A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Saturday, 29 August 2009

Settling in Varanasi (cont'd)

Life is good indeed in Varanasi, and I am already feeling well at home in my new, pleasant and practical, area of town – and my homely room. In fact, it's been almost two years since I hadn't had my very own little space. In Europe I was in Edinburgh in my previous flat but still felt the difference from being there temporarily. Or I was at my father's or visiting friends and family, and in India I was no more than three months at a stretch in the same place. Of course I've felt very comfortable and homely in my family, or in Edinburgh, or in Khajuraho and Varanasi before. But this is my own space. And I can cook my own food. And I'll be having a base for at least one – and very likely two – years. Before, when I left a place I would take all my stuff, shifting space completely. Now, when I'll visit Khajuraho, I will leave the rest of my stuff at home. Here I am not in anyone's space nor depend on any hosts. This is my little home, with my long(ish) term activities and studying, and oh, it is happening in India!

And it feels very good.

My room is rudimentary but luxurious compared to the places I've lived in before. I have a table and a chair to study, I have my computer and an internet connection 10 metres down the road, and even a small speaker-box for my MP3 player that allows me to play music in my room. I have a balcony that helps me go through power-cuts. I have good hanging space for my clothes and enough shelves to store all my stuff. I have a one-metre square kitchen space, which must sound ridiculous to my occidental readers, but that I have come to appreciate and enjoy completely. It has a shelf with all the things I need, including a non-stick frying pan and a kit to steam vegetables and enough cookery and a fresh water supply and even a filter water supply. And muesli! I have no fridge of course, but I enjoy buying my ingredients day to day from the small shops or stands down the road. There are fruits and vegetables including fun, exotic ones, Indian cheese (paneer) which keeps about 5 hours, dahi (yoghurt) which will keep for a day and a half, and milk which they sell morning and evening that I'd have to boil three times a day to keep fresh. I don't like to buy milk because of the hassle, so I only buy it if I'll make pancakes straight away. Paneer and dahi are lovely. And in the heat, I can only buy a small loaf of brown bread that I'll use for two breakfasts; after longer it starts to mould; then I have muesli. Proper muesli with a lot of fresh fruits and yoghurt! There are many small shop down the street from me, including the tiny, friendly organic shop that sells filtered water and brown bread and tahini and brown or red rice and many more organic/healthy produces; and soon it will even be the season for tofu. It is extraordinary to have such an health food shop so close-by, for they are extremely rare treats in India! I am very grateful for it indeed.

I do not cook everyday but I have virtually all my breakfasts at home, and maybe one every two evening I'll cook a (simple) meal. Lunch I always eat outside because it is more practical and I must still indulge in lovely Indian cooking (which I will start learning in due course). During the week before going to university I eat at that local Rs15-thali restaurant where the house woman already knows I love lady-fingers and karela, because it's quick and on the way, and they make simple homely food – it is just an outer room in their own house. But in the evening, I'll compensate with an intake of more healthy food by cooking red or brown rice (Indians only eat white rice) or steam my vegetables, and always have a lot of salad – with olive oil! I made spinach and cheese crèpes the other day – it was wonderful. It's interesting to experiment with Indian ingredients, too... and it's fun to cook sitting and using the stone floor as preparation space. The crèpes took a long time – but it meant that following morning I enjoyed (and shared) a very yummy crèpe-breakfast.

And I've been taking supplements, too. I take kala namak (black salt), as it is full of minerals and iron and it compensates for all the sweating. It's even good for digestion they say, so I'm having it! I also take a protein supplement (also enriched in vitamines and calcium that just tastes like hot chocolate (cold and with water instead of milk, but you learn to be tolerant in India so it's nice!) because the protein intake in Indian cooking is pretty low and of course I do not eat meat. I feel a lot better than when I arrived; it must all this homely goodness! It is a less hot, it's true, around 30-35 degrees, but we still sweat like pig-dogs due to the humidity. When it was 48 degrees, back in May-June, it felt so hot on your skin, but you'd sweat a lot less – meaning it's a lot harsher on your body (and my digestion was clearly affected) but now, it really doesn't feel so hot yet we sweat and sweat and sweat... It makes me wonder whether it is sweat, or humidity deposited onto the skin from the atmosphere (!?!)

