Monday, February 19, 2007

Belly Aches, the Kumbh Mela, and Love in the Time of Cholera

I don't like seeing doctors, and I know I'm not the only one, yes I'm looking at you Mr. Willoughby, but after a few stabs at self-diagnosis and treatment of my chronically loose bowels I swallowed my pride and visited what passes for a modern medical facility in Varanasi. The diagnosis was simple - my initial self-treatment with antibiotics had destroyed the good bacteria in my system, causing my continuing and worrisome digestive ills. A few days treatment with a pro-biotic was all it took to set me straight and put the brick factory back in business. Cost for the consultation: a mere 10 rupees, about the price of a frothy lassi. The pro-biotics: 65 rupees, or the price of a tikka butter masala and naan at a mid-priced restaurant. The main expense was the 150 rupees I paid to the auto-rickshaw driver to take me there and back, an expense I justified by imagining it was an ambulance.

One significant advantage I reap by living outside the United States is that I can visit the doctor without sacraficing my savings. A simple visit to an ER in the U.S. would cost, say, minimum $200, and any sort of lab work or medication could easily send the bill to between $500-$1000. Being without insurance, it's risky for me to return home for a visit. In most cases it would be cheaper to fly to Bangkok and get treatment there.

Rest assured I'm fine and fit now in my beautiful airy room overlooking the Ganga ghats where the children fly kites and play cricket with no shoes. The only danger I face is the army of monkeys that live on the rooftops, and will snatch up anything I leave on the table near the window by reaching their little arms through the metal grates. It's a fine environment for reading, writing, and relaxation. In the mornings and evenings I grab my camera and take photos along the ghats. I rarely go without a siesta, and I have the feeling that I've stayed here a month.

The truth is I came here on the night of Shiva, February 16th. Varanasi is the city of Shiva, and I don't have to remind you that Indians love a good celebration, and what more appropriate occasion could one imagine. It was the most lively and boisterous parade of night life I've seen for some time, with floats, fireworks, dancing, dozens of brass bands, and enough loudspeakers to fill every narrow alleyway in the city with the vibrations of Hindu techno.

That same day I had been in Allahabad soaking up the atmosphere of the Ardh Kumbh Mela, where thousands of pilgrims come; not only the babas and saddhus but family upon family who had come from all across India to bathe in the water where 3 holy Indian rivers come together, on the day which the vedic astrologers had pinpointed as the most auspicious.

Just 2 days and a 12 hour train ride before, I had been in Agra, more famous for it's being home to the Taj than for it's general unpleasantness. And before Agra it was Jaipur.

Thanks to those who played "make a story from the pictures", I'll have to do that again. I've also put some more photos up on flickr (find the link on the right).

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