How celebrations of death in India breathed new life into the concept of place
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- Published on August 22, 2022
- Last Updated August 8, 2023
- In Guest Writers
Writer Renée Cheréz found new appreciation for life and travel after visiting Varanasi, India.
“So, where’s your favorite place?” It’s probably one of the most asked questions of any wanderer who has moved across place, and yet the question can leave us tongue-tied as we scan through our mental Rolodex of the places we’ve journeyed through: countries, cities, towns, the block we grew up on, villages or our grandmas’ house in the country. We struggle to categorize the places we’ve been in a way that is succinct and simple even though we’ve answered the question dozens of times, but place—another character in our individual worlds cannot be rendered linearly.
Perhaps the places we come to love on our travel journeys become etched onto our hearts, beyond fluorescent waters and idyllic settings, and are rooted in who we become or what we remember or what finds us in said place.
If you really want a peek into a wanderer’s journey, get granular with us. Ask: “In what place did you laugh so hard you cried”? or “Where did you have the most unforgettable meals”? or “Where did you learn about living a life”?
To answer the latter, I learned about living—the art of the human experience, in Varanasi, India, the city where Hindus go to die. Up until that point, I struggled with even the slightest mention of death after experiencing loss early in life and again when my estranged father passed in 2012. I told myself that was the last funeral I’d ever attend, only to find myself six years later on a ridiculously bumpy, twelve-hour-long sleeper bus making my way to a place where sweet, peppery death masks the air. Where cremation ceremonies at Manikarnika Ghat are the evenings’ draw. Where ash, smoke and fiery pyres burn the eyes yet you can’t look away.
After already backpacking the north of India for about two months at that point, I quickly realized as I stepped off that ragged bus that Varanasi was not a place to visit, but a place to experience. I felt alive as I witnessed the delicate honoring of bodies and life against the sacred waters of the Ganges River. Unlike Western culture where bodies are covered with caskets and hidden away, death is announced boldly and brightly in Varanasi’s mazed, sandstone city center, as family members carry their departed, adorned in white garments overlayed with vibrant garlands of marigold flowers. Penetrative sounds of drums and chants coupled with burning scented oils and incense line their path. This place revealed even death can be a symphony.
I used to believe death was the reality of living, but instead, it’s a reality of being human. Special places for wanderers are also places that show us another way of reckoning with our fears, with our trauma, and inviting us to see another way of being. For Black people, those descended from enslaved Africans, place holds a meaning so deep that we carry it in our blood and bones across generations and oceans and timelines. The places we come to love usually love us back in some way, offering us what we need at that time in our lives. Community, space to breathe and hear ourselves, education in another language, slowness, joy, remembrance and love.
In my case, the city where people go to transition was a portal that asked me to not only feel but encouraged me to live in a way that honors my life, my breath and beating heart.
Renée Cheréz, also known as the Travel Liberationist is a writer who expresses her thoughts, experiences, and stories at the intersections of joy, travel, Black liberation, and the pursuit of more life. She is a mermaid, child, storyteller, adventurer and lover of mountain gorillas. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, Geez Magazine, Sister Letter, Lonely Planet,and more. You can find her come up to the surface from her living on IG: reneecherez.
This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.