasi at all. I am too tired to think, crawl into my bed, and cry a little in the dark. I miss the familiarity of my room at the retreat, and I miss our guests who have become dear friends over the past three weeks of panchakarma together (sorry guys, three of you didn’t make it into this pic).
My sleep is intermittent at best, and at five am I hear the conchs and first voices of the morning singing out chants. I pull out my iPad and begin to look through pictures and write. Two hours go by before Brendan comes upstairs to check on me, and we decide to head to the ghats for what is left of early morning prayers and to see in person the bathers practice their ritual dunk in the exquisitely beautiful and unbelievably filthy Ganges River. Each morning we wander the skinny stone streets that wind from our guesthouse to the river, between pastel painted buildings, past stray dogs, one with three little puppies curled up in a ball in the middle of the road.
Shopkeepers open their tiny snack shops to serve chai and pastries, women sweep dust from their doorways onto the street, and then this: a portal that leads us from the city streets down multiple set of steps, called a ghat, all the way to the river’s edge. This particular ghat has fifty-seven very steep, uneven and irregular steps, which I take slowly in my treadless flip flops.
On this first morning, we walk through colorful saris and a stream of Chinese tourists with breathing masks on and each holding at least two cameras. There are packs of locals swimming right off the ghats, praying, chanting, lighting candles. People sit at the Puja (pooja) huts where priests paint peach-colored stripes on their foreheads and dot them with a red powder bindi. I am stunned at the colors, which in my pictures are muted by the morning sun. Women and men change between bathing clothes and back into saris and cotton tunics, and boys jump into the river, splashing each other as they go. Some sadhus sit praying and others are ready to ask for tips if you try to take their picture. It is wonderful in every direction my eyes can see.
Our wanderings take us past the main ghats by all the boats. There are men, women, and children selling malas and bangles up and down the ghats. We sit up high and watch the day unfold. I fill my phone with dozens of photographs to edit later. After awhile, I spot a pretty lady standing under an umbrella near a mala stall. I climb a few steps to her and find every kind of mala you can imagine: necklaces and bracelets strung with rudraksha seeds, wooden beads in numerous colors, black lava, bone beads with little Oms painted on them, skull beads, and lotus seeds. She has dozens of anklets with little silver balls and bells. She comes right to me and we smile at each other. I ask her name: Lakshmi. She asks mine and then says it out loud. Her voice is soft and friendly like her smile, and I don’t feel pressured to buy a thing, unlike at every other stall we pass.
I trace my fingers over the anklets and think about bringing a bunch home. She doesn’t ask me to buy anything until I ask her “how much,” which i know will yield a different answer to each person who asks. It is easy to see the sellers size up the tourists, asking the biggest price first with the expectation of their bargaining. I begin to look through the designs, and ask if she can get more of certain ones. I try a bunch on and decide I like the ones with jingles the best. They are not not real silver and will probably leave a ring around my ankle, but I don’t care. “You come back in the afternoon, and I will bring many. Need to go to the market first.” I tell Lakshmi I will return before sundown, and she puts an anklet on my left leg, we hug, and as I walk away, she waves and puts her hand over her heart. I do the same.
Smoke rises over the boats as we round the river bend to the burning ghats. As we approach, an Indian man tells us “No cameras!” He says he can take us to a spot where we can take a few photos. I ignore his request to be our paid guide, and modestly keep my phone out and camera on without aiming at anything. I will try to capture what I see in the most respectful way I can, never bringing the camera lense to my eye, and opting instead just to hold my phone low and do my best to aim and click.
