Since 2012 began, I’ve spent more weeks away from home than home, and I’ve had little time to post and share photos along the way. What better reason than this week’s #frifotos theme being “colorful” to share brand new images of one of the extremely colorful places I’ve had the pleasure to travel this year: India.
There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Varanasi is not a place so much as it is an experience of complete immersion into the heart and soul of India. It is an encounter that defies definition. Varanasi simply must be experienced.
Varanasi is called the heart of India because of it’s geographical location on a map. But I think there’s a more anatomical and literal reason for it. Varanasi lies on the holy Ganges river, and the river pumps through Varanasi like blood circulating through the chambers of the heart. People move along the streets to and from the ghats like blood flowing through veins and arteries. The pulse of activity along the ghats of Varanasi seems to throb like the pounding pulse of a heartbeat. It is a place of recurring disposal, purification and renewal. Day after day, night after night, the rituals continue without missing a beat. Just as they have for centuries, and will continue to do so for years to come. The moment activity would come to a halt in Varanasi, it’s as if India herself would die.
So it goes on.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Varanasi. No matter how many photos seen, videos watched, or words read, when you arrive at Varanasi for the first time, it is like being born all over again – learning everything by being flung into complete and utter immersion. All senses are on overdrive. You are no longer reading about it or watching it, you are right there living it, breathing it, feeling it. You are an integral part of life and death itself.
Those are my words, written in my journal of my most recent visit. That’s all I had to say. To describe every part of the experience would detract from the whole of it, so I left it at that. The same goes for photos. Sure, I’ve taken massive amounts of photos during my immersions in Varanasi. But they are just scenes, just parts, pieces of a whole, and really don’t do justice to the entire sensual experience that is Varanasi.
During my first visit, over 12 years ago, I wrote a lot more in my journal, and I took a lot more photos. When I return to a place, I see it again with fresh eyes, a “new camera” in my mind. Then, when I get home, I like to compare notes and images with previous visits. Has the place changed? Or more to the point, have I?
Following are the words I wrote about Varanasi 12 years ago, transcribed from the pages of my journal, which at the time, I never imagined would be read by any eyes other than my own:
This morning’s event was the highlight of the whole India experience for me – a float trip down the most scared of rivers, the Ganges.
The sun shone pink, beautifully lighting the steps of the ghats in the early morning. All the colors were a treat for the eyes. Somehow, the grime and poverty faded away….somehow, being on the river just calms the senses and the soul, and everything appears tranquil and idyllic.
There is all the activity at the river’s edge –
The laundry being beat and flogged on stone slabs, and colorfully laid out to dry in the sun…
The locals who come to bathe and cleanse themselves in the Ganges river….
scrubbing themselves vigorously and getting all white with suds…
and then plunging fully into the water, which somehow didn’t seem so polluted or filthy at all in that moment.
There are those who walk down the steps of the ghats daily to meditate in the morning sun…
And there are those who come to the holy river to live out their final days in rented bungalows so they can die on the Ganges – the ill, the weak…the dying….and eventually the dead, whose bodies are burned by the river and then washed out into it. The men’s bodies are ignited and burned at the chest, and the women’s at the pelvis. Whatever remains after the flames burn out is simply left to sink or drift off down the river, following a trail of candles and marigolds….
The building closest to the crematorium ghats have gone all black with smoke, but the rest of the river’s edge along the ghats is colorful and alive, very much alive, yet all at once, serene.
It was a transcendent experience, to have those quiet moments of floating along the peaceful river without any touts or beggars or crowds.
While there was plenty to see that shocked the senses, perhaps most surprising was the sighting of river dolphins. Yes, river dolphins. Right there in the Ganges, right smack in the midst of activity – bathing and cleansing, cremation and pollution – the dolphins broke the water’s surface surrounding our boat. I couldn’t believe I was really seeing dolphins, wild animals, amidst this hub of human activity that has been happening in the same place for centuries. Yet there they were, river dolphins. They could swim anywhere(!), but they chose to be right there at Varanasi, and at that moment, right where we were. Unbelievable. To see these “enlightened” and highly-evolved creatures choosing to be here led me to conclude that the Ganges is indeed a holy river and a truly mystical experience. In those brief moments, watching corpses burn and dolphins play…it all made sense. Everything made perfect sense.
