Sunday, March 13, 2005

SAS Email 6 - India

Attempting to write this email is probably going to be one of the most
difficult things I've ever done, so brace yourself cause it's gonna be
long. During my six short days in India I pretty much experienced
every emotion in the book. The sights, smells, sounds… the life of
India are etched so indelibly in my mind but attempting to describe it
is basically impossible. It's like explaining to a man who's been
blind his entire life what the color blue looks like, it just can't be
done. So I'll just run through the incredible events of my time spent
in India and hopefully that will motivate all of you to visit her on
your own so you can create your own unique Indian experience too.

The night before arriving in Chennai I decided to sleep on the top
(7th) deck of the boat. All students are free to do it at anytime
and there were probably 30 or so of us up there that night. Obviously
I didn't sleep too much from the excitement, plus the fact that we
could SMELL India over the ocean when we were 1.5 days away was enough
to keep anyone awake. So I fell asleep around 3am, and was awoken by
the sounds of a foreign language at 5am. It was just so cool and I
wanted to prolong my first taste of India, so I kept my eyes closed
and tried to take in the sounds of these Indian men's voices around
me… after about five minutes I opened my eyes, only to realize that
all along it had just been a couple Phillipino members of the crew
playing hackeysack next to me. Haha, after that though I was pretty
awake and was fortunate to watch the complete sunrise from darkness to
daylight as we steered into the port of Chennai… The sun over the
Indian ocean is unlike any I've ever seen… it has the capacity to be
this perfectly defined circle that you can easily stare at without
discomfort. The intensity of the pinkish orange/red hue is so deep,
but it's confined to this perfect circle and it literally mesmerizes
you into submission. The best part of that morning was that the sun
was behind the clouds the entire time so you really couldn't see it at
all, but around 6:30am when most people had left to eat, a small
divide in the clouds began to open. Pretty soon, there was a really
small circular rift, and at that very moment the sun perfectly
intersected that rift and shined through. It was really crazy to
watch, and it only lasted for maybe 45 seconds, but for those 45
seconds the sky was absolutely stunning and it felt like "the heavens"
truly came together.

When we disembarked from the ship a few hours later, the total assault
on my senses began… The first thing I noticed was the intense heat,
which was followed by the even more intense smells. Literally every
20 feet I was overwhelmed by a new odor, most of which were unlike
anything I'd ever encountered. Then came the visual stimulation, as I
saw the city streets and people. The colors of India are so plentiful
and vibrant, and they're mainly seen in the architecture and women's
saris… I had always thought that the saris were a very traditional
dress that some Indian women wear, but nearly every woman of every
socioeconomic status wears one all the time. The designs and colors
and so unique, and they definitely accentuate the beauty of an already
gorgeous population of women… literally I'd be walking down the street
and be frozen by the beauty of some of the women, but the amazing part
was that it wasn't always the aristocrats. At one point a woman in a
train station was begging me for money and I instinctively didn't look
at her (if you make eye contact then they take that as assurance that
you're going to give them something), but after a few minutes I looked
her in the eye to tell her I didn't have anything for her and couldn't
speak because of how stunning she was underneath the dirt covered
sari… Okay so now that I've gone on a huge rant, let me stop
digressing and try to describe the events of my trip.

So the first morning I toured the Chennai streets with two friends,
mainly taking rikshaws (these scooter-taxi vehicles that are
everywhere in India) and stopping in a few markets. After a few hours
we returned to the boat to meet up with some friends, and decided to
rent a car and take a day trip to Mamallapuram, a town an hour south
of Chennai. On the way to Mamallapuram we passed the beach where the
tsunami attacked (we were driving on a road that it swept over) and
after 30 mins of driving we kept passing these groupings of makeshift
wood huts. We eventually asked our cab driver what the huts were, and
when he told us they were tsunami refugee camps, we decided to go into
one. So we pulled over, and the eight of us went into the village and
spent about half an hour talking with the elders and playing with the
kids. It was so sad to see how little these people had (the village
was 800 people), but so refreshing to see how happy some of them were
because they hadn't lost any loved ones, and it definitely made me see
how little you really need to live a happy life… in terms of materials
they had nothing, but they were rich in spirit. One other really
interesting part of the visit was when I was talking to an adult in
the community, and when I asked him if they needed money for housing
and food he said no… he said what they needed most was fishing boats
and nets, because they could make their food and homes, but they
couldn't remake their livelihoods without fishing supplies.

