Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Spirit-ed Away

So much has happened since i wrote last!!

I'm now writing from Varanasi, Benaras, the City of Theives, The City of Light, Shiva's city, the holiest city in Hinduism. It is in the state of Bihar, poorest in India; a hot plains state where Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodh tree. We took a 22 hour train ride from Dehradun starting Sunday evening that after much adventure brought us safely into Varanasi by 6:30 pm the next evening. The train was an incredible experience in and of itself. I was dreading being on a train that long, but it was a sleeper,so we each had a cusioned slab to rest on. We had to keep all of our belongings chained up under the seats so that they could not easily be snatched, nd had to sleep wrapped around our things so that people could not sneak them away. The train is hard to descrie, but if you've ever seen the Harry Potter movies and seen the compartments they sit in on their way to Hogwarts, it is sort of like that except minus the doors to the compartments, any sense of privacy and any sense of poshness. The compartments have 6 bunk beds within them, two which fold down into seats for the day train travel. Across what would be the door/entry way to teh compartment is where my bunk was, up against the left wall of the train. There was an aisle seperating me and the 6 bunk compartment and a bunk beneath me as well. The bun ks on the the wall are shorter than the ones in the compartment and when i was laying down, the edge of my pillow was up against one wall and my feet were firmly against the end wall. I'm not a tall person, but that got uncomfortable. i had my leg running through the top strap of my kanagroo fanny pack and my dupatta as a sheet. I woke up at one point during the night slapping someone's hand very hard off of my arm. I saw a very startled looking man who may or may not have simply been holding onto the chain that suspends my bunk from the cieling in an effort to get by, but in any event, he hurried away from my bunk after my hard slap. After that, i didn't sleep as soundly and woke up a few times an hour with whatever niose or new stop. I woe up to a loud cackling noise early in the night only to discover many older farmer peasant woman sitting in the aisle underneath and near my bunk extending past the constantly open train doors into the corridor in front of the train's squat toilets (which were conveniently and sometimes unfortunately right next to us). They were having lively conversation about goodness knows what; I woke up again as they left.

The thing about indian trains is that tons of people that dont have tickets get on and will sit in your seat/on your bed with a concrete sense of entitlement. It becomes up to you at this point to either politely (or roughly, whichever your style) usher them out of your space, or deal with it and try and get comfortable. Once the sun had risen and i was fully awake, there were many pairs of male eyes trained on my every movement. Behind these curious (OBNOXIOUS!) young men with no seeming sense of shame, class or reason were an abundance of sadhus, ascetic holy men, young and old, squatting in the corridor. They had their own personal incense that they burned at all times, and their dreaded hair and ash covered forheads were like staring straight into a NAtional geographic special. Then the cultured young men began to taunt them, pull at their dreaded hair and call them names. The men got off at the next stop as a result. I had just enough space in my bunk to sit up, but not comfortably, and not for any extended period of time. I had planned to get a great deal of my curriculm work done on the train as i had not had the chance recently to catch up with it. Boy was that a dumb expectation. With each major stop, the shifts of unceasingly staring pairs of brown eyes changed, more often than not getting bigger and rowdier. some times they were funny and wanted to know about Mike's Harry Potter book and practice their english on us. They kept asking Sally (blonde 17 year old gurl from Nantucket) to sing (wierd) and for our autographs. As time progressed they got more obnoxious, to the point where i was biting the insides of my cheeks so as not to start any fights. I was as Jaime put it "like a princess" held captive on my bunk, the rapunzul kind where i have to let down my hair to access the world. They kept asking me if i aws indian, and when i wouldnt answer they would hound the rest of the group who would answe that i was american. Some of the guys would yell diff greetings at me to try and get my attention (Salaams! Namaste ji! Susrikal!!!) and the last group of guys kept making disgusting kissing noises and licking their lips at us. GROSS. One of the earlier groups tried to tke pictures of me with their cell phones and i noticed and put my duppatta over my head and face, like an Indian bride. They started laughing, and that was the closest i got to starting a fight. I was able to suffer through a good 12 hours of entitled patriarchal sexuality and misogyny and come out on the other side without getting arrested or hurt. Yay me! i must be reaching all kinds of new levels of personal growth.
Side note: They bring chai (tasty chai!!! those chai wallas are not fooling you, it is worth it) on the train every 2 seconds, for about 2 or 3 rupees ( the equivalent of 4 cents) that they would serve in these small clay cones. Once you are done with the cones, you throw them out the window and smash them on the ground. This seems incredibly wasteful. Everywhere we went, i saw piles and piles of clay cones laying on the sides of the tracks. Also, if you are ever in India, do not go near the train tracks. The squat pots are simply open holes that leaves whatever you do on whatever part of india you happen to be riding over. Gross. Althouigh the bathrooms were suprisingly clean. They also bring the newpaper (hindi & english), snacks and full scale meals that they prepare. I foolishly ate one, which was quite good, but then got horribly sick for the first night we were in Varanasi. We rode second class on the sleepers which were moderatley comfortable. I would love to try the first class, which means there is a door and air conditioning. It was overall a positive experience, and i'm glad i get to do it again in a few weeks. If anything bad had happened, i'm sure i'd feel differently. we all made it, safe and sound, all possessions in tact, with a deeper understanding of how zoo animals must feel. My first thought when i got on the train was "i've spent weeks fearing monkeys, and now i have to be one. great."

