Too Little, Too Late

The flickering shadows of treetops on my eyelids were blocked by a second, deeper shadow, and I slowly opened my eyes to see a strangely dressed man standing over me. His face was completely shrouded by a hood, but I knew who he was.

“Calvin, what are you doing?” I asked, exhasperated.

“I just thought I’d remind you,” he replied, “that it’s been quite a while since you’ve written in your blog. For that matter, you’ve been neglecting your own personal journal, and your photography.”

“Well,” I muttered, “can’t it wait? I’m resting.” I replied, and then did the napper shuffle: I rolled over, closed my eyes, and hoped he’d go away. When his shadow failed to be removed, I squinted up at him again.

“Say,” I wondered aloud, “why are you dressed up as the angel of death?”

“This? This is my Purim costume.”

“But it isn’t Purim.”

“Isn’t it?” He replied, and I knew he was grinning smugly, because I had played right into his hands. Sitting up, I saw that the treetops were gone, and so was the sunlight. I was sitting on top of a building in Varanasi, and it was night-time.

“Would you like to explain?” Calvin asked slyly, “or should I?”

“I’ll do it,” I muttered dejectedly, resignedly accepting that my nap was officially over. You see, Calvin is my imaginary friend. It gets lonely, sometimes, traveling alone. But that’s how I want it. I’ve been enjoying spending some time with me. It makes a lot of sense, then, that any account of my recent travels should take place mostly within my own head.

“And with me.”

“Yes, and with you.”

“So why the name, Calvin? It’s a bit Christian, isn’t it?”

“It’s like Calvin and Hobbes, except this time Calvin is the imaginary friend. I thought it would be a nice reference, with a pleasant little reversal.”

“Liar. It’s just the first thing that popped into your head.”

“Second thing, thank you very much. You almost ended up being called Benedict.”

“What’s up with the Christian names?”

“I don’t know. Do you mind?”

“I don’t know. It’s your mind.”

“Well, let’s get on with it, then!”

“Hey, buddy, you’re the narrator. Don’t look at me.”

And so I am.

“Next time, you’re narrating.”

“Fair enough. So, explain it!”

“Explain what?”

“That you’ve been reduced, by your laziness, to a clip-show of recent highlights, rather than a calm, coherent, blog post.”

“That’s quite enough out of you, thank you very much.”

Where were we, then? Ah, yes. Sitting atop the Varanasi Chabad house. Down below was the cloth-walled dining area that had been erected for the celebration. I’m rather sure there was an awning of some sort, but in this imaginary account, we can see everything from above.

Everything would include:

Some twenty Jews, sitting around two tables, one for men and one for women, with a cloth divide in between. Of said Jews, one was me, one was drunk, one was a racist, and one was our host. It is unfortunate that the racist and the host coincide.

I would like to make a correction: Most of us were sitting. One of us was lying in a pool of his own vomit. He was repeatedly rolled out of it, and persistently rolled back. He was the drunk one.

The culprit was obvious: The table was decked not only with many dishes of excellent food, but  also with many bottles of not-so-excellent Vodka. What can I say? It was a good night.

“Tell them how you broke vegetarianism.”

“No!”

“Well, then, tell them about the Bhang Lassi.”

“That was later. And absolutely not!”

“Well, then, would you like a cup of Chai?”

“Always.”

“Chai!” cried the entrepreneuring vendor as he climbed onto the bus, immediately after it had bounced to a halt. “Chai, samosa! Chai!”

“Over here!” cried Calvin, and then had to wait while the man squeezed his way through passengers and baggage to get to us.

“Two, please.”

Sipping chai on the bus, waiting for it to resume its journey, I contemplated India and its endless peculiarities.

“They don’t ever say please here, have you noticed?” I commented out loud. It was one of the first Hindi words I asked about, and I used it often, but I almost never heard it used.

“Same goes for ‘thank you’,” Calvin agreed, “It’s a cultural thing.”

“So, wait, is this the bus to Lucknow, or the bus to Haridwar?”

“Honestly? I can’t tell.”

“Come on, Calving, I narrate, you’re in charge of the scenery. It’s only fair. Do your part!”

