Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Varanasi, “City of Light”.

So this is what it feels like to fall in love with a place. Varanasi was disorienting, alarming, oozing with paradox, characterized by both the most beautiful of colors and the darkest of Hindu rituals. I was held in a continual state of enthrallment.

Friday night

We boarded the train, sleeper class, arrival time due for the next afternoon. Unable to procure enough seats, we four travelers were forced to sleep two people per two-foot-wide cot. It was difficult to get much shut-eye.

Saturday afternoon

In keeping with Indian standards, the train ran late. By the time we arrived, night was falling. Entering into the “old city” part of Varanasi was like diving into a virtual-reality maze. The five-foot-wide streets were rough and patchy, winding around and around, dead ends abounded, line of vision obscured by tightly packed buildings, directional arrows labeled on walls in faded paint. I felt disoriented and lost – and was seduced almost immediately.

Varanasi lies on the Ganges, which is lined north to south with ghats, or steps, leading down to the river. Each ghat has its own name, its own history, and its own personality.

We took a boat ride after sunset, and floated a few kilometers downstream where we saw the nightly river puja, a blessing to the sacred waters of the Ganges. It was a visually astounding affair, performed with lamps of fire and dance and song, attended by what looked like thousands of devotees.

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in India, and certainly the sacred place for Hindus. Dying here guarantees instant salvation, so people come from all over the country just to await their deaths. Our hotel happened to be next to the primary burning site, the Manikarnika Ghat, so we found ourselves audience to the public cremation rituals that people make pilgrimages here to do.

That’s right, a public crematory. Photos weren’t permitted, for obvious reasons.

We saw the body of an old woman wrapped in a white sheet be placed on one of the many large firewood stacks around the site. A few of her family members surrounded her, and a religious authority poured milk, flowers, and rice on her, before dousing her in oil and lighting the flame. The feeling of watching her turn to ash surprisingly wasn’t one of shock or disgust. I felt I was seeing something intimate, something more intensely beautiful than I ever thought I could see in death.

Later on, a man came into the site carrying the body of a little girl, presumably his deceased child. She was also wrapped in a sheet and was brought to the riverside, where the man sat with her for a long time. We didn’t stay to see what happened, but as per tradition, her young age meant that instead of burning her and sending the ashes to the Ganges, she would be cast into the holy water untouched.

Contrary to the stilted nature of Western funerals, these cremation rites were not mournful, detached, nor voyeuristic in any way. Death is a part of life, experienced equally by everyone, and the rituals reflected this fundamental view.

We went back to the hotel in a quiet mood, but not for long. One culinary specialty of Varanasi in particular is cannabis-laced “special lassi” (lassi is a yogurt drink). Did you get that? Pot lassi. It tickled me too when I heard that this existed, and it tickled me even more when I saw that it was right in the middle of the drinks menu, totally indiscernible from chai or milkshakes except for the adjective “special” in front of it. We each had a round at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, and the rest of the night is history.


We awoke at dawn, still woozy from the lassi, and headed down to the Ganges once more to see the river at daybreak.

Let me just say right now that the Ganges is utterly filthy. Never mind the human ashes and dead animals floating in it, but the amount of sewage and industrial chemicals pumped in from upriver make it totally devoid of life. The amazing thing about this is that the holiness of the sacred river still draws Hindus by the thousands daily to bathe, wash their clothes, and yes, even to drink. They seem not to see the toxic state of the water at all.

At 6am, the entire length of the bank was lined with people for a sun ritual. They stood by the river, donations of food and flowers in hand, and when the sun appeared in the sky, the bank erupted in singing and murmurs of blessings as the donations were sent into the water.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Varanasi. My love was irretrievably sealed as soon as I saw the place in the daytime. The buildings of the old city were painted in yellows, blues, greens, and purples. The importance of the city’s silk trade meant that the streets were lined with shops selling scarves and sheets in every color. Cow shit everywhere made for treacherous walking, especially because I just couldn’t take my eyes away from the romance of my surroundings.

After walking along the bank of the Ganges for a long while, we stopped at a breezy rooftop café called Lotus Lounge, where we ate our fill before leaving Varanasi. Butter chicken, shahi paneer, vegetable curry, coconut lassi, and apple pancake with vanilla sauce.

