As I spend my 29th birthday in the midst of friends and family, in the quiet peace of the Wyoming prairie, I can’t help but remember and contrast my experience of turning 28 in India. One year ago, I woke up on my birthday and walked into the thick Indian heat to see a flooded Ganges River just outside my hotel room. We had arrived in Varanasi the night before after “escaping” a more than dysfunctional residency program in Goa.
I suddenly found myself on the start of an adventure, in the company of two new friends, and beginning another year in a city where thousands of pilgrims come to be reborn in holy waters.
I wrote my family early in the day to check in…
“”Varanasi” is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”
Mark Twain wrote this about Varanasi, also known as Banares, where I am celebrating my 28th birthday. We arrived last night and will be here for a week. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and also one of the holiest. Hindus make pilgrimage here to bath in the holy waters of the Ganges, and if you happen to be lucky enough to die here, you will achieve instant enlightenment. Public cremations are common….I’m not sure I’m ready to see that.
What I was also not prepared for was the noise, poverty, filth and lack of personal space, but this was the India that I heard about and was expecting. We were overwhelmed by the confronting nature of the city, and also enthralled by the pure foreignness of it all. It is such strange and challenging places that make me feel the most alive and aware.
We celebrated the day with lassies in clay pots, exploring winding ally ways, walking across flooded streets to the Burning Ghat, and getting henna tattoos, which labyrinthed up from my fingers to my fore arms…my entire experience of Varanasi is filled with surreal and startling images. I couldn’t ignore the extreme presence of death in the city, exemplified as I celebrated the day of my birth. I will never forget this strange and wonderful time, marking my 28th year, which would be full of adventure, family, travel, struggle, and love.