Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Buddhist Grocery Store

Well, here we are, re-connected after our Buddhist retreat!!  After 10 days of silence, no Internet and being in a oasis of nature, we have definitely had to re-adjust to the 'quiet' and 'slow pace' (relative to the other Indian cities we have visited) of McLeod Ganj.

The burning question: Was it hard to not talk for 10 days? Yes at first.  And then not at all.  We pretty quickly got into the rhythm of meditation, breakfast, class, lunch, discussion group (we were broken up into small groups where we got to discuss what we were learning for 1 hour per day.  so that helped with being quiet the rest of the time), more class, more meditation, supper, night meditation.  Our first meditation started at 6:45am and we wrapped up for the day at 8:15pm which we were completely tired and pretty much just fell into bed.

 This was as we first arrived at Tushita.
Each of us was assigned a "Karma Yoga" job that we had to do daily.  Most of them were things like cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes, sweeping floors etc.  Alison and i however were assigned probably the best job ever; we were the Gong Ringers!  Picture us as the equivalent of the 10 Minuit warning bell that rang in between classes in high school, signalling "get to class!!".  Alison was the morning gong ringer- which meant she had to be up at 6am, parading around the grounds ringing the gong.  As you can imagine, she just loved getting up that early!!!  Her first question to the staff who provided us with our orientation to gonging was "So...can i sleep with the gong??".  She had 4 times to gong during the morning.  I took over the gonging at 1:50pm, and had 5 times to gong in the afternoon.  I really liked gonging.  The only downside is you had to keep track of what time it and always be aware of it! 
 Alison with the gong.

Here i am, with the gong.

 People knew us as the 'gong girls', which is a bit funny.

One of the first things that our teacher said to us was "You have come to the Grocery store of Buddhism.  There are many things on the shelves, but you don't have to buy everything.  Just take what concepts you find to make sense to you, are beneficial to you, or will strengthen your understanding of your own spiritual tradition and leave the rest.  But just because you don't buy everything, doesn't mean you have to throw the rest out, for others will find values in these things."

So, what did i find myself at the checkout with?  Too much to write here!! However, i will try to be concise with a few things that really struck me.

Buddhism has a very strong reverence for ALL life.  We heard many times "the most valuable thing every being possesses is it's life".  Of course it is widely accepted in our western society that killing other people is 'wrong', as is causing harm to our pets or being cruel to animals.  But i really felt like Buddhism takes this a step farther: we were asked at the beginning not to harm or kill the smallest insect while we were there.  It is very strange the attitude shift that occurs as a result.  All of a sudden you find yourself doing things like trying to rescue the ant that is crawling to its doom up the side of your mug into the boiling tea that is contained within instead of trying to squish the little pest!

During one of our meals i observed Alison with a fly and a wasp, which were hovering around her food, kind of fighting in the air.  Alison takes her a drop of her milk tea and pours it onto the table, and then -no word of a lie- looks on beaming with the pride i imagine something like what a parent feels, as the fly and wasp stopped fighting, and both drank from this milk drop.  And then I, coming across a scorpion on the path during a night walk to the washroom, instead of freaking out i just stood there, observing it, shocked with the thought that it was kind of cute in its own way (it was a very small scorpion... and i didn't get too close....)

Alison and I were not the only ones that noted this change in attitude towards small things: when we were allowed to talk, we met Scott from Scotland, who reported something similar.  He said that he had been rescuing small flies from his food (like fruit flies) and then he was so pleased when they kind of recovered from their swim in his food and flew off into the air.

Buddhism also has a huge focus on letting go: Not clutching things so tightly (or if you master this, not clutching to things at all).  Material possessions yes, but also emotions, attachment, and aversion.  Like all religions it notes that the source of true happiness is not from external things, but rather comes from within.

I appreciated the Buddhists answer to the age old question about the 'true nature' of people.  There is a strong emphasis on compassion for our selves and with others.   Buddhism says that all people are the same, all wanting to be happy and trying to avoid suffering.  And all of our actions are with this motivation.  But our actions are confused (because we have not yet developed our wisdom and compassion) which is why we sometimes do things which are self destructive or harm others. 