Varanasi was the first place I’ve traveled in India that I’ve been genuinely reluctant to leave. If I make my trip out to Northeast India on my upcoming backpacking trip, I can’t wait to come back here. This city has so many layers I need to peel.

More pictures here.

(PS: Are my pictures getting better? I’m still working on those yet-to-be-mad photography skills. Tips appreciated.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


When I first decided to come to India, I thought that I would be alone. I'd find a job, find a place to live, find friends in whatever way I could. But through chance, I heard of this organization, AIESEC, that arranges international student internships, and now I'm spending my days in Delhi surrounded by fellow foreigners from all over the world.

As I've described before, there are 14 people living in my flat, and at least 50 interns in other flats around our area, hailing from places like Peru, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, and countries from across Europe. Our living places are all within walking distance to each other, so we interact often. During the week, we regularly visit a local bar/lounge for drinks and dancing, and we like to meet for shopping and movies. On weekends, we go in groups to travel outside of Delhi; my entire next month is filled up with places we plan to see. Every night coming home from work, there are happy greetings waiting for me, and a chance for me to bounce words and laughs off of warm, genuine people.

Back home, the friends I valued most were mirrors to myself, but here, I appreciate my new friends not for our likenesses, but precisely for our differences. We all approach India from vastly different angles, but our end goals are the same. I can't count how many engaging conversations I've had that are powered solely by a common, unyielding desire to embrace the novel. I've never been around so many people who instantly understand my belief that the greatest motivators in life are states of discomfort. Not only do they thrive in strange, chaotic, uncomfortable environments, they seek them actively, without question, complaint, or fear.

The most compelling aspect about the friendships that I've found here is that despite only using a fraction of our capacity to communicate using the English language, there is a strength of understanding that can still be achieved. My realization is growing that there is vastly more to human relationships than what can be ascribed to language alone.

So, a toast to my fellow foreign friends here in Delhi. Their company is the heart and soul of life here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Diwali, the festival of lights.

Diwali is the most important holiday for Hindus, and is celebrated across India with the same anticipation and fervor as Christmas is celebrated in the States.

We saw preparations all over Delhi begin last week for the festival. People strung colorful lights across their balconies and businesses, children tested their firecrackers to the peril of passers-by, and streamers ran in a net of criss-cross patterns above every neighborhood street. Markets were full of new vendors selling clay candle pots, sweets, and nuts, and highways became congested with families driving in from all over the country. The entire city buzzed and glowed. Myself, I felt like a child again. I urgently counted down the days until Saturday, feeling sure I would burst from excitement.

Two days prior, I went to the market and purchased my first sari, a stunning silk fabric of red, bold blue, and gold decals. I had to beg the tailor to make my matching blouse in time for the holiday, but on the day of, I walked home with the most beautiful piece of clothing I've ever owned.

One day prior, preparations in our flat began. We hung up lights, bought candles, and cleaned up the flat in anticipation of our Diwali bash.

lights on our balcony

Saturday finally came. After an entire afternoon of last-minute errands and purchases, I donned my new sari, and headed over to the home of Nikita, my Indian colleague, for a puja (ritual) with her welcoming family. The room was set up modestly, with the visual center being a small platform with icons of various Hindu deities, lit up by an arrangement of small candles.

Nikita's parents

three beautiful sisters

Nikita's three sisters and mother took turns performing the various rituals, and after observing closely, I would follow suit. The rituals included flicking holy water over the icons, and throwing rice, sweets, and flowers over them.

am I doing this right?

At one point, the sisters took out a small book of hymns, and sang together while ringing a bell to herald the goddess Lakshmi, one of the central figures of the festival Diwali.

My favorite part of the puja was storytime, when we all sat cross-legged on the floor, and listened to Nikita's mother tell a religious tale in Hindi, while Nikita translated. The puja was a celebration of the supernatural, but also of the human, the element of uniting family and friends in a warm and open environment.

What's Diwali without firecrackers? Following the puja, we joined the rest of the neighborhood to light up the dark streets, laughing and shrieking and celebrating.