The atmosphere is intense, and the ancient stone buildings are covered in a thick layer of soot. There are several fires going, orange tongues licking the hazy sky. Wood is piled high in countless square stacks and layered upwards against nearby buildings and free-standing on the blackened beach littered with trash bags, roaming cows, and men who scrape refuse into the smoldering ends of the fires. A row of bodies is lined up above the ghat steps, each awaiting its cremation. Five men slide a body wrapped in red and gold fabric down a chute made of thick wooden sticks. Together they act like a series of dowels, rolling the dead toward the Ganges where the previous body is already engulfed in flames and sending thick gray plumes into the air. I manage to capture a few far off pictures so I can explain the scene to my kids. When they receive my photos in a text message, they suggest I do not swim in the river. It is half with humor but also a knowing that their mother is a “when in Rome” kind of woman. I think about all the bodies burned on the Ganges over the years… and how people still bathe in the putrid water here, insisting on its healing and magical powers. Maybe I’ll swim once I make it north to a Rishikesh in a few days where the water still flows clean up at the base of the Himalayas.
Eventually, we leave the waterside and snake our way through the minute manure-filled streets, market lanes full of tourist shops with wares hanging into the streets. We find our way back to Lotus to have a late breakfast, but only after stumbling upon a heart wrenching scene: of the three puppies we saw earlier this morning, one is now dragging its hind legs behind it, trying to keep up with its siblings and a worried mother dog who paces back and forth. I guess out loud that the helpless creature has been struck by one of the many motorbikes. It is a struggle to keep walking, but there is nothing I can do. It will certainly die unless someone takes it in, and there are so many stray puppies here. I have to pull myself away, helpless. Later when we walk this way back to the river to see Lakshmi, the little buff puppy is dead where we saw it, abandoned and pitiful, it’s little body outstretched as if in a nap. My heart lurches into my throat and I choke away the bigger sobs that would drown me if I allowed. I feel the crack in my heart giving way, and I cry in between bites of breakfast. The rest of the day is a blur of shopping and wandering, with a siesta before sunset and Aarti celebration on the river.
Lakshmi sees me from a distance and smiles. I am greeted with a hug and the patting of her hand on the steps to come sit beside her to look at anklets. As the sky turns pink behind us, we talk about our kids, she wants to know why I am here and what is my job, and who I am bringing all these anklets home to in America. I explain that I am a yoga teacher and the anklets are for my twelve very special yoga students who are becoming teachers in a just a couple weeks. “Ahhh, this is good karma,” she says, followed by “for this, I give you good price.” We sit together talking for an hour while Brendan receives an uninvited massage by a man who grabs his hand and launches into a full rub, complete with finger pulls. Lakshmi and I laugh out loud together as Brendan shrugs his shoulders and submits to the experience. By 6:30 pm, the ghats are once again alive with throngs of people families and sadhus, dogs, cows, foreigners, and merchants. Chanting has begun on the main ghat, and people holding flowers and candles as an offering to the river Ganga Maa pile into wooden boats which are ushered into the fray of watercraft which line up in ragged rows facing the show about to begin onshore. I pull Brendan away from the masseuse and explain I am hopping onto a boat if he wants to go.
On shore there is incense, fire, and people packed and singing devotional songs. Groups of women light candles and chant as they set them on the water and whisk them away with their fingertips. Out where we are on the boats, boys hop from boat to boat with pails of hot chai. The atmosphere is joyful, celebratory, and overwhelmingly beautiful. It helps to clear my heavy heart.
This day in a nutshell barely scratches the surface of all I have experienced. My brain is in overwhelm mode. My mind wanders over the images of vendors, the little dosa shacks, the dog fights, three men who separate paneer cheese from the whey with a blue cloth, dodging cow patties in the streets, the women carrying infants who plead for money, saying they need milk for their babies, the little dead puppy with the broken legs, the sadhu reading the newspaper in the sun.
More: how I feel later on when I see the mother dog down at the bottom of the steps in the evening light with her two puppies dangling from her underside as they stand up on hind legs. Eating dinner on the top floor of Sita’s Hotel, overlooking the river. Lakshmi’s sincere hug and our wish to see each other tomorrow as she places the jingling string of silver bells on my ankle.