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WTFN


Varanasi was its own special kind of India. It is also on the Ganga river like Rishikesh, but the Ganga in Varanasi is very different from the Ganga in Rishikesh: many people go to Varanasi to have their bodies burned and have their ashes thrown into the river. They literally go to Varanasi to die, because for some Hindus this is considered the holiest way to pass. Since these cremation ceremonies are happening 24/7, in public, Varanasi has a very spiritual and solemn undertone to it.
But with 3 million people, hallucinogenic yogurt (this is called Bang Lassi) and the zaniest back alleyways you can imagine, it is impossible not to have fun. To start, it was so great to have Laetitia in Varanasi. Something about having her there felt like home (uhh probably because she did have a home there). I had a real friend, with a real apartment, with a real kitchen to cook dinner in and our own rooftop to watch the sun set from. Coincidentally my hostel was just a five minute walk from Laeti’s place and it was also the best hostel ever. Although somewhat transient, with new people in and out every day which was kinda the opposite of Secret Garden, the people I met were all really open and cool and the hostel itself fostered social interaction in the perfect ways. Breakfast every morning on the outside porch from 8-10AM. Chai tea every afternoon at 4. Daily walking tours that were not cheesy. Okay yeah they were but they were still awesome. Nightly hangout sessions that lasted hours and hours. 
I was in Varanasi for just about two weeks. On the second or third day at my hostel, Winston showed up. (Hey Winnie). He is a cute boy from New Zealand who was also traveling alone. Before I’d been on one of the daily walking tours, I'd assumed they were cheesy and so did Winston. So we decided to ditch the organized tour and do the market tour on our own, Google Maps style. Yeah, we’ll just Google all the different markets and then go to them! DUH. Who needs the tour. So, we Googled the Paan market and made that our first destination. Paan is everywhere in Varanasi. It’s about ten different ingredients wrapped up in a Paan leaf, and then chewed like chewing tobacco. The rickshaw drivers chew it constantly as it supposedly curbs hunger and contains caffeine. They’ll stop your ride to pull over and grab a Paan. When chewed, the ingredients mix together and turn red. As if chewing tobacco, the drivers spit while chewing Paan, and so there is red saliva all over the city streets. Anyway, after a 100 rupee rickshaw to some weird and deserted part of Varanasi, we did not find the Paan market on our own. Wandering in the ninety-five degree blazing sun with zero shade gets old pretty fast so we headed back to the center of the city and just tried some Paan from one of the thousands of Paan wallas on the streets. (Walla = the guy who makes the fill-in-the-blank, in this case Paan). It was pretty disgusting… tasted like shampoo, menthol and almonds. You have to chew for five minutes straight before you can do your first ‘spit’… I was so ready to spit after five minutes that I spit out red saliva all over my chai colored Vans. (Those things are freakin' DONE FOR… but they are totes still goin).
Winston had a train booked to go to Kolkota (also spelled Calcutta), in order to catch a flight from Kolkota to Myanmar. Kolkota is in the state of West Bengal, on the very eastern side of India. I had wanted to head over that way, but it wasn’t exactly en route to any of my other must-see places in India, so I was going to skip it… but then Winston invited me to come with him and though it made little sense, I did it. Because WTFN? (New acronym on the scene: Why The F Not). Geographically speaking, if Varanasi were Manhattan, then Kolkota was Montauk (except 12 hours apart instead of 3). I figured a little weekend trip to the Hamptons couldn’t hurt! Especially if it was a weekend trip that wasn’t actually on the weekend, or was it, or who knows, because I truly did not know what day it was, and I had nowhere to be except wherever I wanted to be, so it didn’t matter at all, all that mattered was whether I wanted to go to Kolkota that day and under those circumstances I did. And so I did. 
Our twelve-hour non-AC overnight train to Kolkota was delayed for a total of four hours while en route, putting the train ride at a total of sixteen hours, so by the time we got in to Kolkata proper we were really not in the mood to go searching for a guest house. There aren’t any hostels in Kolkata so we went for the easy, convenient four-star hotel option. The Peerless Inn, towering high above the city.  While checking in, I legitimately felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Business people shuffling past us, while we were standing there in dirty clothes drenched in sweat with our backpacks on. But inadequate as I felt, I can’t even tell you how good it was to be in an air conditioned lobby with one of those unnecessarily large chandeliers, listening to the instrumental saxophone cover version of My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. And WOW had I missed those hotel amenities. Crystal clean, cool bed sheets. Real pillows. Real towels. Air conditioning. Carpet. Hot water. HBO!
