Varanasi, India | spiritual haven, solo-traveling challenge + my (now) all time favorite city

Months have passed and I've been trying and trying and trying to get around to editing and posting photos from my trip to India. I've managed a few on my Instagram, and had a few published in Moveable Magazine (which is awesome!) but gathering 3.5 weeks worth of photos into a single blog post seemed like such a daunting task... Alas I have opted for sharing slowly / by each city I visited - a week or two ago I posed photos from Chandelao + Sirsi villages (along with words to help me work out my own thoughts about that part of the trip..) In an effort to motivate myself I'm starting first with my most favorite / most difficult / most alone / most rewarding part of my trip - to Varanasi, India. 

I was in Varanasi alone. It was not easy. I am blonde, very fair skinned and stuck out in a crowd - and therefor was targeted by touks, business men, men in general. However please do not get the wrong idea, I never felt threatened - these people only either wanted my money, or just wanted the attention of a white female (apparently we are rare in India, go figure!) 

I am so, so tired of reading so many travel blogs with posts on "things women should be cautious of while traveling alone" with vague points like, "theft! verbal harassment! walking alone at night!" Newsflash: we deal with this in America, too. I wish so many bloggers and travel companies would stop belittling women by making it seem like we have no common sense while traveling. If you know what you are getting yourself into (and please do recognize it is NOT a cakewalk), you will be fine. 

It was not easy, but I am so glad I did it. There is nothing more empowering than knowing you can and will handle any foreign situation you find yourself in. I conquered Varanasi and I conquered a TON of fear.

I stayed near Assi Ghat, which is about two miles from the main ghat / tourist area. Every day I walked along the ghats for hours and this was the best "attraction" I could have seen. I did not plan an itinerary, and yet kept myself quite entertained - India is an assault on all the senses, I found it impossible to be bored.

Every morning at sunrise at Assi Ghat, there is free yoga and a concert held by a different musician. Every morning. EVERY. That is a LOT of music - for this I think Varanasi is like the Florence of India - so artistic - but it is also like the Rome - spiritual HQ.

I have posted no photos of the burning ghats, or Dashashwamedh ghat, as I do not think it is appropriate to share publicly for the sake of the families of those being honored, and frankly you viewing this might be totally disturbed by the idea of it. However, there was nothing disturbing* about this - the funeral rights in the Hindu religion are very systematic, and mourning is nothing like it is in America. Death is a step in the process of life, which continues on, just not in this earthly body. Bodies die but souls carry onward. Hindus believe this and they are so constantly confronted with death (in Varanasi at least) that there is little sadness behind it - the dead are paraded through the streets, brought to be cremated in public, and no one cries at the burning ghats. They just perform the funeral rites and carry onward. The inevitable is accepted and no one thinks of this as this as the very last time this person will exist.

*The only disturbing thing was setting down my chai for a minute, and finding later that ashes - cremation ashes - had fallen into it. I chose not to finish my tea :)

After reflecting I had this thought: in the Christian religion (which America is primarily) heaven is not nearly as obtainable to the living as the afterlife (next life, soul plane etc) is to the Hindu religion. When someone following the Christian belief of the afterlife (or someone who grew up culturally around the idea of heaven/hell as afterlife) - when someone dies, we feel we won't really "know" them again until we reunite in heaven. Therefor there is more disconnect between the living and dead. Therefor there is more sadness in death. More denial. Less acceptance.

Purely speculative from my own understanding - please do chime in if you feel differently or have information to share on the topic!

I hired Cristo, who I found through the magic of TripAdvisor to show me around for a day when I was feeling totally overwhelmed. He was a year younger than me and the first man I met in India who I felt I could actually trust (i.e. didn't try to sell me anything or hit on me. Finally!) 

We toured Varanasi on his MOTORCYCLE. Let me put this in perspective for you: on Indian streets - there are NO turn signals, no lanes, no speed limits, no cops, rarely stop lights, rarely stop signs and definitely no "one car length between vehicles" rule. Holy adrenaline rush. (Sorry mom, don't be mad!)

People in Varanasi bathe in and perform prayer rituals in the river every day. Varanasi is a like a mecca for devout spiritual Hindus. It is beautiful to watch people exist in this crazy busy place - and they still pause every day to pray and find serenity. (A life lesson for us all, perhaps.)

Thanks for reading / viewing - up next is Pushkar, India (and there are many camels.)