Where bodies burn, the Buddha was born, and the top of the world exists.
Varanasi, Lumbini, and The Himalayas
I took a 27 hour train ride (it was delayed so technically longer) to get from Mumbai to Varanasi. All I knew of this city is that it was a holy city to Hindu’s. It is a place in their religion where being cremated is of sacred importance and value. It had this Middle Eastern feel in some ways. It was beating hot, and the concrete felt faded by sun. There wasn’t much nature life around, and it was very busy with traffic and people. In its own unique way it reminded me of Jerusalem as historic, desert climate, and religious significance.
Life and death I suppose is my caption of this city. Where death is open and revealed. Perhaps too, the lessons? I wondered that while I was in Varanasi. I was so mystified by it all. What would I see? What would I feel? Filling myself with imagination while on the rooftop patio of my hostel. I was going that night to go to where the ceremonies take place. Before that I was reflecting while watching the everyday life on the street below of cricket being played by children. The innocence and moment felt so fragile. Death is an invisible picture, which we confront when dying is close. Here I’m a complete stranger, in a very new place 12 time zones from home. I wondered, is here where I will see the inescapability of black and white, and of how we use story to understand death and passing.
The smells of burning flesh are repulsive, naturally. Pungent odour. Snake charmers and mystic Indians asking for change surround the area. The walk to the ceremony space felt really theatrical, like Hollywood designed this entrance of the ceremony. It was concrete, and very dark. I imagine an Athens atmosphere, these gigantic steps right to the water, and stone architecture everywhere. I was really turned off when there was this dark ring of drug dealers surrounding the ceremony spaces, trying to sell to tourists. What a place to trip…The ceremony’s all took place close to the water.
There are some shamans in this area, extreme Shamans. I’ve heard they get high on weed and eat human flesh. I hope I discover that this was all a story, but I recall some Indians telling me they do exist.
I really didn’t enjoy watching the bodies’ burn. To the family it was a private mourning moment, and to tourists it was a public spectacle. It felt too, disingenuous. I appreciated knowing the families found meaning and reassurance in their act, but found myself disconnected from that. I felt like I was just watching something I had never seen before, like chasing a new experience. It humbled me to not want to go back. To realize less is more here. I have respect for the ceremonies and those that wish to watch, however I felt like an uninvited guest. A passenger intertwining my objectivity with someone elses real emotional heartbreak and struggle. I let the wind fall from my sails and within a few days was gone from the city. I began on my next journey, up to Nepal. Here my goal was to do a trek in the Himalayas. During India I didn’t even know this was possible. We ran into one person who told me about it and it inspired me to do the same. The train was scheduled for around midnight but shown up at almost 4am. Expect the unexpected.
It’s a sleeper train and we arrive in a town of the border of India to Nepal. Tourists are swarmed to try to take a cab or taxi. Many people fighting for a few. The border crossing feels very unofficial compared to North American or European standards. Almost like an entrance to an amusement park, accept with passport stamps and high admission prices. I arrived in Nepal, to traffic and chaos. I learned shortly after that the Buddha was born near the border town. I decided to check it out, hence begins my story in the town of Lumbini.
The town is packed with tourist things. Hotels, restaurants, knick knacks for sale. I find a one bedroom, I believe for maybe 10$. What a treat. The palace that once birthed Buddha is now rubble, with parts of it standing. It was a busy place; there were plenty of people, and temples surrounding his.
A journal I wrote while there:
Buddha to me doesn’t represent religion, but instead for me is a symbol of a man who leaves his palace, renounces his wealth, and dedicates his life to discovering the meaning of life and suffering. He, instead of spending his remaining existence living off the taxes of the people, changes his life to make everyone else’s better. His temple today looks very lifeless and ruined. Yet thousands of years later he is all over the world. It would be hard to imagine these fallen stones long ago were a palace. I’ve seen these same stones in Europe and Israel, the story is the only change. This disintegrating palace was a container of dreams, people, lovers, death, passions, arguments, parties, friendships. But all I see is stones. The museum (I think it’s appropriate to call it that) has tons of educational details about Buddha’s upbringing and life. Apparently he was destined for two paths before he was even born. To either be the biggest conqueror ever, or an enlightened individual. His father wanted him to have the biggest empire, so he sheltered him from the outside world. He gave him luxuries, lovers, anything he wanted, to try to get him to follow that path. There is plenty to be read about how Buddha became who he was, and it is a fascinating tale. We know how history went, and now people pilgrimage to his birthplace as a thank you, as a symbol of unity. A ripple so big it touched every pond. A very old grandma came to the monument with her son. She struggled with much effort to go to the rock he was probably birthed on. Clearly a sacred and dedicated love and fire within her brought her here.
Lumbini fed my curiousity of the Buddha for a night, and then I was on my way to Pokhara, a lake town in Nepal where one assembles before heading to the Himalayas. It was a 10 hour brutal nightmarish bus ride of bumps and twisty turns.
Pokhara was very fun town to be a backpacker in. Western food at great prices, beautiful lake to walk, drinking and great weather. Highly recommend this city to anyone ever in the area. I spent a week here just relaxing and getting the necessary gear to do the trip with. It was very exciting to imagine climbing parts of the Himalayas. The treks are made up of small villages, each one where you can get a meal, have a tea, or sleep for the night. The daily costs are relatively low, so it was a great experience to trek without all the camping equipment. The town was packed with people also with a similar agenda. Trekking here is a hugely popular mecca. The trek I did was called the ABC – Annapurna Base Camp. The Base camp is the last settlement before you climb the mountain without services. The lodge is 4,130 Meters above sea level.