One other interesting thing, is the Dalai

Mindfulness: this is something that is becoming more of interest in the west.  What it involves is being completely present in the moment: not thinking about the past or getting caught up in hopes for the future, rather focusing your mind on what is happening right now.  One of the main techniques to develop this is meditation, and our 6:45 morning meditation was focused on developing mindfulness.  Our teacher said "Most people have the experience when they first start mediating that they cannot do it, often after 3 breaths their mind is already on something else.  Then they think not only can't i do this, my mind is actually WORSE since i started mediating!  My attention span is less.  What is really happening is you are becoming aware of how out of control your mind is." He referred to our mind as a "crazy monkey mind" as it is all over the place!

This is so true.  I realized how distracted i get...its pretty bad when you can't remember if you even did something like brush your teeth because it is so routine!  The present moment is really the only moment that exists, so when you are not present in it you are missing the potential and power you have to change in that moment.  Mindfulness is definitely one of the things that i am going to continue working on, although it is so challenging!!

I could go on and on.  Overall this experience was really really good, and definitely something i would recommend to anybody who is interested.  One thing that i really liked about this specific course was the combination of teaching and meditation.  There is a different center here where the focus is purely on mediation, and participants meditate for around 10 hours a day. This would have been killer for me, and i probably wouldn't have lasted.

Yesterday, when we were finally allowed to talk at our Graduation picnic, it was amazing how close we felt to these 60 other people- even though we had pretty much ever talked to each other!!  There was such a strong connection.  I think we felt closer to everybody than if we would have been allowed to talk during the course, as people tend to divide into groups and then stick with the same people.  So that was really cool.  Also it was neat the range of where people were from.  Most of us were "Westerners" but came from Israel, Canada, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, Britain, Scotland, Singapore... from all over!!!  The background of people were also very diverse; some have quite a bit of experience with Buddhism, many others came from a wide range of other spiritual traditions.

I read a quote in a book from the library at Tushita,  Interfaith Insights,  which said "All religions are for the purpose of human happiness.  They all teach ethics and compassion and stress harmony among people.  Philosophically there are differences, and while recognizing those, we can still appreciate the similarities.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said he believes the real religion is compassion."  This was very much my experience.

I found coming from a Christian background that many of the concepts were complementary and actually gave me a lens to more closely examine Christian concepts that i find are worn into my mind without any definition or reason.  I think that sometimes there is a tendency for spiritual traditions to focus on their own tradition as "truth" and not see the value in others, or even more extreme try to convert everybody to their religion.  Another quote i really liked addressed this:  "The Dalai Lama does not think it good to pressure someone to follow a specific religion. 'Although your motivation may be sincere, the result may not be positive if you limit the right to choose and explore.  If we try to isolate ourselves from modernity, this is self destruction.  You have to face reality.  If you have sufficient reason to practice a religion, there is no need to fear (loosing people).  But if you have no sufficient reason, no value- then there is no need to hold onto it.'"

Anyways, here is a bit of my experience.  I will let Ali add more to what Tushita was like, and what her experience was :)

 Our Class.  Our teachers are in the second row, middle (black and blue shirt).

Love you all, and miss you!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Caryn's laugh and little goats

My journal has been neglected since it's all been written here, but I do have four small entries in it about India (except maybe the one about my Justin Beiber dream doesn't technically count as being about India). I shall share one with you, and I quote:

Caryn laughed so much today, even bigger and so beautiful. She said, "India has improved my sense of humour. Not that it wasn't there before, but funny things are just so funny." It's true. And beautiful things are more beautiful. Puppies playing with flies, men playing cards in the street, kids who are smiling. Amid it all, the beauty is emphasized.

end quote.

Maybe this is a bit hard to understand, I'm not sure if the contrast of India is coming across in our writing. Yes you go to Pizza Hut, but you just left a woman with a child begging outside for food. You walk your usual route to the high speed clean internet place, past that woman with cool glasses and no fingers, begging. Mall, slum, mall. It's almost harder than if it was all a "developing" country/global south situation that you saw. Yes, as above, the contrast with the tough times makes for bigger laughs at goats with floppy ears. But in reverse, the contrast with western ease makes the suffering more.. frustrating... or.. or

It can be hard being in India.

