Thursday, August 26, 2010
My favorite book of the first ten is probably Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. This novel is a favorite among Britons, though I don't think it is widely read by Americans. In the book's foreword, it is compared to Jane Eyre. I'm not sure if I find this entirely accurate, although it's been awhile since I've read Jane. Rebecca, which is told in first-person narrative (which I love and haven't encountered for awhile), is the story of Mrs. de Winter and her strange and rather pathetic obsession with her husband's dead ex-wife, Rebecca. Following her thought process conjured up memories of my own ridiculous thoughts and ideas of love and loss (circa my dramatic and tortured middle school years). The brilliance of this novel is not only in how the author so deftly wraps the reader up in Mrs. de Winter's strange and secluded world, but also in the suspense and surprises found in the later chapters of the novel. Well done, du Maurier.
After reading Rebecca, I thought a bit about my favorite novels and why I like them. I'm curious what yours are. Please feel free to comment. Here are mine, in no particular order:
1.) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I've read three books by Ishiguro who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. I found all three novels different in style and content and remember feeling surprised that they were written by the same person. Of the three, I only liked one (I was bored stiff through The Remains of the Day, perhaps because I can't appreciate the intricacies of a British butler's life). As mentioned in a previous blog, Never Let Me Go haunted me. The novel slowly lets you in on the truth of its story and once you realize what is happening you find yourself heart-broken and appalled. This novel, which I found myself comparing to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, made me think a lot about the intricate relationship between creation and science and where a line should be drawn between the two.
2.) Atonement by Ian McEwan. I've also read several books by Ian McEwan; in addition to Atonement, I enjoyed his lesser known novel (in the States anyways) Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I read it so long ago I know longer remember why it moved me. Atonement, however, continues to stick with me. If you haven't read the book, I do think the movie provided a fairly accurate portrayal of the story. Those who have either seen the film or read the book know it portrays the devastation caused by a child's over-active imagination. I think it also teaches us a lot about reconciling the thoughts and beliefs of our childhood with the reality of the adult world.
3.) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I have a thing for all things Indian, particularly fiction novels that include India or Indians. I found this book sitting on a guesthouse bookshelf and picked it up. "Man Booker Prize Winner" and it was set in India--I figured it was worth a shot. I struggled through the first few pages as the prose style is rather strange since it is mostly written from the viewpoint of a 7-year-old girl. Once I grew accustomed to it, this was one aspect of the book I truly enjoyed. Put simply, the book ends with tragedy, but in the process teaches the reader a lot about love, as well as class relations and tensions in India.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
I fear today I'll be writing the kind of entry that is the cause for many (uncensored) internet blogging sites to get blocked in China. No matter how small the reading audience or how innocuous the entry, most criticism or dissent is silenced. My American friends may be surprised that I don't find this infuriating. I'm not angered because my Chinese friends seem mostly unconcerned. These days, Chinese people appear content to bask in their new found wealth and development rather than kick up a fuss about civil liberties. How long this will last, one can only guess. I see a lot changing here and quickly, but some attitudes and system are inevitably hard to break.
Two particular issues in which I'd love to see reform are the educational system and (government) corruption. I was born in a country where "Anything is Possible" yet I now find myself in a place where anything is possible with money and the right acquaintances. No time do I feel this more than applying for a visa. I'm not sure what the problem is exactly; applying for a visa in a developing country should not be this difficult. As the Chinese say, "Tai mafan." The only two reasonable explanations I've come up with are this:
1.) Visas are seen as a means to make money off of supposedly "rich" westerners.
2.) China really isn't all that interested in having us here.
Last year I failed to write about the verbal raping I received in my attempt to secure a visa at Chengde's Public Security Bureau (PSB, the brach of police that take care of foreigners' visas and residency permits). I had just been released from the hospital after my appendectomy. To my surprise, I received no sympathy from the newly appointed female officer who was to take care of foreigners' matters. Instead of the usual smile and politeness, she promptly interrogated me on my travels, my marriage, and my work. She even questioned me for not having children. In the end, she agreed to grant me a 3 month visa for the astronomical price of 1000 rmb ($150). The previous year I had received a one year visa, no questions asked, for the same price.
I was both enraged and baffled. Why just three months when the last woman in her position gave me a year? I so stupidly asked. Clearly questioning her authority would be no way to win over her favor and reason. A nice carton of cigarettes and some flattery would have been a better strategy. Naturally, my question was met with malice.
