Monday, September 29, 2008

The oldest city in the world

Varanasi is claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world and it is also the holiest place in Hindu culture. The sacred River Ganges runs through the town and Hindus believe that if you die there you will break the cycle of re-incarnation and get a first class ticket to heaven. You also get brownie points if you are cremated in Varanasi and/or your ashes or bits of your skeleton (retrieved from the funeral pyre) are thrown into the Ganges. As I approached the city, some of my fellow passengers were busy chucking the bones and ashes of their relatives out of the train door as it crossed over the river - presumably they didn't have time to get off. Life in Varanasi revolves around the Ganges and there are numerous ghats – steep steps leading down to and into the water. As well as the many cremations – on the “burning ghats” – people take ritual baths, float candles in the river, do their washing, pray, promenade, do yoga or just sit. It was swarming with sadhus and swamis and buzzing with colour and activity even at 5am when we went on a boat trip to see the sun rise – yes, I got up that early! Strangely, it reminded me of the Grand Canal in Venice with a large spoonful of Indian spice thrown in.

I'd gone to Varanasi for a conference (which made a pleasant change from, say, Birmingham) but you also got to meet all the other VSO volunteers in India and swap stories in the hotel bar ... over a beer - I hadn’t had a drink for nearly four weeks. The next jolly is in Ranchi so roll on December.
Varanasi map : Culture and history : More pictures.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting connected

As the internet connection I’d bought in Delhi didn’t work in Bhawanipatna, I decided to swap it for one provided by BSNL - the national telecoms provider. First stop was the BSNL exchange where they have to confirm it will work on your computer. Next, we trucked down to the shop to purchase the required gizmo. It wasn’t a shop exactly but a collection of offices and, a bit like playing a computer game, you had to clear various levels before you’re allowed to make your purchase. You successfully complete Level 1 only to find yourself back there because you’ve made a mistake at Level 2. It took numerous attempts to successfully complete Levels 1 and 2 - I needed to fill out a form but they didn't have any in stock so I should try another time; the photo didn't look like me - could I come back with a better one; the man at Level 2 isn’t in today - come back tomorrow; and so it went on. Then, having finally made it to Level 3, I was told that, because I was a foreigner, I should have applied in my employer's name and not my own.
By now I was the highest scoring player at Levels 1-3 so, armed with a fresh set of forms, getting to Level 4 was a breeze. Here all the paperwork was laboriously copied out by hand and then two further pages of carefully hand-written text were created and everything was placed in a beige folder. Assuming we were done, I got up to leave. Not a bit of it - I was told to sit back down while all the pages were meticulously written out again and placed in a red folder and then there was the copy for the grey folder and then the yellow. To keep myself sane during the 2½ hour process, I recited The Jumblies to myself. Somehow, the thought of creatures with green heads and blue hands sailing across oceans in a sieve seemed infinitely less surreal than what was going on in front of me. Finally, I accompanied the orange folder to Level 5 where exactly the same information was entered onto the “shop’s” only computer. It very quickly became clear that the computer wasn't working but I sat there for further 1½ hours until everybody else had come to the same conclusion. The Jumblies set sail again several times.
The next day - 17 days after I'd first started - I was finally allowed to buy the required gizmo. However, as I sit here in my flat posting my blogs and listening to latest BBC Radio 4 podcast, I think, in the end, it was probably all worth it. As they say, "All things come to those who wait" … eventually.