“Well, what do you want me to do? I can’t tell Indian buses apart! They’re all the same shuddering, drafty, over-crowded raj-era derelicts to me. The view is always the same everywhere, too.  Tell me, honestly, that you can do better.”

I couldn’t, so I kept quiet. Which was fine. A long, night-time Indian bus ride is a great time for quiet contemplation. The ricketiness of the bus combines with the disrepair of the road for quite a bumpy ride (no one ever fixes anything in India: They just build it, and then watch it rot.) The turbulence rocks me like a cradle, even as it verges on the unpleasant. This combination is rather typical of India.

“In fact,” I state, coming out of my reverie, “I invented you on a bus-ride, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did, and I’ve got a thousand Rupees says you can’t remember which bus-ride it was.”

“A thousand Rupees is nothing…”

“So which bus ride?”

“Not the one where I sang for them… I know! It was the one where I was reading Sherlock Holme and Dracula from my Magical Indian E-book Reader!”

“There were at least three of those, not including the one with the singing.”

“Ow!” I yelped, for just then a particularly violent bump left my backside quite sore.

“Ack!” I cried again, blinded by the sudden brightness of day. “For Shiva’s sake, Calvin! What did you go and do that for?”

He just grinned at me. “It’s your penalty for failing the bus quiz. Besides,” he laughed, “don’t you want to tell your readers about your safari adventure?”

I looked around, and realized where we were. The bump had been especially painful because the bus had been transformed into a many-seat, open jeep, which was surely the only man-made vehicle, other than a crashing aeroplane, that could out-bounce an Indian bus. Sitting in the back was the worst. I kept having to dodge whipping branches, which distracted me from looking for tigers.

“Introduce Sunny,” Calvin urged.

“This is Sunny.”

“Hello!”

Now, I know what you must be thinking, but you are quite mistaken: Sunny is not a caucasian woman, but an Indian man. And no, we didn’t see a tiger.

“Man, I’m tired.”

“What?”

“Sorry, Sunny, I was talking to Calvin. Calvin!”

“What?”

“I’m tired. Can’t we finish this blog post already?”

“But you haven’t said anything about Rishikesh yet! And there’s the whole story of, you know…”

“Shhhh! You know I can’t talk about that!”

“OK, OK! Sheesh! Relax! Let’s publish this, for now. But there’s still lots to write, so let’s hope your diligence catches up with your adventures.”

“No, Calvin. Let’s hope it doesn’t.”

 

P.S.

Thank you all for reading and enjoying, and for urging me to write on! I am both flattered and touched.

One other point: My amera has suffered a nervous breakdown, so until I get it fixed, no photos.

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If At First You Don’t Succeed

It appears that my previous post encountered some technical difficulties. This is a good thing. It was laconic and ill-tempered, in spirit if not in substance. I might have been sick, and I might have been gloomy, but maybe that’s not what I want this blog to be about. Simply bear in mind, as you read, that there’s probably more to the story than I’m telling you.

*Note: I am without my camera, and uploading pictures is a drag anyway, so make do without for now.

Let’s hop to it then!

 

“So you’re going to throw that statue into the river?”

“No,” Atul corrected me, “we are going to put it in the river.” He illustrated this with a gentle placing motion, with his hands. He was wrong, though.

“Saraswati mai ki!”

“Jay!”

Splash!

I’d never seen a large clay sculpture being tossed into a river before. Here in Varanasi, however, it is a common sight. Every day is a festival.

“If someone tried to stop religion here, the economy would collapse,” Jayjay told me, as we were sitting at Atul’s place, waiting for him to find the necessary manpower to haul said statue to the docks and load it on the not-so-large boat (manpower which ended up including yours truly.) He’s right, of course. The pilgrimages, the offerings, the festivals… Indians seem to substitute for luxury and entertainment with religion, in terms of spending excess funds. Not a bad trade: Our road leads us to obesity, and guilt; theirs leads to Nirvana.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I later apologized before Pranjal, sitting again at Atul’s, “we were throwing… I mean, putting a statue of Saraswati in the river.” He wagged his head in that hallmark Indian way, and mumbled something, clearly agitated in his quiet way. As well he should be. I was over half an hour late for my flute lesson. Oh, well. Indian time goes both ways. If I have to suffer it, so do they, though I seem to be getting in the habit of abusing it a little too much.

