A Travellerspoint blog

Older Than History

I knew I had about had my fill of India when my first reaction on arriving in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi was "wow, this place is a shithole" (excuse the profanity, but that's what I thought). However, I also knew that that feeling was tempered a great deal by the fact that that I'd just gotten off a sixteen hour overnight train ride, and that India had caught up with my intestines shortly before that train had left the station in Agra. It had been a long night.

The good news is that once we made it out of the parking lot of the train station, and I had lunch (plain rice) and a nap, my outlook greatly improved and I was able to enjoy and appreciate Varanasi for all it is worth. But first, the train. The one piece of advice I heard repeatedly, both from Indian friends and others who had travelled there, was that travelling by rail was fine, but to make sure we got tickets in "first class". However, when we went to book our tickets in Mumbai, the conversation went something like this:

Ticket Booth Attendent: "There is no first class - only second class"
Me: "Is second class ok?"
Ticket Booth Attendent: "Yes, its better than first class"

So we agreed that yes, second class would be fine - and she went ahead and booked all three of our trips in sleeper class. The only thing is, we didn't realize that until we got to the first train from Udaipur to Jaipur. Apparently, sleeper class is where second class cars go to die. Luckily, for the first two legs we had been able to find the conductor at the station and pay the difference to switch into second class. On the train to Varanasi, we weren't so lucky. Below is a picture of a compartment of the train. While I realize that it does look a little bit like a prison cell in the picture, it actually wasn't that bad, with one exception. See the benefit of being in second class is that not only are the windows sealed, but they also give you a blanket and pillow. In sleeper class this is not the same. And we were going through the mountains, in the middle of winter, at night. If you're an Indian you know to bring a blanket with you - but otherwise, you're on your own.

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Needless to say, it was a long night - but thanks to a mixture of immodium, ambien and a scarf I'd bought in Jaipur that became my blanket, I made it through the night. All this to say that I mean no disrespect to India with my first impression of Varanasi - I was just in a shitty mood (pun intended - and apologies to my grandmother and my roommate's father and anyone else reading this who I may have just offended with my language. Please be forewarned I will have to do it one more time in this post - but with good cause).

But on to Varanasi. Varanasi, which sits on the River Ganges in the Northeast of India is one of the oldest living cities in the world, and has maintained its religious life since the 6th century B.C. As Mark Twain once said, Varanasi is "Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Varanais is believed to be the center of the Hindu universe, and anyone who dies here attains instant enlightenment, so many people come here to die, and many Indians (and non-Indians) aspire to visit at least once in their lives. It is also where many are brought to be creamated on funeral pyers on the shores of the Ganges.

Stone steps, called ghats, line the shore of the river, and much of life is carried out on or near its waters. The Ganges is also considered the elixir of life, so in addition to living off its waters, many come just to bathe in its waters. (Unfortunately, this probably hastens their deaths, as the waters are extremely toxic, not only from the trash and burning bodies, but also from the chemical plants upstream).

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The 'old city' is made up of tiny alleyways lined with shops - some so narrow its hard to get through with a backpack on. Cars and rickshaws aren't let in the passageways, but motorcycles and cows are fair game - and it only takes one cow to cause a serious cow jam!

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Every night a puja (prayer) ceremony takes place on one of the main ghats, and tourists and pilgrims alike gather on the steps to participate in the ritual. Everyone gets blessed (and asked for a contribution of course) and in addition to a beautiful ceremony, it makes for some pretty good people watching.

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Luckily, in Varanasi people didn't seem to be as interested in taking my picture like they were in Rajastan, but everyone wanted to give Daniel a shave (and to their credit, he needed one). Its fairly common to see men getting a shave on the streets throughout India, and when we first saw it in Mumbai I'd thought it would make for a great photo op (on Daniel, not me) - but on further consideration we both realized that an open blade and his throat were not a good combination. For whatever reason, it was an extremely popular offering in Varanasi, and everytime he turned them down he was then offered a head or hand massage - he learned the hard way not to shake people's hands because they immediately started trying to give him a hand massage.

