Life’s a Zoo

Varanasi is a zoo in a zoo. There are cows acting like dogs, dogs fighting monkeys on rooftops, monkeys acting like rats, goats wearing clothes, men have faces like elephants, and on and on. Dogs sleep on piles of ashes — human or garbage — because they like the warmth. There are devastating cases of mange. Many puppies are starving although mothers look like they are carrying so much milk they are going to explode. Cows wear necklaces and steal fruit from street vendors or simply tear into “leftovers” in plastic bags. Yesterday I saw a dog on a roof. It was fighting with monkeys. Or playing. I’m not entirely sure. It seemed slightly out of the norm given how many locals stopped to watch and were laughing, and encouraging me to take photos. I also saw a dog lift his leg and pee on a woman’s sari. She didn’t even notice. Here are a few photos to give you an idea…

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If you are curious about the guy with the elephant face, click here for a photo, but I must warn you it is fairly disturbing, so you may not want to look. I walk past him everyday but feel inappropriate taking a picture. He sits in front of a little statue of Ganesh, the elephant god of fortune. As I was told yesterday, I’d see all different variations of humanity in Varanasi and that couldn’t be more right.

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The World’s Best Lassi (plus some very fine silk)

Ok, I’ve found it. Siwon Lassi Shop, Ck. 26/16-A, Kachouri Gali, Chowk, Varanasi. I has the apple lassi. Today I’m going back for the fruit lassi (apple, pomegranate, and whatever else is in season). Pappu is a master. Images speak for themselves.

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On another note, through a friend, I’ve also found a silk guy, so if you come to Varanasi and want to buy what you know is good quality, beautiful silk (otherwise there is a major risk of being duped), see Arun at Banaras Art Emporium, +91 9839 268 686 or arunbae@gmail.com (explain who sent you). He owns a factory so it isn’t a shop, but a room in his house with cupboards of high quality fabric. He can make anything and will ship. I spent small fortune on silk bedding (there is a tailor who will put together whatever you like).

Life and Death in Varanasi

I know, I have gone a bit off course in India, writing more about places and experiences than food. There are two reasons for that: 1. there is sometimes a significant delay between when I eat something noteworthy and when I can write a post, and 2. all senses are so overwhelmed in India, it is sometimes easy to forget about what you’ve eaten because it has been overshadowed by what you’ve seen, smelled, heard, and, whether you like or not, touched.

Because I’d like to give you an idea of what Varanasi is like, I am going devote this post to that, rather than the food, but I promise tomorrow to get back into the culinary side of things.

Varanasi is almost an almost impossible to describe. If you are intererested, I really suggest you read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. I have never read such an accurate description of a place before and if you have spoken to me sometime in the last four months, you will know that I am obsessed with this book (thank you Eric for giving it to me). Because the book describes Varanasi far better than I could ever hope to, I am going to include a few excerpts below and post some of my photos to give you an idea. Everything I transcribe is true — I have seen it and felt it. My lack of time and literary skills just prevent me from conveying it so beautifully.

By way of bankground, Varanasi is situated in the bank of the holy Ganges River and is considered a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the river. According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago, making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country.

Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of River Ganges. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. My hotel is located right next to the main cremation ghat, where bodies are burnt 24 hours a day (my nose is stuffed). Because of the holiness of Varanasi and the river, it is very significant in Hinduism to be cremated here. Bodies must be able to make it to Varanasi within 24 hours of death, otherwise, they are cremated and then sent to Varanasi, where the ashes are poured into the river.

I am describing it somewhat simplistically, and I don’t understand it totally myself, but in Hinduism, there are different casts of people that one may be born into. No matter what one does in his current life, he is blessed or doomed to remain in that strata. To the extent he accrues good karma during his life, he essentially is buying his way into a higher strata for his next incarnation. And vice versa. It is only those who are in the lowest cast who clean the streets, handle sewage, manage the cremations. And there is no hope in Hinduism for them to do anything else in this life. Worse even, or maybe better, is to be reborn as an animal, as a donkey — that is even lower on the totem pole.

