Tara Celli chose the theme ‘close to home’ for her piece on Varanasi, India, where she currently resides working for a not-for-profit organisation. The judges felt she captured the spirit of city, and were impressed by her measured use of interactions with locals to structure her story.
Jade Belzberg submitted her take on ‘the most beautiful place in the world’, ably tackling an unconventional destination in the US. The judges felt the opening of her piece was particularly strong, and liked how she approached a visceral experience without relying on adjectives or overblown description.
Life and death mingles inextricably in this place. Ancient babas inhaling the sweet smoke of their chillums exchange long glances with ash-smeared children, who splash in ancient waters that Hindus believe support all things: the Ganges river in Varanasi, India.
Dust in the air melds with the spicy sweetness of namkeen and chai, vendor-wallas calling attention to their snacks with guttural cries. Their voices pepper the atmosphere; a staccato over the murmur of running water and busy people. Archaic stone steps, rough and rounded by feet of the ages, are unbothered by the presence of buffalo, monkeys, and men. Chalky smudges grace the foreheads of many; orange, white, and saffron streaks indicate who has gone to their temple that day.
Women cast the occasional glance at the foreign girl, walking past them alone as they beat their laundry clean with calloused palms. When I meet their eyes, smiling, they giggle; covering their faces with brightly coloured saris before shyly looking after their work. The boat boys, proud and strong from their livelihood paddling up and down the age-old waterway, puff out their chests and ask, “Boat, ma’am? Good price.” I thank them, but despite sweat tickling the crevices between my shoulder blades, I will go by foot today.
Smoke billows over towers of dark wood, announcing Harishchandra Ghat. People walk for kilometres carrying the dead to this place; bodies scrubbed, wrapped in a white cloth, and decorated with strips of golden fabric. It is believed that being burned in the eternal fire of Varanasi ensures the soul passage from this life to the next, or (if one is very lucky) into moksha, the state of eternal bliss. Photos are not allowed. This is a holy place, with traditions older than my family line. I don’t linger, nor do I rush through; inviting the experience to seep into the bones of my memory.
Near Harishchandra I stop for a chai, sweet and earthy, served in a red clay cup. I speak to the chai-walla in simple Hindi, and he is surprised that I understand his questions. After two years in Varanasi, I know enough to explain who I am, where I’m from, and that India is very different from my native California. He grins, toothless but boyishly, and refuses to allow me to pay the 5 rupees for my chai.
As dusk settles across the river, I slip into my seat for the Ganga Aarti, next to a large family who traveled from Mumbai to experience this ancient prayer ceremony. Hindus have performed this ritual of praise and respect on the bank of the Ganga since the time of gods and men. I make it a habit to take this journey once a week, remaining in touch with the pillars that support this chaotic city I have come to know and love. And there, in the chiming of thousands of bells, as pandit men swirl incense and fire with the practiced exactitude of centuries, I am home.
I smell it first, the acrid stench of dried and drying death: tilapia. As I step from the car and move towards the shore of the Salton Sea, the wind picks up and I can taste the metallic of pesticides from nearby farms. There’s an earthy undertone, sweet grass and alfalfa, but then the wind picks up some more and once again I can feel the salt in the air and in my lungs. On my skin is a layer of calcified crust and in my ears is the hum of a nearby electrical plant.
No one comes to the inland sea. The thriving tilapia like the saline water and yet they eventually die off, too. We stand on their broken bodies, encrusted and laid bare on the receding shore. The smell arrives in waves that hit you if the breeze blows right. No one wants to come to a lake supplied by agricultural wastewater – it’s toxic.
But still, we flock to the area – and so do the birds. It’s a migration stop on the Pacific Flyway, a journey that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia; some birds fly the entire distance while others go only part of the way. Here at the Salton Sea, brown and white pelicans float like sailboats on the water while double-crested cormorants sweep their wings out like tightrope balancers that dance on dead trees. Burrowing owls nest in irrigation pipelines and artificial plastic burrows, popping out their heads only long enough to snap a picture. A kingfisher poises on a reed while a long-billed dowitcher stalks in algae and brine. Everything is both dead and alive here, moving and unmoving.
We spend the afternoon ticking off bird species until sunset, when the lake refracts a burnt sunset of purples and pinks. The birds light up best at this hour and so, too, do the bones. We find a cormorant skeleton next to a rock; the long, thin beak hangs hooked within a leafless shrub.
We’ve decided to camp at Obsidian Butte tonight, on the southern shores of the Salton Sea. Obsidian is abundant here, scattered in black glassy fragments, and we carefully finger the glassy rock before we grow hot, feeling the heat of the day. The temperature hasn’t dissipated in the darkening night and we grow restless, even as we retreat to our tent. It’s still 100°F and the tinny buzz of mosquitoes surrounds us. They bite our ankles and wrists and necks even as we flick them away. Where are the birds now, we think.
We give up by midnight, stuffing our tent and sleeping bags into the trunk of the car, leaving the desert behind us in search of livable temperatures back in San Diego. As I return to my own bed, I can still smell the pungent reek of fish and salt, of the living and the already dead. You can go to the Salton Sea, but you might not ever really leave.