The night was far from being over. Arriving back home, I found that my flatmates had moved our dining table to the balcony and set up a fantastic candle-lit family dinner. I had cooked an India-style lentil stew earlier before I left, and others had contributed a huge pot of pasta, mashed potatoes, and even chunks of goat cheese and parmesan.

At around 11pm, our friends from other flats began to trickle in, most dressed in traditional Indian clothes. Out of the six intern flats around our area, ours is the largest, so it made sense that we should host the biggest party that I've seen so far. At least fifty people packed our abode. When the last person left at after 4am, it seemed like we had exhausted all the fun that could be pumped into one night. We turned up the speakers, poured each other drinks, laid out sweets on the table, and danced and talked in a distinct state of happiness.

More pictures here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Weekend in Amritsar.

Friday night

Nine of us booked a last-minute overnight ticket to Amritsar for the weekend. For Rs300 ($7), we got a 9-hour trip on a decent sleeper bus with bunk beds, two people per bed. That's what was supposed to happen anyway.

on the top bunk of the bus

What actually happened is that I was aroused at 3am telling me that our bus had malfunctioned. We were shepherded out in the pitch-dark middle of nowhere, and then were shepherded back on another bus -- except that this bus had no available seats, let alone beds. We spent the rest of the night trying (failing) to sleep on the floor.

Saturday afternoon

Amritsar was noisy, crowded, and hopelessly dirty. Navigating through the narrow streets was a constant, perilous struggle to avoid being run over. Delhi is spacious in comparison, and trust me, that says something.

We started off the day with a gigantic brunch. Between four of us, we shared dhal makhni, aloo ghobi, tawa paneer, and mushroom mutter. Seeing how much we enjoyed ourselves, the restaurant owner added in a complimentary and delicious Amritsar special aloo parantha.

Having eaten to the point of bursting, we jumped in a taxi and drove 24km to the India-Pakistan border in a town called Wagah.

Every day around dusk is a ceremonial closing of the border gate, displaying goodwill (or, I guess, tolerance) between the two countries. Before the ceremony, as the grandstands filled up on both the Indian and Pakistan sides, Indian pop songs blared over the loudspeakers, and impromptu dance parties formed as volunteers ran back and forth waving the Indian flag. The word "peprally" comes to mind.

The actual ceremony was bizarre, almost comical, and certainly entertaining. The border security force of each country went through a series of drills -- chanting, marching in sync, stamping their feet hard on the ground, kicking their heels so high they almost knocked off their colorful hats. It was a distinct show of bravado that incited nationalistic fervor on both sides of the gate.

Pakistanis in dark suits on the other side of the gate

Saturday night

After street food for dinner (gol gappas and fried potato "sandwiches"), and some drinks in the hotel, we went to see the Golden Temple in its nighttime splendor.

It was obvious how the temple got its name. Where the Taj Mahal was breathtaking in its white glow, the Golden Temple, religious center of the Sikh faith, was dazzling in its gold. The temple rises out of an artificial lake, connected to land by a narrow causeway. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Even visitors without an ounce of religion in them can't fail to be stunned by the sight of gold reflected off water.

Sunday afternoon

Breakfast of yellow dhal, tomato uttpam, and a terrific malai kofta that tasted of coconut.

We returned back to the Golden Temple to see its transformation in the daytime. Shoes off, headscarf on, we pushed our way through the impossibly long line to get inside the temple. I will forever regret not being allowed to take pictures inside. All the windows were thrown open, illuminating the intricate and colorful marblework. Sikh elders sang, played instruments, and read texts in the middle of the space while raking in the huge sums of donations from worshippers. People sat all over the floor, reading texts and absorbing the music.

walking into the Golden Temple

Characteristic of every Sikh temple is a langar, or communal kitchen, in keeping with the Sikh belief of equality for all mankind. The one at the Golden Temple serves tens of thousands of meals per day at no cost, for anyone who wants it, regardless of age, class, gender, or religion.