Leaving the beautiful coolness of the mountains and the home life comfort and friends in Mussoorie was hard; saying good bye to my new family there was the hardest. The upside of leaving was that my clothes were finally done and are comfortable and beautiful in a practical way. I have to get my pictures printed so that i can send Yousuf's family copies. We spent Saturday having the greatest day before we left. There was a sikh festival in honor of a guru's birthday which meant full scale punjabi celebration. There was a parade with all male Bhangra troupes from Punjab (apparently the dance that gurls do is called Gidha, and gurls arent allowed to do bhanra), dhol players, sikh marching bands, horses, blind sword fighters, fireworks, (shrapnel from these fireworks that almost killed Leah, Alex and I in our festive enthusiasm to get it on film), free chai, music, it was incredible!!!! We spent the morning at an NGO that teaches farming and Gandhian based self sustainability directed education at a school that focuses on the idea of Swatantrata, which roughly translated maens Self organizedness. It was so cool! i would love to back there and volunteer when my hindi is better. they farm organiclly and served us delicious food. there were 3 guys from a Info Tech university in Hyderabad there volunteering that made for interesting lunch conversation partners. I am really moved to laern more about Gandhi ji's ideas and principles.

Alex & I are staying with a small friendly Hindu family in Varanasi near the Assi ghat, which are the stairs that lead into the Ganga, or the Ganges, the most holy river in India. I saw a body float by yesterday morning in the fast, monsoon bloated brown waters as i prepared to do yoga. Other girls in the group actually saw the funeral pyres of one of the many burning ghats yesterday while i was napping, done in by the travel and the heat. It is said that a single dip in the Ganga will cleanse you of your sins, and the sins of your previous 7 and future 7 generations . It is toxically polluted. Bodies are thrown in wholesale to return to god and also are thrown in after they have been charred to an irrecognizable degree. For men, it is their chest that is not burnt, for women their hips; they are put into the Ganga to feed the fish and allow the fish to reincarnate as humans in their next birth. People come here to die, under the hopes that Shiva will grant them a pass out of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Everyday the city doubles its population size, from 1 million to 2 million as pilgrims and the dying come here to attain spiritual purity and closeness to Shiva. Today is the 5th day of Durga Pooja, a holiday honoring the Goddess in her 9 forms. I am still waiting for confirmation, but i believe that the temple i scaled a mountain to visit is in honor of this same goddess in the form of Devi. When she died, Shiva was mad with grief and paraded around the world with her body, screaming and crying the loss of his shakti, or female (and completely necessary) female balancer. Ram, the head god, cut up her body, and parts of her are all over india. It is said that their is a temple in Benaras where her eyes fell, but the temple on top of the mountain was where her head was supposed to lay. I could be completely mixing up my Hindu mythology right now and telling you a completely incorrect story, but like i said, i'm still waiting for confirmation.

