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VARANASI

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photo westcoastwoman 2020.    the ghats at sunrise Varanasi

“Last night, on the banks of the Ganges, I finally learned how to pray.”   Michael Allen

 

VARANASI          by Mary Oliver

Early in the morning we crossed the ghat,

where fires were still smoldering,

and gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges.

A woman was standing in the river up to her waist;

she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling it

over her body, slowly and many times,

as if until there came some moment

of inner satisfaction between her own life and the river’s.

Then she dipped a vessel she had brought with her

and carried it filled with water back across the ghat,

no doubt to refresh some shrine near where she lives,

for this is the holy city of Shiva, maker

of the world, and this is his river.

I can’t say much more, except that it all happened

in silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that felt

like that bliss of a certainty and a life lived

in accordance with that certainty.

I must remember this, I thought, as we fly back

to America.

Pray God I remember this.

 

Mary Oliver
A Thousand Mornings
(Penguin, 2012)

 

Acknowledgment to Ken Chawkin of The Uncarved Blog for bringing this poem to my attention after reading my last piece “Hotel on the Edge of the World” I am a huge admirer of Mary Oliver but had never before come across this poem.

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Hotel on the Edge of the World further travels in the Year of Corona

 

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photo westcoastwoman 2020.     street scene Varanasi

Hotel on the Edge of the World

 

A mother has set up a tightrope for her young daughter to walk and balance upon.  There is no net…..not for the daughter or the mother.  We are all walking a tightrope here, no net.  I find it difficult to look or to look away at this point, some things I have seen I find it hard to find context for.

Illusion of safety no longer exists on any level, unsure of when I surrendered to that fact. One by one we all surrendered in our own time and in our own individual ways.  The travelling road show we have been a part of for the last two weeks has arrived at our last place of shelter ‘The Ganges View’ in Varanasi. The Hotel on the Edge of the World is how it feels to me.  In reality it is a converted palace full of treasures and art and secrets from the past.

We have heard stories along the way of Varanasi (our final destination) they have ranged anywhere from descriptions that portrayed either ‘Pearly gates, Mordor or Oz’ others described it as an LSD trip.  It is all of those things and none of them.  Varanasi will change you forever but only from the place you are when you arrive.  We were warned it could shatter you, I was suitably shattered by the time we arrived ……in some indescribable way this would bring it together.

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photo westcoastwoman 2020  one side of the river ‘everything’ the other ‘nothing’

Those who know Varanasi need no explanation, those like myself who knew little of the city before this voyage will need some introduction. Kashi/Benares/Varanasi is India’s holiest city.  The Mecca of the Hindu world , the city where every Hindu wants to come to die.  Hindu scriptures state that dying here and being cremated along the banks of the Holy Ganges (Ganga) river allows you to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation.  Up to 150 bodies are publicly cremated every day, 24 hours a day on the banks of the Ganges. The remains are offered into the river.

Every morning and throughout the day there is the life, people bathing, washing clothing and living their life on the banks of Mother Ganga.  Everything playing out all at once.

On our last evening we headed out as a group for dinner.  Our walking route took us past one of the cremation ghats on the river………four bodies were burning, in attendance were family members, passing public and various other onlookers. Bodies are burned in a wooden pyre and all four were at various stages of disintegration.   I saw a foot hanging out of the fire, I looked at my walking companion and she had also seen it. We walked on in silence for a while, finally she said “only in India would you see such a sight on your way to dinner and it would just be part of a day in a life”.  She was right.

My experience of death in North America has been hidden or  more usually “celebrated” without the celebrant.  Life and death in India is just business as usual no safety net or  illusion of safety.  Raw in your face life and death playing out second by second.

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photo westcoastwoman 2020    train station Jaipur our luggage being portaged

I have been changed in ways I have not begun to process and as difficult as some of it has been there has been great strength and love I have felt and assimilated from the people I met. I have been taught about religion by Swamis and scholars and shown a way of life I did not know existed. Visited Tantric Temples,  Buddhist Temples, Hindu Temples and the Temple of the ‘Street’.

Someone told me before I left that “When it is your time to go to India, you go to India”
It was my time and I went. It is with much gratitude that I put my hands together in prayer position bend forward and with more understanding and from a deeper place in my heart say to both the country and the people “Namaste”.

Afterword

A note about the Corona Virus, in order for the group of us to get through this journey we had all personally assessed the risk we were taking from the news reports at the time and decided to go forward. We had access to WiFi off and on during the journey and sometimes we would get the ‘Corona report’ as I came to call it.  Carnivale in Venice cancelled, outbreak in Italy, bits and pieces of the outside world getting through. We criss crossed paths with others …Germans….Brits in planes, hotels and temples along the way. It seems we were all wanting minimal information, nothing we could do about it anyway.  Turns out we were a week ahead of the Italian travel group that tested positive 16 out of 22 members that are now quarantined somewhere north of Delhi. ( a truly terrifying thought) Timing, decisions, being in the right or wrong place at any moment in time…….illusion of safety, no net.

I am not sure given the current situation I would be choosing to head out on a tour of India today but I am grateful I did when the time seemed right.  The wild and sometimes eccentric group of merry travellers I shared the experience with will always be close to my heart.

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photo westcoastwoman 2020      early morning at the Temple

 

 

 

 

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Travel in the year of Corona

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This afternoon I am heading out on the adventure of a lifetime, the weeks leading up to it have been an adventure in themselves. The Corona virus and numerous other unexpected roadblocks led me to comment to the organizer of the trip:

I knew India had things to teach me, I just thought she might let me arrive before the learning began” 

I will be visiting North India on a tour of Sacred Places, a Pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve always wanted to expose myself to what India promised to open in anyone who followed the call to travel there. I have readied myself for the fact that in certain areas the air would be hard to breath, the water undrinkable and the food a little dicey for my stomach.  The people, the culture and the mass of humanity that is India will test my limits.

Not expected for anyone travelling the world right now or just staying put, is the Corona Virus.  I refuse to live my life in fear so I am setting out on what is starting to feel a bit like an Indiana Jones adventure complete with “Nago sadhus” (snake-worshipping ascetics) who live in mud huts dug out in the banks of a river.
The bizarre part comes on the next line of the itinerary :
“Overnight at the Double Tree Hilton”
Snake charmers……to the Hilton I expect I will learn much more than just the history of sacred sights on this journey.

There are 23 of us signed up, a tour leader named Andrew Harvey who is a Scholar, author and a Mystic born in India and spent large swaths of his life there.

So, for the next two weeks when time allows I will be sending little missives, reflections on what I am seeing, feeling and hopefully some words will start to follow me and show up in poetry.

Namaste my friends. Next stop Dehli.