Ok, if you’re still interested at all, read the Death in Varanasi excerpts below. Photos of the burning ghats are prohibited so you can’t see those. Also, these photos are a lot cleaner than it actually is. —

“I looked at books about Varanasi, but there was more to learn than I could ever hope to take in. It was where Shiva had decided to live. It was where the world began. Crossing places –tirthas — were sacred, certain crossing places were especially auspicious, but the whole of Varanasi was a crossing places, between this world and the next. Basically, there was no place on earth more worth visiting even though, in a sense, it was not of this world. I had read somewhere that Lourdes is not Lourdes for the people who live there. The same probably went for Mecca: where did people who lived there go for a pilgrimage? But it was not true of Varanasi. Varanasi made going anywhere else seem nonsensical. All of time was here, and probably all of space too. The city was a mandala, a cosmogram. It contained the cosmos.”

“Everything was intensely ritualized and completely ad hoc. Head shaved, wearing only a length of white cloth, a thin man led a group round an as yet unlit pyre…A pair of charred feet were sticking out of a collapsing pyre. One of the dooms chucked more logs onto the body of this ex- person and prodded the feet back into the flames…I glimpsed a head dripping fat into the flames. The skull became gradually apparent. There was more chanting. Another body was being carried down the the river. Cows munched the wilted remains of flowers. The ashes of earlier funerals were being raked through. They were shoveled towards the river. The body that was about to be burned, the one that had just been brought down, was being dipped in the river: an after-the-fact baptism of fire.”

“All around was honk and blare. The din, the dust, the noise were unbelievable, but wasn’t it great that there was a place on earth where dust, din and blade thrived? What a clean and dull planet it would be if everywhere became a suburb of Stockholm…where there were no elephant -headed gods who rode around on mice, where there were no beggars waiving their bandaged, pus-stained stumps in your face, no janitors claiming they were priests, no cows solemnly manuring the streets, no monkeys running riot and no kids scrounging rupees? And beneath all ones irritation and annoyance, in any case, was the knowledge that the demand for money was a straightforward expression of the inequality of economic relationships. We, the tourists, were immensely rich, and they, the beggars and the boatmen, the masseurs and the hustlers, were unfathomably poor. The pestering was a persistent, but still voluntary, tax on luxury. You didn’t have to pay. You could say no. But this ‘No’ would be ignored, but if you kept saying it over and over again, then . . . it would still be ignored. But eventually, after the twentieth time, it would be accepted. Either that or jt would have turned into a ‘Yes’. Given the gulf between what you had and what they did without, it was a miracle, really, that you didn’t get robbed every time you left the hotel, the compound, that your feet were not ripped off simply to get at your sandals, that you weren’t torn limb from limb and eaten, or your liver sold for dog food.”

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Rickshaw Turf Wars

Of the places I have been in India so far, Jaipur is my favorite. We weren’t there for long, but the food was good (as previously discussed), the people were appropriate (mostly), the place was pretty, and we just had a good time. I just wanted to post a couple anecdotes as well as some pictures, before I get into the heaviness that is Varanasi in my next post.

On our second night in Jaipur on our way home from dinner, we somehow managed to get in the middle of an auto rickshaw turf fight. Seriously. After leaving the restaurant and feeling dissatisfied with our three desserts (no, that’s not a typo), Josh convinced me to go to McDonalds to share a McFlurry. Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t normally touch fast food; my new exception to that rule is India. Anyway, we finished off the ice cream and we walk over to a few guys standing around rickshaws and asked for a lift to our hotel, knowing that the price should be 50 or 60 rupees (about one dollar). When a man — who seemed to be in charge — suggested that it would be 200 rupees, we were so shocked by his dishonesty that we deteriorated into a fit of laughter and I actually asked the man if he was on drugs. Normally when people try to rip you off for these rides, they try to charge you 80 rupees, not 200. After a short and ridiculous argument, we started walking away, and as is typical, we were chased down and given a fair(ish) price. This country wears you down in so many ways, that you sometimes swallow your pride and just accept the offer, even though in your heart you’d rather search for a more honest driver.

So we got in the rickshaw to which we were directed and we ended up sitting there and waiting. A couple minutes passed and we were tired and frustrated so decided to get out and find another driver — why should we sit around and wait for some dishonest guy? In India, there may be a shortage of toilets, but there is never a shortage of drivers. So we cross the road and just as we flagged down a new driver, who happened to be one of the men in the initial group of drivers we approached, and hopped into the rickshaw, the original rip-off driver zipped up behind us and jumped out of his rickshaw with his 10 year old son and they both start fighting with our new driver, who seemed to have undercut the original driver (the apparent boss). While the three of them were going at it, another rickshaw pulls up and Josh and I decided we would take this one, the third party bystander. As we got out, both the first and second drivers started chasing us and screaming. The next thing I knew, Josh has signaled to the new driver to start driving, and he and I start sprinting ahead of the other screaming men. On the run, we literally jumped in the moving rickshaw and zipped away. It was kind of like an action movie getaway, except it was a rickshaw. I really hope that the driver who took us home hasn’t been blacklisted by the Jaipur rickshaw mafia. He said he was going home after he dropped us off; probably to make sure they hadn’t burnt down his house.

