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First India Trip.psd

First Trip to India (by my Brother DAN DENNIS). I think one of the strangest, and most fascinating places I've been to is Varanasi, in north central India. If I recall, I was only 21 or 22 years old when I took that India trip with my friend Greg Mastropietro. It was in the early '90's, right after a Muslim mosque was demolished by Hindu factions in a town called Ayodha. There was a lot of tension across the country, but I felt it most in Varanasi. I arrived separate from Greg (we were to meet up there) and got the cheapest hotel room possible on the outskirts of town. It was on the roof of a building where they were doing construction - I remember all the rebar glinting in the moonlight. My room was half finished as well, I remember because of all the mosquitoes pouring in through holes in the wall. It was a nightmare! The next morning I checked out and walked to a barber shop for a shave. Getting a shave is a real luxury in India, and a good barber will give you a scalp massage and splash you up with cologne - a great way to wake up and get rolling! This particular one seemed to be in a poisonous mood. He scowled at me the whole time and gave me a nice bleeding nick on my throat - it seemed almost on purpose.
When I met up with Greg we checked into a hotel down by the Ganges river. The room I had was a dungeon-like window-less cell, but the hotel had a great roof top terrace to lounge around on. we stayed here for about a week and a half, walking the narrow cobbled streets and taking boat taxis on the river.We quickly learned that because of the heightened political and religious tension, there was a day-light curfew for a good part of the day, and the streets were empty. The beautiful and strange thing was that the rooftops of the city came to life. Children and adults all over the city were flying kites, and it seemed like you could see hundreds of them over the skyline - at dusk it was particularly amazing. I met a neighbor who told me about the carrier pigeons that he would send from his roof.
I quickly became addicted to chai in the mornings instead of coffee. Every street corner had a chai vendor, who would pour you a steaming cup of hyper-sweetened milk tea to warm you on a chilly outing. Once I got caught up in some kind of angry political demostration on the street, and a friendly tea shop owner yanked me in off the street and bolted the door. After a few days in town, I heard about an ashram that gave tabla lessons nearby. An ashram is often associated as a meditation center, but in reality, most are instruction schools for keeping alive Indias ancient heritage and culture. The tabla is a twin drum system, played with the fingertips and the heel of the hand, and an intrinsic part of Indian classical music (I was to buy my own set in a town called Pushkar weeks later). There is a male and a female drum, with a corresponding deep and high tone. The asram was in an ancient and beautiful two story building, and the first thing I noticed was some European hippy standing on his head in a corner, apparently practicing a yoga pose. I took two lessons there, from a stern old man who I forgave because my own efforts must have been half-hearted.
Varansi (or Benares, it's older name) was a holy town, and sadhus, or Hindu renounciates, made up a big part of its temporary population. I have been interested in sadhus since I was a child, after reading a book about Sadhu Sundar Singh, a renounciate who became an evangelical Christian. Although there are many factions and types of holy men, they often travel from temple to temple acoss India, wearing orange robes and begging for food. They claim to seek only God, and renounce the trapping of any form of attatchment or domestic life, leaving family and friend behind. I once talked to a sadhu with rotting teeth who expounded to me for a half hour about the benefits of leaving earthly pleasures behind (also quoting St. Paul - "your body is a temple"). When he moved his robe, a handful of wrapped candies fell out, explaining to me the condition of his teeth! The one unifying and interesting habit of the sadhu is the partaking of marijuana as a sacrament. Apparently Shiva (an aspect of the Hindu trinity which includes Brahma and Vishnu) spent 1000 years in the Himalayas smoking reefer on a mountain top. I'm assuming that he didn't get a lot accomplished! Although the drug is officially illegal, Varanasi actually had a Government Bhang Shop, obviously for economic reasons. Bhang is basically a marijuana milk shake - a glop of the weed dropped in a tall glass of watered down yogurt. I guess Greg and I couldn't resist - for research reasons of course! 5 hours later I still couldn't get the cobwebs out of my head. There's a first and last time for everything!
The Ganges has to be the most polluted body of water on the planet. First of all, the sewer of an entire city runs directly into it. The water is an odorous, silty grey-brown. A particular endangered species (I wonder why?) of dolphin, the Gangetic dolphin, lives in this muck. They look like the product of a radioactive accident. While out in the river I saw one break the water a couple of times. I saw a brown hump, resplendant with patches of matted hair. Hair! on a dolphin?.... They burn bodies and throw them into the river. That is what Varanasi is all about. If you die in Varanasi, and your ashes are tossed into the river, you get an after-life home-run, and aren't recquired to do it all over again (this life, I mean). When Greg and I first moved into our hotel, I noticed a pungent smell in the air. I noticed it the next day, and the day after that. Eventually I realized that we were near the burning Ghats - the place where incinerations of dead human beings took place on the hour, and all night. The smell was the smell of burning flesh, not unlike a perpetual barbecue.
Varanasi was an incredible place, as a geographic itinerary, and as a place in my memory. The things I mentioned here happened almost 15 years ago, but I will never forget them - the kindness and bitterness of the people. Thousands of years of priceless knowledge and intolerable ignoranace. I guess what I found most endearing, however, was its untouchable ancientness - a place where people quietly do their morning abloutions (drinking that filthy water!) on the banks of one of the oldest rivers in the world.


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