Today is the 3rd day of Ramadan, or Ramzaan as it is known here. Ramadaan Mubarak everyone! This is the first time in 14 years that the Hindu festival season and Ramadaan are overlapping. The last time this happened, there were riots, incredible tension and violence. Michael, our Canadian contact in this, the world's oldest city, told us that that happened the same year as the Ayodbag masjid being torn down (on my birthday, Decebmer 6, in 1992) and that was why the riots occured. I was anxious about staying with a Hindu family in such a conservative, old school Hindu city. I was more than alittle nervous about anti-Muslim sentiment and my safety. I have brought this up to my leaders, and they have asked our contacts about it, and all seems good. But i can't help but feel a bit on edge while we're here anyway; I can't imagine how much Michael, or the Man who Cannot be Named (our Indian contact in Benaras cannot be named b/c there is a well established "Study Abroad Mafia" as it is known that all foreigners who come to Varanasi are supposed to go through. If it was known that this man was working with us, it would be a political and reputation disaster, so he is this story's inverted Voldemort) makes it their business to guage the anti-Muslim sentiment in Benaras within any group of people, but whatever. Inshallah I'll be fine.
Keep the comments coming. I'm still working on my GIlman Scholarship application since they extended the deadline to Gandhi ji's birthday, OCtober 2nd, I just discovered that my advisor at LEAPNow, Susan, has been undercutting my application prospects by telling another student about the scholarship and helping them apply. They have already submitted their application, as she anooyingly and traitorously pointed out in an email to me today. great. i was thinking to retaliate i would submit the two newpaper articles written about me and my city year service and maybe even the copy of my speech from the idealism in action gala. any thoughts? can anyone burn a copy of the speech on DVD to send to these folks to knock their socks off? Juan (and my new friend KAlpna) have helped me craft a kickass service proposal to do for the Gilman folks that i want to do regardles of whether or not i get the scholarhsip. hopefully i get it anyway! Inshallah!
Love light and safety


mujtabag said...

Hi Yazi,
as salamu'alaikum,

wow, I've never taken the train in India... Sounds tough, but you were able to handle yourself mashaAllah.

Varanasi sounds really interesting, just don't drink the water :-)

Don't worry about the Hindu-Muslim
stuff: there was months of build-up
to the Ayodhya attacks in '92, and we don't see that sort of build-up right now. Ganesh Chatterti has been another point of tension, but nothing happened, alhamdulillah. Also, Ramzan Eid was very close to Diwali last year too (it was a few days before Diwali; this year it's a few days later)

Anyway, take care, and take lots of photos ;-)

Anonymous said...

i think i say every post how much i truly love what you're writing here. i swear if i had publishing connections you would be number VONE! the train ride reminds me of what Gogol's father must have ridden in The Namesake, and the leering men sounds disgusting and agonizing and awkward. What do you do and say when you're outside of your culture and language? Breathe i suppose and meditate? thank you so much for taking the time to call and update your posts so religiously, it is a godsend. you are the best! my role model, keep making me proud :)
<3 Shugs

Juan said...


that sounds like such an interesting trip! In all the time we talked and wondered and imagined what this experience would be like, I never expected that it would get to be this amazing.

The train ride feels like an out of this world experience, I'm so glad you have the ability to percieve things the way you do and and the words to transport those of us who are here into the world that you are living in. And yes, you are certainly growing and changing...a couple of years ago, some of those dudes on the train would have been catching haymakers.

I'm working on the finer (and final) details of the proposal...inshallah it will be as good as we want it to be and the Gilman folks will be thoroughly impressed.

I'm so glad you have been able to write and blog consistently, I keep rushing to check if there's anything new each morning when I wake up. You got a gang of admirers at SJA, your writing has definitely made an impression!

Lots of love and prayers going your way.