Guru's, Monkeys, and Yoga
We woke up this morning at Hotel Alka, peeled back our window shades and gazed out into the beautiful Ganges River in Varanasi, India.
I woke up raring to go and set out to explore. I read that Varanasi had a large yoga community and I wanted to find a studio that offered drop-in classes. I wandered out of our hotel and was immediately greeted with, "Hello Madam" coming from all directions. As I attempted to skirt the crowd, a young man approached me. “What are you looking for madam?” he asked me with an innocent allure. I told him about my quest for yoga and without delay he was guiding me through the back alleys of Varanasi.
He introduced himself as Vikki.
He told me that he was a tour guide, and offered to help show me around, if that was something I was interested in. I was.
In no time we arrived at the yoga center and I arranged a class for the next day. As we were leaving Vikki told me that if I was interested in astrology, there was a famous Guru in town that was highly acclaimed, and offered to show me where he was located. Normally I am a huge skeptic on this sort of mumbo-jumbo, but I have a friend who had visited India and told me how amazingly accurate her reading was, and I have to admit, I was a little curious. Not having a schedule to maintain, I agreed to go check out this “Guru”.
We weaved in and out of the alley ways, sidestepping cows and salesmen, and finally reached the Guru. I walked in and sat on the padded ground in front of an overweight man. He was clad in only a sari that was wrapped around his waist. After his cigarette fizzled and he was finished watching highlights of yesterdays Cricket match on a TV, placed strategically behind my head, he introduced himself. He called himself Guru Baba and he was truly a gift.
I listened carefully as he chain-smoked cig after cig, and explained to me how the process worked. I had three options of astrological readings ranging from $50 to $250 based on depth of information. First I was to present him with the payment. The majority of this payment, he assured me, went to charity. Next, I needed to provide him with my date, time and place of birth. Then he would tell me the hardships of my life, my lucky numbers, lucky dates, and dates to avoid, AND if I paid more money, he could tell me what I was in one of my past lives.
Boy was I excited! Not only could this man tell me why my life sucks, he can also tell me when, exactly, it will be the worst! And all I have to do is pay him?! What a dream come true!
He talked my ear off for an hour as he switched his gaze from me to the TV and back, and I could not get away. Every time I would start to open my mouth to say, “Well thank you for your time” he would interject with another tangent about healing crystals or breathing exercises. I finally escaped, telling him that if I could find out the information on my time of birth, I would return.
As Vikki guided me back to my hotel, he guaranteed me that this Guru was the only true Guru in town, and that I would be a fool not to return. He raved about his special skills and it was all too apparent that they were working as a team.
This practice of commission is very common in India. You hire a guide to show you around, who claims to know the tastiest spots to eat, the cheapest place to buy pashmina, the best massage therapist, and they proceed to take you to people they know who will pay them commission for bringing in the gullible tourists. I saw right through it.
Despite nagging me about the Guru, Vikki had brought me to a nice yoga studio, and he seemed like a nice enough kid, who knew a lot about Varanasi, so I agreed to let him be our guide for the day.
Our first stop was the Shree Vishwanath Temple at Banaras Hindu University.
This white marble temple was one of the nicest Hindu temples we have visited and the well-groomed University grounds set the scene for a very enjoyable tour.
As we were walking out of the temple we ran into a mother monkey and her curious baby.
I watched them for a while as the nosy baby sniffed the side of a lemonade jar, before sticking his head in for a closer look.
They were a funny pair.
Our next stop was the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, filled with paintings, sculptures, Mugal artifacts, and ancient weapons.
In all honesty, it did not wow me.
The displays were poorly lit or not lit at all. In each room that we'd wander into, I would have to wake the sleeping guards and persuade them to flip on some lights. If I stumbled upon a guard who was awake, he would watch me meander around in confusion and would wait until I requested the lights be turned on to move an inch. At that point he would only light half the displays and wait until I was, once again, in darkness requesting illumination. Truthfully, I wasn't really in a museum mood anyway. I have been to so many museums on this globe-trotting voyage that sometimes I feel like, if you've seen one rock sculpture, you've seen them all.
