Arriving in Varanasi (30 August, 2012)

Well, I’ve officially been in Varanasi for five days. It’s been an interesting five days: probably the hardest but the most rewarding of my life. I’ve had to grapple with MAJOR culture shock, but have learned a lot about myself, about perceptions, and about this city in the process. I’ll try to explain throughout this post without being to psychoanalytical or anything.

We arrived on Saturday early afternoon. First we were taken to our Program Center where we will have class, breakfast, lunch, and a space to hang out in between classes in the air conditioning (it’s been VERY hot here). The program center is very nice and well designed for six American students. After a quick lunch, we took a tour of a nearby shopping district called Lanka, accompanied by a few of our Student Buddies, who are Indian students at Banaras Hindu University. The Student Buddies are very nice and it’s been helpful to have guides who actually speak the language showing you around.

After seeing Lanka, we were taken to our host families and shown around the house. My family is so nice! There’s Bhai-ji (Brother), my host-dad who works on computers around the city, Baba-ji (brother’s wife), my host-mom, who cooks amazing but spicy food, and Riti, our host-sister who is eight and adorable. Baba-ji and Riti don’t speak much English, but Bhai-ji speaks fairly good English.

India is very difficult to adjust to, especially a place as overly Indian as Varanasi. My first day wasn’t easy. I felt very overwhelmed. India isn’t exactly the romanticized version you see in movies and read about in books. It can be this, but you have to dig deep to find it. There is so much here to adjust to. My first night, I remember thinking, “I’m in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, where I have to adjust to not using toilet paper, bucket bathing, eating with my hands, and understanding very strong  accents in order to know what anyone is saying. This city is massive. Bikes, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and cars are constantly trying to run me over on the streets. My host family doesn’t really speak English. It’s hot, and I have to wear pants all the time…AND there’s a mouse that likes to frequent my room. What on Earth have I gotten myself into?” However, by this point I’ve realized that none of that is the end of the world. I’m learning the language. Bathroom stuff isn’t too difficult and is actually more eco-friendly, eating with my hands is fun and everyone does it, so no one judges you. The accents become easier to understand every day. I’m becoming more familiar with the city and how to safely navigate the streets. My host family and I can communicate through more than just words. The clothes here are really really comfortable, and, as long as I ignore the mouse, he doesn’t bother me. According to Baba-ji, he’s supposed to be my friend.

The adjustment period’s been challenging, but every day I find more to love about this city. I see past the trash in the streets and the crowded traffic in order to see roads that have existed for literally centuries. The more I see of the city, the more familiar I become with it. I know two neighborhoods now.

The best part of being here is definitely the Ganges. My house is a 7 minute walk away from Assi Ghat, one of the southern-most ghats in Varanasi.  The river’s very flooded right now, so you can only access the top layer of steps. My first view of the river took my breath away in a way I’ve never experienced before. Last night, my friends and I sat on the ghat as evening came. We were harassed endlessly by the children selling the little boats with marigolds and candles in them. “What country?…Oh! Amrika! Amrika best country!…You buy me ice cream…You buy flowers. You take….You have coins from Amrika? Can I have them?…Come see my shop….Promise? Promise you’ll come.” At first it really is adorable, but after a while it can become exhausting. You know they’re only hanging around you because you’re a foreigner and have “tourist” stamped on your forehead. At 7 last night, some worshippers began the nightly puja (offering to the gods). It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. There were marigolds and incense and fire and chanting and singing. It’s so crazy and wonderful to see such ancient traditions practiced so actively in a modern world. Someone has stood on those banks probably every night for hundreds of years and performed very similar rituals. The tradition is so strong.

Today, we had four classes. I’m slowly learning the Hindi alphabet in my Hindi class. In my Gender class we’re examining theories which parallel “women of color feminisms” and theories of how different feminisms apply to different women: both of which I’ve always been extremely interested in. In Religious Pluralism we learned that pluralism of religions isn’t a subject studied in India, so both our professor and us students will be learning a lot together. Then we had City of Confluence, where we are going to learn about almost every aspect of Varanasi. I think I’m most excited about this class and about Hindi.

I don’t know what it is. It might be the puja I witnessed last night. It might be that I’m becoming adjusted. It might be that I’m learning a lot of cool things in my classes. Whatever it is, it’s making me really happy today. I really love this city for the first time. I’m not ignoring the traffic and cow patties and trash and noise; I’m understanding them as part of what makes this city what it is today, and I’m enjoying that. I just am happier and more at ease here today. It’s a really nice feeling to be experiencing.

Currently I’m sitting in my room, taking a break from trying to learn Hindi, listening to Bollywood music (of which I still understand nothing) and putting a streak of henna dye into my hair. This is how you celebrate overcoming the first bouts of culture shock.

Tomorrow I start yoga theory class, and then Friday is yoga practice. This weekend we get to see more of the city with our student buddies. We’re going further North to places like Godowolia and IP Mall. A few of the girls from the group and I are also going to try to explore some more ghats, since there are so many here, and we’ve only seen one.

I’m much closer to feeling at peace in the middle of all this chaos. Thank all of you for your support. I really appreciate it. Until next time, yours, Carly.

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