Mamallapuram itself was so much fun, it's this cool village littered
with ancient stone carved temples and monuments. We spent hours
walking around this one massive stone park, and saw another amazing
sunset. The main attraction is this massive Shore Temple right along
the beach, but we spent so much time in the stone park that the Shore
Temple was closed by the time we tried to enter and didn't even get to
see it. But the 15 minute through the village to get to the temple
itself was great, as there were all these cool vendor shops, friendly
people, and random cows or other animals crossing the unpaved streets.
Walking through there with one friend at dusk seriously made me feel
like I was in some movie about India during the mid 1800's… We ended
up eating dinner at a seafood restaurant called Moonrakers, where they
sat us on the roof and served us a feast that cost us a grand total of
$9 each including all our drinks. Dinner lasted about 4 hours,
because we got into all these great conversations with locals, the
highlight of which was when the owner sat with us for an hour and gave
us an inside perspective on India itself and the tsunami experience…
here was a guy who strapped his valuable possessions and family on his
moped and rode away from the rushing wave at 9:30am, then returned
only to have to flee even harder when the 2nd wave struck a little
after noon, and was giving us a passionate recounting of it all… it
was really something special to witness. He spoke of how his business
was getting crushed because he was used to Indians vacationing in
Mamallapuram and eating his seafood, but the Indian seafood industry
has been decimated since the tsunami… the reason- because many people
lost loved ones in the waves and feel that those who perished in the
waves became food for the fish, so by eating seafood they'd be
indirectly eating their loved ones! So we returned home around 1am,
and ride itself was pretty powerful; people were sleeping on the
streets everywhere… on bridges, sidewalks, under trees, in parks,
under awnings, even on the actual rode… the masses of people in
poverty were just everywhere. It made me wonder what it must be like
in the city of Calcutta, where 500,000 people live and sleep on the
street every single night...

The next morning at 4am I left for my field program to Delhi, Agra and
Varanasi. My roommate Jaret had been deathly ill with an awful fever
during the days leading up to our arrival in India, and he definitely
passed the bug on to me. While in line at the security check-in at
the airport, I had to sit down from nausea and general disorientation.
When I finally tried to get up and go through security, I fainted for
the first time that I can remember in my entire life… from then on I
had just an awful fever for the next few days, but fortunately I'm
over it now and completely fine. So we flew to Delhi and luckily had
a really light first day because I was pretty much feeling like my
head was gonna explode. We toured the city via bus, stopping at major
monuments and landmarks. We also spent some time at the MK Ghanhi
museum, which I personally loved (got to see his actual glasses,
meditation garden, and the place where he was assassinated while
walking to meditate) and thought was a humble but perfect tribute to
such an inspiring man. After that we saw this Baha'I Temple, which is
a really cool universalized religion with a temple that reminded me of
the famous Sydney Opera House. After that we returned to the hotel,
where I slept from 6pm to 4am.

The next day we took the 2.5 hour train to Agra, and I pretty much hit
the worst of my fever. We visited three main locations, the first of
which was the palace of King Akbar called the Fatehpur Sikra. King
Akbar was the first of several great Indian Kings, and while he had
every material possession he couldn't produce a son. So some holy man
blessed him, his wife had a son, and in 12 years with 32,000 workers
the king built these incredible palatial city called the Fatehpur
Sikra. All of the palace is made with a red stone, except at the
center of the main mosque plaza is a small building made entirely of
white marble, which serves as the burial tomb to the holy man who
blessed King Akbar. The next place we visited was Fort Agra, which is
where King Sha Jahan (Akbar's grandson) was jailed by his own son King
Auranzeb. Sha Jahan is the one who actually commissioned the building
of the Taj Mahal as the burial place for his wife (who died giving
birth to their 14th child), and when his son Auranzeb ascended to the
kingship he jailed his father in Fort Agra, where he could look out
during his final years and see the Taj Mahal where his wife rested.
Auranzeb was the youngest of four boys, and also happened to send the
head of his oldest brother to his father while in jail… nice kid.

