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My Odd India Trek

I saw today that there were three explosions in Varanasi, India (formerly known as Benares), killing 15 people. This jumped out at me, because one of the oddest experiences of my life happened in Varanasi. In 1991 I traveled there by bus on a 24-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, Nepal, with a fat man from Kanpur slouched next to me, drooling on my shoulder.

I arrived in Varanasi with a travelling companion I met named Nicholas, a French guy with a prosthetic rubber arm. He had fallen out of a tree and broke his arm when he was a kid, and the doctor committed grievous malpractice on him, resulting in amputation. "You should have sued", I told him. "What an American thing to say," he retorted. Nicholas knew America well - he and I had a lot to talk about, because he lived and worked in Chicago for two years, loved America, and was dying to go back. He particularly wanted to live in Chicago again.

Nicholas and I arrive in Varanasi during the height of Hindu-Muslim riots, which started when Hindus decided to reclaim the temple to Rama at Ayodhya. This was said to be Rama's birthplace, and hundreds of years before conquering Muslims had built the Babri mosque on the site. Eventually the mosque was pulled down, but when we showed up the issue had not yet been settled. Hundreds of Muslims and Hindus died in the ensuing riots, and many died in Varanasi. Muslims lured a Hindu milk seller to a shop, for example, and then murdered him. We heard reports like this every day.

Nicholas and I made our way to the ghats, and found a driver on a pedicycle to take us there. We got caught in a wave of humanity fleeing a riot, but it was a false alarm and things calmed down. We pressed into an area locked down by martial law. There was no one around except Indian army soldiers, cows, and western backpackers. Our intrepid cyclist pushed on, only to get beaten hard with a rattan stick by a soldier who spotted him violating the curfew. The soldier didn't even look at Nicholas and I, we got off the cycle, felt bad because our driver fled and we couldn't pay him, and we just walked to the ghats.

We walked through the oddly empty streets, strewn with paving bricks that had been heaved during the riots. People whistled and yelled at us from behind shuttered windows.

The big attraction in Varanasi are the burning ghats. These are holy places of cremation, where dead from all over India are brought to be burned and tossed by untouchables into the Ganges river. Hindus believe that dying within a short radius of Varanasi grants entrance to heaven, so many fatally ill people are taken there to die. During cremation, after about four hours, the skull pops and breaks, and it is said this is the moment when the soul leaves the body. When the cremation is over, all that is left is a large chunk of heart muscle, which is then picked up by a stick and heaved into the Ganges.

One extremely odd feature of the burning ghats is that, during the cremation, there is no odor at all. None. That pungent burning protein smell you expect just does not happen.

We spent a couple days in a guest house we found right near the ghats, and we visited the ghats every day. It is forbidden to take pictures there, but some of the westerners snuck photos from boats they chartered just down the river. The cremations continued unabated, even as the riots got more serious day by day. Nicholas and I were approached at the ghats, one of the very holiest sites in India, by two very young prostitute girls, about maybe eight years old, giving us the universal sign for oral sex. Horrified, Nicholas and I looked around, expecting police with rattan sticks to descend on us and take us to jail. We had heard of such things happening. We got out of there posthaste. That, and seeing a couple of naked kids fighting with dogs on top of a pile of garbage for scaps of food in downtown Calcutta, were the two most shocking things I may have ever seen in my life.

I also visited the Deer Park in Sarnath right nearby, where Gautama Buddha set the Wheel of Dharma into motion.

We left Varanasi and went to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. It was glorious. Nicholas and I met a couple of American girls, and they were taken by him. Nicholas is a very affable guy, and he turned his rubber arm into a conversation piece of sorts. We and the girls then went to New Delhi, where I got a horrid case of Delhi Belly, and was bedridden for days with a fever. Nicholas and I parted ways, and he later sent me postcards from France.

I went on to visit Kashmir, which was as violent then as it is now. I stayed on a houseboat on Lake Dal, the only tourist in town. Six Israelis had been kidnapped and released a week or two before, and this kinda put a damper on Kashmiri tourism. At nine o'clock every night on the dot, grenade and rocket attacks began in downtown Srinagar, maybe only half a mile away. I huddled under the blankets in my plush houseboat.

I then went on to Leh, Ladakh, an area of dwindling Tibetan majority, nearly froze to death, and saw Shia Muslims scourging themselves until their backs bled.

I then flew back to New Delhi, caught a last-minute flight to Dakka, Bangladesh, and that was the end of my only tour of India.

Posted by Ken McCracken · 7 March 2006 11:08 AM


Sounds great! where do I sign-up?!

Posted by: christian at March 7, 2006 02:20 PM

Seriously. Haha. I would love to go on a trip like that, sans the stomach issues.

Posted by: Will Franklin at March 7, 2006 04:45 PM

If you get a chance, go to India.

It is just so radically different than anything else, it will leave your head spinning.

Posted by: Ken McCracken at March 7, 2006 04:55 PM

Christopher Xander Bradley Braxton Mitchell Trever

Posted by: Ronald at April 27, 2006 04:54 PM