A few of the paintings did catch my eye, but all in all I was pretty bored.
We hopped back into the rickshaw with Vikki and we were off to the monkey temple. This Hindu temple wasn't much of a spectacle had it not been for the rambunctious primates fooling around every corner. Unfortunately, as I passed through the metal detector at the front gate, I was forced to hand over all of my belongings. Due to a terrorist attack at the temple a few years ago, there is strict security and no electronics are permitted, so I was not able to snap any pictures. Once we passed the security checkpoint, we walked along a lengthy path bordered with tall trees, blooming bushes and monkeys all around. Monkeys swinging from trees, grooming each other, springing, leaping, and bounding around; it was a feast for the eyes. As I walked along in awe, I bent down to get a closer look at a mama cleaning her young and Vikki swiftly grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up. "Do not look at them, do not touch" he said sternly. Then he proceeded to tell me a story about a monkey attack that terrified me to my very core. Two years ago he had been near his house and a monkey abruptly jumped up out of nowhere and sank his teeth into Vikki’s rear end, causing him to tumble down two flights of stairs and break his leg. After an abundance of shots, multiple surgeries, and months in bed, he finally recovered physically, but mentally he still had some reservations about the furry creatures. After hearing his story I did not challenge his advice. I wanted to make it home with my ass intact.
We strolled along the path for a while, watching hundreds of monkeys frolicking around until we reached the temple. We walked around for a while and sat quietly as people prayed next to us. After we had seen all there was to see, we started our walk back through monkey territory, to the rickshaw driver.
Vikki and Max walked a few strides ahead of me as I took my sweet time observing the funny monkeys. Suddenly, a lone monkey sitting on the path next to where the boys were walking, turned and snarled its teeth. I watched, five feet behind, as the monkey rose up and lunged forward at them. Visibly terrified, Vikki hurled his body behind Max, who also had no idea what to do. I watched with wide-eyes, wishing I had my camera for this episode of 'When Animals Attack'. Just as I was thinking how lucky I was not to be next to them, the monkey turned towards me. This is one thing they don't teach you in school. There was no How to Fight a Monkey 101 in my curriculum. I know that when you come face to face with a bear or a mountain lion, you are supposed to make yourself look as big as possible and make loud noises to scare them off. I know that you're not supposed to look dogs directly in the eyes because they think you are challenging them. I must have missed that episode of Animal Planet where they tell you what to do when Indian monkeys try to bite your face off.
So here I am, standing tall and screaming profanities but making sure not to look directly at the rabid beast, as he leaps closer and closer. I yell to Vikki, "What do I do!?" He says nothing. What a guide. As the snarling monkey crept closer, I instinctively got into fighting stance, dukes up, ready to do what? I have no idea. At that moment it was like I was outside of my body watching myself, fists high, squaring off with this monkey, and I knew, I was screwed. What was I going to do, punch the monkey? It's a monkey! I was not trained for monkey combat. I'm standing here, a lone warrior, as the boys stare at my situation blankly; probably just relieved it's not them. A million thoughts ran through my head as the monkey was now within a foot of me. I kept thinking, "If I throw a punch, the monkey could bite my hand, then I’ll get some crazy monkey disease and I’ll have to go to some broke Indian hospital and I'll wake up with one kidney!" Punching the monkey was a no go. Instead, I grabbed for the closest weapon at my disposal, my flip flop. I swung it around like a windmill and jumped about like a lame kangaroo, until I had successfully averted the monkey attack. I ran, like a little girl, all the way back to the rickshaw, leaving the "men" chuckling in my dust.
After my near-death experience, it was time for some food. Vikki told us that he knew the best pizza place in town, where we could sit on a patio overlooking the Ganges and I was all about it.
Since we have been on this trip, every country that we go to has their own version of pizza. The South American style where the dough is still sticky is probably the worst. But I'm always curious to see different cultures version on the classic pizza pie, so I was immediately on board.
