Where Women Must Not Enter

“You must finish your drink and leave.”

The young man looked like he wanted to kill me. He wasn’t joking, and he wouldn’t back down. The feminist in me itched to laugh in his face and keep drinking, just to annoy him. Ever since we had entered the bar, he and his friends had made it clear that they did not want me there. It was a guy-kind of bar, a hide-out. And of course, there were no other women in this bar.

We found this bar by sheer coincidence. In religious Varanasi, bars are scarce. Devout Hindus don’t drink, nor do serious Muslims. Your only option when you are thirsty for a pint is to ask your guest house to scoot to the market to buy beer for you, or take a rickshaw to a far-away hotel bar. We were on our way to one of the established bars when we noticed a sign saying “Chilled Beer,” and a doorway covered by a curtain. It was too tempting to resist.

As if someone had hit the pause button, everyone stopped and stared at us.
“We only serve beer here,” said the man closest to us.
“Great! Can we have a Kingfisher, please.”

We knew exactly what we were doing. It was a men’s dungeon; a stinky, filthy place, where all dozen customers were either drunk, stoned or both. Just the kind of place we like.

Eduardo poured the beer into a glass, lifted it in a salute to all. “Cheers!”
Most of the men lifted their glasses and smiled at him.
Then it was my turn. I filled my glass, lifted it a salute and said “Cheers,” just as Eduardo had. Silence. Not one man cheered me back.

We were shown to the back room where we sat down on a cardboard box and smiled at the men sitting across from us. They smiled back and asked the usual questions about where we were from, how we like Varanasi, etc.

That’s when my would-be-murderer turned around, his eyes bleeding with anger.
“I don’t think they want me here,” I whispered to Eduardo in Spanish.
He didn’t believe me. But just to make sure, he asked the guy who seemed to be in charge:
“You don’t mind my wife being here, do you?”
“No, of course not!”

My nemesis didn’t agree.
“You should leave now!” he hissed.
We ignored him and ordered another bottle on the insistence of the others. Just to show we didn’t care.

The stares grew harsher, meaner, more frightening.
“Women don’t come to this bar,” said the woman-hater when he realized I wasn’t getting the hint.
“Really? So maybe it’s good that I’m here, so you get used to being around women.”
“No. It’s not good.”
“Well, maybe it is.”
At that point Eduardo was elbowing me to shut up. I was irritating the hell out of this guy. And I did it on purpose.
My enemy turned to Eduardo.
“If you would have come here alone, it wouldn’t have been a problem.” He wanted to make sure he wasn’t insulting my husband – a man.
“But she cannot come here.”

The angry guy and his friends made up some story about drunk guys coming in to this bar later, and that it might not be safe for me. We had heard of a recent group rape in Delhi where the victim had died and knew that women were at risk in India. But from the looks I had received, I knew these guys were not worried for me. They were furious that I had dared to cross the line and had trespassed into their male-centered territory.

Having made our point, we finished our second beer and shook hands with everyone including the angry boys. I can only hope that in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, a seed was sown, however small. Because if you just accept discrimination and don’t make a fuss, things will never ever change.

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It’s a Dog’s Life

In the holy city of Varanasi, you cannot walk more than a few feet without meeting a beggar. Young mothers with hungry babies, the terminally ill, blind, deformed and lame all converge here. But none of my fellow humans break my heart quite like the dogs. Disease-ridden and covered with scabs, they are shunned by almost all. They are kicked, beaten and shooed away wherever they go. Lowest on the ladder of misfortunates, they dine from the garbage piles, curl up on extinguished bonfires for warmth and scratch themselves silly to relieve itching from flea bites.

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Unfortunately, puppies seem to outnumber even the fleas. Baby dogs are everywhere. And perhaps not surprisingly, if fornication is the only joy in these poor canines’ lives. The government has instituted a halfhearted effort to sterilize the strays to resolve the problem of the rapidly increasing dog population. But when only reaching 1,000 dogs per month, they are moving way too slowly. So every year tens of thousands of innocent, adorable pups are born into a life of suffering helplessly.

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Life in Varanasi is truly a bitch if you’re a dog. And then you die – from any of a million diseases, including rabies.

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Varanasi: The Beauty and the Beast

As the early morning mist clears, it gradually reveals ancient domes and temples rising from the stone steps over the Ganges River. The sun has barely made its appearance over the horizon, and already the bells are ringing and hundreds of holy men are up to their waist in the water; reciting the Vedic verses and chanting. The hour of the day makes all the difference. It is at dawn that the gods take their bath, and that’s when entering the river allows you to become one with the divine spirit.

Forever covered by a pink haze, Varanasi looks more like a water color painting than the real thing. Its dreamlike essence attracts visitors from all over the world – tourists and photographers alike flock here to capture a drop of this illusion. But it is for the Hindus that this town really matters. Benares, as they call it, is the door to Nirvana; a release from the eternal cycle of reincarnation. If you die here and your body is burned in one of the cremation ghats, your ashes will be spilled into the river so that you become reunited with the Brahman. Luckily, there’s an alternative option for those who are still young and healthy: if you shave your head completely here, you will be handed your own personal guaranteed ticket to Paradise.

