I turned 30 in India. In the holy, chaotic, colourful, and surprising city of Varanasi. It’s not a coincidence that I celebrated this milestone in a place where pilgrims flock from all over India and the world. I suppose I was on a pilgrimage of my own, though refused to admit it for fear of sounding clichéd. It was a time when I was asking some big questions like, where is my life headed? What do I want? Is this it? And, the biggest cliché of all time (cue Ben Stiller staring into a puddle in Zoolander), who am I?
Varanasi, in all her messy, vibrant glory, managed to distract me from my self-analysis paralysis. We saw a man drink cow wee. Straight from the cow. Yep, pulled up the tail as the holy beast was doing a number one, filled up his cupped hand with the magic juice, and poured it straight down his throat. A little dribbled down his chin. Yummy.
We braved the back streets by auto rickshaw, fearing for our lives in traffic anarchy.
We looked on as bodies of the dearly departed were prepared for cremation at the burning ghats, and we wandered the alleys behind them, amidst the stacks of wood being weighed, counted and sold.
We saw the guy with (officially) The Worst Job In The World, emerging from a sewer, saturated.
And we met a man named Raju, who made it his duty to row us up and down the holy Ganges, apologizing for his bad English (it wasn’t) whilst educating us about Hinduism and the caste system of India . His eyes lit up when he spoke about the river and it’s significance, and he couldn’t quite hide his pride at being born and raised in the holy city. He bathed in the river every morning of his life, and his reverence to her was palpable. With wide, serious eyes, he told us that if we wanted something, then the waters of the Ganga would provide. All we had to do was ask.
I pondered this for a while, and realised I didn’t even know what to ask for.
But there were more pressing matters at hand, it was time for lunch. We celebrated at Dolphin Restaurant, a fair walk from our hotel (Shiva Ganges View), situated on the fifth floor of a hotel with no lift. But the exercise was welcomed. The paneer makhani was so richly flavoursome, the garlic naan so fresh, and the desserts so delectable, that we almost had to roll down afterwards.
I blew out the candle on my syrupy, rose watery, sweet ball of goodness known as the gulab jamun, unaware of the trouble Tyrhone had gone to in acquiring this piece of birthday paraphernalia . After playing charades with the waiters for a while, (he does tend to use a lot of words when describing something, e.g instead of saying, “one candle please” he tends to resort to a long winded, confusing explanation not dissimilar to “umm, excuse me, would I… please would it be possible… to possibly get a candle…girlfriend’s birthday…please?”) he was presented with a candle big enough to power the whole place should the generator fail. He managed to further confuse them with a bit more “one word, sounds like… sandal” until they were convinced, “yes, this poor man is mad, please give him a small candle, he cannot be trusted.”
But despite our delicious lunch, candle and all, it didn’t really feel like my birthday. Ungrateful or what? I had come to India to escape the predictable, over the top “look at me, aren’t I just fabulous at 30?!” birthday bash, and yet, I felt like something was missing…
Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!