Mummies & Saints

Yup. That first picture is a real life mummy. Being carried tenderly by the descendants of an Incan culture that preserved their deceased elders so that they could rejoin their communities to share in holiday celebrations and contribute to important decision making. And this particular mummy, I'm told by my cab driver, is also a saint. A very holy indigenous figure dressed in native garb, partaking in the same procession as the statues of much more European looking saints, also being shuttled by the caring shoulders of Peruvians dressed in a wide array of Spanish and Incan classical and contemporary dress. 

This was the Festival of Corpus Christi - a Catholic celebration in mid-June originally designed to replace the Incan observance of the Winter Solstice. Instead, the two holidays have become one drawn out week, full of roving processions that would make New Orleans proud, both for their robust declaration of life and their proud and vibrant melding of colliding cultures. This is Cusco - the old capitol of the 3,000 mile-long Incan Empire. Where residents proudly speak Quechua and Spanish, point out that the old Incan religion had a figure a lot like Jesus, and will explain to you how the gold in the local Catholic church reflects the Sun God, the silver the Moon Goddess, and the mirrors the waters of Lake Titicaca where legend holds the original Incan people poured forth. Where men might don a slick black-banded fedora or a rainbow colored winter hat, and women can be found in colorful top hats that would give Uncle Sam a run for his money. 

And anyone, including a pale red-head from the United States, can be swept up in a random river of brass horns and drums that meanders its way through the streets of the old city, occasionally swirling around in plazas for a few minute break, while participants belt out shared songs with bravado, couples dance with abandon, and the band gives each group of instruments its turn to flavor the tune. It is Incan. It is European. In the melting pot and salad bowl that is Cusco, Peru.


A Flying Fortress

So my buddy Gregg and I are in the Target parking lot when a 90 year old guy with a B-17 Flying Fortress cap walks over and says “Hey guys, any chance you could drive me to that liquor store over there?” 46 missions over Europe, one shoot down in Yugoslavia, and several angry Italian mothers later, we share with him the fact that we both went to OSU. "Ohio State?! When I played for the Badgers one of those sons o' bitches tackled me so hard I was knocked out for two weeks!" This inspired a return ride offer after he made his purchase. "Thanks! I don't even drink. Give it away as gifts." Cruising back, he commented on the pretty girls in their summer wear. Gregg's "you've been around the block once or twice haven't ya?" was greeted with a smile, a wink, and a "twice."


Himalayan Headwaters

Journal by Ross Freshwater
Photos by Melissa Gibson and Andrzej Plonka

Bachna! That’s the Hindi word for the term “watch out,” the well-chosen name for our buddy Andrzej’s mountain wonder dog. This handsome mutt had trotted out of the Himalayan foothills about a year back, to adopt our friend just as he was settling into his new job as a teacher at an international boarding school in Mussourri, India. Bachna has since grown from a small pup to precocious teenager, a muscle bound ball of mischief that roams the switchback trails of this timber thick town in search of new friends and escapades. Monkeys mumbling and bushes bustling?.. Best stake your feet for the canine missile intent on bowling over its human mark. You.

The last time we’d visited India, Melissa and I were students on scholarship, bound to a tight itinerary with schedule-packed days. We moved much and learned a ton, as our wizened professor, Sally, led us on a summer circling of the subcontinent. This time we were travelling to a very different tune, on break this time from school, and intent on an Indian visit as holiday.

Lucky for us, Andrzej’s school was also out of session, allowing him to treat us, his sister, and a couple other American friends, to fun mini-trips from his mountain home to famous Indian spots on the plains below. Trendy Delhi, the Indo-Pak Border, the Golden Temple—these were just a few highlights of our first two days in the country before our first drive up the G-Force inducing road that leads to Andrzej’s cliff-top apartment 6,000 feet above the valley floor.

From Andrzej's perch it seems one can see halfway across India, that, at this time of year, often sits beneath a layer of thick fog and another layer of puffy clouds far below. Who knew that the land of sun drenched sweat could get so wintry cold? Yahoo weather had forewarned us, I guess, but the chilly temperatures in the land of leopards and sugarcane just felt out of place. Which is why it was so nice to have a friend’s mountain hamlet as a respite, well removed from winter’s blanket near the rays of the blazing sun.

By day in Mussouri we’d trek up and down it’s forested switch back trails, alternating between thick patches of trees and cliff clinging city streets in search of the perfect vista. Just a short climb behind Andrzej’s place puts us within view of the Himalayas, peaks rising from a jagged razor line that morphed from white, to orange, to pink in the rotating sun.

Warmth would retreat with dusk and the day’s rays would be replaced with fuel for the wood stove. Bachna, intent on extended adventures, would be reigned indoors for fear of wakening leopards. Nights would rotate between Chinese food delivery for an evening of Bollywood rentals and treks to the town tavern for Fosters lagers and the reverb loving one-man band. Three days of mountain air and we were once again ready for the plains below.

Destination: Hardwar, where the Ganges spills from the Himalayas along with the Hindu faith. It is here that millions of followers travel each year, intent on coming into contact with the waters that scripture says pour forth from the Hindu gods. Freshly arrived from alpine glaciers, its waters in this holy town are icy green, deep, and ripping with curve sweeping currents that zoom like a power washer over the red marbled staircases that form its banks. For miles the faithful congregate, individuals and small groups grabbing hold of thick chains as they descend down the steps into the frigid waters below. For some, an ankle bath and a few droplets over the head are sufficient for a baptism, while others in swim trunks or saris plop backwards for a quick body-clenching plunge. The air is cold. The water is freezing. On any given day a few folks can be lost, the water’s shock releasing their hands from the chains that keep them tethered to this world. Yet the procession continues, as folks from all walks of life descend down the river’s steps to immerse themselves in the divine.