The next day we were supposed to fly to Varanasi, but upon arrival at the airport, we were told that because our first flight was delayed, we would miss our second flight and there was no alternative way to get to Varanasi that day. I am not going to go into details, but basically the Spice Jet (yes, that’s an airline) manager for the Jaipur airport, was so horrible that we ended up in a very tense argument with him (think lots of explicatives). Let’s just say that had we been in the U.S., we would have been thrown into jail.

In the end, there was nothing we could do, so we flew to Delhi and rebooked our Varanasi flight for the following day. Then did what any budget traveler would do — booked ourselves into the Taj Mahal Hotel Delhi, the nicest hotel in the city, arranged to be picked up from the airport by a BMW (only the second one I’ve seen in India), and then went out for an obscene dinner at the Morimoto restaurant in the hotel. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself in this country or you won’t make it. On that note, I’ll leave you with some photos. Credit to Josh for the third, fourth, and fifth photo.

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New Yorkers, do these look familiar? Wasabi by Morimoto.

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Jaipur Cheap Eats

Today we had some unexpected local treats in Jaipur (the capital of Rajistan — we arrived here last night from Agra where we made the obligatory visit to the Taj Mahal (and it lives up to its reputation)), which topped an already great day. We started off the morning at Lassiwala, a Jaipur institution (since 1944) serving only sweet lassi, a drink of blended yogurt and sugar, and renowned to be the best in town. I have had a number of lassis over the past few weeks and this was in a whole different ball park. Lassiwala makes its curd from a blend of buffalo and cow milk and the resulting lassi is thick and velvety with a bit of a curd skin on top for some texture. I hear there is some great lassi in Varanasi as well, so I will see how that compares; Lassiwala will be hard to beat.

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Although the lassi was very satisfying, I was still desperate for some coffee and solid food and on a tip from the guys at Lassiwala, we headed to Indian Coffee House, a cheap as chips co-operative cafe on M.I. Road. This was a great find. We were the only Westerners in the shop and the menu was genuine Indian, right down to the coffees. Josh and I each had a dosa — mine filled with egg and his with spicy vegetables (i.e. masala) — which is a fermented crepe made from rice batter and is a very common Indian breakfast. The dosas came with sauce and a runny side dish, both of which look too unappealing to post, but tasted good. I had a hot cream coffee, which was black coffee served with hot cream on the side, and Josh had a “special coffee,” which was a thick, already creamy hot coffee.

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(yes, I know this photo has nothing to do with food, but it wouldn’t be a complete Indian day, or post for that matter, without Sharukh Kahn; and by the way, after watching “Om Shanti Om,” (or click here for a Wikipedia summary), I am a complete Bollywood convert.)

The lassis and dosas kept us full until about 4, when, on our way home, we stopped at a street cafe for some samosas and aloo tikkis (Indian potato patties stuffed with peas and other vegetables). They were served with this delicious chickpea curry side dish that had some sort of sweetish green sauce. Two samosas, two aloo tikkis and a large bottle of water for $1.40. Can’t beat that.

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I am slightly embarrassed to say that we polished off lunch with another sweet lassi from Lassiwala (at least we shared just one). To get home, we decided to forego the auto-rickshaw and go for a straight-up pushbike rickshaw. I gave the guy two dollars, rather than the 80 cents the 20 minute ride was supposed to cost. I think in this instance, I understood his head bobble to mean thank you.

Ok, I am off to dinner.

Non-Faux Authentic Tibetan Cuisine

This post covers the same Tibetan food that I wrote about a few days ago, but on my last full day in McLeod Ganj, I finally had the real thing, mutton and all. There is a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant with a green door and no name serving up the freshest thentuk and momos in town, and, in fact, those are only items on the menu. The place is tiny and offers toilet paper as napkins/serviettes, but it is well worth visit. If you ever go to McLeod Ganj, the restaurant is the first door down from the guy who roasts goat trotters, skin and hair included, over an open flame on the sidewalk (or you can ask me for more detailed directions). For all you Melburnians, it is kind of like the Pellegrinis of Tibetan food.

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