Kolkota was a pretty cool city. It had a European vibe to it. Lots of British influence. European-looking architecture. A few tall buildings. Some golden domed buildings. Fountains. Beautiful street lamps. Wide, palm tree-lined streets with multiple lanes for cars. Old fashioned yellow taxis. A big, lovely river and two bridges. A cricket stadium! A subway system. An abundance of street food. Multiple movie theaters. One evening Winston and I wandered into a shop near our hotel and I was perusing the t-shirts. I found one graphic tee with a screen print of a fist, defiantly holding up what I thought was a hand grenade. “Look at this. It’s kinda f’d up to put something so violent on a t-shirt, no?” I said to Winston. To which Winston replied, “Um… that is a cricket ball.”  So yeah, that was embarrassing.
Winston had to leave one day before me, so I ended up having a day alone in Kolkota. I realized it was the first time in two and half months I had been by myself. I have been traveling alone, but I have never actually for one second been alone. I always have a room mate (or eight), or I am with some friend I’ve made. It was a weird feeling. Not bad, just weirdly unfamiliar. I decided to walk over one of the bridges, because walking bridges is one of my favorite things to do in NYC. 
Kolkota is on the eatern shore of India, so it is a major trade city, with lots of goods coming in and out. The bridge leads directly to the train station where many goods are sent by rail. I saw first hand how those goods get to the station: they are carried on top of a human being's head. My walk over the bridge was my first glimpse of the kind of poverty that makes your heart sink: men crossing the bridge, skinny as skeletons, balancing absurdly large and heavy goods on their heads. Nets the size of cars, full of soccer balls. Plastic bins the size of cars, full of neon colored toys. Boxes the size of cars, full of who knows what.  Gigantic baskets of marigold flowers for Hindu ceremonies. One hundred shoe boxes, bound with saran wrap.  These men were run-walking — the kind of speedwalk you do when you really want the journey to be over but you can’t quite muster a run. Feet dragging, but quickly. Although I had seen the head-carrying technique in many of the other villages, this time it was different. This time the human beings looked ill and pained. This time it wasn’t just a way of life but exploitation. It was hard to cross the bridge and make eye contact. Many people have said to me about India, “the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer.” This seems like a cliché, true of any country, until you see suited and saree’d men and women walking briskly past these depleted, suffering people, not even blinking an eye. Mostly I just couldn't believe that these men even could carry such things. Such huge, heavy things. Nonsensical. I dragged myself to the end of the bridge thinking, how are they doing that? And what is so necessary that that kind of thing needs to happen? And even though I know we’re not directly responsible, and I know there are so many factors beyond our control, and the industry and economics of it all are so complex and complicated… I couldn’t help but think, how are we doing that?  I didn’t know what to do with my face as I walked. Look down? Look ahead with blinders on? But neither of those felt right so I just smiled at one man carrying bed sheets on his head and I didn’t expect him to but he smiled back.
I booked myself a train back to Varanasi so that I could continue to explore the city and of course keep hanging out with Laetitia. There was so much traffic on the way to my 8:30PM train that it took an hour to get through the gridlock and I arrived at the station at 8:29. I ran to the platform to see the train pulling out of the station and SPRINTED to try to catch it. I was going to do one of those moves like in the movies, where I reach out my hand and someone on the train pulls me on while the train is still moving (shit, I’m sorry again mom, I love you) but unfortunately the Brooklyn Half was a few too many months behind me, and with my big backpack on my back and my little backpack on my front and my toolbelt slung around my neck I just could not run fast enough. I gave it a good effort and ran all the way to the end of the platform but the train was still a good 50 feet ahead of me and I knew it was just over. I was sweating for fifteen minutes on the way home. (If you are wondering if I am ever not sweating? the answer is no.) I got myself to Varanasi the next day.
More things that happened in Varanasi:
  1. There was so much pollution that I would clean my fingernails and five minutes later they would be black again.
  2. While walking home from the market one day, some boys in school uniforms were riding their bikes home from school. When they rode past me, they shouted, “Hello!!! How are you!!!” So  I shouted back, “I am fine! And how are you?” And they rode over to me, and we started chatting. Basically they wanted to practice English and talk to a westerner and I was happy to oblige. Everything I said made them laugh because they were bashful about even talking to me in the first place. I asked them, “how old are you?” and they said “fourteen. How old are you?” So I said, “Guess,” and the boys said, “Fifty.” So at this point, I decided to have fun with this, and I just started screaming like an insane person in the middle of the street at the top of my lungs, “FIFTY!!!!????!?!?!?! FIFTY!?!?!?! AHHHHHHH!!!!!! BAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!! FIFTY!!!!!????? AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Acting like a completely crazy person. The boys were hysterical as were the various men who were watching this happen from inside their shops. 
  3. I stumbled upon the real live making of Banarsi Silk, a very famous and high quality type of silk hand made in Varanasi. At first I thought they were making a hammock! So yeah. If you ever buy hand made Banarsi Silk, just know that it was hand-stretched by humans across the entire length of a park.