We are appreciating Canada more than ever. We are thanking God for kindness and honesty, for good interactions. We are finding animals especially wonderful. We are completely loving our current spot, McLeod Ganj, and Tibetans. It's wonderful here. Perhaps another journal quote could explain,

I was sick in bed, in a haze
and Caryn comes in from McLeod Ganj
and she's just beaming, glowing, radiant.
She loves this place, she says,
she loves these people.
She looks so relaxed and calm, her joy is multiplied due to how difficult it has been elsewhere.
She tells me about the town she loves already.
It storms here at night, and it's fresh in the morning.

One more journal tidbit about this lovely town. Quote from our hotel handout,
"Please close your windows when you leave the Hotel room in order to avoid having your goods being mishandled be the Monkeys."

We love you and miss you.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

half the fun is getting there, or, Worst Day

"Half the fun is getting there" in New Zealand when your singing along to tunes in your cute little rental car going over quaint bridges with tumbling waterfalls and picturesque vistas right and left.

The other half of "half the fun is getting there" is in India.

Ok, so Agra to McLeod Ganj trips weren't alllllll bad. (I say trips because, let's see... it was rickshaw, bus, rickshaw, train, taxi). The 5 hour bus was good. Hallalujah we rejoiced, our booking guy was not a fraud overcharging us, he legit got us on the best bus ever.

The train leg was also fine. I slept the whole way. Caryn, who I am ever indebted to, made my bed and tucked me in at 6 pm, my Delhi Belly getting worse, feeling sicker. But I slept soundly and we woke up to our alarm and then our train arrived on time. Then the taxi was fine too! (That is, I felt sick the whole way, but the taxi was a nice taxi and nice taxi man.)

So far, I suppose, this post doesn't sound much like Worst Day, at all. But you know me, it's a bit hard to be negative after the fact, the cry done and all. It was just a rickshaw leg that wasn't that great. The ol' negotiating the price problem. But this time, the rickshaw guys didn't really seem to want to compete for a lower price as usual, but wanted to have a laugh at our expense. Things were actually getting rude! Like all of our "bad experiences" in India, we didn't feel unsafe, but, I guess you could say, they hurt our feelings. Like, grade six style. It felt awful. Cried in the victors rickshaw. Cried at the train station too, after worst-bathroom-ever, sitting on the dirty floor. I'm having a hard time talking about negative stuff, but just trust me, it was a bad day.

I think I spotted God though. There I was, crying with my head between my knees, just feeling awful-sick-gross-tired after a bad bathroom experience which was after the bad supper experience which was after the bad rickshaw experience, and there the little guy was! A kid, just dancing and dancing for us. Smiling and laughing, getting our attention, running around. Just at the age that he'd probably just learned to dance (sometimes he'd dance himself right flat on his face -SLAP!- his hands would catch him just in time). He was beautiful and it made me smile.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Some pics to get you through

So, Ali and i are currently at our mediation retreat (or "Buddha Camp" as i have been referring to it). We've set a few posts to post in our 10 days of silence. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some more pictures! So without further adieu....
Playing with color settings on my camera.
Alison with Flowers. These were taken outside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.
Camel. Too bad we didn't get to ride it!! On our bus ride from Agra to New Delhi our bus randomly stopped in this theme park- well "tourist park" which had a elephant and camel you could ride. Alison and i stayed on the bus because we had no idea why we were there or when the bus would be leaving. Of course they do not announce "we will leave in 15 mins" or anything. They do however helpfully honk the bus horn before it pulls out. Better hope you are in ear shot!!
A church we visited in Kolkata. We met the nice Seattle art gallery friend here.
Alison reading our india book with a large and terrific looking glass of orange juice. I don't think how we have mentioned how we and other tourists refer to the lonley planet book. It is treated as some kind of common text- and if somebody is talking about "The Book" it is this book to which they are refering. It is a bit weird.
Herding goats down a road that is already jammed with traffic.
No big deal. Just another day in India!
Alison being fitted for her sweet new indian clothes by a tailor.
I opted to buy from stalls in the market. Here i am checking out some fantastic pink parachute pants (which i have totally been rocking!)
The yoga studio we went to in Varanasi. He had all kinds of interesting books i would like to read on the shelf like "yoga and psychology".
Ali as a Hindu. This happened on the train from Varanasi to Agra. This Hindi spiritual man was walking around with a basket blessing people (i think that's what he was doing). He appeared in our little booth and before ali knew what was happening he had planted his red finger on her forehead and was asking for a donation for his service! Luckily i avoided her fate.

