Extreme India Challenge Rickshaw Run: Death Summons Us to the Sacred Ganges
Chapter 3- Navin and Brad finally arrive in Varanasi in the middle of the night, bloody and beaten from the Extreme India Challenges. Parts had been rattling off their auto rickshaw for the last 1,500 miles, but somehow the duct tape was still holding the transmission together. Completion of the rickshaw run race seems impossible at this point, but they are determined to complete the challenges.
The worst was yet to come…
More tourists die in Varanasi than anywhere else in the world, and that’s what has brought us to this sacred riverbank. Hospitals here are overflowing with the sickly, but they aren’t seeking treatment. They await their final passing in the sacred fire, letting Karma decide how long they burn, hopeful to never return home. Children at their bedside hope to watch the moment the heads are cracked open as they leave this earth forever. Everyone is anticipating the final moments.
“Lepers and cobra victims are refused a funeral,” we are told as our thoughts drift to our impending meeting with the serpent handler the next day. Even so, we are drawn ever closer to the river that consumes the ashes of the lucky ones and the lifeless bodies of the less fortunate.
The Fifth Element
Through the early morning haze of smoldering funeral pyres, the rippling surface of the Ganges glistens in the sunlight like a sequin dress. Pollution, raw sewage and death lie hidden underneath the elegant façade. “The river Ganga is India’s holiest river, the divine mother, so holy, it purifies everything that is put into it,” we are told, as a waterfall of sewage garbles from the city behind us into the river with a dull roar.
The river bottom is littered with the corpses of children and pregnant women who were tied to a rock and sunk to the bottom, swaying in the eternal suspense of shifting currents. It seems as if everything is mysteriously drawn to this point, the center of the universe and the intersection of the cycles of life and death. We must swim in that river to cleanse our sins. A creation and embodiment of lord Shiva himself, the sloping west bank of the Ganges is a place transported in time, crowned by ancient burning Ghats.
In the madness that defines India, a calm overtakes us, carried in by the morning mist. We feel a sense of harmony with our surroundings and the task at hand. Ether is the mystical fifth element, the spirit that exists beyond matter. It is thick here.
Swimming in Shit
I limp up to the bank of the river, my infected foot still throbbing from the botched glass-walking challenge. Anxiety sets in as dead bodies float by and a frenzy of circling vultures gather above us. We were warned not to do this – news articles and stories of tourists becoming uncontrollably sick days afterwards – but the locals were inviting, encouraging us to participate in one of their holiest cultural rituals. They even drink the water to show us how safe it is.
As a crowd of locals gathers in amazement, Navin shoots me a competitive glance that tells me it is time to swim, but neither of us trust the other enough to go first. Going together is the only way to avert the standoff. We walk slowly and gingerly, carefully feeling out the irregular edges of each slime-covered step hidden underneath the river water, avoiding slipping under or splashing water in our mouths. Knee-deep, we look down at the water wondering if this was enough to complete the challenge, Navin stumbles and falls completely underwater.
Screw it! I gotta go in now, I thought, letting myself sink deeper. We tread water for a bit to wash off many trips to Vegas and my nerves begin to settle down, we’ve done it. I start paddling back to shore, still careful not to get any water in my mouth. Just then, my foot hits a submerged object. “I think that was the corpse of a child! Get me out of here!” I scream like a girl and bolt to shore.
The Soul Cleansing
We head back into the hotel, proudly strutting our glistening souls to excited locals. The manager points out, “The only way to truly purify your soul from within is to drink the holy water.”
Navin’s devious grin told me he was going to use his spontaneous challenge card. Even knowing what he is about to say, my heart still sinks. He says, “we can’t leave Varanasi with a dirty soul, so we have to drink the water. We can make tea out of it if we boil it for 7 minutes, right? Holy Ganga tea?” It’s a plan.
I grab a glass and head to the river. Pushing the bubbling sludge and floating trash aside, my nose burns with the overpowering smell of feces. I scoop the water up, a dull grey film coats the surface. Together Navin and I walk to the chai stand that had squatted by the ghat for generations, making tea in a rusty kettle over smoldering wood splinters. We ask him to make us tea with the cup of water. He saw me scoop the water out of the river and refused, screaming angrily for us to leave.
Confused, but undeterred, we bring the cup of water back to the hotel restaurant and ask the waiter to make us tea out of this specific water. He gladly agrees at first, but when he finds out it is river water, he refuses. Of course persisting, other waiters interrupt to express their disapproval. A chorus of furious head bobbing and arguing in Hindi erupts in front of us. The manager finally comes from the lobby and reluctantly agrees to make tea if it is boiled completely.
Sitting down at the table, the tea arrives within a few minutes in a fancy teapot with miniature cups. A crowd of hotel staff gathers nearby, pretending to work while keeping one eye completely transfixed on us. They had never seen this before: two foreigners drinking tea made of holy polluted water from the Ganges. Finally, curiosity overwhelms the anxiety of the youngest waiter, who approaches humbly to ask, “How do you like the Ganga chai?” “It’s a little gritty,” I reply casually. “No! Not possible; holy Ganga water is pure!” “Why did you ask?”
Charming the Deadly Serpent
We return to the room to await the next challenge. Laying in our beds we stare at the ceiling exhausted and listen to our stomachs rumbling. It is a blissful contrast to a week of 20-hour days driving our rickshaw the length of India. The clanging phone breaks the silence. It is the hotel manager telling us the snake charmer can not make it today, so we will have to wait until tomorrow to test our luck again. We are enjoying our first toilet paper and silverware in over a week so we decide to stay another day.
The next day is spent waiting for the snake charmer, asking every hour about his status. “In five minutes,” they say. One hour later, “On his way.” The next hour, “Just a little while longer,” followed by, “In five minutes.” Confirmation that the snake charmer was never even called brings more relief than disappointment, still shaken after seeing dead bodies floating in the river. But this setback puts us two days further behind. After waiting so long, it’s too late in the day to drive, so finishing the race is impossible without cheating.
That Fateful Decision
We trust Punkage, the hotel manager enough to ask him to try to hire us a truck that would fit our rickshaw in the bed and drive us all night toward Bangladesh. It seems like the only way.
After hours of phone calls, Punkage’s “cousin” apparently has the only available truck in Varanasi, but needs three times as much plus gas for his return. We can leave at sundown if we agree. We debate driving to a truck stop in the industrial area of the city to get a better deal from a passing truck, but Punkage seems reputable. He demanded 90 percent to be paid upfront, a substantial wager of trust that would bind us to the situation even if things turned sour. That was a bad decision. Little did we know, that bet would spin off a series of events that nearly cost us our lives…
to be continued..
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