The last place in Agra we visited was the Taj Mahal, which is simply
the most perfectly beautiful architectural work I've ever seen.
Looking at it is like staring at a picture, it just doesn't even seem
real. It's entirely constructed of white marble, with incredible
symmetry and simplicity to it… It was the only thing I've ever felt I
couldn't take a bad picture of, although I'm sure Lonnie Hill and
Donnie McGrath would claim they fall in the same category. We spent
about three hours there, and I felt like I could have stared at it for
days if my eyes weren't burning out of their sockets from my fever.
After our time spent at the Taj we returned to the Agra train station,
where we had to wait for 45 mins on the platform before taking the
late train back to Delhi… During that time we all gave tons of food to
the begging men, women and children, but it did nothing to change the
look of desperation on their faces. It was only after we began
showing them photos of themselves on our digital cameras, having the
children model for sketching pictures, and asking them to write their
names on pieces of paper, that those faces of sadness changed. It
taught me that emotional sustenance can be far more valuable than any
physical gift… it wasn't the food we gave them for 35 mins that caused
them to smile, giggle and wave while yelling "byeee" when we left, it
was the fact that we showed a genuine interest in them and
subsequently formed a bond…the next morning we flew to Varanasi, the
place I'd been waiting to see all trip…

If I was given the option to spend a day anywhere in the world, I
would have said Varanasi before the trip started, that's how badly I
wanted to see this place. It's the holiest city in Hinduism, the
place where the g-d Shiva and Ganges River (which itself is believed
to be a great g-dess) lived. Bathing in the Ganges (which
biologically is probably the dirtiest water on Earth, and I'm not
saying that as an exaggeration whatsoever) is considered one of the
holiest acts a Hindu can perform… dying in Varanasi is a desire of
every Hindu, because having your body cremated along the river
guarantees entrance into heaven. So there are nightly prayers
attended by thousands right on these steps leading to the river, and
every morning thousands of Indains bathe in the river and say their
morning prayers while immersing themselves in the water. Two years
ago I watched the movie Baraka for the first time with my boy Adil,
and there's a scene in the movie that takes place in Varanasi, and its
all I could think about for weeks after… since that moment I knew I
had to see the city and the river with my own eyes, and I feel so
fortunate to have had that dream come to fruition… not surprisingly,
my time there also exceeded all expectations.

The first place we went to was Sarnath, a small town 6 miles from
Varanasi, which is extremely holy to Buddhism because it's the site of
the Buddha's first actual sermon. We went to that exact place where
he delivered his first sermon, which was so cool when you stepped back
and thought about it, and saw the small temple and monument dedicated
to the event. My fever at that point was starting to wane but
definitely still present, so instead of spending thirty mins in some
archaeological museum I asked our tour guide if I could go somewhere
to sit down, rest, and meditate. He said sure, and pointed me towards
a set of gates and said "Go in there, it's the next stop for the
group, just tell them you're with SAS and they'll let you in and
you'll find a lot of grass." So I entered what was some type of
archaeological excavation site with a bunch of stone ruins, and found
a quiet spot under a tree in the grass to meditate. After a solid 12
minute session, I felt somewhat better and the group was entering
behind me so I went up to our guide and asked what this place was… he
told me, "This is the ancient temple site, where the Buddha came and
told his disciples of his enlightenment around 300BCE. It then became
a place where he taught his students, and is also where the Buddha
himself often meditated." I hate to use profanity here, but HOLY
SHIT! That one sent chills throughout my whole body- I'd just come
and meditated on the same ground where the Buddha had meditated
several thousand years ago… and of all the ways to do it, I sat under
a tree, and the claim is that Buddha attained enlightenment when
meditating beneath a tree... Obviously I'm no Buddha, but that series
of events led to a major "wow" moment.