One thing playing the flute has in common with traveling in India: They only work if you keep a smile on your face. And that’s all I have to say about that.

 

Did I mention I’m in Varanasi now? Oh, and Atul is the Hebrew-speaking proprietor of a music shop/school (the two go together here – whatever tourists are willing to pay for is fair game – or unfair.) He’s something of an Israelophile. He holds us Israelis in high regard, and is even planning a visit to Israel. He has Hebrew books on his shelf, speaks English with an Israeli accent, and – most telling – wears a pair of Shoresh sandals.

Thanks to him, by the way, I am now the proud owner of a brand new guitar! I’ve been feeling out the market for days now, all the while itching for the feel of steel strings beneath my fingers. Today, it finally happened. This is a big day for me. Be happy.

You might be wondering what became of the Kumbh Mela, and what my experience there was. Well, I had my fair share of adventure and misadventure in that place. But those are other tales, and will be told another time. Suffice it to say, most of my camp-members actually migrated here, to Varanasi, so I have no shortage of friends. Hooray!

And now, to conclude the post, a poem about traveling:

To Wake In A Faraway Land

Tomorrow, I will greet the misty sunrise with a yawn

as I gaze upon a gray world blushing, floating gently from its slumber

with the dawn

 

I will trudge through green cathedral jungles

stained-glass, every-color birds for window-panes

snakes, and centipedes

for death eats life

and life eats death

and wondrous things I see tomorrow

never shall be seen again

 

And from the tallest spires of the greatest cities, I will see

massive temples, resplendent palaces of shining walls

soaring, arching, intertwining

weaving a tapestry, the human story

of pride, ambition, glory, folly too

for every thing that rise, must also fall

 

And then morning will roll away

afternoon sky will deepen

the sun, having, too, walked a mighty trek this day

shall nudge me,

“It’s time to find a place to rest our heads,”

it might say

And its thoughts are my own, as we both prepare to sleep:

we both miss our homes, and our family and friends

but now it’s time for bed,

and for dreams about chocolate.

As Overwhelming As Promised

Tolerance

“You are a very tolerant person,” she said, apologetically.

You’re faith is ridiculous, and so are you, I thought, baring my teeth silently in what I hope passes for a smile.

Well, that may be a harsh assessment. True, it may seem absurd to disregard evolution as an elaborate scam, while believing Krishna (the blue-skinned, flute-playing deity and lord of all creation) danced on a hundred-headed snake monster by this tree here, it’s five-thousand years old! Really!

And yet, from the inside, it works. Beautiful temples, chants, and texts – these things are real. These things are true. Who among us isn’t guilty of believing in some ridiculous thing or other? It’s what makes us human. Bah! Tolerance can be a drag, sometimes.

I am certainly grateful to Alla for her help. This can’t be overstated.

Image

Vrindavan – Look! A temple! (Iskcon, Prabhupada – look it up.)

And Yet, And Yet

Something about Vrindavan did rub me the wrong way. Perhaps it was Alla’s motherings, ministrations, and preaching. After all, I had come here to escape these very things. Perhaps it was just the jet-lag. And perhaps it was the city itself.

Well, not even a city, really. A small town. A small, filthy, starving town. There was garbage and sewage everywhere. It stank. Whether man or beast, all creatures there seemed to have been reduced to scavenging. I am glad to be gone from there.

Vrindavan wildlife at largeImage

Of course, there were sights to be seen. Temples galore, holy Goshala gardens, the sacred Yamuna river, wherein Krishna is said to have bathed. However, I was glad to discover, behind both these facades, in the back alleys and ways, Vrindavan’s true life. There, people go on about their business calmly and pleasantly. It still smells awful.Image

Vrindavan – behind the scenes

To the full Vrindavan album.

City Boy

I took the night train from Mathura to Allahabad. I count myself fortunate in two things:

1. The train arrived only seven and a half hours late.

2. I boarded at the station of origin, ergo on time.

(I tried to record the sounds of midnight snoring in the cabin. Please let me know if I succeeded.)

I quickly realized something: I’m a city boy. Always have been. Bustling Allahabad suits me much better than stagnant Vrindavan. Surprisingly, it’s actually cleaner here. But the main difference is the feeling that this place has a life of its own. It’s not waiting hungrily to feed off mine.