Above: silk is being prepared to be woven. 

4. One night, a man was hand-chiseling a statue of Ghandi. Dude was literally carving Ghandi!

5. Laeti’s mom came to visit from France and we all went out to dinner together. After dinner, Laeti and I had to hang out at Laeti’s place instead of my place because her mom didn’t want her walking home alone at night. Her mom said when she’s in France and she can’t see what’s going on, she doesn’t worry. But she wouldn’t have been able to sleep knowing Laeti was out after dark. Human Universal: worrying mothers.

6. I bathed in the Ganga River. I bathed in cremations. Yes, yes I did.  I am terrified of death and I didn't even feel weird about it. Everyone who lives in Varanasi bathes in the Ganga daily and it considered normal and even holy. Still can't really say WTFN for this one because there are many (formerly living) reasons WN but it was just one of those now or never things.

7. I met my first other New Yorker. HI VINCE! Vince is a Chinese American, and he is in fact not from New York, he is from Seattle, but he worked at Microsoft and went to NYU and lived in Brooklyn for six years so I think it counts. When he told me he was from New York I squealed and got up and hugged him. I am sure in that moment he thought I was nutso but then we went to an absurd magic show together (see #8) that was so beyond nutso it made my NY reaction seem normal.

8. Vince and I went to a magic show together, because, WTFN? When I arrived in Varanasi I saw these neon posters all over the city. The writing was in Hindi but the graphics were really cool and I was like, whatever that is, I’m going 

to it. So I asked around and found out a magician called O.P. SHARMA was doing his thing in Varanasi on a nightly basis. I got really excited about this because 1) magic shows are cool 2) the theater experience must be so different here 3) there are probably no tourists at this thing. Vince was totally down, so we got tickets. Oh my goodness, SO MUCH STRANGE. The theater was simple, just one floor, but guys were selling popcorn and magic sets which was of course reminiscent of the theater experience we’re used to. The ushers put us in the front row even though we didn’t pay for front row tickets. There were two magicians, father and son, one was like sixty-five and the other one thirty-five. Both their faces were caked in make-up. Their outfits were ridiculous, like head to toe glitter jumpsuits.