But once back ashore and climbing the steps of the ghat, my senses were again slammed with the filth, the touts, the lepers, the beggars, the unpleasant smells, the reality of humanity…and all that is India…
Something changed inside me that day.
And 12 years later, something changed inside me again. This last time, I watched and listened as my companions tried to describe the first-time experience they had just had. A conversation took place over dinner by a fire, under the stars, during which each person reflected upon and processed their experience of Varanasi, trying to make sense of it all and fit it into context with their own respective faiths. One thing was apparent. No matter what they felt or not, what they understood or not, they are forever changed.
I suppose being pumped full-throttle through the chambers of a heart will have that effect on anyone. Varanasi is more than a spiritual place, it’s a pure experience of the heart.
As I write this, I’m on a plane heading to India, where I will be working for the next couple of weeks. Since I will likely be too busy to post to my blog, I’ve scheduled this post to keep you, and my blog, company while I am away. Enjoy.
India is incredibly photogenic, however, this is not a post where you’re going to find scenic postcard shots of the Taj Mahal or crowded market scenes. Rather, I’m going to focus on a few ingredients, a few details, and present them together to give you a taste of… the full flavor….of India.
When I enjoy an Indian meal, I take no spice for granted. I taste every one of them. It’s like a full-blown symphony plays in my mouth, and each instrument gets a solo at some point during the show. I become captivated with guessing…”what is that hint of something…that flavor which I would not have expected…”. I savor it, and appreciate that the dish would be incomplete without it.
The same may be exemplified with a traditional Indian textile:
Each bit is an abstract part that makes up the whole fabric. Look close and discover various stitches, colors, textures, patterns, and even some mirrors! As with Indian cuisine, many layers of flavors and spices (scraps and threads) come together to form the perfect masala (or bedspread, in this example). And there’s always a bit of the unexpected in all of it.
The whole of India is like that, too.
I’ve scoured the cupboards of my India photo archives to toss together some flavorful ingredients, many of which have never before been published, and present to you a recipe for my visual “Masala of India.”
Incarnations of Vishnu (Khajuraho)
Indian Textiles (Jaipur)
Mosaic Inlay (Agra)
Clay Sculpture Faces (Calcutta)
Waters of the Ganges (Varanasi)
Carved Erotic Temples (Khajuraho)
Carved Floral Relief (Taj Mahal, Agra)
Himalayan Berries (Darjeeling)
Astronomical Map (Observatory, Jaipur)
Ceramic Tiles (Delhi)
Marble Lattice (Amber Palace)
Rounded Stucco Corner (Agra)
Floral Garlands (Calcutta)
Indian Tea Leaves (Darjeeling)
Mix well, and add enlightenment as needed!
You may also enjoy these related posts on India:
Calcutta the Beautiful
Earlier this year, I had a very powerful experience that has stayed with me, and the story of which ties in beautifully with the focus of this year’s Passports With Purpose fundraiser.
It all happened in Calcutta, India, when I went to Mother Teresa’s Ashram. No words can describe the overwhelming emotional impact of visiting not only the Ashram itself, but the nearby orphanage established by Mother Teresa. In her words, it is a refuge for…
“The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” — Mother Teresa
Before entering the orphanage, the nuns laid out one simple rule: “please don’t pick them up.”
I stepped into a room where knee-high children with big brown eyes surrounded me, reaching their arms up to me, longing desperately to be held and carried. This was tough. I wanted to hold them, to touch them, to love them, to let them know they were loved. I wanted to smother them with affection and motherly care. I wanted to embrace them. But I could not pick them up!
How was I going to engage with them? What could I do to connect without attachment?