Marble trees at the Baby Taj

 Stars wall

 Note the green woman. This was one of many random parades over a couple days in Agra. They were throwing pigment like for Holi festival, but it wasn't Holi festival. We asked around as to what it was, but no luck. Beautiful though, and everyone smiling and laughing, breaking out into dance with the drumming (like the boy below).

 Green paint on sleeve of new shirt!

 "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me" said Ali

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Alison: Hello! Yes, we are still fine. You may now sigh with relief, and you might even smile a little.

AGRA!! TAJ MAHAL! Yes, it is as good as the hype.

** before I begin, I believe a giant shout-out is due to one Caryn George, who is the only one who can upload and post pictures to this blog. I also have it on good authority that it can be mighty frustrating at times, and, in fact, my future bloggers, some people do not use blogger or whatever this website is because of their picture troubles. Without further ado, a post, including Caryn's pics and captions.

We arrived in Agra, and, with our new Dutch friends Annette and Roel, we headed off to our hotel. Do keep in mind that every time in the blog we say "and then we went to such and such a place" you must imagine a heated negotiation with a rickshaw man/many rickshaw men about the price. We are getting pretty good at it now because it's easy enough to say "ok, we'll just ask someone else" a voila the price is lowered!)

Breakfasted and then we spent time in the room feeling sick. Gastro-grossness started the day before in Varanasi (you noticed all we did that day was yoga, didn't you?). We are unhappy to be a part of the long and proud tradition of "Delhi Belly."

I showered. There I met more characters from A Fine Balance, the India novel. Little red worms crawling from the drain, just like in the book! "Wow, so accurate," I thought.

Caryn: Alison hesitantly told me about the worms after referring to her shower as "the worst she had had yet." Freaked out, we asked the hotel guy what to do about them and he just gave us a new room.

Alison: We motivated ourselves eventually for some sight-seeing. We took an auto rickshaw to the Agra Fort. Pardon me, we took a bike rickshaw down the block while he walked his bike and tried to get us to come to a few shops first. We got so frustrated with him that we got off and got in an auto.

Although we thought we were masters at transportation bartering from our Varanasi practise, things are different in Agra. The culture along the river seemed to be that once you decided on the price together, the discussion ended and the price was set. Here, you organize price before getting in the vehicle still, but then we often get a lot of come-to-a-shop, I'll-wait-for-you-outside, and even price re-hashing. A bit exhausting, but reverting to "no talking, no problems" has helped a bit.

Agra Fort was beautiful, red red sandstone and some whole white marble buildings. Squirrels, monkeys, tourists, Taj views, flowers, grassy lawns, nice old buildings. The poor man that had the Taj Mahal built for his wife was imprisoned in this lovely fort, with only a view of the Taj.

Caryn in front of building.

This is somebody's tomb. Not sure whose.

Alison with cool arches.

The detail is remarkable!!! This overlooked a garden.

The Taj Mahal in the background, as viewed from the Red Fort.

Caryn with Taj in the background.

Again: Detail!
This computer won't let me turn this picture, so you will have to turn your head!!! This squirrel kept laying down.....he looked SO funny!!! I have never seen a squirrel lay down before!!

Baby monkey. So cute!!!

The weirdest thing at the Red Fort was a run in with the kit-kat police. We were just finishing off our chocolate bar when a security man said, in very unclear english, that we couldn't eat in here. Fair enough, makes sense, we were done eating anyway! But then he oddly... lingered around, shifty eyed. And, we think, he was mumbling in a lower voice about a "fine" or perhaps he said "fee." (Very bad bribing skills!). We also heard "police. Indian jail." Yeah. So that's freaky.

And so, our love/hate with India continue! Beautiful stop at the "Baby Taj," a detailed marble building in beautiful grounds.
View of the baby Taj. It has a lot of marble detailing, which is more detailed than the Taj. It was beautiful!!!

