Monday, January 28, 2008

Varanasi: Pretext 1

This is from my India trip blog, where I, for the first time, spoke about being awake. It's here to give some context to the teaching in this blog.

We arrived early in the morning on January 1. Happy New Year. It was still dark as our train made the slow approach into the station. With a loud, almost cine-effect, shhhhhh sound, we came to a creaking halt. After 24 hours on a train, we had arrived. The hustle and bustle of Varanasi’s main train station was already in full manifestation. I exited our sleeper car room and stepped off the train looking for porters. [We travel heavy carrying ridiculous things we will never use. Anyone need a brand new water filter pump? I suspect that it will still be brand new when we return. How about a travel-size, portable mosquito net? I suspect this will be unused too. But I should not make fun. We will probably end up in a plane crash and all of this will become paramount to our survival, and Tara will have her glorious ‘I told you so’ moment. I hope she does, less the plane crash.] There was a taxi driver and two porters outside. I called the porters in.

“Heavy,” one mutters as he lifts my bag.

“I know. Sorry. Need a water pump?” Tara glares at me. I grin. I think I am great fun.

Outside the taxi driver waves us to follow him. I don’t want to. I don’t like him. But I assume that he will take us to where the other taxi drivers are and we can sort things out there. We arrive at the taxi stand and I tell him where we need to go.

“450, please.” It’s not a lot of money. 450 rupees is, right now, $11.53. But he’s standing in front of a sign that lists the destination I want to go and lists the price of 200 rupees. Bartering is the Indian way, and I pick and choose my battles. I will most of the time pay too much to avoid 15 minutes of arguing. Most of the time the difference comes out to $2, and I feel that I am worth more than $2 for 15 minutes of theatrics. Tara operates on the same philosophy, which generally makes things go pretty well. It is early and I know Tara wants to get to the ashram, but I can’t deal with this.

“450! Are you crazy?”


“200 maximum, my good friend.”

“No. 450.”

“Are you fucking crazy? You’re standing in front of a sign that says 200.”

“Ah, old sign.” By this time our porters had already put out stuff in his trunk and he was feeling pretty good. I, however, was not. It’s go time. I glared at him. He stood, with his tobacco stained teeth, small cap pulled down over his Gandhi spectacled eyes, and glared back. He had a pair of pants on that looked like Dickies, and black sneakers. With his color-coordinated scarf wrapped around his neck, he could have been a skater kid from Seattle.

“Hey, take our stuff out of his car, please.” I wave to the porters. The taxi driver’s face goes flat.

“Okay, okay. My friend, 350. My best price for you today only.”

“No. Hey guys, take our stuff out.” There was another taxi driver nearby, and triangulation is my most favorite barter trick. Put them against each other and make them fight it out. It is a tactic I learned in Honduras years ago. “Hey, can you take us? How much?” Our taxi driver did not like this move.

“Stop, stop, stop. Okay, my friend, 250 for you today.”

“No. 200. That’s it.”

“No, no. It’s early. Special price for early trip.” It was 7:00 AM. 7:00 AM in India is practically lunchtime.

“It’s not early. 200.”

“It’s a Holiday. Happy New Year. Special holiday price. 250.”

I looked at our porters. “Take it out.”

“Okay, okay, okay, my friend. 200 for you today only.”

“Okay. Acha. Chalo.” (Acha: Good; Chalo: ‘Let’s go’ or ‘go away,’ depending on the context)

Tara looked at me and nods. “It’s hot when you do that,” she said. We all climb in the taxi and sit down. He takes a long deep breath and lets it out slowly. Without looking at me, he said, “Where are you from, Mister?”

“Los Angeles, California.”

He takes another long breath, and does not move for a few more moments. “What is your name, Mister?”


He takes another long deep breath and sighs. “You’re a clever man, Mr. Kris. A very clever man. Chalo.” It is unfortunate that being categorized clever in India takes manipulative arguing. I would just as much enjoy a quick chitchat about systemic eco-political change, and be credited clever as a result of having a comprehensive short and long-term vision. But we’re in India, and small, moment-to-moment interactions, create the tapestry of human meaning. In this moment, I was a clever man. In the next moment, not so much.

I forgot to print the directions, address, and number of the ashram we were staying at before we left Rishikesh. I assumed that I would do this in Hardwar, but forgot again in all the busyness. I remembered once we were on the train, but by then it was obviously to late. I did know what area it was in and I could point to, on a map, what part of town it was in, so we went from there. Right on the river, just above the bridge, on the southern tip of town. We drove in that direction. After arriving in the neighbor, driving around a lot, and asking a few people, we had not found the ashram. We later learned that the locals call it something else. We finally decided to have the driver take us to a restaurant and we would wait until an internet shop opened around 10:00 AM.

The restaurant had a computer and printer, but the internet was down when we arrived. We ate and relaxed. A half an hour later the internet was back up and running. We were on our way.