The day progressed on, and as evening came our guide offered to take
us to the evening prayers. We took rikshaws through the downtown area
of Varanasi until it got too congested, and from there we walked
through the crazy streets. I can't even explain what it looked like,
with shops, colors, holy men, beggars, prodoce, animals, it was just a
site that only exists in that one place in the world. When we got
down to the steps that led to the waterfront, the prayers were just
beginning. We all got into small boats and floated out into the water
to better observe the rituals, and again I can barely describe what we
saw. There were two main platforms with 4-5 holy men leading a throng
of thousands clapping and chanting Hindu prayers, while the holy men
performed synchronized ritual movements with their hands/bodies and
eventually with these candletowers. But when we took the boats
several hundred yards down the river, the cremations were going on
with people gathering around small wooden bonfires that contained
human bodies. The smell of the Ganges, burning wood and flesh,
incense, India… it was all just something so powerful. After spending
about an hour and a half on the boats watching the cremations and
prayers, we walked back through the city and returned to the hotel
where I talked with our guide all night about India, Pakistan,
religions, his life, and my desire to bathe in the Ganges.

A few hours later we were back up before dawn, and heading back to the
Ganges for another boat ride to witness the morning bathing, prayers
and rituals. Luckily we were in Varanasi on the day of Shivaratri,
which is the anniversary of the g-d Shiva's marriage, so thousands of
people were descending on Shiva's holy city to pay homage. 50,000
people were expected to bathe in the Ganges that morning, so we had to
go to a less concentrated area from where we'd been the night before.
I told our 2nd guide (the local, Varanasi expert) that during the
night I'd felt a strong compulsion to bathe in the Ganges, and he
smiled and told me I had good Karma. He said "There is something in
you that wants to feel G-d's water, the rest of them are afraid but I
see that you know it will not harm you. This is good, if you want to
I will make time for you to bathe in the water." So we toured up and
down the river for two hours and watched the sunrise, but this time
the river had a very different feel. The night before had been much
more ascetic and somber in tone, while in the morning it had a more
celebratory, lively and almost divine feel (For those who are Jewish,
it was like comparing Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashanah). With Indian
voices singing over megaphones, the innumerable colors of the local
clothing, and the fervor in the people's actions, I just knew I had to
be a part of this unbelievable tradition. So as our boat ride came to
an end I took off my shoes, (I'd worn bball shorts to swim in), got
off the boat, and walked down the steps and bathed in the river next
to several locals. I said my prayers while immersing myself in the
water for 3-4 minutes, and simply got out, and that small act created
a big controversy on the ship…

Explaining my full reasoning for doing it requires a lengthy
face-to-face discussion but the shortest explanation is that although
I am firmly Jewish, I also believe there is an essence of G-d in the
most foundational elements of each major religion. I believe they're
all here for a reason and with some message from G-d, (like a stained
glass window each religion is a distinctly different color window
pane, completely unlike the others. And while the light on the
grounds ends up being red, blue, green, etc, it all comes from the
same original white light which is G-d) and through the various
narratives each religions possesses, that original message has been
somewhat corrupted (even in my religion). But at their core each
major religion has some essence of G-dliness, and if a core belief of
Hindus is that the Ganges River is G-d's holiest water, and they enter
it each morning with the intent of celebrating G-d, then surely the
water must be a part of G-d and I was fortunate to have the
opportunity to enter it beside these people when saying my prayers.
And yes the biological fact is that the water is disgustingly dirty,
but I really felt that if I entered it with the right purpose and
intent in my heart, then I would be completely safe (although I wasn't
intending for it to accidentally get into my mouth, haha). I hope I'm
not coming off as some religious zealot here though, I'm not trying to
preach at anyone nor claim that what I'm saying is right, but because
I'm sure many of you will be critical I'm just trying to explain my
reasoning for getting in the Ganges, which simply stems from faith in
no religion but G-d as religion himself.