So many outfit changes. So many pairs of earrings on their ears. The magic was somewhat entertaining but really it was just the way they rolled that was so hilarious. Their sound effects were pure cheese. Boing!s and whooosh's and ding!s.  They had a cast of about ten people, guys and girls, all wearing  gaudy costumes. Kinda promiscuous, actually, these costumes. Bellies and boobies out. There was this trick where O.P. pulled like ten multi-colored birds out of a hat… but then the birds were not collected and brought backstage. Instead they just flew around the theater and wandered on the stage for the remaining 90 minutes of the show. Then, the same trick with bunnies… and just the same, wandering bunnies. We were in the front row so the birds kept coming over to us and walking on our feet. And then of course we get asked if we want to meet the magician during intermission… so we did… and he was mostly mute except for asking me to take a selfie with him. I made Vince get in it with me. As Vince put it, the whole thing was just “absolute kitsch.”  One of my favorite parts of the experience though was the little Indian girl sitting in the row behind us with her mom. Her name was Jahnvee. She was so frikkin cah-YOOT. At one point, one of the female cast members did a solo dance to a Hindi song and this little girl knew all the words. She was lip syncing and dancing along in her seat. After the show I asked her how old she was and she held up four fingers. And then I asked how old she thought I was, and she said seven. I think probably because she doesn't yet know how to count past seven. Either way, her "seven" plus the schoolboys' "fifty" puts me at an average of 28.5 years old, which turns out to be exactly accurate, if anything a few months younger than my 28.75 years! So it's alllll good.

9. I learned how to say “look, look!” (Deko, deko!). I tested this out while buying a SIM card. The guy asked me if I knew any Hindi so I pointed across the street, shouted “deko, deko!” and pretended to steal a phone while he was looking in the opposite direction.

10. I watched Laetitia clean and dress wounds for an hour or so. The patients were so appreciative of her help. Almost every one of them, young and old, gave her a hug before leaving.

11. Laetitia introduced me to Suresh, a handicrafts shop owner who had become her close friend in Varanasi. He was just a ball of fire — always singing, blasting La Bamba in the shop and hollering at tourists on the street even though he knows that tactic doesn’t work. He’s just entertaining himself.

12. Probably because I was meeting so many people every day at the hostel, I remembered that you only have one chance to make a first impression. Sometimes we are less considerate about the impressions we make on people because we believe we are somewhat anonymous to those people -- like people who we think we may never see again. Maybe we think we are anonymous to the person walking past us on the street, the person making our sandwich at the deli or the person driving our Uber.  But we are making impressions on everyone whose paths we cross. And when I am introducing myself twenty times a day, and when everyone is potentially a friend, the value of a good first impression is ever more apparent.

13. While walking through a park (read as: large patch of grass in the middle of Varanasi), two little girls were staring at me like I was an animal in the zoo they'd never seen before. I waved at them and they giggled to each other. Then they came to grab my hand and started leading me across the park. I didn't know what they were leading me toward and they didn't speak English but I obviously followed them (because, WTFN). Well, where they led me was somewhat anticlimactic as it was just their baby brother lying on his back in the grass sleeping, but it was so adorable and hilarious how excited they were as they pointed at him and showed him off to me. "Babu!! Babu!!" (Means baby.) And then we took this selfie together, which, not gonna lie, this time I instigated ;)

Tomorrow I'm heading to Goa, which is on the central west coast of India. It is the place I have been most excited about since leaving New York.  So curious to see what an Indian beach looks like! And Goa is home to beaches like Anjuna Beach, of Anjunadeep_Mixtape fame.  I haven't really been 'partying,' per se... there isn't much of a sloppy drinking culture here in India.  But I've heard that in Goa, the party is ON.  Chelo!!! (Hindi for Let's go!!!)