The huge meal hall was totally covered with people sitting and eating side-by-side on the floor. We were served portions of black and yellow lentils with roti and rice, with volunteers coming by frequently for refills. The massive tasks of cooking and clean-up were done by assembly line with remarkable efficiency and speed. For a great description of langars, read here.

Following the Golden Temple, we headed to the much smaller Hindu Matha temple, which is modelled off a woman's reproductive organs. The place was a literal maze through the different anatomical parts, decorated with symbolic representations of phalluses and uteruses. Hindu women come here if they want to conceive.

doesn't it look like the inside of a (woman's) body?

Sunday evening

For dinner, I had goat brain curry, a north Indian special. Yes, it sounds exotic and all, but the taste and texture were quite normal. Creamy, spicy, bold - quite like any other Indian dish. Dinner was followed by a brownie a la mode, with liquid chocolate poured over it in a sizzling pan.

After killing more time in Amritsar, we boarded our Rs150 busride back (damned if they don't give us a refund for making us sleep on the floor on Friday!) and made it home the next morning.

More pictures here.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Delhi's growing pains.

It rained one day last week, intermittently and not too hard. It was enough, however, to throw the city into mild chaos. The dusty streets turned instantly to mud, outside markets scrambled for their makeshift tarps, and cycle rickshaw drivers cursed their choice of profession. Most astonishingly, my commute to and from work took significantly longer than usual. I sat in the bus, staring out at the sea of unmoving cars all competing for space, and wondered: How can a place that is plagued by heavy monsoons a quarter of the year be so poorly designed for rain?

With highways that are covered with vehicles to the last centimeter, even a slight slowing of speed has immense yo-yo effects collectively. Moreover, improper drainage forces sections of roads to close, which creates a bottleneck effect of remaining routes. I was totally appalled by this. We're not talking about some small city in an underdeveloped country; this is New Delhi! This is the center of some of the world's most spectacular economic development, and not even the basic necessity of rainwater drainage is properly attended to.

I came to India just days after the monsoon ended, and I'm constantly reminded by my flatmates how lucky I am to have escaped those horrors. They tell stories of having to walk knee-deep in muddy stillwater, how it takes two additional hours to get to work, and how offices occasionally flood. One mentioned that a small cut on his foot became infected from wading through dirty water. There are undoubtedly plenty more serious health consequences from the lack of proper drainage.

Is the city, the country, growing too fast for its own good? It's like a child who experiences a massive growth spurt overnight, and his body's necessary functions are unable to keep up.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

An exercise in humility.

It’s not that I haven’t seen dire poverty before. The most vivid memories of visiting China for the first time aren’t of family or food or noise, but of how beggars slept outside, covered in flies and dirt, directly under the entrance of the city’s upscale shopping malls. The contrast seemed stark to me even then, at the age of twelve when at any other time I would have been more concerned with my gangly arms than with the social run-offs of a country’s booming economy.

In America, it’s easy to forget about the poor. They don’t send their grimy children to implore you to buy their wares. They don’t clean your house and wash your laundry for almost free. They don’t sleep on the sidewalks a dozen to a block, under torn, weathered tarps. The rich don’t touch them, and they don’t ever have to see them.

Here, it is impossible to ignore the hardship that is behind nearly everything I see and touch. Life is so hard. Why?

Once, I heard a friend state that “beauty is an accident”, and I mulled over the quote with interest. But increasingly I see that not only is beauty an accident, but so is success, wealth, social circumstance. People pride themselves on hard work, integrity, charm, and all sorts of voluntary factors to explain their successes. Out of this attitude comes a sense of entitlement, a sense that you deserve your place in life, that you earned it, that those who struggle beneath you are there for a reason and can struggle themselves out if they really wanted to.

But this is false.

Imagine the trajectory of one’s life as a tree diagram. With each stage of life, we have choices, and each choice leads to more, and more, and more, until we have experienced a complex labyrinth of decisions, interactions, and influences that together determine where exactly we are at present. The key observation, however, is that a huge number of these choices, and certainly most of the important ones, are made for us long before we can talk or think or take reasoned actions ourselves.

Hard work and integrity and all those things are not the deciding factor of where we are, but should be seen simply as details in a life path that is already largely predetermined. Suffice it to say that I doubt the existence of free will, but this has nothing to do with God.