Alison in front of awesome wall.

Caryn in front of wall. They sure do not make buildings like this anymore!!!

The Taj Mahal is splendid. Find the most beautiful picture of it that you can. Photo editing, you assume, good lighting that day. No! It is that perfect. Then, a closer look reveils fine detail in the marble, inlaid other colours of stones forming flowers, patterns, lettering. Inside, this inlay is even more fine. It's just all stunning. We went in the morning and again at night.

We took about a million pictures of the Taj. Actually probably around 150. Here are just a few! Ali at the Taj just after sunrise.
Our shoe covers. You are not allowed on the marble with your shoes on- so you have to put on these covers or leave your shoes.

Close up of some of the marble work. This is part of a inscription that is all around the entrance to the tomb.

More detailed marble work.

Alison near cool carved wall at sunset.

Behind Alison is the line to get into the Taj Mahal when we returned at night!! It went around 2 sides of it! We were very glad that we had gotten up so early to see it as there was no line when we were there in the morning!

Sunset at the Taj.

Here i am, practicing my kayak roll at the Taj.

All the Indians who were touring the Taj were getting this picture, so Alison figured "why not!" It turned out pretty cute.

Actually, what a great day! In between Taj trips we went swimming!
There are many Indias. There's slum-and-begging India which literally jerks at your heart, there's telemarketing I.T. India who calls you in Canada, there's tourist India that we see (rickshaw-m'am?my-shop-m'am?), there's guest-is-a-God homelife India that we wish to experience... there's as many Indias as there are people.

Tangent? No. We experienced upper class hotel tourist India at that swimming pool. And it was nice, yeah. Some hotels, you see, let you swim in their pool even if you aren't a guest. And boy we weren't guests. But we paid the cost (as much as a night in our guest house, but per person!) and loved the pool.

Another nice thing, and I'll guiltily admit it, was we ate at Pizza Hut. I know, I know. This is way cleaner and classier than PA's gross Pizza Hut. Don't think Pizza Hut, really, think... a break for western food. Our Delhi Belly's were happy.

We have really been enjoying India food of course. We kept running into our Dutchmen at a little place near the guest house, both breakfasts actually, and a dinner. We would catch up on our days and laugh about our transport troubles. Great vege and rice dishes were enjoyed at a little upstairs place where a boy waited for us outside. He maybe was a bit young in his business - ready to sell us, for a mere 100R($2.50), seven Taj Mahal snowglobes.

Speaking of bargins, another amazing bit of the day: backgammon buy!!!

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Caryn: First off! Here are some pictures from Kolkata that we didn't put in our last post

In Kolkata, visiting Mother Teresa's house and orphanage.

The Victoria Memorial building.

Our friend from Varanasi who gave us all the advice.
I felt like he was the Indian version of my Grandfather.

The first person to want a picture with Ali and I, which was at the Victoria Memorial. We only thought it was fair that we took a picture with him, and it was our intention to take photos with everybody who wanted to take a picture with us. However, we have long since abandoned that idea, and are glad for it, as with the number of times we have been asked they would take up too much space on our camera!!

Flower market. Our pictures don't quite capture how truly chaotic it was.

There's Ali at the Flower Market.

Traffic in Kolkata was something else! As we drove from the Airport to our hotel i kept seeing these "obey the traffic rules" signs...but either they actually have no rules, or everybody does not obey them!!! somehow they manage to fit 3 cars into 2 lanes. It is terrifying at times, although i never actually felt like i wasn't safe. And the honking!! Everybody is honking their horns all the time constantly. I kept getting headaches from all this noise! Eventually i became less annoyed with all the honking by pretending that the cars were talking to each other in some sort of honk language. It made it easier to think the Cars were just greeting each other and exchanging idle chat instead of the "get out of my way! watch out!" that horns usually signal in Canada.

From Kolkata to the holy city of Varanasi.

Alison: You recall the man from the bench who laughed at us taking pictures of squirrels and scowled at the boys for us (see picture #3 above). He is from Varanasi and he says "it is the greatest city in all the world." Hard to argue with that.