But it is getting cooler anyway. There is clearly drought, the Ganges is low and it's supposed to rain heavily right now and it does not... but it does rain from time to time, and then the freshness is bliss. (And I noticed after writing this entry that the Ganga waters have risen considerably by at least one metre! Yay!)

And so, the healthy diet and supplements must work, for I have a lot of energy and feeling very good. I am constantly doing something, Hindi homework, or violin, or cleaning, or doing my laundry, or cooking, or tidying, or writing, or going to university or to Sukhdev's, or meeting people, and I am not too tired by sleep time. I really enjoy going to sleep in India somehow though – is it just those hard beds? I have also started a new pranayama (breathing exercise) routine, taught to me by my yoga teacher of a neighbour (he's been a teacher for over ten years – how handy!!) and it feels great! I had always been interested in learning more about pranayama, but it is difficult to find one's right thing, and my training has been very sketchy with bits irregularily learnt here and there, sometimes from a teacher sometimes from a book. Putting them into practice had scared me because one ought to be careful and vigilant with pranayama, so I had always kept to the basics, and even then not with much regularity or conviction at all! But my neighbour, just one week after moving in, taught me a complete routine connected to all the chakras, which seems to make sense to me . I have practised this one everyday since, and I find it suitable for me, a lot more than other meditation practises I learnt elsewhere that I had not found very convincing. So... let us see where that will lead me...

And university! I have completed the first week. It is clearly more slack that in Europe and I must be prepared to accept that; THIS IS INDIA! But most of my teachers have been attending class and according to my senior students, I must have been lucky so far. The best bit, clearly, is that I am alone in my class, so I'll be able to learn at my own (fast) pace, without being slowed down by other classmates. I can bombard the teachers with questions, too, and if I always prepare my texts in advance I'll be able to speed up the pace even more... Interestingly, dixit my senior students, the teachers will be more likely to show up if they know I am dedicated...(?) and they are aware of my dedication already. Most of the teaching is based on texts and stories (well-chosen and interesting ones) – plenty of new explanations and reading and writing, which I clearly need. So far, the level is not too easy nor too tough, just comfortable and fun... I am happy.

And violin! Sukhdev is away for ten days, so he asked me to help a new student of his, who only started learning violin last week. She is coming every two days for practice in my room, and it is a lot of fun to be helping her. It makes me feel that I am very good at violin (haha!), which is very pleasant indeed! It also teaches me to go back to the basics and to be observant.

And there are the people I meet. They are mostly long-term in Varanasi, most whom students. It is a little like a community of fellow foreigners, and in an otherwise Indian environment meeting them is quick. I have good company around me. Below my own roof, my floormates, as I initially felt, are lovely and helpful too...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Settling again in Varanasi

I've waited far too long for an update, but with such lovely company it was impossible spend any time on a computer to write. I arrived safely in India. Not exactly arrive fresh after a night on a plane and straight on to16 hours on a train from Delhi to Varanasi, but India seems even closer to Europe on a direct flight, and I did arrive, and happy. Despite the grey heavy sky, and the depressing view that the Ganges' water is very low compared to last year at the same time, by at least two or three meters! Ganga looks far less powerful when its waters won't reach all the way to the trees on the other side, leaving place to a thick line of sand. It hasn't rained enough they say; we seem to hear that often these days... Upon arrival, I was also struck by how hot it was; as always I had forgotten a little. And the powercuts, the cursed powercuts that leave you with no light and – especially – no cooling air. Just the sweat, the constant flowing sweat, along your forehead and your cheeks, all around your neck, all over your chest and your tummy and your back, and down your legs, too. Being wet all the time underneath your clothes, starting sweating as soon as you try to dry your body after a frustratingly short yet relieving shower.

