Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Freewheelin in India - Day 5: Water Floods the Freewheelin’ World

I cracked my back as I tossed and turned, my hips hurting like I’d been camping without a ground mat. “Stupid bed”, I said, to Sarah’s sleepy head, she said she thought the same, and the rain still came. It hadn’t stopped all night.

We got dressed and swiftly left, going for breakfast in Mona Lisa’s café nearby. We overheard some fellow travellers talking about acid and our ears pricked up. We’d been hoping to score some ‘shrooms whilst here, so I sparked up a conversation by asking the guy to spark up my cigarette. It turned out he lived about five minutes from my Hackney home, and he advised us of a sandal seller in the Main Bazaar that was trying to supply them as well as a Lassi shop that makes said yoghurt based drinks mixed with weed or mushrooms. We took note, said our goodbyes and went off on our next adventure.
I didn’t realise the impact of the cyclone on the city until we walked further down the alleys, finding the floors flooded more and more as we made our way towards the main streets. By the time we got there we were knee deep in dirty brown water, consisting of a perfect mix of animal shit, garbage and floating flip-flops.
There was a real sense of community as we all struggled through the swamp-like paths together, trying not to get taken by the current currently consuming our world, cracking up constantly at the mishaps and misfortunes of ourselves and others. I kicked off a plastic bag that was binding my legs, inadvertently splashing Sarah’s smiley face with a foot full of mud soup. The locals loved it, a lesser woman wouldn’t have, but we both laughed hysterically.
We couldn’t find our desired stall, which was a shame as my lady could’ve actually done with some replacement sandals, as well as the sweet treats we were seeking, but a street dealer offered us hashish, magic mushrooms, opium and ganja, so we let him take us deeper down some different drenched alleyways, until after ten minutes through the maze, we reached their drug den. After a short and anxious wait outside, we were invited in and introduced to the main man, Marco. I always judge these situations carefully as ‘Trust your dealer’ is rule one in my book of street living, and neither of us want to get attacked or raped in our search for enlightenment, but I read eyes well, and was happy with those that I saw. I asked Sarah if she was ok, as she seemed a bit uncomfortable, and I reassured her, whispering ‘Six-foot, three’ referring to the fact that I was far bigger than any of these cats, and would crush anyone that wanted to test the strength of my love.
They said we could try before we buy but there was no way I was willing to consume random narcotics, in a stone room with strangers, whilst my woman was present, just in case they had ill intentions, so I kindly declined. I didn’t like the look of the mushroom powder on offer, but the opium was something we’d both thought of trying. He offered a selection from India, Afghanistan and China, saying the Afghan stuff was the best, so we proceeded to piss him off by offering less than a third of what he wanted. I made him get out the scales to complete the sale, and we got 1.5 grams for 1000 rupees, enough for a few cracks of the whip.
As luck would have it, the earlier walk had led us exactly where we needed to be, the Manikarnika Ghat, where they ceremoniously burn the bodies of the dead, up to two hundred and fifty of them a day. One of the guys from the den took us there as our guide, through a waiting room full of old, dying people, and up onto the rooftop where you can look down at the spot where the deceased find their final peace. He explained that they do this so that the souls aren’t reincarnated, and are instead sent to rest for eternity, and how every corpse gets the same farewell, except children under twelve years old, pregnant women, animals, those with leprosy and holy people, who are instead dropped into the middle of the Ganges with a copy of their holy book.
We saw the strong, sad faced families laying logs, then carrying the bodies down to their allocated spots where they would burn their loved one for two hours, before smashing open the scorching skulls to set their spirits free. They then take the bones they deem the strongest from the body, ribs from the men’s chest, and the hip bones from the women, as that is what bears the weight of their children, and throw them over the side, into the river.
I had to do a double-take as I spotted three people walking on water two-hundred meters away in the Ganges, but it turns out there are spots of high sand which can be walked on. Still no proof that Jesus did it.
He then took us back down to a dying woman, we told her our names and she blessed our souls. I handed her enough money to pay for a few kilos of sandal wood for her imminent death, and we walked on with our guide, who then took us right onto the platform where the bodies burn. The heat was intense as it waved in my face; every breath I took was filled with death. As we got around the edges I saw the malnourished corpse of a woman, her eyes looked maniacal and her witch-like features carved themself onto the walls of my mind forever. They covered her with butter, oil and more wood, walked around her five times, to represent earth, wind, fire, rain and ether, and set her stack alight with fire taken from the eternal flame below. The stack directly in front of me where I stood on the corner had a crippled leg protruding through the logs, being barbequed before my very eyes. More and more men kept coming past us, setting up the next spots. Women weren’t allowed to be near, as they sometimes used to throw themselves onto their husbands, to burn together. Sarah said she would do the same with me.
We left and were then taken to the Nepali Temple, a small building with karma sutra carvings adorning each pillar and post. From there we parted ways, and went for a walk down the fully flooded main street in search of the magical Lassi shop.
There was a huge gathering of people and some sense of carnage in the air, as we approached I noticed a massive crater in the road which looked like it had just caved in, and the water was gushing into the vacuous hole below. Sarah’s feet were hurting as she walked shoeless across the hard stones beneath the water. I insisted she jump on my back, and I carried her past the crowd who were giving me smiles and applause. I gestured that I was about to swing her off of me and into the gaping hole, and the one hundred strong crowd erupted in cheers and laughter. It seems a bit of domestic abuse goes a long way over here.
We couldn’t find our required destination, so we made our way back to the guesthouse, relaxed and regrouped, then went for an early dinner before going to see the Hindu’s Ganga Puga evening ceremony at the Dasasuamedh Ghat. We stopped back at Baba Handicraft so Sarah could buy a bag, and I ended up commissioning the tailor to make me three tunic shirts with my own choice of silks, cotton fabric and patterned trim. I haggled the price down to about £14 for the three of them and was told to return at twelve the following afternoon..

We then hit the ceremony spot thirty minutes early and got front row seats. It was beautiful watching the ritual in the rain, albeit a bit mundane after the first twenty minutes of them doing pretty much the same thing.
At the end my little friend Deepak, one of the street kids whom I’d met earlier, was waiting for me and took me to his family’s silk store where Goldie Hawn had been a regular customer for the past thirty years, her photograph proudly displayed in a gold frame on the wall of their cushioned silk room. If it’s good enough for Goldie, it’s good enough for me. I brought some magnificent hand-woven scarfs and wrote a heartfelt message in their guestbook before wishing them a fond farewell.
Sarah felt unwell, so she headed back to our room, and I went off to get her some food. I returned thirty minutes later to find her worried and upset that something bad had happened to me. “No one can hurt me”, I replied, knowing that I have my Sonic the Hedgehog style shield keeping me safe as I continue to live freely. Whilst thinking about not finding my favourite mind enhancement devices, I told Sarah “Tomorrow we’re going to find some Mushrooms”. I fed her in bed before setting down to write for the rest of the night. Three hours later, I hit the light, my head hit the pillow, and I lost my sight.

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