Thursday, May 31, 2012

Varanasi - The City of Life & Death

RJ Fry

Text - RJ Fry
Images - Daniel Baum

It's not yet 5am and the city is remarkably still, not quite silent but a stark contrast from the usual chaos and post-dawn rumblings. In a strange way, this eerie silence makes it feels like the whole world is asleep - not just Varanasi. Footsteps shuffle in the distance as incense burns behind closed doors. Slowly but surely, the signs of a new day are upon me.

"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and  looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world. Although this claim is disputed by scholars, at the very least it's over 3,000 years old. When you consider that Kuala Lumpur was only founded in 1857, it really puts things into perspective. First impressions feel more Arabian than Indian, with timeless qualities perhaps more old testament than new.

After wandering aimlessly from my guesthouse, I'm lost rather quickly in the giant labyrinth that the locals call the old city. The rather simple task of 'go outside, find water' has become a rodent-like quest for cheese in a mad scientist's laboratory. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river - The Ganges. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with holy men.

He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals.

He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their exhausted mother. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy alongside lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, no doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief or jeering. I think I'll stick to the shallow end when I go for the plunge, there's no way I'll be dunking my head.

With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's only the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into Mother Ganga. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of this most sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims for good measure. Unlike me, they have all brought soap along, complete with little toiletry dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing.

Step by slippery step, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, as others around me are doing. The colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup, but not the good kind. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. At once  I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

Bathing on the ghat is an out of body experience. The feeling is like being lost in an alien land, left behind as the spaceship takes off. Taking part in this ritual, something that has been going strong each day (60,000+ pilgrims) for thousands of years is something I had to experience. I promised myself that I wouldn't leave India without doing so, regardless of any hazardous health aspects soon to plague my subcontinent safari.

Making my way back to my room for a shower, a self-appointed tour guide informs me that this city was a gift from Shiva to his wife as a wedding present, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' I learn of a festival that is held each February, where the town is overflowing with drunken lovers and bhang lassi is served discreetly from many guesthouses. A city of rooftops, the only thing missing from this enchanting place is a flying carpet.

Varanasi is a veritable melting pot of Indian culture and for centuries many elderly people in India have chosen to live out their final days in Varanasi. I learn that dying here isn't the passport to heaven I believed it to be, as to escape the cycle of rebirth one must pass away only during the 'festival of the dead,' or Pitru Paksha. These fifteen days differ each year as they're determined by astrology and while the chances of passing away within these dates are minuscule, it's also a chance to honour the spirits of deceased relatives and to keep evil spirits at bay.

Despite that early morning dip in what would politely be described as human soup, the gloomy image of inevitable death I had to come to associate with Varanasi has long since passed. While you can't help but notice the houses for sick and dying around town, or witness the riverside cremations (some of the more popular ghats cremate 200 bodies a day), you get the sense that celebrating life is an everyday affair too. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Temples can be found in every corner of the city, some of them several thousands of years old. The ghats that line the riverside are also numerous, while the burning ghats themselves are a sight to behold with naked bodies burning in full view of bystanders. The dearly beloved gather, while their deceased relatives lay on the ground, belching out fumes from beyond the grave.

Taking a step back from the mourning family members, I see pilgrims watching on, many of whom bathe on the steps of these ghats daily. It's not just a spectacle, but a ritual thousands of years strong and i'm more than thankful for such an authentic experience.

While the city is still waking up, I decide to indulge my inner-tourist and take a boat ride up this fabled river. At only an hour long, it feels like I spent more time bargaining with the vendor than I did on the water. As the rickety boat makes its way up and down the river, I spot a skull floating alongside us. Dislodged from its former body and bobbing up and down in the murky water, I laugh to myself and think there's no way I'll ever swim here again - no matter how sacred this water is!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Weird Bangkok

A trip to a notoriously graphic forensic science museum wouldn't top the to-do list of many normal travelers in cosmopolitan Bangkok. However, fed up with glitzy shopping malls and the tranquility of temples, I find myself yearning for something off the beaten track. Instead, I found a celebration of severed limbs in what could only be described as the lair of a mad scientist.

To call it stomach churning would prove to be a grand understatement. However, even after watching the sallow faces shuffle in and out, curiosity won the battle and I ventured inside Thailand's oldest hospital to check out Siriraj Medical Museum.

For the bargain price of only 40 baht, those who aren't squeamish can gain access to six separate sections - each with their own interesting exhibits. As for the winner of 'most grotesque,' it's a tie between Forensic Pathology and the creepy crawlies found within the Parasitology section.

I start out with tapeworms and flesh eating bacteria, opting to face the worst first (or so I thought). The first stop is a delightful public service announcement, which although dubbed in Thai is reminiscent of infomercials around the world. My fear laid to rest, I take note of foods known to contain harmful toxins and pat myself (prematurely) on the back for having such a strong stomach.