I arrived at my homely hotel above the small cremation ghat at around 7am on 6th August. I got in the same familiar room, dropped my bags, and jumped into the shower. I was exhausted but I couldn't rest before I had an omelette on toast because I was starving. Looking down the ghat's activity from the rooftop restaurant... The cremation flames and the smoke, and the goats and the cows and the bathing buffaloes, and the men bringing wood, and the monkeys jumping from tree to temple top to electrical cable, and the constant bells and chants, and the bashing of clothing onto the stones in the river, and the people bathing, such extraordinary activities, and yet so familiar by now. I was at home but not quite because I was still waiting for Vijay. I was feeling odd from being back, still, and the sky was heavy and grey, and being in that hotel without him was clearly making me feel his absence. But he was on the way, of course. After breakfast I slept some necessary two hours; he arrived around lunch time and I finally felt completely at home.

By the evening I got a text message from Anusha, my new friend from an internet travelling community and who was coming to Varanasi at exactly the same time to study at the same university. I had suggested to her some places to stay. We ended up being neighbours for a good week, in the same hotel. She hugged me warmly when I opened the door to great her, and we had a lovely chat all evening with her and Vijay. Most of the week she would be great company, too.

We spent a lovely weekend, and on the following Monday went tp Banaras Hindu University (BHU) for registration. BHU is one of the best universities of India, and within its walls it is very beautiful. Big bright buildings joined by alleys boarded with trees, much greenery and cleanliness and quietness for India. Passed the impressive gate, the site is enormous and it took us four days to complete the registration process, having to deal with parts of the bureaucracy ourselves and going from office in one building to an office in another one, having to take a rickshaw between places because it was too far and way too hot to do it on foot. Every time we showed a paper we got given a new one that we had to photocopy before giving it to the following officer, having to go back to the copy shop all the way in between... I had to pay part of the fees in one place and the rest in another, and queueing in the heat, etc. etc. etc.. But Vijay helped me immensely throughout the procedure and saved me a lot of hassle and energy, because if he had not been there I would surely have gone impatient and confused and crazy. Four days later I did obtain my (somewhat rudimentary compared to our European digital student cards) 'student pass book' and I became yet again a student.

On the second day we went to Sukhdev's house, my violin teacher. It was lovely to see him again, of course, and I always love it for him to meet Vijay. He doesn't say but he knows who he is with no words. He knows the nature and the importance of his company. I would feel uncomfortable to put the words around it, as Sukhdev is Indian, but he knows beyond and we all know what there is to know – simply and with no labels. Soon Sukhdev indicated a good place for me to live. A family house where another of his students usually stays. He didn't know the name or address, but drew a map so we'd know how to find it. As soon as we left his house, that is where we went. We followed a narrow lane full cows and especially full of cow shit – I had seen a lot of shit in India, but never as much as in this street (!) – as it feels more like a cowshed more than a street, and found my new house. There was a statue of Ganesha above the entrance door which made Vijay trust that it would be a lovely place. Coming from Sukhdev, I new it would be good anyway. We met the owners, a lovely 60-something couple. Vijay spoke a lot to “Auntie Ji” and we both liked them and the place straight away. There were a spacious and bright and clean room upstairs, which I loved straight away and we agreed that I would move in the following Sunday. I have been here for three nights already.

And indeed, I love my room, the house, the family, and my new neighbours. The room is bright and with plenty of the Indian-style shelves “carved into the thick walls” like I love them. It is well furnished, with two beautiful chairs and a table for me to sit and study, and a double bed. I have enough space and shelves to make up a “kitchen corner”, with a small gas bottle. I really have all I need. With Vijay we bought some domestic stuff; I even found a good-quality non-stick pan which will be good for pancakes, horray! Vijay really helped me to settle well in my new, Indian environment. He bought a round mud pot like all families have to keep water in my room. In that pot I'll keep fresh (local) water collected straight from the ground for boiling and cooking. For the drinking water, there is a cheap monthly (or so) service supplying filtered water in 20-litre tanks, and that's what I'll use rather than the time- and gas-consuming option of boiling my own water. Vijay made sure to organise everything before he left back to Khajuraho, and he'd even go to the shops alone to keep the prices down – because if accompanied by my non-Indian self, shopkeepers usually put the prices slightly up straight away. On white foreheads they seem to read something like “has a lot of money”.