"Why should I give you so long? I can give you three weeks if I wish. If you have a problem, take it to Beijing!"
Me, never cool under pressure, replied with a curt "Fine, I will," and walked out the doors. Very badass. . . that is until I proceeded to have a complete meltdown on the sidewalk outside the PSB. My mind was spinning down the spiral. My visa will soon expire. I'll have to leave the country. Maybe I won't come back. I won't come back. . . EVER. I'm so sick of dealing with this. DAMN. THESE. PEOPLE.
But, no fear, Ming's Kiwi boss recommended me to a visa agency in Beijing. I sent my passport to them and they arranged a one year visa for me for 3500rmb ($500!!). Yidian mafan.
This year, I thought it would be just as simple, but of course nothing in China ever remains the same. It was plain foolish to assume it would. While the price for securing the visa had since decreased, the process had complicated itself significantly. I won't get into the details of the ordeal, as I haven't had enough distance from it yet to fully step back and laugh at the situation (maybe when my next visa crisis passes I will finally be able to come to terms with this one). Put simply, a day in Beijing turned into three which included multiple trips to both the visa agency and various PSBs and one stop at the American Embassy. Another journey down the spiral, angry internal voices and all. But I am now nearly recovered from the incident and my passport with newly attached visa will soon be in hand. The things I do for you China. Tai mafan.
P.S. I'm not sure you are worth it.
This week I had the chance to revisit Mexico. Once again, I took the trip in literary form, although I do hope to venture there in body one day. Last time I went it was with Sal and his dead beat, no-good buddy Dean in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. This time I ventured with cowboys, and let me tell you, it was much more exciting.
All the Pretty Horses is the second book I've read by Cormac McCarthy and I look forward to reading more. I'm particularly hoping to get my paws on a copy of his Blood Meridian. Earlier this year I read his post-apocalyptic novel The Road and was shaken to my core. I learned what the word "catamite" means (sometimes it's better not to look up words you don't know, no matter what your mother may have told you). I am still having nightmares. Next to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, no book has had more psychological effect on me than The Road.
McCarthy is different from most authors. He writes simply yet somehow manages rich and even chilling descriptions. Both novels contained plenty of dialogue but you won't find a single set of quotation marks within their stories. Compound-complex sentences are written in such a way that would surely dumbfound most high school English teachers. The Road doesn't even contain chapters, a format that undoubtedly breaks unspoken novel-writing etiquette. Despite (because of?) his strange style, I find myself swept up into his novels.
All the Pretty Horses may best be described as a Western, another genre of literature I rarely dabble in. I went to high school with enough Confederate flag-touting, Wrangler jeans-wearing, cowboy boot-sporting boys to know I'm not much interested in "cowboys" (with or without cow). I've never been much of a horse lover either. I would probably even describe myself as a city girl, but my sense of adventure and love for travel helps me appreciate a trip from Texas to Mexico on horseback. Throw in a cross-culturally love affair and I'm doubly sold.
The love (sub-) plot allows me to tie what I'm reading into my own life. Fancy that. Our American protagonist, John Grady, falls head over heals for a sexy foreigner, Alejandra. Grady is not as lucky in love as I have been since a disapproving father stands in his way. Ah, the dreaded in-la, challenging no matter where one is in the world. I am often asked questions about my relationship with my own mother-in-law, which I can shed a little light on here.
Most Americans have it easy, as one's significant other's family rarely makes a daily appearance in her life. For most it is just monthly and for those (lucky?) few, it is reserved for holidays and Christenings. In most parts of the world, this is hardly the case. Perhaps nowhere is it more true than in China where family reigns supreme over friendship, personal identity, and (dare I say) work. While the role of family is evolving, I don't think it uncommon here to deal with in-laws on a daily basis. Traditionally, after Chinese women wed, they would live with their husband's family. I'm glad some traditions are changing.
When I returned to China in 2008, I found myself back in Ming's hometown. I didn't realize how different life would be for me being married as opposed to simply dating. Ming's mom came to our home for most dinners and many lunches. Hardly a day would pass without seeing her. Despite her kindness and good-spirit, my sanity suffered and it showed. Eventually she backed off, for which I consider myself extremely fortunate and thoroughly grateful. In-laws, after all, can wield a frightening amount of power and influence. This is made painfully clear in All the Pretty Horses.