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However, as you move away from the waterfront the sublime image quickly fades; Varanasi is seriously filthy. The streets are littered with garbage and excrement from the hundreds of cows, dogs and goats. With no rubbish bins, the dark alleyways become their trash receptacle. You slip and slide in the mud, trying to jump to the side as the speeding motorbikes narrowly misses you. And everywhere you look, someone is urinating against a wall or squatting down to relieve themselves. Your lungs fill with the smoke of incense, bonfires and burning bodies. The stench can be overwhelming.

It seems like everyone you meet has something to sell, often mumbled with a mouth full of red, teeth-staining tobacco. “Boat, Sir?” is the most frequent way to address foreigners, followed by “Hello Boat, very cheap.” One of Varanasi’s most popular activities is drifting along the waves of the Ganga at sunrise, watching the city waking up. Other things on sale are chai, blessings with red tika powder on your forehead, massages (men on men only, please), rickshaw rides and a bowl-shaped leaf filled with orange carnations, yellow and red tints and a candle, which can be sent out on the river as an offering to the gods.

Unfortunately, it is this greed that may slowly ruin what is still one of the most mind-blowing places in the world. Who can tell if any of the dozens of sadhus offering morning blessings are real holy men? Anyone could set up shop by the river with a blanket, the right set of accessories and a painted forehead, cashing in on the fools who are willing to part with their hard-earned money in exchange for a benediction.

But all is forgiven once you sit down to rest in the shade and just focus on the real-life spectacle playing out before you. The vibrant colors, the glittering Ganges, the absolute conviction of those who bathe in the polluted river, drink its water and never get sick.

In the end it’s the ethereal beauty of this place that triumphs over the beast that shares its magnificent abode. And you know with certainty that you will be back one day. Again and again and again.

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Goodbye Nepal, Hello India (Sunauli – Gorakhpur – Saranath)

Crossing overland borders is one of my very favorite things. It’s chaotic, messy, dirty, and you always get scammed – one of life’s absolute certainties. The thugs know that you are tired, stressed and confused about the value of their currency, so you’re a prime target. But the thought of leaving one country and entering another just a few meters away just blows me away.

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As soon as we entered India, one of those guys who just doesn’t stop talking latched on to us. He shared invaluable advice such as “This is the Immigration Office,” when we had already entered, and telling me today’s date when I had just written it down. We tried to ignore him, but he just didn’t go away.

“Here’s the minibus to Gorakhpur.”

Why we chose to take that minibus I don’t know. You should never take the first bus/taxi/rickshaw; you should ask a few for the price to get an rough idea, and then you negotiate with the fourth or fifth one. This time we didn’t.

Luckily, the driver was one of those really greedy guys. Not only did he want to scam us, but also every single other person in the bus. Halfway to Gorakhpur, the fee rose 50%. Of course a fight broke out, and that’s how we found out we had been scammed. .

“I’ll get our money back!” said Eduardo.
“Good luck,” I thought. “It will never happen.”

However, all our arguments in West Africa two years ago had prepared us well. We waited until we got off in Gorakhpur, making sure there were lots of people around, and then we started our scandal.

“Give us back our Rs. 200!”
“No, it was your guide who scammed you!”
“What guide? We didn’t have a guide.”

Throngs of people drew close. Everyone loves commotion. Our driver explained his side of the story to the strangers around us, and they tried to tell me that it was indeed our “guide” who had scammed us.

“He’s lying!” I pointed my finger at the driver. “You told us the price of the ticket, and we paid you.”

Miraculously, repeating this a few times worked, and after a quick phone call, the driver gave us back our money. We couldn’t believe it.

High on our victory, we bought train tickets to Varanasi, and that’s about when our good luck ended.

Eight years ago, we had traveled by train in India, and we had liked it a lot. So this time we were expecting another easy ride. It was anything but.

Maybe the cow sleeping on the Gorakhpur platform should have clued us in. Or the New York sized rats. If not that, the fact that our train was two hours late, and when it came it had no conductor.

At 1 a.m., we weren’t the only foreigners looking for car S1. With no one to ask, and no sign on the train, all of us finally decided to just board, pick a bed and go to sleep. A Russian couple took the berths next to us, and a South Korean couple a few meters away. With no sheets, no pillows, with windows that didn’t close, and a strong smell of urine from the lavatories, it certainly wasn’t going to be smooth. Eduardo and I lay down with our heads on our small backpacks, and feet on the big bags, away from the broken mirror that could send sharp projectiles our way at a sharp bend.

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Finally, the train started running. Then it stopped. Then it ran slowly. Then it stopped. It was freezing, and there was no one else but us foreigners and one Indian man in the whole car. At one point I woke up only to see a cockroach mere inches from my face. Disgusted, I moved over to Eduardo’s side for a while. The train kept running slowly, but mostly not running at all. Now and then, people would pass by, selling chai, or just walking. One of them stole the Russians’ backpack.

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At nine a.m., three hours after expected arrival time, the train just stopped. None of us really paid any attention, as it had stopped so many times before. But then, somehow, Eduardo found out that the train was going to be delayed there four hours, and across the platform was another train going to Varanasi.

The South Koreans and we quickly picked up our bags, crossed the rails, climbed up on the train, and found a spot to sit down just as the train started moving. The Russians didn’t make it.

In Sarnath, the town before Varanasi, Eduardo and I decided to get off. Enough adventure for one day. Time to relax in the village where Buddha gave his first lesson. Perhaps we would learn something.