Thursday Tidbits

Posted on December 29, 2016 under Thursday Tidbits with 7 comments

" Gobsmacked on the Ganges "

( Photo courtesy of Father Abhishikt Anand )

Oh, the humanity.

Regardless of where you go in India, you cannot escape crowds. It is a fact of life for the 1.2 billion inhabitants of this country… and for visitors. Being a small town boy, the biggest crowd I ever encounter is at the liquor store on Christmas Eve, so travelling in cities or villages, and the highways and byways over here takes a lot of adjusting. Quite honestly, I don’t know if I could ever get used to it.

For months, I have dreamed about my visit to the Ganges River in Varanasi and finally the day arrived this past week on Boxing Day. By the way, there were no “Blowout Boxing Day Sales.” Christmas is observed but by and large, it is a very low key, non commercial event, at least in the places I have travelled.

To get ON the Ganges River, you must first get TO the Ganges River. Sounds simple enough. But you must understand that there are tens of thousands of worshippers and tourists who have the same objective, every day of the year. Actually the goal of many Hindus is to bathe IN the Ganges River! My host, Father Abhi, had planned a mini tourist trip around the city before heading down to the river. He mentioned five destinations. We got to two, including the Ganges.

It was a steely gray afternoon and very chilly. Our first stop was a three day festival hosted by the main church in the diocese, complete with a midway. Despite the weather, there were thousands ( it’s always multiples of thousands! ) of people. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if it was sunny and warm. Luckily, we weren’t there to try out the Ferris Wheel and made a hasty retreat after a cursory tour of the grounds.

Let me say something, right here and right now about taxi drivers. They have the reflexes of a cat, the patience of Job and nerves of steel. To the untrained eye, it looks like an accident is going to happen every few seconds with everybody and nobody owning the roads. They just merrily proceed, honking their horns on every second heartbeat.

It didn’t take long to realize that a change of itinerary was forthcoming as traffic ground to a halt on the old and in many cases, poorly maintained streets of Varanasi. Gridlock is gridlock but when the streets are narrow, it becomes very claustrophobic. The fumes and the noise add to the angst. The good news was that Father indicated we would be going straight to the Ganges. The other bright spot on the journey ( about 1.5 kilometers – it took one hour and 20 minutes to get there! ), was when Father opened his backpack and produced several pieces of the best tasting Christmas fruit cake imaginable… surely manna from heaven. He asked me if I cared for a piece. The only other thing that would have produced greater joy would have been an ejectable parachute.

There is no parking on most streets in Varanasi. There is one parking lot about a kilometer from the river that holds maybe 50 cars… that is, of course, if you park them like we do in Canada. No, in this lot, the cars are parked side by side, end to end, bumper to bumper so that there in simply no way out unless you are the very last car to enter the lot. ( The last shall be first ! ) The attendant immediately tried to convince us to hire a boat for the Ganges “ for only 2000 rupees ( about $40 ). It sounded reasonable to me. Father respectfully declined after some good natured bartering.

We proceeded to wade into humanity. Oh, the humanity. The middle of the narrow road was now occupied by merchants and beggars… and cows. Unbelievably, motorcycles were also allowed on what appeared to be a “pedestrians only “ thoroughfare.  Along the way, there were several very narrow footpaths off the main road resembling a rabbit warren where merchants peddled their wares. Father asked me if I wanted to do a bit of shopping. I thought he was joking. I politely declined. ( He doesn’t know how close he came to ending up on a funeral pyre ! ).

Most people visit the Ganges at sunrise and sunset for religious reasons. Because the mornings have been very foggy ( smoggy ) the last number of days, it appeared that everyone decided to come for the sunset ceremonies, even though the sun was nowhere to be seen. We walked elbow to elbow with the throng and had to endure motorcyclists and their incessant horn honking. Just about the time I thought I might lose my mind , after the taxi ride and the walk, the Ganges emerged from the mist.

The atmosphere was bordering on eerie as dusk settled in. The combination of fog and smoke from the cremations taking place, gave it a very Dickensian feel. We walked along the ghats to get to our boat. Earlier, while walking through the mayhem, Father Abhi had been working the phones and he arranged a private boat for the two of us for… 400 rupees ( $8.00 Canadian ). Methinks the parking lot attendant had a brother who owned a boat!

We made an initial pass upriver which was impressive but when we changed course and arrived at the Manikanika Ghat, everything that had transpired in the previous three hours, vanished in the haze. Watching ten human bodies being cremated simultaneously on funeral pyres , against the backdrop of a 5000 year old city, is hard to put into words. The pictures and video I posted will have to suffice.

Not all Hindus are cremated. I was told that a number of people ( for a wide variety of reasons ), are tied to chairs with weights and simply deposited in the middle of the Ganges. Much of the city’s sewage ends up in the river along with cows, fertilizer and human ashes… you get the picture. The Ganges is considered a holy river and many people come there every day to bathe. Please feel free to  add your own last sentence to this paragraph….

We stayed long enough to watch a bit of a traditional Hindu ceremony that is held on the edge of the river every evening. We were chilled and departed for a well deserved restaurant meal. The trip back home was quick and uneventful.

Have a great week and Happy New Years!

P.S.  My trip back to Hyderabad the following day WAS eventful. Time is a moving target in India. I do not say this in a disparaging fashion. It’s simply true. After morning mass with the priests, I had just enough time to get to the airport to catch my 10:00 a.m. flight. Except, the regular cook was on holidays and the back up arrived late for work. Breakfast was a scramble ( scrambled eggs with green chili peppers ) as the priests chipped in to get the meal on the table quickly. They needn’t have hurried.

Father Thomas and his driver went as fast as possible to get me to the airport. When we arrived, there was a lineup ( I’m getting good at estimating numbers! ) of about 1000 people. That was bad enough but they were lined up outside the airport. Yup, the airport was locked. The first flight of the day ( mine ) was scheduled for 10:00 and I guess that opening early wasn’t necessary. Father Thomas simply marched me up to the front of the line and just as we got there, the doors opened. I picked up my boarding pass and breezed through security.

I noticed that the flight had been changed to 10:30. At the appointed hour , there was no plane at our gate… and no explanation for the delay. Word of mouth, innuendo and rumour became the soup du jour as the minutes turned into hours. With each passing hour, tempers flared and whenever an agent of the airline would appear, this would be followed by loud shouting and arm waving. The plane left at 2:30… with no explanation or apology for the delay.

The airline is called Spicejet. I think I’ll rename it “ Spicejest”!!!

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Comments

7 Responses to Thursday Tidbits

  1. Greg Albert says:

    Boy that was an interesting read.I do not think I could handle what you are going through.Love reading all your stories and hope to get another one of your books.All the best in 2017 to one and all.

    Greg From Antigonish

  2. Joan MacNeil says:

    So enjoy reading about your trip Len. Very interesting.

  3. Ken MacIntosh says:

    Happy New Year Len.
    Enjoying your blogs. Keep up the good work.

  4. Cheryl MacGillivray says:

    Thanks Len for sharing your experiences. You are providing an interesting education to us Canadians.

  5. Bill Reynders says:

    Great read Len!Sounds like quite an experience.

  6. Noreen Casey says:

    Wow that was so interesting.I have a different perspective of the Ganges River now .lol ……

  7. Bernadette Delorey says:

    Wow Len you are one tough cookie ,enjoy reading all your experiences Happy New Year

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