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I'm in Benares.  Also called Varanasi. 
    I was anticipating a "cultural / historical / educational" experience. The guide book quotes Mark Twain: "Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and it looks twice as old as all of them put together."    I've been surprised to find a vibrant, and  friendly town.  It is old.  But my guide pointed out much new construction. Rebuilding old buildings in a newer style.  These are, I think, signs of the flat world.  This is Hindu's most sacred place, a place of pilgrimage. The tourist industry is not geared to westerners, but the Indian making pilgrimage and holiday.  Surprisingly Benaires is much better organized than Delhi and Agra.  Check out the electric wires. Power poles. What a concept. Life happens on the rooftops.  I've been watching the children flying kites.  Must have been 100 of them up this afternoon.  The  Indian tourists, cruise the river in open row boats and walk and picnic on the far beach.  They are flying kites too.  The hotel manager mentioned a half a dozen schools that give sitar lessons and there are many Yoga teachers.  I've been having interesting, personal and enlightening conversations with many of the hotel staff.  A Nepali from Pokara has been engaging.  This is the first place in India I could imagine staying for a length of time.  I'm writing this after being here a couple days and getting my bearings. 

The account below is of my encounter with the "Ghats"  when I first arrived and was sick.  I warn you it's not pleasant.  I include it because it captures an aspect of the place and my experience that's real.  I must say that I appreciate the Ghats because they are real, - not institutionalized, sanitized, .... how life has been lived for the 10,000 years before the world began to flatten.  And I appreciate flatness and our sanitized culture more.  Though, something has been lost.

*************************   Written day before yesterday *******************************

First full day in Varanasi, Benairus. Got totally exhausted in the morning in an hour. Went for a walk. Down to the Ghats. Amazed and overwhelmed at the piles of wood, used for cremation. Emotionally stressed that people continually accost me trying to sell me things. Also, I'm trying to take pictures that I feel are an invasion of privacy. But I want the pictures. I'm afraid that I won't believe this really is so when I get home if I don't take the picture. On pins and needles that people will be upset. No one seems to mind or notice. Except when I come around the corner and see the burning Ghat. I don't know what I expected, but the reality of seeing the fire, and all the ceremony going on around it ... with hundreds of people all around carrying on their lives, bathing in the Ganges. I'm staggered. I run my camera on automatic. A man grabs my arm. I'm shocked. I shake him off. He explains that photographing the burning Ghat is not permitted. People will be angry and break the camera. He speaks pretty good English. I suspect a scam. He insists that I talk to another man. I go halfway and motion the man to come to me so we meet in a street. He says photographing the Ghat is not permitted. I say fine, put my camera away. He seems satisfied. (I'm surprised.) Though 10 feet down the street a man approaches saying I can photograph the Ghat, if pay money. I'm convinced it's a scam. I go back down toward the Ghat.

A man approaches. He seems less aggressive. Says he will take me for an hour in his boat for 150 Rs. I don't respond. He doesn't persist, but steps aside. After a few minutes I ask him about his offer and we agree.

I discover over the course of the boat ride that he is capable and knowledgeable. His morning fare did not show up. I was the opportunity.  He tells me:

There are 2 burning Ghats. Only rich people can afford them. He point's out the house of the man who owns the main burning ghat. Says he is an untouchable, but he's rich since he owns the ghat that rich people pay a lot to cremate their relatives. People who are not rich cremate their relatives elsewhere and bring the ashes, hire a boat and put the ashes in the river. Five kinds of people who have died can not be cremated: babies, women who are pregnant, people with small pox or leprosy.....? They are tied to rocks and put in the river. After a few days the bodies and body parts come up, float down the river and wash up on the shore. He points out a baby that is being prepared on the shore for water burial. Along side this are people bathing and performing rituals and washing clothes. There are “sadus”, holy men, all over the shore. Many are sitting completely still, meditating. Children are swimming. My boatman says that there are many kinds of Ghats. Just 2 burning ghats. There are Ghats for people from different places. Nepalese people have a temple and their own ghat, the Nepal Ghat. There's a Rajistani Ghat; a Muslim Ghat .... There are bathing ghats, clothes washing ghats, puja (cerimony) ghats. When tourists learn that their clothes were washed in the river they are upset because of the pollution. Of course the locals think they've been blessed. He points out animal bodies in the river ­ goats and a dead cow. He points out the fishing boats and says the fish brings 100 rs a kilo in the local market. He says there are dolphins in the river. He points out mud on the lower ghat steps. He says that will be cleaned off. Two weeks ago the river was twenty feet higher and he says that it took 4 men to row upstream as he is doing by himself now. Then the river was, I'd guess, a mile wide. Now it's 300 yards. The water is muddy with sediment. He says that in a couple weeks it will be clear, white. The water has come from the Himalayas. It runs swift and cold. He hails a man who greets him. He says that the man is his sister's husband. He owns many boats and is rich. He says his sister is lucky. The man looked like anyone else ... another boatman.

There are many people taking boat rides like myself, but most in groups of 6 to 12. The vast majority are Indians. They are enjoying themselves. They are on holiday. The sky is full of birds. Flocks of eagles and swallows. The parrots stay to the trees.

The boat ride ends. I give my boatman 300, rs, twice what we'd agreed. He asks for more. I'm upset. Why? What does it matter? What is it about money transactions and human interactions that are so emotionally confusing and upsetting, for me.

I am not 100 yards from my hotel, but hopelessly lost. I have to ask for directions 5 times. I am emotionally exhausted. I stagger up to my room. I have the penthouse apartment at the top of this hotel recommended in the guidebook. It cost several times the rate of the other rooms and the manager only showed it to me since I wanted a window. He seemed to think it was unreasonably expensive. 600 rs, about $15 a night. It's on the 6th floor with views up and down the river and most of the roof tops around where the children are flying kites, playing cricket and roller-skating. With my binoculars I watch the eagles and the activity of people across the river. I'm recovering from diarrhea and a bad cold. It is a sanctuary. I am fragile. I am aware of the people around me, the Indians. They are so full of energy, ambition, playfulness. They retreat to their family compounds. This is mine. And I write to you.