From across the room I spot what appears to be spaghetti. Having had fettuccine alfredo for lunch, a possible link between pasta and parasites worries me. Inching my way up to the exhibit, I rejoice in discovering that it's nothing close to linguine, but recoil upon discovering the truth - tapeworms. A painstaking recreation of a man's rectum, overflowing with enough infectious parasites to start a game called tug of war.

After that truly disgusting display, I make my way to the Forensic Pathology section and breeze through the initiation displays of alcohol's damage to the liver and the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker. Scary stuff no doubt, but no worse than the graphic images on any cigarette pack in Australia.

I manage to make it past the dismembered body parts floating in jars, but the winding corridor of dead fetuses is enough to make me shudder. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a large group of students ogling a glass display in the corner. Resting his forehead on the stained glass, is the naked body of a dirty and decaying man. Unable to translate the small plaque, I ask one of the students for more information.

"Si Quey is a famous man, but not for good reason," says Ann, a first year law student at Bangkok University. "Over fifty years ago, he was executed for rape, murder and cannibalism." During his reign of terror on suburban Bangkok, he killed six children and ate their hearts and livers.

It's a strange feeling when you meet a dead celebrity. Si Quey is a name known outside of the law profession too, probably because his name is still used to frighten young children into behaving themselves. In what looks like a see-through broom closet, I notice the door knob has broken clean off and been replaced with a patchwork of cellophane. Although his mummified body is preserved in petroleum jelly and long dead, a cold shiver runs down my spine - it's time to go.

On my way out, I pass by a kiosk stall serving snacks and beverages. Not surprised at the lack of customers, I wonder if my appetite will ever return. Looking to stimulate the senses, I leave the hospital grounds and head for the throbbing heartbeat of this modern day metropolis - Silom Road. This is both the financial centre of the capital by day and a raucous party district after dark.

Street food stalls line the busy side streets, with more than just Pad Thai on offer. Thailand is a haven for foodies and the capital city is no exception. Almost all cuisines are represented and depending where you are, the distance between authentic Italian and a Syrian kebab may only be a few steps. As the intoxicating aroma of Tom Yam wafts over me, I'm shocked to find my appetite stirring into life once again.

After dark this part of town becomes a veritable maze of food, with vendors setting up shop on the busy pavement in every direction. Giant woks splutter with oil and do little to conceal the dancing flames below. I hear the bell of an approaching food cart, but what I see shocks me. No, it's no ice-cream. Instead, it's a bountiful buffet of bugs, deep fried to perfection! Stir fried water beetles, locust kebabs and many more 'delightful delicacies' that are sure to make your skin crawl.

Clinging vehemently to vegetarianism as an excuse, I choose not to chow down on a cockroach kebab, but instead ask around for an infamous restaurant in the area by the name of Cabbages and Condoms. The tropical heat and staggering humidity makes negotiating the crowded streets difficult, but i'm determined to see if there really is a restaurant in town that's decorated with nothing but prophylaxes.

After wandering aimlessly under a fool moon with my cheap t-shirt clinging to my back in sweat, I take a chance on a side street and finally find one of Asia's more bizarrely themed restaurants. Unlike other themed restaurants in Asia, such as Modern Toilet in Taiwan or The Lockup in Tokyo - this isn't just another money making scheme.

Before I'm ushered to my table, I walk around the courtyard and take note of all the billboard size posters on display. Funded by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), I learn that a large percentage of profit goes towards helping the poor in rural areas across the nation. The condom theme is explained instantly by all the safe sex themed t-shirts, latex insignia and novelty keychains for sale in the gift shop.

Although more expensive than street food, the restaurant is nothing if not a classy affair. The open courtyard plays host to traditional Thai musicians each evening after 7pm, while Christmas lights drape the trees and wax candles occupy a space on each table. While some of the condom creations such as table flowers are rudimentary and basic, others are elaborate and meticulous like the light features (pictured right).

While it's more than most backpackers would spend on an average meal, it's good knowing that a large portion of the bill is going towards helping people in need. The menu reflects the Isaan region of Thailand, which as the poorest region - is where most of the funds are directed.

Those who like it spicy are in for a treat, as Isaan is home to the almost mythical Papaya Salad (not for the faint of heart) where chilies aren't so much used as a spice, but as a main ingredient. I choose to keep my eyebrows in place and order a light and refreshing bowl of mushroom soup. As I smell the aroma of fresh coriander mingling with crushed lemongrass from a few tables over, my appetite returns with gusto. Dining without a date, I take full advantage of my anonymity and slurp down the fragrant broth in a flurry.

First-timers can be spotted laughing at condom chandeliers, but many more come back time after time for authentic regional cuisine. Like all good restaurants the food quickly takes centre stage, although the restaurant's choice of after dinner mint substitution almost always results in a giggle.