I stood dazed and numb for a moment, towering over them. Then, one child came forward with something in his hand. It was a book.
From his hand to mine, a book.
I looked over at the nuns were sitting on the only bench in the room. They did not move to make room for me; so, taking the book from the child’s hand, I sat down on the floor right where I stood. The kids climbed onto my lap and leaned over my shoulders and touched my hair and watched my face as I was able to engage and connect with them without ever picking one up. The nuns lost sight of me as I was engulfed in a sea of curious children, and there in my hand, a book.
This was an undertaking not for the weak of heart, and all I could think about was finding my strength in compassion and focusing on the power of love. Pure love. The Mother Teresa kind of love – love for all, and attachment to none. Because I was so moved by the emotional investment these children placed in me when I sat amongst them, I had to focus that love on one thing. The book.
Fortunately, it was a basic board book, with only one word on each page. BALL. CAR. BOY. GIRL. And so on.
I read each page as if I were reading a love letter. With each word, there was a little drawing to illustrate it, but when I read the word, there was only meaning. LOVE. Word by word, page by page, I read, and the children listened. I read, and the children watched. I read…and the children felt loved.
I somehow made it out without adopting a dozen children – although not without shedding a dozen tears. Photography was not permitted in the orphanage and I would have left the camera anyway. These children just wanted to be loved. And read to.
By sharing my story, I hope that you will be inspired to share the gift of reading wherever you are, and wherever you go, in your travels and in life. To that end, please join me in the annual Passports With Purpose travel blogger fundraiser, kicking off on November 30. The goal is to build two libraries in Zambia.
Where to start? Keep reading! Check out these 2011 blogger participants who use their gift of writing so that others may know the gift of reading. Be inspired by words, and purposeful in action. Let’s do this!
What is My 7 Links all about, anyway?
The goal of the project, as outlined by Tripbase, is:
To unite bloggers (from all sectors) in a joint endeavor to share lessons learned and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again.
Thanks to photographer Kirsten Alana, I have been nominated to participate by sharing my own 7 links. My blog has been around since March, 2006, but my readership hasn’t. So I’m pleased to present to you now…
My 7 Links
Most Beautiful Post. Namibia – by Dune, Full Moon, and Hot Air Balloon
Most Popular Post. Landslides & Leeches: a Trekking Journal, Nepal
Transcribed from hand-written journal pages, this is my personal experience of a trek where the forces of nature took over and lives were lost. Additionally, this post is popular with Google and any search term involving leeches.
Most Controversial Post. Probably this one. Published in the Rough Guide to India!
None of my posts thus far have resulted in any sort of commentary debate or backlash. I’ve regretted the instances where I’ve participated in some controversial comment strings on other blogs. I really don’t feel good about insulting or offending anyone; when I have, it sits on my conscience like a thorn. Sometimes I’ve hit “send” in the heat of the moment, and have thrown words like daggers. I’m truly sorry to those who were ever at the receiving end of some of my sharper words.
That said, the choice for my most controversial post is purely subjective. It was an issue which wreaked havoc in my mind; so I felt I should try to make right of it in a blog post. Here are the facts:
a) I photographed someone, without their knowledge, in a very personal moment of practicing their faith.
b) 10 years later, I scanned and uploaded the image into an online portfolio at the now defunct Digital Railroad (DRR), ticking the licensing box making it available strictly for editorial use, which means, among other things, that I had no model release (permission).
c) Digital Railroad quite suddenly fell apart and left thousands of photographers high and dry without receiving commissions earned from images licensed through their website, or even knowing which images of theirs had been purchased or downloaded.
d) a former DRR employee and mentor/friend with a good heart helped me out by providing a list of what he knew of my DRR downloads and sales, finalized or not, paid for or not.
e) a record showed this particular image had been licensed, and the payment status was “pending”.
f) I contacted the publisher who eventually replied that they had already paid DRR for the image license, but failed to send me any record for proof. Because they were a big name and reputable, I took them on their word, thanked them, and asked if they would send me a tear sheet or copy of the book. They did neither.
