Thursday, November 7, 2013

goodbye for now...

My last two days in Varanasi have been utterly and painfully, awful. Every little annoying, yucky, terrible thing about India has come to the surface. Two auto rickshaw drivers got in a full-blown fistfight over my fare yesterday. Its too long of a story to explain here, but I’ll tell you what it was awful and it sent me running for dear life down an alleyway to get out of the way of them and safe. I spent five hours getting to and dealing with an Indian post office, classic. I got taken and also dropped off at the wrong places on purpose (more then once). I got an Ayurvedic astrology reading in which I was told that the next ten years will be perfect, outstanding, successful and happy - love, children, financial success - but that sometime after 40 I could have something go wrong with my blood… wait am minute, he looks back at the paper, does a little more counting… yes, he says, perhaps jaundice. What? Oh dear! Then he went on to tell me, not to worry, all I need to do is come back to India before I am 40 and have a puja with him and no big deal, no jaundice. I told him I didn’t think I was going to come back to India again. He looked at his piece of paper again, he looked up at me, “Yes you will, in 5 or 7 years maybe, you’ll see.” Oh dear god – India!!!!

Yesterday, as I walked along the river I literally got mobbed by a group of about 30 Japanese tourists with walky-talkies and matching cargo hats, huge cameras in hand, this group was surely on a photography trip. That was it, I was done for the day. I’m tired of photographing the river anyway.

I had been wanting to get lost in the back streets and alleyways on a day of street photography since I got here. Well, actually, I have been lost in the alleyways many, many times, however never with the sole intention of photographing them. Inevitably, I am always lost on my way somewhere, or I’m lost when I’m exhausted, or I’m lost when it’s getting dark and I really shouldn’t be out there alone. So, today, I set out to get lost intentionally. I wanted to capture the street life here in Varanasi.

Isn’t it funny how it always works out that the moment we intend to get lost, we actually realize we know our way around quite well. Admittedly, I am finally getting familiar with my orientation around here and although I walked without thinking, I always seemed to know, or at least have a relatively good idea about where I was.       When I realized that I was having a hard time getting lost, I decided to form another plan. I did a little poking around trying to find a rickshaw driver who spoke English. When I found one, who could at least partly understand me, I asked him if he could take me to the bird district. You see, in India the markets are all separated into different districts, the bicycle shops are all together on one street, the shoe stores together on a different street, the furniture shops on another, and so on. I have been seeing lots of boys walking around with exotic parrots and different birds in small cages selling them on the street. I figured that there had to be a district or a street where these birds were coming from and that it might make some interesting photographs.

Well, the driver, who was stoned out of him mind by the way (but this biff up was probably much more my fault then his) took me to the district where the chickens are. So, we pull up and there is a street full of chickens, some already killed and plucked and hanging, but most, still alive and crammed into endless rows of cages. I laugh a little and try to explain to the driver I meant parrots. Now I was there though, and so I figured I would walk a little and shoot, this too would make fascinating pictures I imagined. So, I walk up to one of the little store front like areas and a man has got a live chicken by its legs, its pushed up against the counter and it appears, huge knife in hand, this guy is about to chop off this chickens legs!? Mind you, this bird is still alive. What happened to the neck, doesn’t that happen first? I am completely shocked by how shocked I am! I can’t even watch, let alone photograph it. I didn’t really think myself to be the squirmy type, especially with my camera in hand, but hey, I suppose I learned something new about myself today. I quickly change my mind and turn away, I jump back in the rickshaw and ask the driver to take me to the parrots. After my experience in the chicken district today, I’m afraid I may be one of those people who would have to stop eating meat if I actually saw animals being miss treated and slaughtered. I really like meat.

