It’s been a while, but for all our 2011 Ganges supporters, your bandanas are en route, along with buttons for everyone who requested one!
I went to exchange my copy of the Ramayana at the used bookstore in Kolkata today and found Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby. It’s about a couple’s 1200-mile trip down the Ganges in the 1960s. Here’s how it starts:
This is the story of a twelve-hundred-mile journey down the Ganges from the place where it enters the Plains of India to the Sandheads, forty miles offshore in the Bay of Bengal, made by two Europeans in the winter of 1963-4. It is not an heroic story such as that of Franklin and his companions chewing leather on the banks of the Coppermine River but having got there (it is difficult to envy Franklin); of Ives seeing for the first time the great canyon of the Colorado; of Garnier reaching the headwaters of the Yangtze; or of Bailey and Morshead travelling sixteen hundred miles on foot through the gorges of the Tsangpo. We were born too late for such feats, even if we had had the courage and determination to perform them. We were even prevented from emulating the painter James Fraser’s long journey to the sources of the Bhagirathi Ganges–one which is made by numerous pilgrims–by the coming of the snow and our own meagre resources. It is not a book about India today; neither is it concerned with politics or economics. It is certainly not erudite, as must be obvious to anyone who has the patience to read it. It is about the river as we found it.
The notion that the west is ahead in the march toward world progress is now discredited. If we want to have a world that functions properly, we need to accept the fact that all cultures have their own integrity and all cultures have a part of the answer to life. In this understanding, India has some things to offer, and we do well to consider its offerings in our understanding of the world.
NON-DUALISM is a basic tenet of a major school on Indian philosophy with implications for all philosophizing. There is no twoness, all is one. This includes the oneness of men and gods
NON JUDGMENTAL ACCEPTANCE OF ALTERNATE SOLUTIONS; this is most obvious in religion. All of our gods are only part of GOD.
WE SHARE THE WORLD WITH OTHERS; none of it is ‘mine’. See this in the traffic patterns.
LIMITATIONS OF THE MATERIAL WORLD. Underlying Hindu spirituality is the notion that the material world is not the real world or at least not the only world.
NON ATTACHMENT to material, temporal things.
GREAT PATIENCE recognizing that the path to fulfillment/salvation is long. and may even require multiple ives to travel.
METHODS OF MEDITATION involving great discipline of body and mind. Yoga is one name used for some of these techniques.
WAKE UP SLOW IN THE MORNING
KARMA. We reap what we sow. Actions should be weighed in terms of their spiritual and eternal results.
MATHEMATICAL ANALYSIS. In the search for solutions the Indian is not confined to looking for a single solution; there are limits to linear thinking.
YOUTH. India now has a larger group as % of population of young persons coming of age in the next two decades than any western country or China
Today India’s youth are OPTIMISTIC, confident that the future belongs to them.
[from Frank Van Aalst's tour book]
We stopped at a temple before a bridge in the middle of the afternoon one day on the river. We were trying to make time and hurry along, and it was just after the nerve-wracking morning when Charlie was taken to a hospital for kidney problems, not long after we passed through the bhiraj. We were still a little shook up.
The man to the left of Martina, he insisted we eat at the temple, which was beautiful and surrounded by woods. Many Indians had been taxied there to spend a holiday that day. They fed us bottomless plates of spicy curry and rotis, rice pudding. He spoke English really well–had been in the US Air Force, he said, went to the Philippines.
In america, we have “closed” showers, but in india the showers are “clothed”! A bunch of us had our first showers in a while here, squatting on the bows of our boats or walking over to the temple well. In the morning as we left he only asked we mention our stay on our website.
I AM AN AMERICAN, A CITIZEN OF THE MOST ADVANCED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.
I am a rich American, looking for bargains; don’t try to charge me too much.
i am a lost soul trying to escape the consumerism and hypocrisy of my own society. Help me find the way to enlightenment
I am a tourist. Show me your famous places so I can take pictures to show my friends back home
I am a history buff; how can I learn more about your country
I AM A STUDENT. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR SOCIETY AND ITS CULTURE
I am a fellow human being. Can we be friends?
I AM AN ARTIST; I LOOK FOR BEAUTY EVERYWHERE. SHOW ME WHERE YOU SEE BEAUTY
I am a seeker for truth. Let us share our beliefs for mutual enlightenment
I AM ALL OF THE ABOVE.
