Gratitude and beauty abounded in Clement Town and seemed to hang lightly over the heads of all of the group members like the prayer flags fluttering from the top of the World Peace Stupa. The practices with the Tibetan Girls’ Soccer Team were energetic and formed quick friendships, even if the girls laughed at us each time we tried to pronounce their names correctly. Saying goodbye was bittersweet. Each member had something they would miss deeply, whether it be the kids in the school we played with whenever we could, or the deep chanting from the monks that hummed out of the monasteries at all times of the day, but everyone looked forward to our next adventure.
The adventure started with around 24 hours of traveling on trains.
The trains were cramped and relatively awkward to navigate, but we found ways to amuse ourselves by reading, telling stories, decorating each other’s hands with henna and watching the countryside slip by us with each shudder of the tracks.
Varanasi welcomed the group with a rooftop breakfast at our guest-house overlooking the shimmering, morning-grey Ganga river. Many people spent the next several hours saying hello to our new home by passing out on their beds for several hours and catching up on the sleep that was missed on the rocking, groaning train.
Our Varanasi contact, Sangha Mitra, was our guide around the city for the next several days, organizing lectures, temple visits, a sunrise boat ride, and seats to watch the bustling night-time Ganga ceremony called the Ganga Arti.
The culture and history of Varanasi is stunning. Rearing its head in the form of half-submerged temples sinking into the Ganga water or quietly practicing its faith on street corners with streaks of white paint brushed across its forehead. Each new street has something to offer and we padded the alleys in single file like a line of awestruck American ducklings.
After three days of staying in the guest-house, everyone repacked their bags and, for the first time, split off completely separate to stand in nervous anticipation on the stoops of their home-stay families. Each student was welcomed into a different family with open arms, despite language barriers and cultural differences, and quickly settled into their rooms and the rhythm of living in a house again for the first time in over a month.
One afternoon was spent in the Guria center for children of the Varanasi red light district. Students alternated between playing with the younger children to helping set up Diwali lamps and trying to stay out of the way of everyone else. The evening was closed with an exciting firework performance and a shared meal in the main room of the center.
Days are being spent strolling from classes such as stone carving, fire dancing, classical music, yoga and cooking, and arguing with our home-stay families to actually let us help out with chores. Walks by the Ganga and chai on small rooftop cafes are always a good option as well.