And that's how, the following weekend, I was fully registered at university and settled at home. Niko, our Belgian friend travelling for a month in India, came to join us on Sunday, 16th, conveniently staying in another empty room in my house. We'd spend a few days together and then he would follow Vijay to Khajuraho to spend some time with his family before flying back home. We had a lovely time again, the three of us together, but two days were far too short. We mainly spent time walking on the ghats along the Ganges while Niko took about 700 photographs of the affluent and varied activities (or non-activities!) Varanasi is an amazing place; there is always something amazing to see, at every corner. A madman (apparently) sitting on the soaking ground (for it had rained, finally granting us with some relieving freshness!) in the middle of everything and doing nothing but looking beautiful, the cremations (it's not allowed to photograph them, but it still works... from far away), the cows pissing impressive streams of urine or the buffaloes shitting, the goats resting on funny places or eating pieces of bark (yes, wood from boats), and the saddhus, the colours, the nnocent woman lighting a cigarette, the boats on the Holy Waters, the religious ceremonies... For our last evening together we went for a boat ride on the Ganges with Anusha and we went on the other, sandy, side of the river. Anusha had been told that there one can apparently find many remains from dead humans, including human skulls. It was true. Amongst many wrecks of underwear pants and flip-flops for a sample of the debris, we found a shoulder blade, a jaw, a piece of spine, a piece of a coccyx, adult and child legs and arm bones, and the top of a skull. According to Vijay some of them must not have been burnt completely because they were too clean or well-preserved... It was rather strange to walk along a beach dotted with human bones... On our ride back from the other side and on time to see the daily Arthi (the famous religious ceremony to Ganga), we went passed a floating dead cow... I had heard of all these things, but it was the first time that I could experience it. After all, death is but an ordinary thing, not?...

And all my friends have gone now, Anusha, Niko and Vijay, so I have started my personal routine. I have started cooking a little in my mini-kitchen, I have resumed my violin practice seriously and have had my first class with Sukhdev, and I have started my Hindi classes at university. I will have about two hours a day from Tuesday to Friday. I have photocopied all the required texts and bought the two requested books. It felt funny. I have met a few schoolmates - who tell me not to except European standards of teaching (I know it) and that the course setting up will be slow to start the first couple of weeks. There is a Beginner Certificate in Hindi, Undergraduate Levels 1 (me) and 2, and Postgraduate Levels 1 and 2. It seems like there are no more than three or four students per level. During my first class, today, I was alone with the teacher. He checked out my level and I knew everything! I hope I will stay alone in my class so he can speed up the pace (?)

And I am starting exploring my new environment, the new area of town where I live. There is, miraculously, a small, lovely organic café 10 metres away from my house, with free wifi to connect my laptop to the internet. This feels like complete luxury. It is even far too withdrawn to be well-known by tourists, so it is peaceful and calm. And I am getting to know my neighbours, who live in the other four rooms around mine. They are all students apart from the odd and intriguing 40-something Indian woman (but once she did start to speak, she was lovely). Two are also BHU students. There's the Japanese girl studying Indian religion, the Spanish yoga teacher studying Sanskrit, and the friendly young Indian man studying German, who seems to be helping everyone getting settled and organised. All seem lovely, and I am relieved that I will live with long-term floormates rather than travellers coming and going after a few weeks. All are helpful, we share stuff and tea and conversations, and are helpful to each other.

It should be a very interesting and fruitful year indeed...

Monday, 17 August 2009