Upon returning to the ship, all these people I barely know have been
asking me about it and apparently talking about it amongst themselves
(friends relay stories), and most of the people are critical because
they claim "oh the water is so dirty, you'll get soooo sick." But
over the past three days since we set sail for Africa I'd say almost
half the ship's been sick in some capacity (mostly the notorious
"Delhi Belly") while my fever and cold are gone and I feel great.

Oh! And when I got out of the water and was putting back on my shirt,
this cute Indian boy and girl stood in front of me laughing and
mocking me because I was a little cold and shivering. I made some fun
back at them, and we started talking a little. They ended up holding
my hands as we walked though the back streets of Varanasi for the next
20 minutes, something that absolutely made my week. I showed them a
few magic tricks and pretty soon I had a small posse of eight-year old
Indians walking around with me… Eventually I gave them a few pens and
bought them some fruit at a stand before exchanging hugs goodbye…It
was really cute and definitely fulfilled one of my fantasies, cause I
felt like we were the Newsies of India, hahaha…. (sorry for that
story, I had to be an idiot at some point in this email)

My last day in India was spent going to the Balamandir children's
orphanage for a few hours, which was so much fun. Six of us arrived
together and were immediately brought to a room of about thirty
five-year-old kids (no Josh Cohen, that's not 35 year old kids, it's
30, 5 year-olds) who were in a crazy mood from just finishing their
finals. We played games, sang songs, performed dances, etc. with them
while they crawled all over us. It was so cool how much communication
and enjoyment was passed between us and these children, without either
or us even being able to speak a word of the others' respective
language. Later that day I attended a short field program to one of
the "relocation slums" on the outskirts of Chennai, where we heard a
few lectures on the urban population growth problems of India and then
walked the streets meeting the people. They all asked for pens
(something you should always bring as gifts to 3rd world countries,
they LOVE them) which we gave away, and the children loved seeing
themselves on our digital cameras. Again, these were people who had
close to nothing, but by bonding together as a community were able to
find happiness in each other and their relationships.

INDIA OBSERVATIONS- Probably half the people aren't wearing shoes
ever… the woman are some of the most exotically beautiful I've ever
seen… men all wear some type of collared shirt no matter where they
are in societal rank (includes beggars) and some can grow ear hair 2-3
inches off their lobes! It's nuts!... cows are revered as holy beings…
animals, beggars, people peeing and showering on the streets,
rikshaws, are all everywhere… men hold hands when walking as a sign of
affection although not gay… nearly every woman wears a colorful sari…
traffic is crazier than in Vietnam, there'sjust no respect for rules
of the road… although the country is 80% Hindu and 16% Muslim, there's
still a strong historical Muslim influence all over… teeth are not a
high priority.

The best description I've heard of India is that with any one thing
you can say about India, its opposite is also true… They have the
poorest and the richest, the cleanest and the most dirty, the most
beautiful and most wretched, the brightest and darkest, and the list
goes on… The country is so diverse I feel like I could spend a year
there and still barely know it, but I urge all of you to go there at
some point in your life and see just how amazing India really is. It
was the port I was most looking forward to, and every expectation I
had was met and exceeded.

Please email me and let me know how you're doing,
Be safe and stay classy,

So now we're heading towards Africa with Kenya as our next port, which
will have such a different feel from the past few weeks I've spent on
the Asian continent… Today was actually Neptune Day, which is the
official day when a ship passes over the equator, so we had no classes
and went through the various Neptune Day rituals… I won't spoil the
secrets for those of you who will one day go from a lowly "pollywog"
to a revered "shellback" like myself, but I will say that my head was
shaved today. A few hundred guys did it, and over 30 girls too! But
the best part was that we all had absurdly rude haircuts for the days
preceding our heads being shaved, so most people had awesome mullets
while I attained my lifelong dream of growing a small beard and having
the same haircut as Bad Attitude Barakis aka MR. T… Yes Scott, the
A-Team lives on… dada dada da da, da da, daaaaa….

1 comment:

Archana said...

Came to your link through a friend of mine! I am an Indian in Chennai and your post made me so very happy!! Thank you!
Have fun!