I made a few friends at the permit office (anyone wanting to do the trek needs a permit), and we decided to do half the trek together. They were going to a different end destination, but part of the way we shared the same path. The first day was a lot of elevation gain, climbing stairs, and walking along villages. It was so beautiful in so many ways. Idyllic nature, the freedom of a week spent with one goal, get to the end point, and between that enjoy the walk, enjoy the conversations, and the people. Old buildings, cows walking the streets, it was all very scenic. I have had a history of back pain and carrying the bag with me daily was starting to trigger it, I believe even from day one. I was very committed to trying to continue the hike, and tried to go slow, with my trekking poles, to get it done. I took my leisurely time, doing it in maybe a week to get to the top. To give perspective I believe I met someone who said they were trying to get to the top within 48 hours. So you can do it quick if you wish. One day I was borderline about to give up because of my back pain. I thought I’d give it one more day, and that day I got to the 80% point. I knew once I made it that far that I was in. Reaching the top, the snowed lodge, was incredibly invigorating. The story of my back pain amplified the emotions, it made everything relatively more challenging, so to finish despite that was a big win for me. It was a feeling of glory, accomplishment, a clear goal and a clear finish. I enjoyed that moment tremendously.
The walk down was drawn out in a way. Felt long, but there was a hot spring along the way. A nice recovery which all the hikers bathed in to calm the muscles and soreness of the long trek. I think in total I did 10 days on this hike. Something in that range. It was incredible some little details of it all. I remember weed was growing everywhere there, locals trying to sell you fresh grown Himalaya weed. Death of animals was a big theme there. One of the villages I stayed in told me they had a “Puja”, which I believe translates to prayer or ceremony. The Village had a successful year so they sacrificed chickens for a feast. There was this white temple with blood on the walls and in puddles from all the chickens slaughtered. Felt weird, to intertwine celebration with that visual. To think ones celebration is another’s devastation. In the same town I saw goats which were recently slaughtered. They were cleaning the meat, and it felt extremely local, yet tough to watch. The reality of it all was very intense here. This was as local as things get, yet even that was hard to watch, hard to feel at peace with. If I can’t feel easy about that, then what can I feel easy about? Maybe the chickens were old, who knows. I just feel it’s an emotion that’s tough to sit with head on. It’s only confronted as a by-product. I ‘happened’ to see this, rather then chose. Yet it stirred me and left a memory. All I was seeing was what happens behind closed doors here. Hard to think, incomprehendable the scale.
Pokhara was a nice leisure experience when I got back from my ten day trek. I just relaxed a few days, made some friends and tried to enjoy the relaxing lifestyle there. Afterword I made my way to Katmandu by bus. My flight was from Katmandu to India, where I would then head back to Europe. The bus rides are terrible. Utterly an awful experience. The roads are bumpy as can be, there are no washrooms on board, so you have to adapt to the rhythm of the crowd. And the food is so spicy and foreign so you don’t want to eat too much incase you get sick. Stomach sickness mixed with road sickness is not unexpected. I managed by not eating much and just watching the road the entire time, but it is a challenge rather than a trip.
Katmandu has this industrial theme to it that is such a polarity to the nature of Nepal. The country people are so friendly and smiling, and I found the city to be a bit of a money first mentality. People begging to drive you, sell you, wanting you to eat at their restaurant. Tourists were chased there. It felt uncomfortable. I did a small hike here with a Nepali friend I made in Pokhara and that was lovely. Going with a local to an off the beaten track place felt great. I felt really relaxed and happy to have a companion who knew the culture and language. We got along great and had an awesome time. In Nepal I must have done 4 small overnight hikes, and they were all very lovely and scenic. It reminded me of that Vancouver lifestyle, the outdoors and the nature revolving around our experiences.
It was a headache to go back to India. You can’t just fly into India, that would be crazy. No, you have to buy a visa just to fly to India, even if you have a flight out in a few days. I’m exadurating abit, it just was unexpected to me, that’s all, and took a few days to get the visa. I eventually got back to India with one day left. I met up with a friend there who also was flying out the next day. We went for dinner and talked and enjoyed our last day in India. All the memories there with my dad, in Goa, Taj Mahal, in Delhi, and Dharmashala, which is where the Dali Lama resides. It was all an epic 3 months. It was the first real taste of culture shock. Europe was people living my life in different ways. We’d generally eat the same, like the same music, pursuing same jobs, and didn’t have much difference in some ways. India was a new level of exploration. And Nepal, just the gorgeous nature was so achievable to be witnessed. I loved that. I hope to come back one day, to trek again in Nepal, and enjoy the wild craziness that is India. All the colours, foods, scents. It was all so decorative and creative. A funny note, in an Indian restaurant there are endless choices, yet in Nepal there is usually a traditional dish that all the people eat. It’s called Dal Bhat – a vegetarian mix of rice, lentils, some salad, and maybe little curry. It was eaten perhaps twice a day by nearly every Nepali person I met, every single day. It was unbelievable the consistency of that habit for them. Truly local and truly self-sustaining. Good for them. Thank you India and Nepal, and my dad for beginning the entire experience. Many good memories and many dreams of returning.