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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Varanasi: generally not what is meant by "hands-on learning in the museum"

Back in Delhi after two days in Varanasi/Benares/Kashi. I have so much to say and so little brain power to do it with. In 48 hours I will be heading to the airport to go home, and believe me those hours are packed. Tomorrow we go to Agra, and my stoppy-looky soul is thrilled.

Varanasi was amazing. For someone who is not religious, being surrounded by so much faith is...something, I don't know what. Fascinating. Last night we sat quietly bobbing in a boat on the Ganges watching aarti on the banks, and it was truly beautiful even though I understood almost nothing of it, which I guess speaks to the universality of certain human emotions and endeavors. This trip has been amazing for that, for realizing how much any two people have in common and can share.

Okay, now for an explanation of this post's title. Yesterday we went to the archaeological museum at Sarnath (the site of the Buddha's first sermon). Again, an amazing collection, including the column capital from which some of India's official symbols come, and poor labeling; this museum does win top prize for physical environment for the artifacts, as it was somewhat air conditioned and everything seemed clean-ish. By the time we got to this museum, I had begun to lose my patience with listening to our tour guide (not Rajan, who now referes to himself as our "tour manager" or "tour escort," which we have explained to him has a different connotation in American English) because somehow I just didn't think he knew what he was talking about (for example, he said Benares Hindu University, with 22,000 students, is the third biggest university in the world, which is plainly not true). We had been up since 4:15 a.m., having gone to watch sunrise prayers on the Ganges, and it was really hot out, all of us sweating buckets. It's towards the end of the trip, the group dynamics are not so dynamic becuase everyone's tired, and my emotions were running very high and scattered yesterday, and everything just hit the fan in the musuem. Strike one was the guide touching the artifacts. Strike two was one of the USEFI staff touching the artifacts, at which point I threw my hands in the air and left the room - it hurts me when people do that, I know you may not believe that, but it really does (but Kim, I know you understand!). Strike three? Being groped by high school boys. I know Americans, probably especially midwesterners, have very large personal space bubbles. I know that that is a culturally relative concept, and prior to yesterday I have had very little discomfort with crowds or even people just standing closer to me than I imagine they need to. But being followed for half an hour by a handful of silent, staring, skulking boys was weird, and having them try to accidentally brush up against me was even weirder, and realizing where some of their hands were was the limit. I am not the kind of woman that men make any effort to be near, so I have no previous experience to help me handle this. I wish I had had my wits about me and smacked one of them, I wish I had thought to scream in their faces or something, I wish I had done something to let them know that is seriously not cool - but in truth I would have been yelling not only at them but at all the grown men who try to sell me useless plastic crap, who follow me down the street, who grab my arm as I walk by, becuase they are old enough to know better.

I know, I know. Ugly American all over the place here. But that was the end of my rope for that kind of thing. There are culturally relative norms and needs, and then there are things that are icky, and for me yesterday was just icky. And in a museum, of all places. For me, that made it even worse.

Fortunately, I had splashed a bit in the Gagnes that morning, and if I understand my informant correctly, the sins of this lifetime have been washed away, so all the anger I had for those boys is, I hope, forgiven.

I have now lost track of where this post was going. Sorry. I'm really tired and in serious need of a shower. Clean clothes would be great but I don't have any of those. I do, however, have a hotel room that smells like jasmine. It's good to be me.


At 10:36 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Hang in there, kiddo. Your patience, understanding, and joy have brought you through a lot these last weeks...especially remembering so much of what you have been brought through has lingered on your skin and in your mind and in your heart. That doesn't mean that a rude kid doesn't get an elbow now and then; just don't let the motion of the jab shake loose a piece of a happy moment.

Breathe the jasmine in your room into your soul and remember why you were drawn to this wondrous place.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger babasko said...

Stupid little creeps. Don´t worry, their karma will catch up with them *gg*

Isn´t it weird that my small Hindi phrase book is the only one that has phrases like "don´t touch me" and "i´m going to smack you" in it *gg* now I know why

so and now do what Kim told you: breathe in the jasmin in your room, have a refreshing shower and good nights sleep and enjoy the rest of your trip :-D

At 11:44 AM, Anonymous Nain said...

They can never do that to an Indian woman, and they think it is easy with westerners. Forgive me, but Western TV and Hollywood movies gives a very wrong pic to the rest of the world. It is for ignorant people ( they r everywhere!) to misunderstand other cultures.... Btw, even the western world understands other cultures by whats shown on TV

At 5:15 AM, Blogger Chronicus Skepticus said...

Beth, I'm so sorry about what happened.

There is nothing 'Ugly American' about getting mad at people for acting like jerks; you have every right to. In fact I wish you'd gotten mad enough to beat them up (or get them beaten up).

I so hope this didn't ruin the experience for you, and that you'll make another trip here.


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