One of the highlights of the trip was when a man approached me on the street and asked if I wanted to see his "shit enterprises". I thought at first that I had misunderstood, and that perhaps he was saying silk enterprises (silk being quite the commodity in this region). But then he went on to say "I have all kinds of shit - elephant shit, camel shit, cow shit - anything you want, made of shit. Other people will tell you they have fair prices, but my prices are all bullshit." He then asked me if I wanted to come see his shit, and when I politely declined, he said, not surprisingly "Oh shit!", and walked away. It was hilarious.

On a much more sober note, we also stumbled, quite by accident, on the burning ghats. I'd read in the guide book that it was possible to see them, and so had a vague notion that it was something you could visit, but we we were quite surprised when we set out on our second day for a walk along the water and came upon many stacks of burning wood just around the bend from our hotel. We were quickly approached by someone who wanted to explain the ritual to us, and while it felt obscenely voyeuristic to watch the process, it was fascinating at the same time - and my guilt was assuaged to some degree by knowing that at the end of the "tour" we would be asked for a very large "donation" to help familes pay for the wood.

Basically people come from around the country to lay their loved ones to rest on the Ganges. When the father dies, it is the responsibility of the oldest son to carry out the ceremony (and the youngest son in the case of the mother). The body is wrapped in gold cloth on a wooden stretcher and carried by whatever means to the river (we saw one coming through town on the top of a bus). First the body is washed in the river to purify the soul, and then laid on a pile of wood. The son walks around the body five times to symbolize the five elements that make up the body - earth, air, water, fire and spirit - and then he lights the fire. The fire lasts for several hours until just the chest cavity is left (in the case of men, for women its the pelvis) - and then that is returned to the river. Women do not come to the ceremony because they are too emotional, and it is believed that tears block the passage of the soul (it is also to prevent new widows from jumping on the fires of their burning husband, as used to be tradition). I'm sure there is much more to the process - but this is the basic explanation that we got. It was fascinating and sobering to watch - and so different from any other funeral ceremony I've seen.

After that the rest of Varanasi almost pales in comparison - though we did go to a very small silk producing workshop and got to see the entire process, from silk cocoon threads, to the loom, to the finished product.

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After that, we had one day in Delhi before we said goodbye to India. I'll have to admit, our visit to Delhi was cursory at best - by the time we got there our minds were already thinking of home, and we didn't have much energy left for the city. We did venture out to a bar down the street from our hotel which was part local India dive bar, part backpacker hangout (which meant that I was one of three women in the entire two story restaurant). It was the kind of crowded place where they squeezed whoever would fit into your table, so we met quite a series of characters. We started with three Brits - one who lives in Delhi and two who were on their way home. Then a group of seven tried to join us despite the fact there was only room for three - but that was shortlived. Next we had two young journalists who shared with us the latest state of Indian media and politics. And finally, a local politician and his cousin/bodyguard. They were the first men in all of India who made Daniel look small (at six' four" he's been quite the giant throughout the whole trip) - and definitely were not guys you wanted to mess around with. They brought their own whiskey bottle (benefit of knowing the owner) and we had quite the spirited conversation. As the whiskey bottle quickly dwindled, the bodyguard/cousin quickly became my new best friend. First he insisted on sharing his chicken with me - which was a little bit of an issue as we'd read that day on the plane that the bird flu outbreak in West Bengal had spread to Delhi - and thus and decided to stear clear of chicken - but when a man twice your size tells you to eat the chicken - you eat the chicken(I will say, it was really good!). Then he wanted to share his whiskey. Now those who know me well know I'm not one to turn down a glass of whiskey, and I thought I was up to the challenge until he dropped several pieces of ice in the glass as well! After three and a half weeks of avoiding ice, water and fresh fruit and vegetables, I was sure that I had met my demise. While I couldn't turn the drink down entirely, I did manage to fend off several requests to "bottom's up" - and luckily before long the rest of the bottle (now empty) caught up with the senior politico and they both had to leave - and I was off the hook from finishing the rest of the drink. I got off easy - and if there was anything in the ice, it must have been killed off by the whiskey, as my stomach survived as well.

