Varanasi, Where All Journeys Come to an End

Several mentions of the book Autobiography of a Yogi convinced me to finally pick up a copy in the holy city o9f Varanasi (also called Banaras, or Kashi.)  It's a fascinating and inspiring account Yogananda's life, full of floating monks, rock candy, and mystical amulets.  Yogananda's father happened to run the train station in Calcutta, and he's always riding the train around the country, trying to escape to the Himalayas to be a sadhu.  And it seemed that each time he was on certain train in my book, I was on that train in my journey.
I arrived in the Tundla train station (20 kilometers from Agra where the Taj Mahal is) as it was getting dark.  It's one of those not-so-touristy train stations, so when I saw another foreigner, I walked right up to him and asked if he was going to Varanasi too.  He was from New Zealand and had been trekking in Nepal.  We chatted for an hour and I was so happy to speak English I was laughing and joking until I realized a crowd of Indian men had circled around us and were staring at us like Chaplin stared at his supper-mate in The Gold Rush.The Kiwi and I had different trains to Varanasi, so I made my way to the train–and I asked the conductor where to go.  He handed my ticket back without a word.  The porter finally told me that my ticket was for tomorrow's train.  In my head boomed the words, "I am not staying in Tundla." and I walked down a few cars to find a place to stow away…  Found an empty bed and slept there for a few hours…  well, tried to sleep, imagining someone coming to claim his place or the ticket-taker to come and throw me off the train… Someone finally claimed their seat and so I began wandering the train, showing my ticket to passengers who ushered me toward second class.  No one noticed that my ticket was for the wrong date.  Arrived in Varanasi at 6 am.  Made my way to Hotel Temple at Assi Ghat on the Ganges (or the Ganga as they call it–rhymes with conga)
People had warned me that Varanasi was a dangerous place.  That I shouldn't go out alone, especially at night, especially because I'm a woman.  I spent my first three days only going out when I was with my friend from New Zealand.  We did the obligatory sunrise and sunset boats down the Ganga, setting candles afloat along the river with blessings for loved ones.  Discovered the best restaurant overlooking the river, Lotus, where I had gazpacho and pumpkin and mushroom stuffed ravioli.
One day I walked to a place called Open Hand Cafe for lunch, and ran into a friend from San Francisco.  I knew she was in India, but had no idea where.  We talked for a couple of hours, and she told me that in some ways Indians prefer if women tourists are scared of being alone.  So I began to venture out.
It was hot all day, every day.  I drank so much lime soda I started turning…  well, whatever you turn.  During the day I read The God of Small Things and in the evening went for food.  Managed a couple of morning yoga sessions on the roof.  Went to see the burning ghats where the bodies are cremated, saw the monkey temple, was refused admission to the Durga temple because I'm not Hindu.  Watched Ganga Arti from the boat, the evening puja, got my feet painted with mendhi again.  Washed the paint off my forehead from the ceremony and went to have dinner at the Jewish House in town.  Met a Swedish tabla player who had been studying in India for ten years and had chai at his house.  They say it takes ten life times to learn tabla, so whenever you meet a tabla player, ask them which one they're on, and they'll say, "Hopefully the tenth!"
On the tenth day I took a train from Varanasi to Kolkata (Calcutta.)  Went to the exquisitely beautiful Ramakrishna Mission across the river in Kolkata, city of Kali.  It's the end of my trip, and I'm leaving India for Thailand in the morning.  Buzzing in my head, "Did I get what I came for?  Did I do it right?  Did I Figure Things Out?"  Ah, the irony…  as if you could walk your own path the wrong way.  So I'm at the Ramakrishna Mission, which holds special ex-boyfriend meaning, and I'm doing the reclaim-your-own-meaning thing by loving Ramakrishna my own damn self, and I have a very powerful experience meditating in the temple, tears in my eyes, in loving surrender to this journey being exactly what it was supposed to be.  For like five minutes.  Then, you know, zup!  Back in the body, back in the head.  I got to have lunch sitting on the floor of the ashram, food served from buckets onto banana leaves, and made one last round of friends before leaving.
In the next post:  my two weeks in Thailand (for the first six days, my boyfriend heard nothing but, "Well, in India, it's different… " and "Where's all the garbage?" and "Wow, there's a lot of sex here… but not a lot of appeal.")

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