This story from my first big trip was first published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 8. This is a shortened version.
Our boat dropped anchor in the middle of the Ganges, and a slight breeze brought relief from the October heat. Two men interrupted the live, languid sitar music by scurrying like beetles around our wide-hulled rowboat, setting out 40 leaf plates big enough to hold a scoop of ice cream. Inside, rose petals cradled votive candles, which the men quickly lit. The light made feet and faces glow. Our tour guide Ganesh, a tall, gangly Indian from Bangalore, stood up, momentarily taking center stage away from the sitar player.
“Please take a bowl with a candle and place it in the Ganges,” Ganesh instructed. “When you do, make a wish. It is said that when you do this, your wish will come true.”
We were to offer our wishes to Ganga, he explained—the Goddess of the river that bears her name. A bath in her waters was the ultimate symbol of redemption and purification, a wish perhaps amplified here more than anywhere else.
I looked at the water. It was black. No place for a wish.
“If you can’t think of anything to wish for, wish for world peace.” Ganesh smirked, as if reading my mind, and then hustled to the front of the boat.
I heard his instructions but rebelled. I already knew I wasn’t going to make a wish.
Eight months ago, I was married with a comfortable urban apartment and a dual-income life. On a rare cloudy day in Los Angeles from my perch on the living room futon, I told my husband of seven years that it was over.
“Why?” he’d asked. Shocked. Baffled.
“Being married is not conducive to the life I want to live,” sounding like I was running a meeting.
“What life is that?” He tilted his head.
“I want to travel the world.”
There it was. I’d never said it out loud before. Freed from a dark recess of my heart, the words seemed almost to vibrate in the daylight.
“But where do you want to go?” What was this paradise that could be so much better than the life we’d created?
At the time, I had no idea. I just knew I wanted to travel. In our first year of marriage I wrote three pages a day in my journal, more often than not trying to reconcile wedlock with the desire to pack up and hit the road. On our third anniversary, I’d given him one of those narcissistic we’re-really-a-couple books called The Book of Us. I’d answered the question, “What are your dreams for your life together?” in ballpoint ink: “to travel around the world.” Then I added “together” to bind words and hope.
There was nothing wrong with him, nothing wrong with me. But I wore despair and denial like a heavy winter coat—my dream, to voyage out like Freya Stark and discover myself amidst the sands of Arabia. I denied myself study abroad in college and backpacking through Europe, shuffling from school to a “good job” and finally a big Catholic wedding to a really nice guy whom I loved and couldn’t see beyond.
We used our sparse vacation days and bonuses to travel for ten days to China, two weeks to Europe, 16 days to Thailand. But these trips were more a retreat from home life in a grand setting—not enough for me. I wanted deeper, more. After seven years, I had spoken the truth at last and breathed for the first time.
For three months we separated, each day removing a layer of our life together – the mattress we’d just purchased, the Noritake Colorwave Green china, and the joint DVD collection. Over time, he agreed that our separation was for the best. He dreamed of a house, a family, and a silver anniversary party. I dreamed of a camel ride to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. When he eventually admitted that it was better to be fulfilled than be together, the cement block of guilt weighing down my newfound freedom began to lighten.
I spent most newly single nights on the bare floor of my apartment reading travel magazines and drinking red wine. The photos of far away comforted me more than any sympathetic therapist or cathartic girls’ night out could. I wanted to take these pictures of sunrise at Machu Picchu, the Acropolis’ stately grace, and the desperately blue French Polynesian waters and rub them over my body in a baptism of travel and desire – I wanted them in my veins.
My nights settled into this familiar routine of turn page, sip, and sigh; turn page, sip, and sigh—until one page turn resulted in a destination. An image of the golden Taj Mahal appeared at sunrise beneath bold text: INCREDIBLE INDIA.
I took another sip of wine, swallowed, and breathed. I have to go to India, I inhaled. I’m going to India, I exhaled.
Five months later, my tour group arrived in the holy city of Varanasi. The day was jungle-hot, with sticking humidity and dive-bombing insects. We found our way to the river’s side through the walled city, where sacred cows shared paths with lost tourists. Cafés and temples provided views of the expansive mud-brown river, but we traversed the famous ghats, the long, uneven stairways pilgrims took to enter the holy Ganges.
Revelers celebrated the Durga Puja holiday by dancing in the shallow waters. Men splashed and clapped their own music at the base of the stairs and between boats. A lone woman took part from a distance, covered completely in a wet sari. Large stacks of logs and sticks signaled the crematory ghats. Out of respect, we avoided them, casting our curious eyes away from the smoldering piles where Hindus made their transition from this life to the next. A haze had settled over the river, the tired humidity catching the smoke and smell of recent fires.
As I passed funerals and dancing bathers, I decided that this river, this place of transformation, would be the final resting place for my marriage. I would release my engagement-cum-wedding ring into this sacred river with a ceremony of my own.
That evening as the sun faded into a haze, we filled a blue wooden boat big enough for a tour group, crew and sitar player. The river slurped the ghat stairs, sucking Durga Puja remains into her current. A campfire smell pervaded the sludgy damp of the riverside. The brown of the Ganges blended into a muddy pink sunset. The bathers had gone home.
The sitar’s high-pitched plucks were the only sound as our boat glided towards an outer bank that looked like a ribbon resting along India’s girth. Night turned the Ganges from brown to black, and Varanasi’s lights became fireflies in the dark.
In the pocket of my jeans were two things: the ring that had been feeling smaller with each passing day and each advancing adventure, and a slip of paper—a eulogy. It was a departure from the vows promised to husband and God seven and a half years earlier. Divorce vows to be read aloud to ring and river.This little leaf plate with the small dancing flame would be the funeral pyre for my marriage. With her flowing current, I hoped the Ganges would somehow redeem and purify me.
I hunched over, my curved back shielding the ceremony from the surrounding cackles and laughter of my tour group. Too much had been splayed open over the past eight months; I needed to sew it back up amidst the frivolity.
With some semblance of privacy, I faced the river, the burning cup in my lap, ring and vows in hand. I settled into where I was, resigning myself to the lack of seclusion. I had done something similar once on a bright March day in Wisconsin. This time, there were no nervous mothers, no stoic fathers, no 267 guests—just the Ganges and me.
I could do this. In the middle of this holy river, in the middle of India.
By the light of the small candle, I read the vows in a whisper, hoping the sounds of the sitar would cover my words so that only the river would hear them. I placed my ring on my finger and read aloud.
Thank you for our years together.
Thank you for your kindness, your love, and your forgiveness.
Whatever anger you have, please release. Whatever blame I have, I release.
I love you and I let you go.
I love you and I let you go.
I love you.
I let you go.
My tears started at the first “you.” I ripped the paper into tiny shreds, placed them next to the rose petals, and removed my ring. After a moment of hesitation, I placed it beside the flame. The gold caught the firelight and lit the bowl even more. I bent over, placed the package on the water, and let go. The Ganges took the cup from my hand and carried it along in her current. Soon, my candlelight joined all the others.
All Take Your Big Trip posts on travel in India