Saturday, December 27, 2003

Bang! in Varanasi
by Skald

I'd read "The Teachings of Don Juan" one too many times perhaps,.... or maybe it was the infectious delirium of Varanasi itself.... the filthiest, holiest, most magical pilgrimage in all the world.... where funeral pyres line the polluted Ganges... where bloated cows float by bathing children.... and the stink of death and Ganja are always in the air.

The city is a medieval warren of stone alleyways--- narrow, twisting, and dark.... an ancient city that has recieved Hindu pilgrims for millenia. All the disease, all the charm, all the wretched truths of humanity, are concentrated in Varanasi. It is an intoxicating place. It is a frightening place.

I slurped my first bang lassi at twilight. "Bang" is a yogurt drink with a heavy mixture of marijuana. You slurp it down, then wait nervously. It hits hard.... producing a violent shift in consciousness far in excess of smoked ganja. It hit me as the city grew dark. I was wandering the warren... and suddenly found myself in a dark alley. The darkness hummed and shimmered. Voices murmered in the murky distance. I had no idea where I was. Paranoia crept up my gullet.... all those half-read stories of murdered foreigners found floating in the river... or never heard from.

I stumbled on with one had braced against the wall. Dark shapes slouched in a pool of light up ahead... hawk faced Indians.... their black eyes stared and I swear they never blinked. I stumbled past them, heart beating. Would they club me from behind? Knife me in the kidneys? I braced for the blow, but none came.

I wandered like this for an hour, maybe more... lurched from streetlamp to darkness and back again.... avoided the steely gazes, tensed for the blows that never came.

Eventually I fled the warrens and reached the river... plunged into a gyrating mass of pilgrims.... a chaotic jangle of bells, cymbals, shouts, and singing. Among the crowd were fingerless lepers, mutilated cripples, and feral children. Priests, their foreheads smeared with ash, stood upon a wooden platform on the river's edge. In unison they waved large oil lamps in sync with the jangling rhythm of the bells. Filthy sadhus plunged into the river beside them.... black water, plastic trash, bloated cow corpse, reflected fire. Ecstasy..... wild and jubilant ecstasy gripped my balls and flooded my chest, and lit my eyes, and raised my hair. The beautiful-horrifying scene, combined with my crazed mental state, jolted me to somewhere I had never been before. My gaze shot crazily from scene to scene: the dancing priests, the cow corpse, the wild eyed pilgrims, the dancing oil lamps, the bathing sadhus, the black water, the shuddering cymbals, the cripples, the lepers.... here it was, disease and death and joy and wretchedness... the full horrid madness of life,... of humanity. Here it was, seen with a mind stripped of logic and judgement.

It was an awe inspiring moment..... one I struggle to do justice to. I felt an incredible sense of "aliveness".....a sense of "oneness" so often cited in spiritual texts. Everything seemed to fit. Everything was right. This was life and I was in it. I felt free. And I glimpsed, for just a moment, that awesome power that has drawn pilgrims to Varanasi for generations.

As I think back to that experience, and to others like it, I realize that these are the moments that neo-nomadism makes possible. The wage-slave's life is one of unending monotony.... but the hobopoet, inevitably, has brief encounters with the strange, the terrifying,.... even the divine. Unhurried and unscheduled, the hobopoet plunges into the unknown. That is where the magic is... there and only there.

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