We headed to the Vaatika Cafe and ordered a fresh lemon tea, fresh mint tea, and a margarita pizza.
The mint tea was fresh and delicious and the pizza was the best I've had in months! A+ Vattika Cafe!
The funny part came when I asked to use the restroom. They pointed up a column of stairs and told me to make my first right and my second left. Armed with my own personal toilet paper, I set off in search of a toilet.
- side note: it has become a necessary routine to make sure we are fully stocked with toilet paper at all times. In the morning before we head out we run through the checklist.
Toilet paper, CHECK!
It is the most important thing on the list. Almost no bathroom in India will provide toilet paper. This is because a lot of people in India cannot afford toilet paper. A normal Indian bathroom consists of a hole in the ground, surrounded by two steps for your feet. They do their business, wipe with their left hand and rinse. Isn't that charming. They say that this is the main cause of stomach illnesses in India. It isn't food washed with dirty water or parasites; it is most likely caused by left over fecal matter from tainted hands. It is common for people with poor hygiene to be the same people who prepare your food. Mmmm is it time for lunch yet?
Anyway, back to the lecture at hand..
Every time I go off in search of a bathroom, it is an escapade. I never know what I'm going to find. This time was no different. I excused myself from the table, grabbed the TP and headed up the stairs. I made the first right, as instructed, and found myself in a tiny barn wedged between two larger-than-life cows, who seemed less than thrilled to have me stomping through their living room. I squeezed through and made the second left, past the woman scrubbing clothes on the concerted floor, into the bathroom. This "bathroom" was an unlit, door less room, with a hole in the ground. You know what the sad part is? Going to the bathroom in a dark hole, while being watched by a laundry woman and two bulky Bessie’s is not the worst bathroom I've seen. You do what you gotta do, where you gotta do it. The bathrooms that I've been in, make the nasty state fair port-a-potties look like porcelain gods. Once you have no other choice then to stop being a diva, step off your high horse and shit in a hole, then you can truly consider yourself a third world traveler. I came. I pooped. I conquered.
This is what a NICE Indian bathroom looks like..
Enough of my potty mouth, let's get back on track..
Earlier while we were walking through the city, I peeked my head into a little pashmina shop. I looked around for a little bit and decided that I would come back later. As we walked away Vikki told me that I should not go there. "Very poor quality. No good madam. I show you good shop, big place, you will like."
He took us through the textile factories in Varanasi, where we got to observe the work, first hand.
He showed us the different areas they were divided into and we walked through blocks of weavers, hand embroideries, and dye shops.
We were able to see the products from start to finish and our prying eyes were met with friendly warm smiles. He took us a shop and introduced us to the owner and distributor. He was a nice man, although talked our ear off for a half an hour before showing us any product.
This is the way Indian people con tourists, they talk you to death. They will spend five minutes telling you that they won't rip you off before they even quote you a price. They all deter you from other businesses claiming the only authentic goods in the city. They always know 'a guy'. They are true hustlers with connections everywhere and they always know the best person with the cheapest prices for everything your foreign cash can buy. You finally cave just so they'll stop talking about not ripping you off, while their ripping you off. And that's how it went. We walked out of there with stuff we didn't need that was not in our price range.
As we were talking to the owner of the shop, he filled our ears with all kinds of information. Before we even saw any of his goods we had discussed travel, religion, politics, and alternative medicine. He mentioned that he knew a good Guru who practiced nearby and my ears perked up. After my last encounter with Guru Baba, I was curious to compare and contrast. I asked him where he was located and he offered to have Vikki take me there. I was a little skeptical on telling Vikki that I was seeking out a different Guru, but I had no way around it. I thanked the shop owner and left with Vikki.