Dating cross-culturally or cross-racially can lead to particularly hazardous family matters. Those of us that do dabble in such affairs rarely realize what we are getting ourselves into. I have a wonderful mother-in-law who has accepted me into her life from the start. Many foreigners in China have found their relationships doomed by their S.O.'s disapproving family members. I think most Americans cannot comprehend the gravity of such a situation. Most of us, no matter how overbearing and frustrating our S.O.'s parents, have it better than we realize. If you have any doubts, read All the Pretty Horses. I think you'll feel better about your situation. However, if you rather read about a father and son duo scavenging for food while avoiding cannibals, The Road might be a better pick for you.
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
Lord of the Rings--if you haven't read the books, you've probably seen the movies. In case you have missed them both, I'll let you in on some of the basics. Our story is set in Middle Earth, a world in many ways resembling our own planet. The creatures found there are also familiar, though not entirely similar to the animals, plants, and humans found on the Earth we know. In Middle-earth, trees have the ability to assault passersby and birds engage in espionage. The story's protagonist, Frodo, is a hobbit, a race relating to man but shorter and of slightly different appearance and manner. Frodo, his hobbit buddies (Sam, Merry, and Pippin), a sexy elf who knows how to work a bow and arrow (Legolas), a grey wizard (Gandalf), a man who knows his way around Middle-earth (Aragorn), and a few others come together to form a coalition, a fellowship, if you will. Their goal: To destroy a ring. This, however, is no ordinary ring. This ring and whoever possesses it holds an unmatched amount of power. With this power, often comes evil. Ridding oneself of a ring sounds simple enough, but for Frodo it means journeying hundreds of dangerous miles to Mordor and throwing the ring into (the aptly named) Mount Doom. How Frodo began saddled with this responsibility doesn't really sit right with me. He is stuck with the ring and the task of destroying it simple because his uncle gave it to him and told him to do so.
I often get frustrated with stories of this nature. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would commit themselves to a seemingly impossible task that will probably kill them, a task that they are ill-equipped to handle and which someone else could surely do for them. In these types of stories the protagonist usually faces his challenge head on, overcomes adversity, and proves a hero. In real life, one is rarely so lucky. Whenever I do things I don't want to do, it inevitably leads to resentment or humiliation. I have learned this the hard way living in China.
While no one in China has ever asked me to travel to distant and remote lands to get rid of a piece of jewelry, I have been asked to partake in some rather ridiculous tasks. Why do I do these things? It's really not in my nature to commit to anything I'm uncomfortable with doing. But as any foreigner who lives in China will eventually find, the country and its people have a strange way of manipulating us into doing things against our nature. As Rachel DeWolfskin explains in Foreign Babes in Beijing, her spot-on memoir chronicling female ex-pat life in Beijing, sometimes its just easier to comply with people than deal with the awkwardness and confusion that arises from refusing them. I whole-heartedly agree.
I will now reveal to you one incident in which I was coerced into doing something utterly regrettable. This dates back to September 2005; I remember it well as the embarrassment of the ordeal has been seared into my brain. It was a Friday and I was on my computer working in the English office of Chengde's No. 1 High School. My boss, Celine, sweet and sly as she was, explained to me that the following day was Teacher's Day and that there was to be an assembly for the entire staff. I was required to perform at the assembly. My mouth dropped and my knees shook knowing that my worst fear was to be faced in less than 24 hours. The words whirled around in my head, “No, I can't,” “I don't want to,” “I don't have enough time to prepare,” yet nothing came out. With simple nod my fate was sealed.
At the assembly I watched in horror at the acts that proceeded mine. Most of the teachers participating performed in a group. Most of them wore costumes and had choreographed dance moves or played exotic Chinese instruments. I learned that they had over a week to prepare their performances. I got up on stage, in front all my colleagues, and sang Micheal Learns to Rock's “Take Me to Your Heart,” a horribly cheesy English song that was massively popular in Asia 5 years ago. For those of you who don't know me well, I am not a singer. Perhaps tone deaf would be an appropriate use of terms here. Despite my lack of talent, I was forced to sing a cappella since I had no time to find the accompanying background music. My singing didn't last long. Fifteen seconds into the song I forgot the words and ran off stage. The teachers gave me a round of pity applause as I sunk back into my seat among the English department staff. I was mortified, I still am mortified, and it all could have been avoided with a simple “No, sorry, I can't.”