g) So, when the Rough Guide to India was published, I rushed to the bookstore and thumbed through it. I quickly found my image occupying a full color page. My first sigh of relief came upon seeing that the image use was not in any way derogatory; in fact, I couldn’t have asked for more appropriate context for putting this image in a guidebook. I bought the book, brought it home and confirmed that I was properly credited for the image. Indeed I was, a second sigh of relief.
h) Because the image and context touched on the delicate subject of religion and faith, and the person in my image was expressing his own, I felt it only right for me to expose something of my own faith. I did just that in my post (don’t be fooled by the SEO-driven title): Published in the Rough Guide to India! The photo:
Most Helpful Post. Samantha Brown and Rick Steves – the Best in the Field
This post provides helpful insight for anyone in the business, or desiring to be in the business, of travel writing, publishing, and presenting (that includes you, my fellow travel bloggers!). It is especially helpful to anyone aspiring to host their own travel show someday. Apparently, I’m not alone in having that ambition.
A Post Whose Success Surprised Me. Stand Up Paddle Surf Safari…in China?
I penned this humorous little piece because I was fed up with the Hawaiians getting credit for anything and everything to do with surfing. The ocean spans the entire globe, you know, not just the Hawaiian islands! Many forms of surfing have taken place in many different parts of the world throughout history. I really didn’t think people would take this too seriously, but based on traffic and search terms, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find SUP board rentals set up along the banks of the Li River some day.
A Post I Feel Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved. Chile: Spirit Dreams
If you read only one link from this post, please make it this one. This was my debut blog post back in March, 2006. I didn’t know where to start, but I knew that every picture has a story, right? So I picked a random photo taken on my travels and then opened up my journal from that trip. Turns out I have some pretty cool travel stories tucked away in these journals, and it was time to bring them out. This is one of my favorites, which I think only my web-designer-mentor/friend has ever read.
The Post I am Most Proud of. Listening With the Lens – Filming a Documentary
It’s not so much the post itself, it’s finally being able see my work come to fruition (thanks to incredible editors) in my first foray into documentary film-making, so that I could share this inspiring story with others. For me, this was a profound experience, a chance to use my talent to give something back. It is a beautiful story of inspiration, which I am both proud and humbled to share with you.
Thank you for visiting, and if you were even moved to follow some of the links, I am especially grateful. Please comment so I know you’ve visited!
Now here’s the tricky part – nominating 5 more bloggers. My first choices had been previously nominated, so I had to reach beyond the obvious….in fact, why not reach for the stars!
Here are my 5 nominations for the next participants in the My 7 Links project. They are all great sources of inspiration, and whether or not they have or take the time to participate, they are definitely worth your time to check out:
Enjoy the journey!
So, if you’re like most people, you hear Darjeeling and you think tea. As well you should! Darjeeling is best known for the tea, and also known for the best tea. The finest tea, in fact, whose flavor is not replicated anywhere else in the world.
Darjeeling tea plants cover the slopes of this Himalayan region of West Bengal. I managed a glimpse of the tea pickers with my iphone from the car as we rounded a bend – as you can see the tea plants cling to the hillsides….so do the roads, and apparently, so do the tea pickers!
Here are the goods freshly picked:
Here is the tea being measured for prefect brewing:
And here are the cups poured for tasting:
A visit to a plantation factory in the region is probably not worth all the hype. You’d have to visit early in the morning to see the activity of sorting, and without a guide you’ll have no clue what goes on in each of the machines. Fortunately for our guide, we did happen to catch a few workers loading a conveyor with fresh leaves for drying:
And that was just one load…..of many:
But tea isn’t the only thing you’ll find to taste in Darjeeling. They also grow plenty of other good stuff, namely, spices (including saffron), nuts, and berries.
These food vendors are perfectly situated along the long walk up the hill to get to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Darjeeling Zoo, well worth the effort even on the hottest of days.
