Blog from Matt N.
Part One: Shock and Awe
Before diving into the shenanigans of Diwali, Varanasi’s own Festival of Lights of the Gods, let us delve into the bizarre business of banking. Immediately following the unexpected demonetization of all high-value rupee notes, the Rs 500 and the Rs 1000, the group began to fear the worst. Will the trip continue? Will we have to go home earlier? What do we do?!!!
Thus, a stupefied Shiva group dredged their way into the process of recovery. The majority of the Semester fund and the students’ personal pool of money was in Rs 500 notes. However, exchange was possible at any bank until the end of November. Fantastic! Sounds so simple! Unfortunately, simple, it was not. Firstly, you must bring a passport copy, an exchange form, and rupees in hand. Then, you had to endure the lines, waiting for hours on end until you reached the counter. If everything flowed smoothly, you’d get your money, eventually. As it turns out, regrettably, the government and its in-cohesion irritated the situation, placing new restrictions one day, then taking some out the next, oscillating back and forth like a metronome which couldn’t keep a tempo. Unpredictable. Limits at Rs 4000, then Rs 2000 per day. These caps flip-flopped in different banks as well. Rs 8000 a week to Rs 4000 per week to Rs 2000 until the end of December?! Worse of all, on many occasions, some banks would outright reject you for lack of currency. There simply wasn’t legal tender to give! How about the ATM’s, you ask? Same situation, different box to wait for. The whole ordeal simmered down, slightly, as time carried on, but that I will get into that later. Now, let us discuss something more lively.
The holiday of Diwali in Varanasi, although just as boisterous as the banks, was much more entertaining and people were in an equally merry mood. Celebrating Lord Shiva’s victory over the destructive demon, Tripurasur, the holiday was denoted by strings of light everywhere, adorning every nook and cranny of the shores of the Ganges river, by half-naked people taking a dive into the river’s holy waters to release them from their worldly sins, and by firecrackers and cherry-bombs exploding in an annoyingly majestic array of blinding flashes and deafening sounds. Along the banks, masses of people crowded to observe the day’s programs, everything from Indian music performances to devotional rituals, such as the fire poojas (prayers). At night, with the full splendor of the moon on display and all the candle lights acting as its stars, the group pushed their way through the crowds, holding hands, to spectate this robust scene. Quickly, they tired of its incessant hustle and bustle, and decided to end the day in peace with pancakes. The next few days, Shiva enjoyed a breezy boat ride and a Blue lassi, before having to part ways with the Purple Lotus Homestay and its wonderful people and amenities, as well as their cultural teachers and their hilarity.
As per the standards of every Bloggywood movie, there must be an intermission, a time of quiescence between the “here” and “there.” But for the intrepid explorers of the Shiva group, no time of respite was afforded. Cited as “the worst train experience” thus far, the overnight train to Delhi from Varanasi had berths blotted by dust, and the winter night chill created an environment ripe for hypothermia, foreboding preludes to the catastrophic crises to come. Upon arrival, dilapidated and tired, everyone enjoyed a hearty breakfast at a Korean restaurant. However, twas only a brief calm before the actual storm. Having no place to stay, we bunkered down at the restaurant, thanks to our kind hosts, and headed out to exchange more rupees. The group had no time to dilly-dally, having a few hours until they had to catch a bus. So, during the trip to a State Bank of India branch, they had forced their way to the front, effectively cutting a horde of similarly fatigued people. Response. Immediate. The crowd threw jeers for the injustice committed. Holding their own against this irritated assembly, they managed to escape with exchanged money in hand. That day marked the lowest point of the trip, by far. Eventually, Shiva made it to the bus stand to Dharamshala, and waited. And waited. And waited. Delay after delay. Mistaken bus after mistaken bus. Even after getting on a bus, we realized that it was only a transfer to the actual one. Finally, the moon barely visible amongst the bellowing clouds of pollution, we got onto the right transport and called it a day.
Part Two: The Recovery Period
Upon the early-morning arrival in Dharamshala, the home of His Holiness The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, the Shiva group was greeted by brisk winds, consolidated by a cup of chai. 1457 metres or 4780 feet above sea level, Dharamshala offers a spectacular landscape of mountains, valleys and farmland, which envelops this small Buddhist city like the moon’s crescent, its darkness. Although the Himalayan mists cover the area most of the time, it is not possible to hide its beauty. During the day, the tree-covered ridges, snow-capped peaks, and seed-planted fields welcome you to its natural abode. At night, especially away from the more concentrated part of Dharamshala, stars glitter in the sky, like the homes’ lights on the mountainsides. The sunrise and sunset is arguably the most beautiful we’ve seen in India. Into this new land, we made our home at the local, organic farm of Ravinda-ji and his wife Brij Bala-ji. It was a small complex, with the elegant main house dominating the center, storehouses to its relative side, and fields and terraces surrounding. For generations, they have farmed this land the traditional way, with the work of hands and tools, not a machine in sight. Garlic, yams, lychee, bananas, rice, and turmeric, to name but a few, seasonally thrived here. Each day, we participated in this Dev-Bala endeavor, harvesting and planting, weeding and leveling, watering and cleaning. Odors of manure and fertile soil wafted from us after each morning and afternoon session. Harvesting turmeric proved to be the most difficult work in the cropland. You could not believe how deeply rooted into the ground it was and how much we struggled to procure an intact turmeric! One of the more enjoyable activities was meal preparation, although at times, the other chefs would somewhat subtly take our responsibilities away from us. It was certainly delicious however!
During our stay here, on Monday the Twenty-First, there occurred a day in Indian banking like no other, at least from our perspective. It stood as the easiest, most peaceful period during demonetization. Lady Fortune smiled upon us, granting us two empty banks that actually exchanged our old notes, and an ATM that was filled to the brim with rupees, miraculously untouched until we arrived. Even the big bad State Bank of India, gave us a day off from the angry mob and the four hour time lapse. After such an incredible experience, you, my dear parents, will be happy to know that we can now afford the rest of our tenure in India! Personal, individual accounts aside, we are financially stable and will be coming home on the Sixth of December! Hooray!
On the second to last day, we created a Thanksgiving Dinner like no other! Everything was made from scratch with ingredients organically grown; those that weren’t available were purchased at the market. Pumpkin pie, casaba salad, yam salad, mushroom and broccoli stir fry, mash potatoes, apple brittle, and some dishes from the Indian fare were beautifully presented and equitably appetizingly ambrosial. Having devoured everything on the table, we slept soundly, anticipating the next day, where we would sojourn the small city of McLeod Ganj, and head on to our own Student Directed Travel.