Varanasi is indeed beautiful. Even though the Ganges is terribly and visibly polluted, it is lovely to be along the river.

But I get ahead of myself. Let's talk about the train trip!

It was easy enough to find were we needed to be in the Kolkata station. So we bought chains and locks from the chain and lock man and then we knitted and journalled among the rest of the waiting passengers.

The train trip was pretty good, at least in our air conditioned bunks. We were in top bunks for about 15 hours (with the exception of bathroom trips. The Indian style toilets were essentially a hole that dropped onto the tracks - thrilling!) Sleeping on the train wasn't too bad for us, little cramped. Caryn had a wonderful laugh in the morning when she asked me to describe in detail my last train trip: the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer.

The couple on the bunks below us were very helpful. And their main advice? "Don't trust anyone." I said, "Except you, right?" They both said, "NO! No, not even us." This, combined with re-reading the Varanasi section in the guidebook, made for two very nervous girls hopping off the train. Off we got, trying to look confident, but it's hard not to look like a newbs when you're wearing giant backpacks.

Caryn: When we got off the train we were prepared to be hounded by people- the Lonely Planet guide book warns that Varanasi is one of the worst cities for this. Pretty much as soon as we got off the train, this man glommed onto us asking "where are you going ma'am?" and we politely tried to shake him by saying "its ok- we are fine." He cued into the fact that we were trying to find the tourism office, which is in the main part of the building, to get some advice from Mr. Umashankar (another Lonely Planet tip). He led us there and waited for us as we stepped under a rope to the office- it was in this section of the station that was partitioned off with a rope and there was a HUGE crowd on the public side and only a few fellow foreigner on the tourism side. It was a first haven from the Chaos of the train station.

Mr Umashankar was a wise old Indian man who greeted us, made us feel at ease, and asked us how we were finding the weather.

Ali: I almost cried I was so happy to meet him.

Caryn: He pulled out a map of Varinasi and filled it up with costs of how much rickshaws from here to there should cost, how much we should pay for a 1 hour boat ride on the river, hotels we should stay at. He told us that when dealing with boatmen "be firm, be bold". His most valuable piece of advice was concerning all those who would try to approach us in the area surrounding the river- "no talking, no problems". This is advice we have stuck to and no longer feel rude just walking by and ignoring the constant question "Ma'am? Hello Ma'am?" or "Boat ride Ma'am?" or "Ma'am, what country you from Ma'am?". We have gotten SO good at this technique, that today when walking back from breakfast along the river, we were happily ignoring a "Excuse me miss?" when on the second time this voice called out, we realized that it was a European couple who were hoping we could advise them where they could find a European breakfast. Luckily they understood our ignoring tactic and we all laughed.

Anyways back to the Train station. So we set off from the tourist office, feeling more confident, but immediately our "friend" who had been waiting behind the rope found us and led/followed us out to the area where there are rickshaws. Alison and I were very wary of him- just because of his constant attention/insistence and were very hesitant to get into his rickshaw. He assured us that he would not stop at any shops, would take us to the hotel we wanted (This is something you have to be careful in India- sometimes taxi drivers will insist that your hotel has burned down or make a fake phone call to the hotel and say "no they don't have your reservation" and then take you to a hotel where they are getting commission to bring guests.) We settled on a price of 30 rupies for him to take us to a hotel, which is actually 30 less than we should have paid.

One thing about Varanasi- the old part of the city is the "roads" are only a couple of meters wide- so no rickshaws can drive on them. These narrow lanes are really like a labyrinth and it is super easy to get lost. Luckily if you can make you way to the river, you can tell where you are by which Ghat you are at. Also there are signs painted on the concrete walls of buildings, pointing the ways to cafes, hotels, yoga studios etc.

This is the gecko that we are sharing our hotel room with in Varanasi.
Its nice having a temporary gecko pet!
Ali: every time we got back to the hotel Caryn would say, "Now where is our gecko friend?" and search until it was found.

Caryn: Our first night we took a boat ride on the Ganges to see a Hindu ceremony that happens every night from 7-8. Varanasi is a holy Hindu city- this blurb from a tourist website explains it well:

"The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the origins of Varanasi are yet unknown. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals."

