How does one "return" from India? Changed. And I suspect it will take quite a bit of time for me to truly return. I'm not just talking about jet lag here (it's on the opposite side of the world, minus 1/2 hour), but I'm talking about something much deeper: my internal "map" of the world. It has been re-ordered. I will give a brief explanation later, but to start with an overlay of our trip might be useful.
I met my brother and his wife, and my sister in Chicago on April 2nd. We spent that evening together celebrating Passover with his daughters and other family members. The next evening, we flew to Delhi, arriving on the 4th at around 8:30 in the evening. Our trip included the cities of Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur, and a small town called Junia, which no one in India has ever heard of. We went there to satisfy my brother's need to see a bird called the Great Indian Bustard. As a retired pilot for American Airlines and a fanatical bird watcher, he travels all over the world to see birds. This one was about the size of an ostrich and quite beautiful. And the hunt for it brought us to a place which isn't on the tourist trail, which is always fun. From there we drove back to Delhi, and my sister and I flew home. My brother and his wife are still there, bird watching.
People have asked me, "What was the highlight of your trip?" I think they're expecting the answer to be "the Taj Mahal". And it's true that no matter how many pictures you've seen, it still has the power to fill one with awe and wonder. It is, in short, spectacular. Especially at dawn, which is when we saw it, and, I imagine, at sunset. However, it wasn't, for me, the highlight. The highlight was Varanasi. Hands down.
Varanasi (which is also called Benares), situated on the Ganges river, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and is considered to be the holiest of the 7 holy cities in India. According to legend, it was founded by Shiva, which makes it pretty special. There are 4 universities in the city. Also, Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, are cremated there and have your ashes go into the Ganges, you will be free of the cycle of life and death. You no longer need to be reincarnated. So it is known as the city of "learning and burning".
There's really no way to describe what it was like. At one point, I turned to my family and said "This place is not on my 'map'." It is the only place I've ever been (and I've traveled extensively) where spiritual life and daily life, where life and death, are not separated. Every morning, thousands of people go down to the Ganges to bathe. This is not just about cleaning - it's a deeply spiritual act as well. Every evening, they cremate about 100 bodies in front of the temples on the river. These cremations are done the old fashioned way - with wood. You can be walking down one of the narrow alleys of this town when suddenly, around the corner, will come a group of men, chanting, ringing bells, and bearing a body, covered with flowers. People step aside to let them by, and when they pass, life goes on. Buying, selling, sipping tea, talking on cell phones, stepping aside to let the cow go by.
How do you process this? I'm still working on it. It is, as a friend of my sister's said, life altering.
The rest of the trip was fantastic, too. The other cities were exotic and interesting, and saturated with color. Jaipur, "The Pink City", was the most sophisticated. And oh yes - the food. Personally, I loved the food. You could be an omnivore, like me, or vegetarian or vegan and do quite well in India, as long as you don't mind spicy food. My sister-in-law, who cannot deal with spicy food, had a much harder time. But for me, spicy works. Walking down the street, you can catch the scent of cardamom, ginger, fenugreek and other spices. Spices are the perfume of India. (Laced with other scents, which we won't mention.)
India is not for the beginning tourist. If you're from the U.S. and you've never traveled, I would say "Go to Europe." It's easier to grasp. But if you've seen Europe and the Americas and are looking for something more exotic, more adventuresome, then turn your eyes to Asia. For color, spice, warmth, vibrancy and life, go to India.
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