India! Varanasi: How My Coolness Was Lost (and a little bit about burning bodies)

In every other country, no matter how hectic its markets were, busy its traffic was, and intensely-observing its people appeared, I thought that I still managed to keep my face on. The face that – as I imagined it – revealed the sort of “yeah yeah, I’m a foreigner, but everything’s fine, I’m chill” attitude.

In Varanasi, all that was lost.

Was it the unseen amount of litter everywhere? Some cows chilling on the streets? The fact that I for the first time used a word “chill” while talking about domestic animals?

Not really. Instead, it was my constant jumping, looking around, and ridiculously swaying my body to avoid the craziest traffic I’ve ever witnessed. Motor-rikshas, bicycle-rikshas, an occasional car, a goat passing by, and me, not even in the middle of all that, but trying to squeeze myself as close I could to the part of the street where a sidewalk could potentially be. With extremely loud horns, bicycle tires right by my huge yet fragile feet, some cows walking by, and certain type of animal… gifts on the streets, there was nothing left for me to do: I looked like a confused tourist. Coz in that hellish traffic, I truly was.

Varanasi – and a half day in Kolkata before – was my introduction to India. The look of a perplexed tourist slowly diminished, yet didn’t disappear completely.

Before I move to my other, hopefully more interesting, entries, let me quickly comment on the burning of bodies, which Varanasi, the holy city (at the end of my post I finally mentioned it), is known for.

Almost all of the people whom I talked to before going to India told me that in one way or the other, Varanasi will unavoidably impact me. To see burning bodies, they would say, is highly overwhelming.

And indeed, the ceremony of burning corpses was without a doubt interesting, even intriguing, if you will. I mean, how can’t it be?

Nevertheless, as one of my travel companions nicely put it, the actual impact was that…there was no impact! That is to say, it was weird to realise that what is being burned on a pile of wood was an actual human body; maybe the relative incomprehensibility of this view was the reason why it didn’t seem shocking. At the same time, if you choose to accept that this is the way to honour the dead in a culture different from yours, then you will move from an appalled tourist to a reasonably curious observer. Thus, I might have lost my coolness in certain respects, yet I tried to at least keep the one that actually matters.

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