"You go see a new guru"
"Yes will you show me the way"
"Why you want to go"
"Just to check it out"
"This guy is no good, you see Guru Baba"
"I don't know if I'm going to do anything, I'm just going to go check it out"
Silence. I could tell he was not thrilled with me questioning his judgment. He guided me around the twists and turns of Varanasi’s small lanes, down a dead end road, up a small flight of stairs, around a corner and back down a flight of stairs, to the Guru (how this guy gets any business, I do not know, because I would have never found it by myself). Vikki waited outside. I walked in and introduced myself to a shirtless man who sat Indian style on the floor with his arm wrapped in a sling. He walked me through the process of the astrological reading, which was roughly the same as the first Guru, only much cheaper. He was far less pushy than his other plumper version and much more laid back. I told him that I would review my finances and think about it and I may return later. No fight, no struggle, just a kind 'thank you'.
To be frank, I was never going to get an astrological reading in the first place. I am a spiritual person and, yes I do believe in the supernatural, but I am skeptical, to say the least, to buy into a Guru that I meet in a street stall in India. Plus, I'm a broke backpacker. I'm not living lavishly and I can't be blowing money to find out that I used to be a janitor in some past life.
Vikki kindly guided me back to my hostel as he prodded me with questions about the second Guru. As he started on another sales pitch for the first Guru, I quickly changed the subject to tomorrow’s excursions. He told me that he had a friend with a boat and that he would escort us on a tour of the Ganges River for a reduced price. We opted for the early morning boat ride and he agreed to meet us outside our hostel at five am so we could catch the sunrise.
I thanked him and headed into the hostel for a much-needed cold shower.
After a long, hot, eventful day, it was heavenly to kick back and relax in an air-conditioned room. I was laying in bed watching the one English channel that we had, when the phone rang. It was the reception desk informing me that I had a phone call. I thought it might be Vikki calling with some change of plans for the next day (who else could it be) so I accepted the call and told them to patch it through.
I knew immediately that it was not Vikki.
Hello, yes, this is Guru Baba.
Oh crap. How the heck did he know how to call here? Did Vikki tell him where I was staying? Crap! I had just begun to relax and the last thing I wanted to do was haggle over the phone for something that I didn’t even want. This guy already talked my ear off for an hour, 45 minutes of which I was trying to politely excuse myself, I did not want to go through it again. I decided to play the 'ol "I can't hear you" game.
Yes, it is Guru Baba. Can I-
Yes, Emily. May I speak with you?
Hello, I can't hear you?
I know this is the chicken-shit way of handling the situation but I just didn't want to deal with him. I thought I solved the problem but the phone rang again. I decided that I would just let it ring. So it rang. And rang. And rang. And rang. I am not joking when I tell you that this phone rang for at least three minutes straight. Once one minutes of relentless ringing passes, it's too much. Once two minutes pass, it's ridiculous. But when three minutes past, the only conclusion you can draw is that this guy is crazy! That was all the confirmation I needed to know that I made the right decision passing on the Guru.
We ordered room service for dinner. When your options are to eat outside amongst the swarms of flies and the sticky humidity, or relax in an air-conditioned room and take advantage of the free room service, you opt for the latter.
Sitting in our air-conditioned palace, we enjoyed our first ever traditional Indian Thali.
Thali= a multicourse sampler platter of Indian goodies.
Our thali featured parantha (a tortilla-like bread), dal (lentils), veg masala (spicy vegetarian meat-balls), vegetable pulao (rice), and raita (a yogurt-based dish, similar to tzatziki sauce). It was delicious. Just as I was settling into bed about to settle into a food coma, the phone rang. Are you kidding me!? I let it ring. A few minutes pass and I get a knock at the door. I open it to find the front desk clerk, "I'm sorry madam, but there is a large man who says he is a Guru and he said it's very important that he come up and speak with you." I was shocked. Am I really being stalked by a Guru!?
"Please tell him that I am sleeping and that coming to my hotel is highly inappropriate and unwelcomed."
"You don't want me to tell him to come up?"
"Absolutely not. Do not send him up here."
I double bolted the door, unplugged the phone and went to sleep.