Maybe living in China has helped me to understand characters (and real-life people) like Frodo--sometimes saying “yes” seems much easier than saying “no,” even if it means enduring unpleasantries such as public humiliation or, in Frodo's case, encountering Orcs. I personally believe it takes a lot of courage to say "no," but maybe not as much courage as it takes to cross Middle-earth to Mount Doom.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
I didn't know what the word expatriate (expat) meant until I become one. In fact, I may have mistakenly pronounced the word ex-patriot the first dozen or so times I said it. An ex-patriot I am not, but I an expat I am, maybe for life. I'm finding that many of my old friends are becoming expats themselves and most of my new friends, the majority of which are foreigners living in China, are as well. I've decided to write the blog as a tribute to those people and people who like them have moved away from their hometown, if not their home country. I've done a bit of reflection on this during the past couples weeks as several of my friends struggle with their lives away from home or with their transition back to being back home. I sometimes face these struggles myself, especially now that I don't know what “home” really means.
I often wonder what attracts people to living overseas. Some people make an entire life out of it, jumping from country to country with their significant other and small children in tow. That type of lifestyle probably isn't in the cards for me, due more to familial circumstances than a lack of desire to reside in other countries. While I currently hold a deep curiosity for foreign lands and cultures, I wasn't always this way. I could have easily and happily stayed in Wisconsin without much thought of visiting Tibetan monasteries, Bagan, or Angkor Wat. But after going abroad for the first time (a special shout out to Amy Greil and Ireland for this opportunity), I decided I wanted to see more. I also realized traveling isn't as scary as I thought it was. The overachiever in me was reawakened and I felt the need to do something, see something. I think there's a lot of overachievers in China--recent college grads who want to challenge themselves. People who just can't sit still. People who probably don't watch much TV. People who have, at one time or another, labeled themselves as “perfectionists.” But for every Summa Cum Laude who comes to China only to return to America to pursue a degree in Law/Medicine/something-ridiculously-difficult-and-world-changing, there is a social misfit or alcoholic womanizer among their ranks. Foreign countries attract a strange and varied breed of human and I think it's safe to say few of us are anywhere close to being “normal.”
In addition to the types of people that move abroad, I've given some thought to the places to which they go. I believe that certain places are better suited to certain types of people. This is true of both vacationing spots and locations to live. While some people have that special gift of making the best out of whatever circumstances they find themselves in, most of us are creatures of our environment. If we don't feel comfortable or (at the very least) interested in our surroundings, our happiness and attitude suffer. I can't pinpoint specific types of people who enjoy living and traveling in Asia, but I do find that most of the people here are among the more intrepid of travelers. I think a fairly high tolerance for noise, dirt, crowdedness, discomfort, and linguistic misunderstandings will prove helpful. If this sounds unappealing to you, maybe you should try for Europe before booking a flight to Bangkok, Beijing, or Delhi. I do, however, think we can surprise ourselves. I, for one, never would have imagined enjoying Asia as much as I do. For all it's difficulties, I find it a very captivating and rewarding place to live in and explore. My point is basically this: It may be hard to know for certain if we'll like traveling or living somewhere, but I think it's fair to assume we probably won't like everywhere and there's nothing wrong with that.
But now the real meat and potatoes of this, which is me pondering why living abroad can be so damn difficult. Some reasons are quite obvious, others less so. Culture shock has a lot to do with it. This can be felt even within one's own country or state. Moving from the North to the South or from a town to the city can be a drastic change. People may do things differently, talk differently, and think differently. They may have different political and religious leanings or be of different ethnicities or socio-economic standings. If this is true within our own country, it is exponentially true when moving to overseas. Even in countries seemingly similar to our own, you will find many things different. When moving from a place like America to China, you may (on certain days) feel like everything is different. For me, this is the beauty of being in China. I'm not suppose to fit in and it shows, my stocky legs and large green eyes give it away every time. Being a foreigner in China equates to locals having extremely low expectations yet high levels of understanding for me. This phenomenon is not characteristic of most places where fitting in and being accepted are somewhat essential to survival.
