After boiled eggs with bread, Alyssa took part in her 2nd two hour yoga session. Somit, the man in charge of the Ashram, studied for a year to be a yoga instructor and also trained in Ayruvedic massage and astrology. During his studies he had to live in the countryside away from home. He was not able to use any form of digital technology, could eat only boiled vegetables and rice with no spices, could only wear a robe, and had to study for 16 hours per day. By day 15, Somit was ready to leave and he tried to sneak out in the middle of the night. The farm animals revealed his getaway by mooing and baaing so Somit was caught and punished. Now in his free time he had to wash the farm animals by hand. He explained how he had to go through a process where he simply “let go,” removed his expectations, and put his trust in his teacher. By the end he had learned the value of discipline and hard work. Somit said, “Because I poor I no options. But after hard work I learn many thing. Now I stronger. I teach yoga. I start business. Build school. Help other poor children. When I run Ashram I no care money. I only care behave. If I behave good you, you will behave good other peoples. I only care you happy.” We could resonate well with Somit as this has been the guiding philosophy at the camp.
It is now winter break so the school children no longer attend class regularly, however, Somit typically opens the doors to children who cannot afford to pay for school. Somit has volunteers run classes and many of the guests staying in the Ashram help out. This was our goal for coming here but we did not realize it was winter break. Since we now had more time than we realized, we decided to head back out in the maze of Varanasi and try to find the highly recommended Blue Lassi.
Lassi is basically natural yogurt like Martha makes with fruit and spices added to taste. So far, each city has had its signature dish (Momos in Delhi, Thali in Agra, Kebab in Lucknow) and the signature dish of Varanasi is lassi. Blue Lassi is literally a tiny blue hole in the wall deep in the labyrinth but the closet of a space is crawling with foreigners who flock in droves for this unique experience. Eighty years ago a man became famous in Varanasi for his extraordinarily delicious lassi. His reputation grew so he taught his son the art. Likewise, his son taught his son so the third generation lassi maker is keeping the tradition alive. Having a craving for chocolate, we both ordered the chocolate banana flavor and when our big clay cups came overflowing with goodness, Alyssa was beaming.
One thing that caught our eye the minute we stepped into the Blue Lassi was how strange all of the foreigners looked. One guy had Harry Potter glasses and a shaved head with bangs (like the kind of haircut Anne popularized on us in the 80s); one guy had intentionally manipulated king size bed head; one girl had a farm cow nose ring and all of them were decked out in what was sold as the idea of local attire yet none of the locals have ever been spotted actually wearing it. It seemed that among many travelers the idea of being unique was so common that everyone was actually the same. They all wore the “Ali Baba” pants and sported enough wooden beaded necklaces to look like they had just come from a Buddhist Mardi Gras. What they failed to observe was that none of the locals wear “Ali Baba” pants and only the sacred Sadhu priests wear the beaded necklaces, otherwise they are left as offerings to the gods. For many foreigners travel seems to be a means for continued material consumption in the name of what it means to be trendy, rather than a means for self-discovery.
We were stuffed by the time we finished our healthy portion of lassi and when we asked what to do with the cups, we were instructed to smash them into the cup bin. Like some of the one time use chai cups, these pottered clay bowls were one time use and Alyssa shrieked with excitement as she smashed her clay bowl and then mine. This is definitely one way to keep the potters employed.
After being hassled by every barber on the ghats for a “good shave,” we decided to head back to the Ashram to shave, shower and prepare for the evening fire ceremony. On the way back we were rounding one of the narrow corners and all of a sudden a boy started shouting and everyone began running in a panic. One English speaker yelled “FLAT ON WALL!!! FLAT ON WALL!!!” Squishing to get our backs flush to the wall we watched as a horned bull came charging down our alley like it had just escaped the Calgary stampede. We were literally seconds away from being trampled by a massive bull and we gasped as the horns whizzed by everyone on both sides of the alleyway. During the chaos the only thing going through my mind was “Does our travel health insurance cover inner city bovine trampling?” After the panic subsided, everyone had a good laugh and we carried on our way, now more worried about their horns than their splatties.
As luck has it my shaver died with only one half of my face shaved. So now looking like one of those foreigners who is working hard to be unique, I shrugged my shoulders and decided to take my bucket bath instead. As luck has it, while I was nice and wet and soapy, the power went out. So there I was, wet, soapy, with half a shaved face, in the pitch black tiny bathroom trying to feel my way to the water bucket. Afterwards we were served our dinner with rice, dhal and spicy vegetables. As luck has it, I accidentally ate one of the ridiculously spicy chilies hiding in the vegetables. I have never experienced something so spicy in my life. In an instant I was sweating buckets, started hiccuping uncontrollably, and had tears streaming down my cheeks. As Alyssa scrambled for something to drink, I pounded back more dhal between hiccups to try to absorb the pain but only time would heal this one. By the time it subsided, I felt like I had run a marathon and the hiccups stopped right away. Honestly, if something is so spicy that it forces you to hiccup, why bother using it for human consumption? The only useful purpose for these chilies would be in chemical warfare.
Expectations play a large role in one’s happiness. Vagabonding has taught us to remove expectations and to accept the full experience. Thus we have realized that mishaps on the road are to be expected and so rather than get bogged down with high expectations, we take these opportunities as a good time for a deep belly laugh. Needless to say, we had a good laugh at my expense today.
We followed Vicky, a helper at the Ashram, down the dark windy streets and onto the ghats where he took us for an evening fire ceremony. The ghats at night had a magical glow that spread over the Ganges river. If one were to find spiritual enlightenment in Varanasi, it would not be in the haze of the day but in the glow of the night. The Dasaswamedh Ghat was packed with onlookers as the fire ceremony was already underway. Vicky is from the Brahman caste, the highest caste, and his grandfather is one of the head Brahman priests in Varanasi. Like the Catholic pope, Brahman priests are considered to have a direct connection with the gods which privies them their highest status. Vicky took us to the highest terrace on the Dasaswamedh Ghat and we watched the ceremony in seclusion nearly five stories up. Along the shore, the ghat was decorated with flowers, bells, drummers and five large platforms. Each platform had a Brahman on top who was performing the ritual fire dance by slowly moving golden candelabrum in a synchronized dance. The fire and lights reflected off the Ganges and the shores were lined with hundreds of spectators watching from old wooden boats. It was unbelievable to see the amount of work that goes into these nightly ceremonies and how these rituals have been passed down for generations. While watching this ceremony we got a better idea as to why Varanasi is considered the holiest place in India and why so many believers flock here to seek enlightenment.