We arrived at the ashram at 11:00. 4:00 hours after we had arrived in Varanasi. We were staying at an Aghora Ashram. Aghor is one of the few living and public sects of Tantra. In its modern expression, Aghor is much tamer than it once was, and the ashram has been cleaned up in the last few years to accommodate for the recent inflow of western seekers. Apparently, there was a Swastika next to the Star of David on the front gate. Both are ancient Hindu symbols, but tantrics love to plan with meaning and interpretation, and I am sure they got a good giggle out of the double entendre and juxtaposition of the ancient symbols. Now there is just a Star of David and a wavy cross. The wavy cross is a toned down version of the Swastika. The ashram has been cleaned up too, and is now home to 18 orphan and street boys.

The main alter piece in this ashram, as is true with most Aghor places of practice, was a hug skull. This has been removed and the puja is much more tame, featuring a few pictures with masters of the tradition and a sweet little Shiva murti, who according to the Aghors, is their Adi Guru: the original guru of the tradition. On the outside, the place has been tamed, but I heard that there are still human skulls buried all over the property. And, one night, around the little courtyard fire, Babaji started laughing and asked, “Can you smell the hamburger?” The wood used for the fires is wood that is left over and unburned from cremation fires.

Our week in Varanasi came and went like a flash, and now very few memories remain. I was very sick by the time we got there, and the horrible sinus infection + only worsened while we where there. I was very weak, my head was so stuffed it was hard to think, and the constant noise, crowds, and change in my visual field made staying grounded while having a cold all the more difficult. Luckily, my nose was completely stuffed, so the city, which is literally covered in an inch of shit, did not reach my experience by way of smells. Though, I did miss all of the wonderful and exotic smells that Tara wrote about.

We met Mark S.G. Dyzckowski our first day there. We walked up to his little house, right on the ghats, and knocked. He opened the door, and invited us. We sat for a few very surreal hours and chatted. He invited us back for a lecture in a few days, and also to a sitar concert he was performing a few days after.

The next day we went to Kasi Viswanath Temple, Varanasi’s most sacred public temple. It had been closed for a while, because of terrorist activity in the area, and was just recently opened last year. After going through five different security checks, which took an hour of constantly fighting and pushing against huge crowds, we arrived at the gate of the ancient temple. I was about to walk in and was grabbed from behind. I turned and there was an army official standing in front of me. He pointed at a sign: Only Hindu Gentleman Are Allowed Here.

I looked down. I was wearing an orange dhoti, a white kirta, and had a huge orange shall wrapped around my upper body. Sacred ash was smeared across my forehead from an earlier temple visit. I was looking pretty Hindu.

“I am,” I said, and then mumbled a few things in Sanskrit.

“Okay, okay. Acha,” and he waved me in.

Inside the temple was complete madness. Hundreds of people all fighting to get into the inner sanctum. Tara, for whatever reason, attracts beggars, scam artists, and everyone selling anything. During our adventures, I spend about half my time chasing these people away. At the temples, there are ‘priests’ there that offer to help with your puja. They will make up mantras, have you toss a few flowers, and then ask for insane amounts of money. They’re pretty easy to spot. One hit us up in a temple in Hardware. Tara went through the whole thing, to my protest, and I then handed the guy 20 rupees. “No, no, 500 rupees, my friend, we said mantras for her family too.” I gave him 200, and told him to fuck off. A vision of throwing him into the Ganga gave me great pleasure. One of these ‘priests’ attached himself to Tara here, and started following us around, offering to guide us through the temple. I kept telling him no and to get away. Tara was concerned about me being disrespectful. What’s more disrespectful than coming into a temple, pretending to be a priest, making up mantras, and then asking for lots of money and threatening with bad karma? I have the urge to throw him in the Ganga too. Visualizing this gave me great pleasure. Perhaps if I made a vision board, it will come true!*

We finally made it inside the sanctum. You think getting a hug from Amma is rough and violent affair of being slammed around? You have not seen anything yet! A huge man throws Tara and me down towards the alter. A priest reaches across the flowered covered Shiva Linga and slaps sacred ash on our foreheads. Another priest throws two flower malas over the murti; one lands on Tara and the other lands on me, both fitting perfectly over our necks. We are then grabbed by another man, picked-up and thrown out of the sanctum. On our way out, I saw an Indian couple being thrown down onto the alter. All of this occurs in tandem with crowds so thick you can barely stand, the deafening sound of bells constantly ringing, people yelling at each other, and incense smoke so thick it was hard to breath. The energy in the inner sanctum was very strong; almost debilitating; so I can understand the ferocity of the crowds.

The coupling of the taxi driver experience and this one at the temple, in culture and texture, make up the essence of Varanasi. As I wrote about in Varanasi the Teaching, it is a city of beautiful and transformative paradoxes and teaching. A rich secret awaits those that can pierce through its disturbing and often impossible surface.

* I suspect that I will eventually get bored and stop making fun of The Secret, but for now it’s way too easy and much too fun. I also hope I offend a lot of people in the process and make them look at their external attachments getting stuff and their attachment to ideas and systems – stupid, selfish ideas and systems.. Again, bottom line, The Secret works. But manifesting what you think you want is not going to make you happy and content. You do not need to manifest anything material, internal, or spiritual to be happy. If you’re not happy now, you’re never going to be. Make a vision board about that, byotch.

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