Besides the culture shock, I think moving away from home can be very lonely. I am not terribly good at making new friends, but China somehow makes up for what I lack. I easily fall into friendships with other foreigners here. This has nothing to do with my stellar personality, but is a result of us all being in similar situations--we are all looking for friends. We are all looking for people with which we can speak English at a normal pace and even throw in some slang for good measure. Chinese people, no matter how good their English, do not understand what “cankles,” “chillax,” or “fugly” mean. We want someone to get our jokes (and appreciate sarcasm), our fashion (hoodies sporting our homestate or college name paired with jeans), our preference for food (Mexican or anything cheesy) and TV shows (“The Office,” anyone?). And whenever that gets boring, a potential Chinese friend is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and practice their English. This isn't the case most places, where local people don't care who you are or where you're from, nor do they need your friendship. Making new friends may mean a lot of effort and when all is said and done, you may just move away. After months of trying to get to know a person, all you may be left with is another casual facebook friend.
Which leads me to the end of the cycle, one which I may never reach. . . re-entry shock. This can be even worse than the initial culture shock. A lot of people have a surprisingly difficult time readjusting when returning home. Life went on and goes on. No one cares that you went to Bali or visited the Great Wall. They may not care to see your scrapbook or hear about your new friends. They don't understand where you've been or what you've done. Things are just suppose to continue on as normal, as if you were never really gone. It's can be hard to get a footing, to fit in again, or to even want to fit in. I honestly don't know how people do it. I tried myself in 2007 and I ended up returning to China.
This entry may have bordered on pessimistic, though I was going for realistic. I think it's important for anyone who moves away from their hometown to realize that it's not always easy. Moving back home can be tough too. Sometimes it is difficult and lonely and maybe even a bit depressing. Don't feel bad if it's not all rainbows, butterflies, and exciting nights filled with friendship and adventure. I've had low points; in fact, I continue to have them. But they get less frequent and easier to manage. Living in China has become less “Living in China” and more just living life. Maybe one day I will even call it home.
Friday, July 23, 2010
While in Beijing, I hit a goldmine of books. As far as my list is concerned, I'll be nearly set thanks to the Wangfujing Bookstore. On the third flour I perused row upon row of English import paperbacks. The classic lit novels, which is mostly what I'm in the market for, were 20RMB ($3) or less a pop. “Treasure Island,” “Little Women,” “Emma”--they were all there. Normally these types of books don't interest me enough to inspire a purchase, but since beginning my 50 book task I am thinking about things different. I actually felt excited buying Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” (although I did balance the purchase with a little light reading by picking up a bilingual copy of Suess's “Fox in Socks”).
“Crime and Punishment” is one of those books people think about reading but almost never do. I was wondering if anyone I know has read it. Have you? It make Newsweek's list of books people want to read (right up there with Tolstoy's “War and Peace”). After finishing up Emily Bronte's “Wuthering Heights,” I decided to take the plunge instead of delaying the inevitable. I don't want to leave the longest and seemingly most difficult books for last. I'm also trying to work myself up to “War and Peace,” which will end up being the longest book I've ever read (at nearly 1500 pages. Gulp.). I thought 500 page “C&P” would be a good warmer upper. I have to admit, that half in, I'm pleasantly surprised. “Crime and Punishment” ranks up there among best novels ever written for a reason. It is not the verbose snoozer I anticipated it to be, probably because it successfully puts the reader into the mind of a murderer, the story's protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov. I have found that being in the mind of the murderer is more interesting and not quite as unsettling as being in the mind of a child molester (I must also thank “Lolita” for this revelation). The frightening thing is, I can easily follow and even anticipate much of RR's thought process. But I would like to cite the Hollywood film industry for this ability and not credit it to any personal deep-seated homicidal tendencies. Just to clear that up. . . .
While I am enjoying this novel, it is one of those I wish I had read for a course in college. It is heavy with symbolism and allegory, much of which I'm sure I'm missing. I know very little about Russia, particularly 19th century Russia where this story is set. I am fairly clueless about Russian writers and their writing, though I'm learning. It's hard to put a book like this into context and fully appreciate it without knowing more about it's background and being able to discuss and analyze its contents. Being where I am, in smallish and (currently) foreigner devoid Chengde, I have no choice but to go it alone and share my findings with you, bookish blog reader.
Signing off here with a final question: What tops your list of “Should Read but Haven't Yet” books?