So, we drive a little ways and it becomes blatantly clear that the driver doesn’t know where, exactly, the parrot district is. He stops and asks a group of guys on the side of the road for directions. They talk a bit and one guy is pointing and explaining. We end up in an alleyway that is lined, front to back, with silk weavers. It’s clear that those guys sent the driver here because he had me in the back and they wanted me to come and buy some silks. Arrg, India! It was frustrating, but also in some small way, it made me feel a little bit better about getting cheated, lied to and fooled all of the time around here, this driver just got hoodwinked too.  

We leave the ally and ask a new group of guys, this time they steer us around another few turns and we do find a small street with a length of road about 100 feet long lined with bird cages. There are parrots of all sizes and colors, cuckoos, kingfishers, barbets, tons of doves, some finches, love birds and even some kind of hawk, along with a ton more that I couldn’t identify. The man there, though, wouldn’t let me take a single picture; this has got to be massively illegal. Disappointed, the driver and I leave to head somewhere else.

But where to go? All of my plans have crumbled and I kind of give up. I have him take me to a neighborhood walking distance from my street and I start wondering. I do find some interesting things to document during my wonderings. 

There are lots of interesting doorways in these alleyways.

This cow thought it it's personal business to stop traffic. 
Here in India, nobody stops for anybody, 
but everybody stops for cows.

This bull was having a hard go of it trying to get down these 
steep steps to the Ganges.

Dogs in trash.

Cows eating trash.

A man milking his cow in the alley. 

Cows in alleys.

My whole chicken incident gets to my head a little. Animals are both revered and also severely mistreated here. On a 10-minute rickshaw ride I saw two different stray dogs with half of the hair and skin on their backs missing. I also saw a donkey, a goat and a cow with what appeared to be broken legs, can these animals even recover from an injury like that? The cow is worshiped, yet it lives a terrible life here in India, living off of trash laced with human feces. I get to thinking, would I rather be a cow in Sonoma County, living a short but wonderful life with clean air, plenty of fresh grass and rolling hills surrounding me and suffering a hopefully quick death? Or would I rather be a holy cow in India, living off of trash and dying a miserable slow painful death from too many plastic bags in my stomachs? Definitely without having to even think about it, I would rather live a short and comfortable life, then a long and painful one, in which I barely get by even if it ended in butchery. I guess that says a lot about me. Anyways, I don’t feel as bad about eating meat anymore after pondering this.

Kids on bikes. 

Family shops.

Communal water troughs.

The milk man. 

Lots of hair cuts.


 Small children.

Street food!


  Irons with coal in them -I’ve seen these several times. Very cool.
 Old fashioned sowing machines.


 Street sweeps.

  Chai stands and food stands with these little electric fans feeding, or cooling the air by the fires that heat the product. 

 Rickshaw drivers.

And last, but not least, I found these two items:
 Snack Sauce, AKA - ketchup, kind of 
& alas, a beer! 

I have been here in Varanasi for ten days. I came back to Varanasi because I felt I needed to understand it. Of all of the villages, cities and towns of India that I visited back in 2007, I wanted to wrap my brain around the mystery of this one, one more time. I needed to come back here so that I could comprehend this city, which seemed to me at the time, inconceivable. I believe that I will not have to return to Varanasi again. In fact, I may not ever return to India again after this trip. Or, perhaps I will, but I won’t come back here because I need to challenge myself or because I need India’s deep sadness to overtake my soul so that I can better appreciate my own life. I may come back, I do love this country, but it wont be for these reasons, as it has been in the past. India always represented some sort of travel test to me. I always sort of considered India to be my travel challenge. I needed to somehow prove to myself that I was, that I am, strong enough to survive it.

            Well, I’ve got news for you India, I am strong enough. Life, as an adult, which I think I may now be, is plenty difficult without you. I don’t need to come all of the way across the world any more to make it more challenging. In fact, you know what India, for your information, next time, I’m going to Bali, or Thailand or Malaysia – they’re photogenic too and they don’t kick my ass as much. I do love you, and I am grateful for all that you have taught me, and for the beauty that you have shown me, but life is too precious, too short and hard enough already, without you in it. Namaste. I am off to Nepal and could not be more excited about it!

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