Yes, those peanuts and berries were wonderfully familiar…and delicious! But what really got my attention was this roadside snack mix I saw being served up in rolled paper cones (like above), and being gobbled up by local kids on their walk home from school.
So there you have a taste of what there is to taste in Darjeeling. I can’t stop thinking about this snack mix, it’s delightfully addictive, and I’m craving it now! Almost to the point of begging anyone who might be headed to Darjeeling to bring me back a sack of it. Or better yet, if anyone knows how those flakes are actually made and what goes into them, please share a recipe!
Had I been in front of rather than behind the camera that day, I might have looked something like this Himalayan Bear (as observed at the Darjeeling Zoo):
This post was prepared especially for sharing on Wanderfood Wednesday – be sure to follow the link to find other wanderful foodies and blogs about food!
When you think Calcutta, do you think slums, poverty and filth? Or do you imagine art, joy and beauty? A visitor to Calcutta will see what they want to see, but the camera never lies. It’s all there. Open your eyes.
Children of Calcutta
Upon landing by air in Calcutta, I couldn’t help but notice the lush green surroundings – a rather surprising twist on my preconceived image of a sprawling, polluted, crowded city in West Bengal. I was whisked away by a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle to the luxuriously comfortable and air-conditioned Taj Bengal, where I looked out over a green landscape dotted with purple bougainvillea and bright red flame trees. I was further enchanted by lovely tweeting birds nesting in the plants of the window box. I grabbed a few quick shots with my iphone….
…before pulling out my camera gear to charge batteries, change memory cards, wipe lenses, and do all that not-so-glamorous maintenance work of a travel photographer.
So this is Calcutta. Through the window….it looks like a beautiful dream.
While it’s certainly more comfortable to sit in an air-conditioned room or vehicle watching everything from behind the glass, you’ll barely scratch the surface. And it’s easy to be bothered by the heat, groaning every time you step out into it and focusing only on how uncomfortable you are. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve watched, and listened to, others do this. Three words: Get over it. The people of Calcutta live in this heat every day, with no A/C in their homes, cars or rickshaws. Your body will acclimate, you’ll adjust, and you’ll be glad you made the effort to accept it and immerse yourself into everything that is Calcutta.
Once you’ve successfully crossed over into the realm of being completely at one with the hot sticky humid environment of Calcutta, you’re home free. You’re no longer just a visitor…. you’re a part of life….
The afternoon was dedicated to visiting the “must-see” of this off-the-beaten-tourist-track city, Mother Teresa’s Ashram. No words can describe the overwhelming emotion of visiting not only the Ashram itself, but the nearby orphanage established by Mother Teresa. In her words, it is a refuge for…
“The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” — Mother Teresa
To step into a room where knee-high children with big brown eyes hold their arms up to you, longing desperately to be held and carried, and to be told “please don’t pick them up” was a real test of my maternal heartstrings. But I found an agreeable compromise by sitting on the floor to read a book while the kids climbed onto my lap and leaned over my shoulders and watched my face as I was able to engage and love them without too much emotional bonding. This was an undertaking not for the weak of heart, and all I could think about was finding my strength in compassion and focusing on the power of love. Pure love. The Mother Teresa kind of love – love for all, and attachment to none. I somehow made it out without adopting a dozen children – although not without shedding a dozen tears. Photography was not permitted in the orphanage and I would have left the camera anyway. Some things are to be experienced with only the widest aperture of heart, not lens.
The next day, Calcutta revealed even more beauty than I could ever have imagined, with a visit to the Calcutta Flower Market on the banks of the Hooghly River. I always make a point of visiting local markets wherever I travel, for purposes of both cultural immersion and photographic opportunities. To simply walk through snapping pictures does not the experience make – the photographer must engage all the senses, listening and smelling and touching, in order to capture the image that tells the story.
I’m not so sure I succeeded in just one shot, and I really wish cameras were equipped with a scent-mic, in order to record smell. Sound, however, can be shared in a video clip, which also gives a good sense of the pace of activity in the flower market.