New Friend

I made a new friend today! His name is Martin, and he’s a Czech psychologist. We are now sharing a room. I have spared you the images of my previous Allahabad accommodations. Some things are better left unsaid, and unseen. And unsmelled. Too late for me on all counts.

More Friends Than I Know What To Do With

“What your name? Which country you from? You have girlfriend? Why no girlfriend!”

Here in India, I have so many friends – being a white man elevates me to the level of a celebrity. Everywhere I go, people stare, wave, smile – and talk. Some of them even want to have their picture taken with me. I would like to do them all justice by describing each and every one here, but I’m afraid that’s impossible. Let me just mention a few here:

Sanjit, Anand and Amit, the Mumbian Yoga teachers.

Ram and Vishal, the local computer engineering students.

Arjun, the vendor at the kiosk next to the Allahabad central post.

And many, many others, including a few nameless (as far as you’re concerned) Yogis at Kumbh Mela.

Wait… What’s a Kumbh Mela???

Tea with the Yogis

Image

Kumbh Mella – The Big One

“The Last Ardh [half] Mela, in 2007, attracted more than 70 million people – the larget-ever human gathering. The next Kumbh Mela will take place in 2013. Expect a big one.”

-The Lonely Planet

Kumbh Mela. It’s here, and so am I. Yesterday evening, I went to check it out.First impression? Tents. Tents, everywhere. As far as the eye can see. Quite overwhelming. I went to see the temple of Hanuman, then plunged, headfirst – into the river.

First view of the KumbhImage

The Sangam is the intersection point of three holy rivers: The Ganga, The Yamuna, and the Saraswati. People come there for their sacred bath, especially during Kumbh time. I’m sure it’s horrifyingly polluted, but no more so than my room. What the hell, right?

On January 27th, there’s going to be a full-scale ceremonial Kumbh dipping. February 10th is going to feature an even bigger festival.

Full Allahabad & Kumbh album.

P.S.

There’s too much to tell. If this takes half as long to read as it did to write, I pity you. I’ll try to be more focused in the future, and pick a few events to tell in more detail (and maybe also find an internet cafe with a faster connection – optimist’s assessment.)

I Have Landed!

Splash.

I have realized, that whenever I write here, I am telling a story from its middle. And so, for your inconvenience and reading pleasure, the following is presented out of sequence:

Good news, everyone! I have arrived, safe and sound, in the land of India. I am writing this update from the town of Vrindavan, birthplace of Krishna.

“I’m Alla, by the way,” she said. The woman sitting beside me on the Airplane was a stoutly built Russian with her hair dyed red. We had spent most of the ride in silence, and were nearing our destination. “My name is Shai,” I replied.

That’s how I ended up here. Alla is of the Hare Krishna spiritual movement, and after a brief theological debate she invited me to join her here for a spiritual tour. And when adventure comes a-knocking, I am always ready to get the door!

Landing. Taxi. Bus. Auto-rickshaw. Vrindavan. “Take rest,” said Alla, in her Russian-accented, Indian-dialect-tinted English. I was all too happy to oblige, as she sat me down in the lobby of some shoddy, vacancy-less guest house, while she went to find me suitable accommodation. She has quite taken me under her wing by now. The moment she left me in my room, at some hotel whose name I can’t remember, much less pronounce, I collapsed, sleeping in a bed for the first time in over 30 hours.

For nearly 30 hours, I have been living in airports. Tel-Aviv, Moscow, Delhi. They’re all the same. Wherever I go, Brad Pitt’s face follows me around, advertising some perfume or other. This is a very long fall.

Leaving is like jumping from a cliff into a freezing cold pool. You don’t think about what comes next. You just jump. Except this jump is going to leave me suspended in the air for 30 hours. That’s a lot of time to think. Stepping through security, waving goodbye to my family, I know this is it. I have now truly left everything behind.

The Blog Has Landed!

This blog is going to chronicle my travels abroad, in India and beyond.

Enjoy!

הנה הבלוג. זה יהיה הפוסט האחרון שכתוב בעברית, מכורח הנסיבות.

מאחל לכם קריאה מהנה!