Monday, February 16, 2015

India (briefly) and the beginning of Carnaval 2015

Well, by now enough time has passed that so many interesting things are happening in RIO that I’d rather talk about that than the India trip. Which is a shame. Hm, ok, a couple of paragraphs on India!

We spent the first three days in Varanasi – a one of the oldest cities in the world, and the religious capital of all Hindus . It sprawls on the banks of the Ganga river and every devout Hindu wants to go there to bathe in the river before they die.  Another goal is to actually die there because apparently that will ensure eternal peace of the soul (called moksha) and no more irksome reincarnation. Thus, quite a few people who feel it is their time to die soon, say their goodbyes to the world and move to Varanasi to stay in a “liberation house” and wait to die. Sometimes they come with family, often – alone. When they die, they get burned on a funeral pyre on the banks of the river and that is that.
As you can imagine, all that means that Varanasi is quite the unique city. The access to the river is through the so-called “ghats” or piers, of which there are about 100, all built next to each other by various former rulers, politicians and other VIPs. Almost all are “bathing” ghats, where Hindus go at daybreak to bathe ritualistically and pray before they start their day. On the same ghats, at sunset, they come to perform or to listen to the night prayer as well. There are many priests who perform the ornate prayer ceremonies, but some of the ghats feature especially spectacular night prayer (the night aarati, also known as the light ceremony). Only 2 of the ghats, Raja Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, are authorized to have funeral pyres, and the fancier of the two, Manikarnika, is controlled by the wealthy Dom family. The Doms belong to the lowest of the Hindu casts, the “untouchables,” and they perform the cremations and care for the grim business of dying on the banks of the Ganga. The current head of the Dom family, the “Dom Raja” is a multimillionaire because it seems that his family charges quite a pretty penny to have you burned at their ghat. In exchange, he will provide you with the 5 starter logs of mango tree to start the pyre that will grant the soul of the departed the coveted moksha. The ghat is indeed a grisly sight. During a lovely leisurely walk along the river, watching the sunset, being watched by the local peddlers, the Diplomat, Mom and I stumbled upon the Harishchandra Ghat quite unexpectedly. So much so that I practically stepped on the listless, rather dead arm of a burning body on a pyre. You see, I always thought that the whole funeral pyre thing was supposed to be this elevated, beautiful, ethereal affair. Rather, the dead body is brought on a bamboo stretcher, put on the ground on the bank of the river, a bunch of wood logs are stacked on top and lit on fire. For some reason the pyre does not include the protruding limbs and head, which are later on pushed under the smoldering body. There are anywhere from 10 to 25 pyres on each ghat at any given time of the day. There is nothing elevated or ethereal about it. It just is.

The next morning, desirous to observe the sacred bathing rituals at dawn, Mom and I rented a rowboat for what turned out to be an excruciating 2-hour slow, breezy float up and down the river at 5 am, at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit), while wearing a t-shirt and a sweater for me, and a light jacket for her. It was still pitch black outside, the ghats were completely deserted save for the occasional local bather (see, December isn’t exactly the tourist bathing season in Varanasi given the intense cold) and, to enhance the effect, there was thick fog spreading over the river. It was absolutely fantastic, despite the fact that my fingers got frostbite and Mom slipped on the ghat steps when we were leaving the boat since her legs were so stiff from the cold that she was unable to lift them up the stairs of the ghat. We still managed to see quite a few devotees bathing gamely in the freezing waters, dipping fully inside and then brushing their teeth with Colgate toothpaste, all with river water. I was impressed – just looking at them made me feel even colder.

From freezing Varanasi, we went back to freezing Delhi where we took Mom to the spice market and Karim’s for lunch, while Son was terrorizing the InLaws in the hotel. We also managed to squeeze in the Diplomat’s 20th college reunion which fortuitously was happening right when we were in Delhi, and a brief wedding reception hosted by a couple of our best friends from Dhaka for a family member, again fortuitously happening while we were visiting.

From the freezing north, we finally flew into the enveloping warmth of the gorgeous Kerala state. While the InLaws went straight back to Chennai, the Diplomat, Mom, Son and I spent three wonderfully warm days in Kochi and its surroundings. One of the things to do there is to spend the night on a houseboat, and I was hell bent on doing just that. It all sounded just so romantic – to sail on a regal-looking houseboat through the peaceful, verdant tributaries of the Kerala backwaters, having food cooked fresh on the boat, and then sleeping to the sound of splashing waves. My ever obliging Father-in-Law promptly arranged a boat for us, and so on the morning of our second to last day in Kerala, all four of us piled up on the lovely boat, and soon were gently rolling through the backwaters. So were 93 other boathouses as well. Turns out, there are about 3000 such boats in the backwaters, and they all take more or less the same route. At the same time. The net result is that wherever you turn your head as you lazily stretch on the rattan sofa on the front veranda of the boat, there inevitably will be another boat with another tourist lazily spread on just the same rattan sofa, staring all the same at you.  Determined to keep the romance of the situation alive, Mom and I succumbed to the upselling of the boat captain, and stopped to take a one-hour canoe ride on a side tributary. The canoe guy mist have been about 112 years old, and rowed like his life depended on it. It was actually delightful to be able to explore life on the small river, and to glimpse into the simple, rural life in the houses strung along the river banks.