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Friday, July 16, 2010
Beijing and I haven't always had the most stable and loving relationship. He can be loud, rude, crowded, and unaccommodating. I can be intolerant, impatient, and demanding. It does not make for a good combination. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, hence I've always been in love with Beijing so long as I wasn't living in him. The past few days have reaffirmed my affection for the city. I realize most people who read this will never come to Beijing or even desire to visit, however, I think it deserves a top spot on anyone's itinerary who is coming to China or even to Asia. Here are some reasons why I adore this place:
Monday, July 12, 2010
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Friday, July 02, 2010
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Friday, June 25, 2010
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendent of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.
After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, afterall, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'
As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vacinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.
I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret wearing, rifle toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.
Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shoken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.
It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?
I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.
To my immense relief, it was a bona fide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
This morning we woke up on the train, already several hours into our journey from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Though I won't go into great detail about it, as words and even images cannot do it justice, the Taj Mahal was awe-inspiring. Other than the birth of a child, I don't imagine I will ever again witness something that beautiful. It is every cliche in the book--brought a tear to my eye; felt like I was in heaven. If you are willing to brave India, don't miss it.
But this post is to describe our next destination, Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, believed to date back more than 3000 years. But what gives the city it's significance is not its age, but its spot on the holy Ganges River. Hindus rom all over India come here to bathe themselves or cremate their family members. All of this is in clear view to the public, which is what makes Varanasi such a unique and surprising place.
When we disembarked our train, we were greeted by the usual harassment from taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers. We made a B-line to the prepaid auto-rickshaw stand, which provides a set and fair price to any destination in the city. We were taken to a location where we were to met the owner, Monu, of our guesthouse. Monu had informed me that our accommodation was located down a narrow alleyway, which auto-rickshaws cannot enter.
We were dropped off at the designated spot and Monu soon approached. He seemed like a kind, but no nonsense Indian man who spoke clear and quite natural English. We followed him across a busy road, where I was nearly run down by a cycle rickshaw. We then wove through alleys filled with the usual cows (and the stinking piles of manure that come with them) and stray dogs, as well as plenty of human traffic--barefoot women dressed in brillian saris, brown uniformed police, men on bicycles, children chasing each other, and leering young men. Small shops nearly overflowed onto the tiny streets, selling snacks and drinks, saris, bangles, sweets, and scarves. The heat was suffocating, so it was with great relief I entered the guest house.
I passed out in the room while Katalin and Amy took to the streets. When they returned, I heard all about their excursion, walking along the river's ghats (steps or landing on a river). They wandered upon Manikarnika Ghat, one of the main cremation ghats in Varanasi. Here they saw bodies wrapped in golden fabric being carried out from the alleyways. The body is taken down to the water, where it is briefly submerged, and then brought back up on the ghat, where it is placed on a pile of wood.
Wood is seen in 10-ffot piles all around the cremation ghat. There are several kinds of wood to choose from, the most expensive being sandlewood. Once the body is situated properly a top of the wood, the fire is lit. It can take up to five days for the body to be fully cremated, at which point the ashes are put into the Ganges. The bodies burn and the work goes on day and night, every day .
After hearing about Katalin and Amy's experience, I was eager to see the river and its ghats myself. I overcame my heat-induced lethargy and made it out of the guest house. Once at the river we were met by numerous children selling small paper bowls filled with merigolds and a simple wax candle. Katalin purchased one for each of us. We lit them and followed the example of others who had set them adrift in the Ganges. The significance of this nightly affair, I do not know.
We continued on to Dasaswamedh Ghat in time to catch the beginning of a performance. The sun had just set, but the atmosphere was lively as ever. Hunger had set in though, so we drifted away from the river and sat down to a lovely Indian meal. I ordered a thali, a personal buffet of sorts. For 120 rupees ($2.50), I was given cheese curry, spinach curry, rice, flat bread, yogurt, lentils, chutney, and a dessert.
After finishing our dinner, we left the restaurant and stumbled upon a parade. Women carried chandeliers on their heads, men played instruments and danced around, flaring their arms while spinning in circles. Next came a series of decorated trucks, their displays powered by the disel fume spewing generators that followed them. The procession was slow, too slow to captivate the attention of any ordianary American audience. But the three of us were enthralled, swept up by the energy and excitement of it all. The celebration was linked to one of Indian's many castes, but the full meaning of it all I don't understand. Regardless, we felt lucky to witness whatever it was we were witnessing.