The Lester File

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Trains are an interesting mode of transportation in any country, but I would probably venture to assure that no travel by train is more interesting or educational than training it in Asia. Whereas the Western world tends to fly more often, Asians for the most part move long distances on trains. We've spent weeks of our lives on trains all throughout Asia, including China, Malaysia, Singapore and India these past few months, but the most memorable overnight train ride I ever took was our first attempt in India. Up until we arrived in Rajasthan (the desert) we'd been flying to cover distances more quickly. We bought the cheapest, high-end seat, ensuring us a place to sleep and "A/C", which turned out to be a fan and an open window. The set-up was not unbearable, but it was definitely hot. Quickly though, we realized that having open windows in the desert would pose a problem, especially when the wind began to blow around 10pm. We were stretched out on our sleeper mats, no blankets, no pillow, one eye open and one hand on our bags. As the night wore on, sleep was elusive except in short spells. The sand from the endless, monsoon-thirsty desert kicked up into our seats covering us with a gritty, dry film that invaded our mouths, ears, noses, and eyes. When we finally reached Jaisalmer, the sand had gathered in mini dunes around our bodies. It actually outlined our lying positions.
One of our final train stops was to the holy city of Varanasi. It is here that Hindu spirituality enters the tangible realm in the form of the river Ganges. However, before we explored the riverside, Jen and I were in much need of some R & R, so we immediatly booked ourselves massages at Hotel Surya. There we received a full body massage, cooling head massage, and a steam bath for less than $20 total!! It was a steal. We also got a clandestine facial from another woman there who made me promise not to tell the head staff. By this time, we kind of expected something like that to happen or at least we weren't surprised.
Now, the Surya was not OUR hotel... we just reaped the benefits the establishment had to offer. Usually, hotels don't offer services to outsiders, so this was extra awesome.
When I finished, I stepped outside into the beautiful courtyard of green green grass against white British inspired columned buildings. Then the clouds rolled in and soft thunder, combined with rain, created the perfect afterglow to an afternoon massage. I would have fallen asleep right there in that chair if the flies weren't so annoying! The only way to hold them off is through constant motion and angry words.
Later that evening we joined a small tour (us and a couple from Holland) headed towards the Ganges riverbank for a rare evening puja. As we drove towards the banks, the traffic was at a standstill aside from the massive and endless group of orange-clad pole bearing Hindu men supposedly on pilgramages to... everywhere. Honestly, everywhere we turned these guys showed up chanting and walking together towards an end that neither of us understood. They were in the streets, on trains, and always carrying poles with jars and other ornaments attached to them making them
somewhat hazardous to the rest of the population! Alongside the orange guys, every body in Varanasi seemed to be trying to get to this 15 minute ceremony and it was becoming very apparent that we were not going to make it. The driver tried to get us there, but it was too late
To make up for the fiasco, our driver took us to one of the Ganges river's two burning ghats to witness funeral ceremonies. We walked down a dark alleyway accompanied by animals (goats, cows, donkeys, chickens), humans, and waste products from both. The electricity constantly cut in and out, which accounts for the darkness. We followed the driver down the steps leading to the river bank, which was beginning to rise due to the monsoon rains. We came to a small structure that stood about 20 ft tall and we climbed to the top to look down on the funeral ceremonies taking place near the river. This picture of that particular ghat was taken the next morning. The small building on the left side of the picture and the ledge inland was where we sat. The small patch of land leading down to the water is where bodies of loved ones are ritually burned day and night.
That night we looked down while family after family came down the stairs from the temple carrying
bodies on bamboo stretchers wrapped in cloth and flowers to loud brief music-like clanging. This particular ghat was over 43 centuries old according to the decendents of this family owned ghat. One member of this ancient family explained the cremation process to us. The financial class or cultural caste of the deceased determined where the ritual took place. The high castes were placed near the river, middle classes further back, and poorer members of sociey burned near the steps furthest away from the river. Dying near the Ganges river and being ritually burned on her shores insured the deceased passage to heaven. The ritual begins by bathing the body in the spiritually fuelled waters of the Ganges. Meanwhile, member of the Ghat family and member of the deceased's family pile wood and bring fire from the temple in preparation. The body is then brought to the carefully arranged woodpile and the eldest male relative, wearing white with a freshly shaved head, begins covering the body with expensive sandlewood or other sweet smelling kindling. He then walks around the body 5 times as a ghat family member lights the pyre. The body will burn for 24 hours until only ashes and bones are left. The remains are thrown into the river so that animals who consume the remnants will enjoy humanity in their next lives. An experience to say the least.


Blogger Meghan said...

Your travels sound amazing. Call me when you get the chance. Cannot wait to hear all about it!

10:58 AM  
Blogger Lindsey said...

I finally got around to reading this last entry (I read the others while you were still traveling). It sounds like you guys had an amazing trip.
I miss you!

1:46 AM  

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