April 02, 2023
The last time I was in Varanasi I thought I was going to die.
I got deathly ill. Food poisoning to the max.
I found myself on my back, staring up at the ceiling fan – for days.
I was traveling with Lisa; she found a bright, shiny clinic and wanted to bring me there, until our young friend Dolly said:
Whoops. That was a close one.
We decided to depart early for Singapore. I could barely hold up my bag of bones in the airport.
I’d slump over on some bench until the security poked me and asked me if I was well enough to get on the plane.
I’d pop up with a miraculous micro-surge of survival energy and a smile, convincing them that I was just fine.
On the way to the plane, a nice gentleman wheeled me to the gate in a wheelchair.
I spent the entire way vomiting into a plastic bag, wondering if he thought it was strange that what came out of me was jet black (I had taken a ton of activated charcoal pills).
All this to say … I vowed NEVER to come back to this place.
And so … guess where we went next on our trip to Asia this most recent time?
We said goodbye to our beloved friends in Bodhgaya, jumped on a bus.
We arrived in the middle of the night to our AirBnb in Varanasi.
Hilarious to think about all of our suitcases – and us – being dumped in the middle of a dirt road at night in the dark. I asked the bus driver to wait until we’d inspected our place. He laughed and agreed.
The next day we took a tuk tuk to the old part of Varanasi. We wanted to see the Ganges.
We walked through a river of people; on the way I asked a gentleman in a bright purple button-down shirt if he could point the way to the Ghats.
He smiled and said his shop was near there; he would lead us to the riverfront.
He weaved us in & out of people, traffic, cars, bicycles, stray dogs and the occasional cow.
As we arrived at the river, the purple-shirted gentleman introduced himself as Vishal. He and his brother, Vishnu, owned a silk shop. They invited us to visit their shop after dinner.
After a delicious meal on a balcony overlooking the Ganges, we realized the two brothers were waiting for us to finish.
We sent Chai down to them and after our meal, they toured us around the Ghats.
A Ghat is a passageway or stair steps leading down to the river, typically for some kind of ceremonial purpose. As the Ganges River is considered in Hinduism to be the holiest river in India, the Ghats in Varanasi are a Hindu pilgrimage place.
As taught to us by our new friend, Vishnu, bodies of the deceased are brought to the river 24/7 for cremation, except five kinds of bodies that do not qualify, and are simply placed directly into the holy Ganges River: infants & children, animals, sadhus (Hindu yogis) and those who have been killed by snake bites or skin diseases.
All other bodies are cremated and the cremation fires are all out in the open and visible. There is no hiding death, like in Western culture.
In Varanasi, death is as much a part of everyday life, as life itself. At any time of the day or night, you can see family members carrying in their beloved’s bodies wrapped in cloth, for their sacred cremation by the river.
After walking quietly around the cremation Ghat, Vishal and Vishnu invited us to visit their silk shop. We obliged and followed them around the tiny winding footpaths to arrive at their beautiful shop.
Our eyes grew big looking at all the different colors and touching the textures of different varieties of silk and wool. Sheep wool, camel wool, cashmere, pashmina, you name it!
Shiny, matte, elegant, casual, soft, luxurious – the brothers had every gorgeous weave and style … from shawls to blankets to scarves.
To show our gratitude for wayfinding and the impromptu Ghats tour, each of us bought beautiful gifts for loved ones at home.
After this initial meeting, these two men, Vishal & Vishnu, became our guardian angels, helping us every step of the way when we encountered a new puzzle.
For example, we wanted to buy new mattresses for our friends who lived in Varanasi.
If you’ve ever tried walking into an entirely new culture and tried to figure out something simple like … where to buy a bed/mattress/cushion/sheets … it’s pretty funny.
Something that seems so simple to do at home, gets confusing and complicated real quick in another culture.
Which part of town do you buy a mattress?
What stores can you find them in?
What kinds of materials do people sleep on here?
Is it common to use sheets or just blankets?
What kind of platform is the bed on?
We take for granted how we sleep! And in every culture I’ve been to, the answers to these questions are different!
In Varanasi, Lisa, Alison and I trekked all over town in search of brand-new bedding. Our friends’ sleeping situation was causing back pain and discomfort.
Vishal & Vishnu realized we were being of service to our friends. They led us all over the city & began to treat us like family.
For our young friend in her 20’s, we bought her a traditional Indian mattress (kind of like a futon that’s placed on a heavy frame). For her mother, we sought out a more Western-style mattress. (Sort of … they’re still very different.)
Vishal & Vishnu oriented us on where to go and who to talk to – and stayed with us during the entire process.
They helped us negotiate with more local grit than we would’ve been able to as foreigners.
Luckily the store delivered the Western-ish mattress to our friends’ house. We heaved the other futon-like mattress into the electric tuk tuk on our laps and away we rode.
Varanasi has about 12x the amount of pollution of Los Angeles. Even though it was easy & fun … riding in an open air tuk tuk everywhere was probably not the best idea.
All of us ended up getting sick from overload of wind, pollution, cold air & just being overstimulated in a new environment.
After several days of battling the crazy, urban life & pollution of Varanasi, we needed to figure out how we were going to get to Nepal.
Again we reached out to our now ‘brothers’, Vishal & Vishnu, who introduced us to several bus drivers.
Here’s Lisa masterfully bargaining with an Indian driver. This driver didn’t make the cut.
Vishnu then introduced us to a travel guide who connected us with a wonderful driver and private bus.
What struck me most about these two brothers was how quickly they began to feel like family.
We wanted to purchase a TV for a friend who’s often in bed? They helped us figure it out.
It blows me away, really.
When I think about people from two entirely different worlds, two different spiritual paths, two different life realms … colliding on the street and finding ways to be of benefit to others — it touches me in a deep place inside.
There is such a pure love that arises in one’s heart from these miraculous encounters.
Vishal excitedly talked about inviting us to stay at his house for his youngest daughter’s wedding. (Heart-swell.)
When the time came for us to leave Varanasi, almost all of us had faced some sort of fevers, runny nose or were rolling with a hacking cough. We were exhausted. And ready to leave Varanasi.
Our beautiful friends, Dolly & Maya, showed up on the morning of our departure with hours worth of home-cooked food for us to bring on the trip.
Vishal & Vishnu came to see us off and surprised us with fresh roses, more pashmina scarves and treats for the road.
Tears sprung and my heart swelled (again).
What the heck. How did these men become like family in such a short time? And seeing Dolly & Maya again after 10 years was such a gift.
The guys piled our suitcases into rickshaws, and we walked ourselves to the bus.
We said goodbye to our unusual and cherished extended family, waving out the windows as we rode off to our next adventure.
I looked out the windows into the crazy Varanasi streets, in awe of the last few days …
… in awe of how my heart strings had been pulled. In awe of the people we left behind and how huge their hearts are.
As our bus bumped along the road, our plan was to make it to the border and cross over into Nepal.
We had only five hours to make it before the border closed.
Love, travel magic & an open heart,