Now, what the video doesn’t show, and the camera can’t really capture, is the temperature. It’s hot. The outdoor temperature is in the upper 90’s (and it’s early). As if the heat in itself weren’t enough, it’s humid too. Like, candle-wax-dripping-wet humid. Now imagine that heat and humidity while under tarps in a crowded space, where you can’t walk more than a few steps without brushing, or being brushed by, a hot sticky body of someone else. And there’s your sense of touch put into words.
Still with me? Good. I spent way more time exploring this market than I had anticipated, and I savor every moment of that experience. The hustle, the bustle, the voices, the sounds, the scents, the odors, the feel, the life…..oh, the life. At times it was like walking through someone’s hot tired breath, but with wafts of freesia and roses. I was fascinated by vendors who spent hours of their market day just sorting and picking through flowers – imagine, doing that for your living. Working with flowers, nature’s beauty, and never taking a single one for granted.
As it turns out, there are flowers and art everywhere in Calcutta, sometimes obvious, other times, not so obvious. Here, a streetside tattoo artist creates flower tattoos on the arms of a young man, which are then dusted in bee pollen to prevent infection.
A trip to the northern quarter of the city called Kumartuli, also known as the potter’s village, revealed more arts and more body parts. Here sculptors and artisans work to create clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, for use in shrines and festivals all over India…and the world.
So now, if the thought of Calcutta conjures up images of joy, beauty, and art, then I have succeeded in shedding light on this amazing and wondrous city of India… with my images, with my words, and with my heart and lens wide open. Namaste.
Here’s my image of a lone man facing the rising sun at Varanasi:
And here’s how it appears in The Rough Guide to India (seventh edition):
The first line of text on the page reads:
“For most Indians, the presence of the divine is a daily fact of life.”
Well, it is for me too. A daily fact of life. But, one’s awareness of divine presence is a very personal thing, and far too precious to be defined by any guidebook, religion, and certainly not by me.
When asked, I tell others that I’m a very spiritual person, but I’m not religious. I leave it at that, and find they must question themselves before they will further question me. If you know me on facebook, then you already know my stated religion: “All of the Above.” I think it’s called tolerance.
Where do I go to church? When I am out in nature, smelling a mossy forest, star-gazing in the night skies, or surfing in the ocean, that’s my church. That’s where I am in the presence of the divine. Nature is divine. I respect and worship it…religiously.
And what of faith?
This December has proved to be quite a month – first, being published in National Geographic, and now, Rough Guides! Quite a finish to a year that began with a blind leap of faith. I was spending more than I was making, investing my time, money and heart into the wrong people for the wrong reasons. I was let down, I was burned, I was disappointed, and I was even beginning to doubt myself. Well, that didn’t last longer than a split-second, but it’s enough to know when it’s time to let go and move on. And that’s where faith jumps in and takes over. Faith. Faith in oneself, faith in the universe, faith in the divine, faith in God – call it what you will and direct it where you will, but if you’ve got faith, then consider yourself lucky because, sadly, not everyone does.
By the way, faith is not defined by religion. If you look it up in any dictionary and even on Wiki, you will find the first definition of faith has nothing to do with religious practice. Faith is not defined by science either, there is no concrete evidence of faith. That’s the cool thing about faith – it cannot be defined by religion or science, yet neither would exist without it.
I had to look it up several times and in several places to be sure I wasn’t just putting blind faith into my own perception of faith. I mean, who am I to define what religion and science cannot? Well, Wiki, Webster and a bunch of other dictionaries have done it for me, so, I’ll take what fits and present my favorite definition here:
Faith – sincerity of intentions.
Wow. Read that again. Faith is the sincerity of intentions. I love it.
And I found three more words amongst the definitions that deserve honorable mention:
Trust. Confidence. Steadfastness.
Wow. Read those again. Don’t you love it? Faith is awesome.
Faith, it’s simply a daily fact of life.