Another upsell included a one-hour Ayurveda massage at a different stop for only $25. I can always stop for a good massage so we agreed. Apparently, so had the customers of another 35 boats. What was supposed to be an idyllic, holistic massage in a small village (a business apparently owned by the brother of the boat captain), turned out to be a regular tourist circus. It was in a village alright, and the massage parlor premises were in a small, one-story building. Business wasn’t apparently too good since the building wasn’t even painted. In the somewhat dingy inside, several Indian ladies of respectable age were sitting on cement benches, probably waiting for their turn. Outside, a posse of urgent-looking middle-aged men was standing around the front door seemingly without any particular function save for staring at the waiting women. Right next to the parlor was a rabbit coup with several cute bunnies. Which, while very cute, also smelled a bit. After a brief family discussion, we politely but firmly declined the massages. In the evening, the captain moored the boat for the night right next to the village mosque, and the imam entertained us with his evening call to prayer at 7 and 9, and then at 4.30 am as well. The food on the boat was delicious indeed, and included fish with every meal, appropriately spiced. We were sent to bed at 10 pm. Overall, I would recommend the boat ride but the overnight part is perhaps overrated.

From Kochi, we flew to our final destination Chennai to spend a few days with the Diplomat’s family. I have always loved his Uncle’s family and we had a blast there as usual. It also happened that we were going to spend the New Year’s Eve in Chennai as well and so the Diplomat and I decided to leave parents and child behind and spend the festive night at a good party in a fancy hotel. After some perfunctory research, we chose the Taj Vivanta Connemara where we were promised a banging party by the pool. We were by the pool alright, except that the party was inside and if we heard a song we wanted to dance to, we had to ditch everything and run inside to catch its last few tunes. I was the only white person there, and every time I made an appearance on the dance floor, I was closely monitored by a large gaggle of teenagers who erupted in unbridled laughter whenever I tried to bust a Bollywood move. Needless to say, I was discouraged. I was even more so discouraged when the party ended at 12.30 am. Apparently, no establishment in the city can party (officially) after that. Happy New Year, party poopers! I flew back to Brazil the following day by myself (the Diplomat and Son stayed an extra week and Mom went back to Bulgaria) and spent a week doing a juice cleanse and binge watching Downton Abbey. A week later, a very jet-legged Diplomat and Son returned and life was soon back to normal. Another epic Indian journey was over.

I am happy to report that social life in Rio has actually picked up palpably. These past few weeks have been a considerable madness. Among the more exciting events were the opening of a new burger restaurant in Leblon, the OMG Burger Lounge by a fellow Indian American (spectacular burgers, home-brewed beer(!)); a fabulous  at-home “surprise” dinner cooked by a gourmet Canadian chef (the idea is that you go to his house and he cooks a surprise 5-course meal for a group of 6, we were happy to be some of the chef’s test bunnies as he works on the concept); an incredible rooftop party for some of the sponsors of the Olympic Games; a goodbye dinner at our house for a departing colleague (homemade mushroom soup, made from scratch pappardelle with lamb ragu, decadent homemade tiramisu – yup, I can cook too!); an all-night Carnaval dress rehearsal for a Samba school with a bunch of colleagues; a classy reception by the British Consulate and an afternoon BBQ on yet another rooftop terrace. In the midst of all this it turned out that I had managed to pick up a parasite who lived happily in my belly for some time, causing me to eat massive quantities of food and no little amount of pain. So, for about a week, I survived on anti-nausea pills and parasite medication. My spirits, however, were not dampened!

As of this past week, we are officially in Carnaval mode, which means countless organized street parties, aka blocos, festive mood and, of course, Carnaval itself. A bloco is in essence an organized street madness with a defined route of 3-4 streets, a medium-sized float made up of a truck and a bunch of VERY happy people on top of it, a theme and booming music from the top of the float, anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people following the float drunkenly around the streets (median age is 23), and a lot of foul-smelling Port-a-Potties. The level of excitement is incredible and the point of the bloco seems to be to drink for the sake of, well, drinking, hanging out with friends,and possibly even listening to the music. Some of the blocos are famous (for example, today we have the Sgt. Pepper-themed bloco featuring Beatles’ songs) and are attended by hundreds of thousands of people who drink, sing, dance and are generally super merry. Almost everyone is in costume of some sort and about 98% of all men are shirtless. It is common practice for a guy to suddenly grab a girl (randomly met in the crowd) and French-kiss her while his buddies are screamingly delightedly “beijo, beijo, beijo!!” (which means “kiss” in case that wasn’t obvious). Yup, there is a lot of love in a bloco. There is also an extraordinary amount of beer.

I have been incredibly impressed with the city of Rio, who obviously have this Carnaval/bloco thing down to a science. As you can imagine, the amount of trash generated by such happy party-goers is staggering. Completely undaunted, the city has trash trucks and a small army of street cleaners following the end of each bloco, and most of the time, a mere hour after it is over, there isn’t a trace of it on the streets save for the streamers up in the tree tops. 

I will tell you one thing though - it has been an interesting experience going to work in this environment. All the blocos mean that half of the city streets are closed off, and my uusal 40 min commute to and back from work turns into a 2-hour one. Woo-hoo! But Carnaval or not, folks want their visas and so work we must!
Tonight, however, off to the Sambodromo for night 1 of Rio Carnaval 2015!