Our last day in Varanasi began well before sunrise. About seven of us gathered for a brief walk from the hotel to a waiting boat on the Ganges. Few people were out. Homeless families were waking up, the women and kids huddled for comfort and security. It was too early for begging. It was difficult to witness little girls with next to nothing, not even clean faces, who likely would never have more than what they had that moment, and who perhaps would have even less whether dignity or well being should they survive into womanhood.
A morning Brahman ritual was being prepared while a group of preteen girls in saffron chanted in unison.
We found our boat, the same one we had two evenings before. The two-stroke engine noise seemed intrusive. As we made our way past empty ghats, our leader would ask the crew to cut the engine.
We approached the main ghat. Huge stacks of firewood towered over the narrow stairs. Small groups of ragged men tended three fires, fires in which human bodies were being reduced to ash.
Jim took a photo from a distance. We were advised not to take pictures when we got close, to respect the ritual and the people involved.
Jim recalled his experience of a few years ago in Spain. He had been asked to represent the American Pilgrims in Santiago. To help prepare himself for the meeting, he had chosen to walk a 10-day segment of the Camino Primitivo and the French Route. The walk had been an exercise in pain. Blisters, tendinitis, and other ailments dogged him from the start until he literally limped to the end before the Santiago Cathedral. He hurt so much yet was so relieved that he got to one knee and cried. A huge, sobbing cry. He did not know that a tour group had just arrived. Suddenly he had become the crying pilgrim for the tourists. He heard cameras clicking and felt hands patting his back and shoulders. A private, painful moment had become a tourist moment.
At the ghat, watching the fires from the boat, Jim knew he was witness to one of the world's most profound moments: the acceptance of death and the faith in salvation. Yet he was a tourist, not a participant. He wondered what it would be like to be at him mother's funeral and have a bus full of tourists pull up.
If there is karma in every act, it could be that Jim in Santiago had earned a moment in Varanasi. We will not know in this lifetime.