After months of anticipation and two weeks of orientation in Delhi and Jaipur, we have finally arrived in Varanasi (or, as commonly called in India, Banaras), where we will be studying this semester.
This past week has involved a whirlwind of finding housing, running errands, and trying to figure out this city’s maze of alleyways. We spent the first few days here touring various homestay and guest house options. It has only been a week but I have already lived in two different places. I chose a homestay where I had an adorable blue room on the roof that looked out over the Ganga and the city. After a few days of living there, I came to learn that the family was not making much of an effort to include me in their home. After eating my first dinner there alone in my room, I realized I had to find another place. Yesterday I packed up and moved down the alley way to a new home. I already feel much more welcome here. My new family consists of a father (Pinku ji), his mother, his sister, and his sister’s son. Pinku ji’s wife and daughter live separate from the family—she teaches at a boarding school on the other side of the city and her daughter attends the school as well. Other members of the household include a German girl who is in Varanasi for a gap year and Jon, one of my classmates here. Pinku ji’s adorable nephew, Omesh, is 4 years old and has already proven to be a really good person to practice my Hindi with.
Along with arriving in Varanasi, the seven of us have met the five year-long students who have been here since fall semester. Last week we eased into our classes. All of our classes are held in the UW program house here, and consist of just us UW students. Our two history classes both involved field visits—one to a Jain temple and the other to Sarnath, a town outside of Baranas where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It is a unique and fascinating experience being able to directly apply history class material to my surroundings.
Thus far, Banaras has been a very intense place. Though I’ve seen cows on roadsides all over India, Varanasi’s cow gang is bigger than I’ve ever seen. Many of the streets are jumbles of people, bicycles, cars, rickshaws, beggars, dogs, cows, cow pies, goats, puddles, and trash. Add that to the seemingly excessive constant chorus of honks and you get a lot of overwhelm. Navigating this city is hard enough as a newcomer, but the bustle of the streets distract any sense of direction that I may otherwise possess.
Don’t get me wrong, though; the chaos is beautiful. The other day we all went for a bike ride with our two student coordinators. Bike-riding here is not the leisurely activity it can be in the US. Navigating through the maze of so many different life forms and stop and go traffic posed quite a challenge, yet I couldn’t help but sport a goofy grin on my face the whole time. The streets might look like a mass of disarray, but they sweep you up in an engulfing intensity of lives interacting so closely with other lives. From an American perspective, I wonder at how such a seemingly disorganized place manages to operate. But I’ve learned that questioning the chaos only leads to more questions and an overwhelming sense of frustration, so I try my best to take it in and embrace it.