The day we arrived was four days short of Jupiter’s alignment with the Ganges, an every-twelve year occurrence that brings 12 million pilgrims to congregate along the river’s shores. For miles around canvas tent cities stretched, just a few guests checked in, with Red Cross buses speckled in anticipation of the impending throng. But the riverbanks were not so sparse, with hundreds of worshippers taking their place on the steps to participate in the sunset Puja ceremonies that were about to commence. As a faint sun descended in a small winter orb, instruments and priests moved forth, lighting fires atop the steps. Indians, in a gesture to remember family members since passed, approached the river with lit candles in hand, set atop little metallic boats that were placed gingerly atop the passing current. I looked over my shoulder and couldn’t help but notice the scores of soldiers that had assumed alert positions at the top of the stairs, a steady reminder of the tenuous state of terrorism in our world today. But as I turned again forward, as is so often the case in India, we were accepted not as spectators but participants, and offered parcels by the candle salesgirl in our midst.

Exiting the crowded yet serene scene on the river, our group again found itself in the beeping, buzzing mayhem that is India’s urban streets, and made a b-line for a restaurant then our hotel. Because the Ganges is a holy place, when it comes to alcohol, most of the cities along its banks are dry. We settled into our room for an evening of Bananas, a sort of speed scrabble game that can be easily tucked into a travel bag. I offered sips of Irish whiskey from a tin flask to counter the chilly wind blowing in through closed window frames. A first timer to the country asked for a second, an appreciative nod reminding me how overwhelming India can be for a newbie.

On to Rishikesh—the upriver hippie hamlet a few miles beyond. Calling it hippie probably does it an injustice, as this mellow town is ground zero for something much older and deeper that what the Beatles partly bottled and passed onto Woodstock in a watered down form. It is here that yoga ashrams speckle the landscape amidst waterside temples, funky vegetarian cafes, and new age CD shops. And sure enough, there are plenty of white hippies, dressed in white robes that look a bit like togas, save for The Gypsy, who rides her sputtering motorcycle clad in black jacket and wild blonde hair. And also the Spaniard, at the foot of a bridge, guitar and pipes delivering a playful song about a bag of onions with a Latin bravado that kindled in us warm thoughts of our side of the world.

The ashram where the Beatles holed up - now a grown over jungle full of teenage vice

Zoom out from the familiar for a minute, however, and it is then that you see what George Harrison likely set his eyes on in an age when the world wasn’t so flat. Sadus dressed in saffron robes are all around, long beards and bare shoulder the marks of devout folks who have cast away worldly possessions in favor of movement and reflection. And monkeys, and dogs, and cows, that take in the scene as they please, at ease as fellow citizens. On the river’s edge, one Brahman girl kneels in black robe amongst rows of Brahman boys in red and orange, all gathered round a large fire on a temple platform to perform the Puja that will mark the passing of another day.

And among these folks are the bridge makers—like Mr. Ajay, who wears colorful outfits so half-hazardly matched they’d make the most vibrant Grateful Dead fan envious, while pedaling used camping supplies from beneath his ever-present blue bike helmet, in a sidewalk shop aglow with eclectic poetry.

And Ganesh, the unassuming Brahman engineer, who kindly shared with me the attributes of the Hindu god, Shiva, as the two of us took in the glistening Ganges from a rare bend not lined with marble stairs but granite boulders and sand. “My name is Ganesh – different from the God, Ganesh.” My inquisitive, “But we're on the banks of the Ganga. How can I be so sure?” response met with a chuckle, a hearty slap on the back and a final, “Make sure if you go into the Ganges, you do it with all your heart.”

And the stately woman who grabbed Melissa’s hand after she’d offered her seat on the stairs at an evening Puja, insisting that she light a candle with her and help set it afloat in the river. She is a relative of the finance minister I am told, by the one male among this group of smiling women. A very audible “My son is a handsome and single Bollywood director, you really should come for a visit,” making it clear I better behave.

The next day I get a head start on our group so I can have a moment to perhaps take a dip in the Ganges. I settle for a knee-deep entry and a few handfuls of chilly water over the head. Why not dive in? Hmmm… The current is ripping? The faint chance of disease hides like The Thing in some ice bound form? The cold?.. As a descendant of Lake Superior stock I’m on the record to say not that. It was likely the faux sadu, a textbook resemblance to the holy men in scraggly beard and saffron robe, who’d been bumping into me for days asking for donations, then showering me with “you are not nice!” following my anticipated denials. I’d found a pocket of warm sand between two boulders on the shore when he appeared on the horizon yet again. Jeez. Probably not the best time to part with pants to take a dip. But an excellent opportunity to roll up the old trousers and be reawakened by Mother Nature’s icy waters on legs and scalp.

He looks like wisdom himself doesn't he? He's actually studying the utility worker who scampered up a pole to fix a power outage - a distraction from following us about and calling us not nice for denying his demands for a donation.

Link to Melissa's Slideshow

Link to Plonka's Blog

Having lost my camera on this trip I owe you two many thanks!