Well here we have it–day one in Varanasi! 3 flights, 2 car rides, and 1 hotel later, I have officially arrived in the country that you would find if you dug a hole directly across the world from San Francisco.
After being picked up from the airport, the PTSD from the traumatic car accident I was in one year ago was assuaged in a mere matter of 5 seconds. After somehow surviving the first 4 potential head on collisions, I sat back, relaxed, and looked around at the outskirts of Varanasi. Trash was everywhere, cows lined the sides of the streets, and a melody of honking horns was a non-stop pop song on the radio. Although sometimes drivers honked to prevent mishaps, the honks usually served as nonchalant forms of habit. One image that stuck out to me was a man brushing his teeth on the side of the street at around 1 p.m., which symbolizes the leisurely pace people go about during their days here. Another striking image were the slew of gorgeous, somehow clean appearing men with shiny sunglasses and plaid shirts zooming around on their motorcycles. Oftentimes women accompany them, positioned with their legs hanging off one side and a hand on the opposite shoulder of the men.
While the streets appeared to be straight up chaos to me at first, with horns at sheer decibels that contested blaring beats at a music festival, the streets of Varanasi are truly the perfect paradigm of organized chaos. I wondered for a moment why I saw no car accidents the entire drive to my homestay, despite the bikes, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, buses, cows, and unexpected pedestrians crossing at any moment on the road. And it occurred to me–everyone was paying attention. Although people were undoubtedly looking out for themselves, they were also mindful of others around them. In the U.S., people change the music, talk on the phone, and even do their makeup while driving (guilty as charged). Once, I even saw a woman reading a magazine. In India, people are here. They are in the now, swerving around the car in front of them and barely missing the motorcycle approaching. Nevertheless, they are present.
Upon arriving at my homestay, I met various cousins and both grannies of my homestay family. Dolly Ji, her husband, and their two children are currently trekking in the Himalayas, but will be back at the end of the week. After unpacking my belongings in my room on floor 3 of the 6 floor home, Ankita (one of the cousins) and I sweltered in our long pants and shirts, traipsing around my new city. I had my first official, traditional Indian meal at a cute little restaurant tucked away in an alley. It was delicious! They saw me take one look at the water and assured me, “Don’t worry, its filtered.” Satisfied with their explanation, I quenched my thirst and enjoyed the meal.
A highlight of the day, and I suspect, for many days to follow, was walking along the Ganges River. It was serene, green, and quiet. There are many parts to the Ganges. Some, where you can witness the holiest acts in India transpire. Others, where you can enjoy a boat ride with friends. I intend to do both. But for today, I sat with Angie, and learned about all aspects of a typical 20 year old living in Varanasi.
When Emma, a student from Canada who is also residing in my homestay and has been working for Guria for the last month arrived from work, Ankie jumped into combat mode and immediately began tickling Emma. (I see a tickling fight coming my way!) After listening in on a Skype call that Emma held with potential art therapists to evaluate the children’s artwork at Guria, we were back to exploring. On the way to purchase a wardrobe (seeing as I only came with the clothing on my back) I saw temples, shops lined with colorful products, and a livelihood that infected everyone and everything in its wake. Even the trash. We entered a clothing shop 3 floors high with families swarming the vibrant kertas and scarves. I picked out two outfits to get me started–and chuckled at the fierce transformation of my black cashmere sweaters and winter boots in Michigan to all shades of pink, blue, green, and red light cotton kertas and tevas to boot.
Tomorrow, I will start my first full day in Varanasi and at the children’s center located in the heart of the red-light district of Varanasi. Tomorrow, the work really begins.