Despite what it may seem, the emphasis in these thoughts is not to deplore the futility of human effort. I’d be stupid to deny the observation that humans do regularly break the mold and beat the odds, and I allow for some correlation between conscious individual decisions and resulting position in life (though, as I said, not to the extent that most people convince themselves).

Rather, I’m simply mulling over the relative efficiency of a bottom-up to top-down approach in alleviating human hardship. Let me explain.

Go back to the tree diagram. Among a million people, there are a million paths through the tree, leading to a million outcomes and a million stories. One way to solve the problems of these masses of people is by working backward, by starting at where they are now and working down, working individually. Aid workers and people on the ground are essential components of any effort to extend help to those who need it.

We need some element of this top-down approach, but there are shortcomings to using it singularly. For example, institutions like the World Bank and IMF throw vast chunks of money at African countries with rosy goals of alleviating hunger and poverty and disease, but the results are disproportionately low to the effort and costs.

The goal of a bottom-up approach is to intervene early, thereby preventing problems from happening at all, and precluding the necessity of solving them if/when they happen. Instead of leaving a cookie jar out and punishing a child for stealing, remove the cookie jar. Relating this to the tree analogy, this involves steering people or protecting people early on from going down certain paths that typically lead to suffering. If providing education to a child saves him from the streets, we have by a simple push set him on a trajectory far removed from the uglier alternative. This is just a small example. There are much bigger and much more compelling ways to change the flow of the system, but all involve altering the source, not the outcome.

I offer, of course, zero empirical evidence for these thoughts, just anecdotes and observations. Even so, it makes some sense to me, and perhaps the evidence will follow.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Social environment.

It’s amazing how quickly people adapt to their social environment. Consciously or subconsciously, it is hard to resist the draw to mimic the behaviors of the bigger group. When social habits are as different as they are here, these behavioral changes can be drastic.

There are the superficial conformities. For example, most people quickly learn to wear more conservative and looser-fitting clothes – good luck warding off the advances from creepy men and blatant finger-pointing from women if you bare shoulders or show leg! Adopting new eating manners is another way to avoid unwanted attention. Some have even learned to nod once to the side to say “yes”; no one nods up and down here.

The most interesting behavioral changes, of course, are in attitude.

Most Indians have blatant disregard for the environment. In Delhi’s case, this is not for a lack of governmental effort. Plastic bags are banned from a fair proportion of establishments (it may even be banned in all of Delhi, for that matter), but I haven’t seen a single place enforce it. Tiny trees are planted around the city center, surrounded by signs urging people to care for the environment, which seems like a rather weak form of advertising. City buses and auto-rickshaws run on natural gas, but there has been nothing to regulate the myriad other forms of transportation that clog city highways. These efforts are well-meaning, but they don’t seem to make a dent in the psyche of the city’s residents.

Without public trash cans, streets are used as a dumping ground. People use small plastic bags to carry everything. There is no recycling; even if it was available, I can’t imagine people being motivated to use it. For the typical household, water bottles and jugs provide the only form of filtered water besides boiling. Forget organic, free-range, local; even the thought is laughable.

The environmentally-conscious who first come to India may wallow in guilt for a little while. But since it’s extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to be green in the Western sense of the word, the guilt goes away very quickly and turns into active habit. If everyone else chucks their bottles in the gutter, and there’s nowhere else to throw it, and no recycling available, why not and who can fault me? I’ve seen this attitude shift with nearly every other foreigner that I’ve met. Even the ones from more environmentally progressive countries like Australia consider me uncommonly ecological for refilling my steel bottle instead of buying water.

One way to explain this is cognitive dissonance. People nurse their conscience by making themselves think in ways that justify their behaviors.

This briefly calls to mind the Stanford prison experiment, conducted in 1971, where participants were randomly assigned to roles of either prison guard or prisoner. In a short time, the prison guards became psychologically abusive and sometimes violent towards the prisoners, and the prisoners became submissive and despondent. It says a lot that the guards were able to justify their actions despite the fact that they never would have behaved in such ways in a normal context.

People are so powerless against social and psychological forces.