Thursday, January 18, 2007

Getting to the Kumba Mela

After finishing shooting our documentary on carpet making in Jaipur, I boarded a train to Varanasi (Benares). First I was seated with a couple of holy men who wore traditional garb and read prayer books in Hindi. Then they were replaced by a bustling family with Mom, Dad and four small kids. They fed their kids smelly dahl with chapati and the kids practiced saying "Hello" to me in English. At some point I began to dream/hallucinate that the kids had attacked my money belt and stole all of my rupees. Then Indian regalia (all bright colors--turqoise, pink, and ornate) began to fly around my head. My businessman seat mate, suggested I looked tired and should go to sleep! At one point I bought a fruit salad. Hand made on the spot and seasoned with garam masala...tasty. And I survived despite that the maker did not use gloves. America is so obsessed with sanitation. Eventually most of the Indians disembarked and the compartment was filled with travelling Russians and Koreans.

At Varanasi I gathered up my stuff and met my driver who got me some breakfast (High end Indian hotel food with eggs, fruit, toast and Indian breads and tea). After finding a place to change travellers checks (most ATMs don't work for me here) we headed up the road to Allahabad. Long drive (over 3 hours). Lots of road blocks. Due to the Kumba Mela there is no truck traffic allowed for the next four days. Miles of trucks just parked. We got through it all and then drove around the back roads of Allahabad to get to the hotel I was assigned to stay in the Grand Continental (my first 5 star hotel) for the first night. All amenities just perfect. And then delicious meals included.

Eventually my driver took me to a spot where he told me I could take a bicycle rickshaw or walk to the Kumba Mela. I walked. Took photos of everything I could see. (I take photos when I don't understand...when its out of my personal realm of normal). Foods, decorations, bangles, colors, strong smells...

Eventually the crowds thickened and I spotted the first tents. And then more. And then more crowds. Eventually I was in the thick of a crowd walking into one of the main thorough fares. People everywere. Carrying things on their heads. Groups squatting together around small fires. More things for sale. Even booths where one can recharge their cell phones! Then an elderly man grabs my arm and begins to explain things. Gets me some tea. Its an offering being given to all... Then I take pics of the different entry ways for the various Hindu gods. Each illuminuated as night begins. People see my little digital camera and request that I shoot pics of them. I do and then show them the results. They all smile and thank me.

As it gets darker I return to find my driver. I'd walked a long way and hire a bicycle rickshaw to take me. He speaks no English. Just raises his hand with five fingers. I presume the ride is for 5 rupees. When we arrive I hand him five rupees and he makes all kinds of sounds. I give him 10 and he's still making noise. Eventually some young men who understand a smattering of English intervene. They explain that he now wants 100 rupees and we all agree that its way too much. They negotiate a fee of 20 rupees. He accepts and then I try to call my driver. I can't understand a word he says...again the young men translate and mediate and eventually we hook up. I arrive at the hotel exhausted.

The dinner is exquisite. Full buffet with foods the beggars of India only dream of. I am so privileged. Both to eat these things .... and to be witness to all of this.

Today I'm being transported to a tourist camp at the Kumba Mela. I'll live there for the next couple of days. The main bathing occurs all day today. Should be amazing.