[from Frank Van Aalst's tour book]
We’ve finished packing the boats up across the river from Varanasi in Ramnagar. The facility is just a spare room in a family home/business and the room is crammed up to the ceiling with pontoons, wood, oars, motorcycles, trunks, cots, etc. We’re going to have to cut the door off when we return because after pulling it shut for the last time, the pile of stuff slid down to fill the empty space behind the door. There were so few of us left by this time–Marin, Satbir, John, Zack, Orien, and me by the time we were at the beach disassembling, and then just Zack, Orien, and me when we were wrapping up at the storage unit… but we got it done FAST. There are four generations living in that house, with a big garden/orchard in the back, and all eleven of them were involved in helping us complete the job–carrying things, making us tea, forcing us to bathe in the morning before starting work, picking amrut (guava) from the orchard…
Back in the city, we are returning to our regular schedules and ways. Missing the river–waking up at dawn covered in dew… driving past small groups of people doing their morning puja, washing their cows, beating their laundry… taking a dip when the heat gets unbearable… washing the decks… following the river dolphins… driving the motorcycle! But Varanasi is quickly growing on me, too. For the difference of 100 rupees, we’ve moved from the worst room at Alka Hotel on the waterfront to the biggest room at Golden Lodge, an older, cheaper, emptier establishment on a random squirrely alley near the very holy Golden Temple.
Coming in from the scenery we were used to–small farming villages, endless flood plains, highway cities–Varanasi is a zoo. Two miles or so of waterfront temples and ghats and hotels with tiny alleys zigzagging and radiating out. Amazing boat scene–with motorboats powered by the same diesel motors we’ve been seeing all trip applied to boat technology, plastic bottle outriggers and sound systems, houseboats, a funny above-water cartoon submarine boat, Michele Baldwin’s standup paddleboard (which the kids LOVE)… The spectacle of the radial blended right in and it was a relief that people respected our space and we were free to stay on the ghats for a while without much hassle. Shanti, shanti.
You know I didn’t realize what a toll the trip had been taking on me until just before we reached Varanasi… we were all so mentally and physically exhausted. Then as we rolled in I was driving for a while and painted on a patch of concrete on the bank so that only passing boats could see was: “Blessed are those who live on the banks of Ganga”. Wow. Yes. Thank you.
I wish our crew didn’t have to leave as soon as we arrived to Varanasi. It’s such a beautiful, old, magical little city. Shiva’s city. It takes time, of course. At first it was all scammers and hash dealers. Kids here seem to get wise fast and everyone is very keen on what foreigners want. We learned you can’t trust all sadhus/babas. Doesn’t mean they’re bad, but their purpose here is not to be trustworthy.
Part of their service though, as we saw yesterday when we were taking chai, is to appraise the sound quality and value of conch shells purchased by pilgrims. We were sitting with two sadhus who were busy trying to get their parrot to talk to us when two ladies came up to them and took out a package that took several minutes to undo. The whole interaction was in English, which was interesting. After washing and blowing three long notes into the conch, the sadhu assessed that it was a good quality sound that would please the gods, that they purchased it at a good price, and told the ladies to wash it after each use. After they walked away an onlooking man hailed them back for a ten rupee baksheesh.
Anyway, it’s a hard city to make friends in, as we learned in the first days.
Then just a couple days ago we met Sadibul the helpful rickshaw driver and Frank a retired professor of World History, who live together with Sadibul’s family not far from our hotel. They took a group of Americans around India and also to Bhutan and Nepal recently. I was reading the packet they put together for the group, full of helpful information on India, their itinerary, and readings. There’s a really interesting list of what Indians can teach us, including “non-dualism”, “getting up slow in the morning”, and something about non-ownership of space as can be observed in Indian traffic. I’ll have to ask him for the full list. Also a really interesting excerpt about Varanasi as a cosmic city which got me thinking about the performance a lot.
We’ve been meeting a lot of people who I think are good leads on helping us with the performance when we return next year. A merchant near the hotel who deals in metal works and runs an art gallery, including contemporary lost wax cast sculptures; local people who work in the textiles industry (mostly weaving, but their way of screenprinting involves poking tiny holes in the screen to make designs)–the local craftsmen and artisans we have been dreaming of meeting. We should meet with Shuresh from Banaras Hindu University Visual Arts department this week.
It’s funny, our tendency is always to go over the top, but we can’t top India. I mean, they have festivals like Jagannath where they roll a 45 foot effigy chariot god that takes months to build through the streets and it crushes people to death, or the one that passed while we were in Fategarh where they fill a larger-than-life paper mache effigy with fireworks and shoot it with a flaming arrow. It’s both intimidating and reassuring to know that’s the standard we’re working with.
When we first got here I was astounded at how old this place is and wondering what we could possibly have to show them. I hope you can be here for the performance next year (you would LOVE the pattern-clash, sound-clash, smell-clash cacophany) . I’d suggest everyone arrives at least two weeks before our build date to let India sink in a bit. All the foreigners I meet and I think even Frank, who’s been here in Benaras since the 50′s, seem to agree about India that once you start breaking the surface, you realize there are oceans underneath.
So, onward and upward. From Benaras on the Ganga to the Hoogli River and on to Kolkata, Kali’s city. I’m excited to read the Ramayana and learn some more Hindi too. I’m slipping here in Varanasi where everyone speaks not only English but Japanese, Spanish, Korean, and German as well. After that, who knows? Continue going East I guess. Oh, don’t miss Ben’s photos, he’s got some great radial shots.