So there is much death in Varanasi. This is also where many Hindu funerals are performed. One of the men at our hotel explained to us that in the Hindu religion the body must be cremated within 24 hours of death. If a family cannot make it to Varanasi in time, family members cremate their relative in their respective town/city and then make a journey to the Ganges at a later date, where they spread the ashes. The funeral is a 13 day ceremony. As it is preferable to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges if you are Hindu, there are several burning Ghats where cremations occur pretty much 24/7 from what we can tell. It is preferable to be burned buy wood, but quite expensive due to the amount of wood required. If a family cannot afford this, then there is a 'electric' option, which i imagine is close to what occurs in Canada.

Alison: We lived right near the main burning ghat, so we walked through every day a few times.

Caryn: It is interesting that in the Hindu religion there are 5 circumstances in which a body is not cremated. If it is a child under 12, a pregnant woman, a holy man, or a person with leprosy they are not cremated as they are already considered pure (everyone else needs to be burned to become pure). Instead these bodies would be tied to large rocks and cast into the Ganges (which is around 150 meters deep, one of our boat men told us). The 5th circumstance is if a person has been bitten by a poisonous snake- especially a cobra which is a holy animal to the Hindus. This person would be tied to wood and floated down the river. As a snake bite kills you relatively slowly, the idea is that if somebody has the cure they can scoop you from the river and revive you, almost like you are given a second chance at life.

The view of the Ganges from a boat on the river. We made the mistake of forgetting our bug spray that night- which we did not do again. The bugs were horrible on the river!!!

Ali and i on the Ganges at night, on our way to the ceremony.

candles floated off along the river

Poor picture of the ceremony- all those people in front of us were in boats! It is pretty much a floating audience, and all the boats tie themselves to one another. The ceremony was full of clapping, singing, holy men, fire. Ali and i are not exactly sure what it all meant, and our boat man did not speak English very well, and so could not explain.

Another thing to do is to take a boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise (which is very early! We were up at 5 this day!) It was very peaceful and hauntingly beautiful. There were many other boats on the river this early.

Another sunrise picture.

Alison really wanted to try to row the boat. It proved difficult, and we spun around in circles for a while, but improved with some coaching from our boat man.

View of the Ghats from the river.

In Hindu religion the cow is also considered a sacred animal. There are many Cows just wandering around Varanasi, most of them not seeming to belong to anybody, although they might. This is one that lived in a gazebo like structure on the river near the lane we had to go down to get to our hotel. Alison used it as a landmark "turn Left at the cow" she would always say out loud as we went by it.

More cows by our hotel.

One of our best meals! The "cook" came down and helped us pick all of our food- explained to us what it was and how it was made, insisting that he cooks everything "homestyle" without oil or water as other restaurants do. This was the first meal where Alison didn't feel like she was having a allergic reaction, which may have been due to the fact that he told us there were cashews in some of the dishes we ordered, but when we informed him of Ali's allergy, he made them without.

When we first arrived at the restaurant, we glanced over the menu and realized that like most places we have been going for food, it had a VERY extensive menu which includes European type dishes, Chinese, Indian, Italian etc. When he was making his recommendations he said "Like all other restaurants here we serve many types of food but Indian is our specialty- You are in India now, so eat Indian". This was a good piece of advice. I have learned (through ordering 'European type food'- mostly for breakfast) that it is important not to imagine too closely what you believe you will receive when ordering. For instance, if you order a chocolate banana pancake here and picture a fluffy banana pancake with chocolate chips in it and maple syrup, you will be SHOCKED when what you actually do receive is a rubbery crepe like pancake, drowned in chocolate sauce (the type on ice cream) and with no banana to be seen.

One of the wider streets out of the old city part. It looks a bit chaotic- it is 10X what it appears in this picture!

The Ganges- it is a beautiful, haunting river, but very polluted. It is essential to the daily life of those in this city- it is where they pray, bathe, swim, fish, do their laundry etc.

Alison: Our last day in Varanasi we attended a wonderful yoga class. We headed off on another night train to Agra. We met some lovely Dutch people on the train, but for that, another post.

Much love, missing you even more than in New Zealand,
Caryn and Alison