We did take in a few sites, including the largest mosque in India, and picked up some souveneirs (mental note for anyone travelling to India - don't wait to Delhi to buy your gifts - the things you find in the cities along the way are much better). We also had a final terrifying rickshaw ride with the craziest driver in all of India - but somehow survived.

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And now I'm back in New York - with the Spring semester looming just a few days away. I never thought I'd say this, but in comparison to India - New York is strangely quite. I'd been prepared for the amazing quantity of people in India. And, people had told us about the non-stop barrage of smells - from rich aromas and spices, to raw sewage, to the marigolds adorning all the temples, to the overall smell of 1.12 billion people in a country that's half the size of the U.S. But noone told us about the constant noise - families singing on the train, endless horns honking, the daily prayer calls from the local mosques, the sound of the 79 other people on your train car snoring, the dump truck unloading at 6 am outside your hotel, the continual "excuse me, you look my shop"?, and on, and on. You never realize how loud silence can be until you go without it for a month. Its part of what makes India India - I just hadn't known to expect it - and now that its gone the quiet might take some getting used to.

(Btw, if you're interested in seeing more pics, you can see all 547 of them at:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=10a0xodr.7kan24j3&x=0&y=-334l3m
Or the abridged 90 picture version at http://nyu.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37191&l=40a1b&id=720270850 and
http://nyu.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37192&l=37a97&id=720270850)

Posted by jme75 15:17 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Taj and the Fireworks

Before leaving Udaipur, we did spend our last night watching Octupussy on the roof deck of one of the restaurants - a must for any visitor (and one that is easily facilitated since every restaurant in town screens it each night). It was fun to see Roger Moore racing around town in a rickshaw - and the chase scenes weren't all that different than normal traffic!

Next we were headed to Jaipur on the overnight train. I'll have to say, travelling by Indian rail has been quite the experience. Imagine a room that is smaller than a New York apartment kitchen - and then imagine that room with three bunk bed style beds on two walls, and two more on the third. That's what an India sleeper compartment is like, and each train car has ten such compartments. Luckily we had reserved the top bunk, which I suppose is the most "private" - though it didn't keep us from hearing the family below us singing Indian folk songs (at least that's what it sounded like) long into the night.

Compared to the other places we've been, the city of Jaipur itself hasn't been all that exciting, but we're starting to see now why people find India overwhelming. It seems that each city we visit is even more crowded and chaotic, and the number of people trying to sell us things on the street continues to grow. We've also encountered a new phenomenon (at least I have) where people keep asking me to be in their pictures. Its a bit strange, and I try to get out of it if at all possible, though I suppose its only fair since I've been taking pictures for the last three weeks of people too.

We did get out in Jaipur and see the sites though, including the very impressive Jantar Mantar observatory. The open air garden has various larger than life instruments (including the world's largest sun dial) that are used with amazing accuracy to measure the movement of the sun, planets, zodiac signs, etc. We also visited the local city palace, as well as the Amber Fort (though I'll admit, by the time we got to the other two forts on the Jaipur circuit, we were pretty "forted out").

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We had the good fortune of arriving in Jaipur (completely by accident) on the first day of the annual kite festival. At 8 am, as we waited for our room to be cleaned so we could check in, we sat on the roofdeck of our hotel drinking banana lassis, watching the first of many thousands of kites go up. Soon the sky was full of boys and grown men alike (and even some women) engaged in kite flying contests, trying to drive their friends out of the air by cutting their string (ala The Kite Runner, for those who've read it). After a day of touring the city, I found myself on the same roof (having just had my first hot shower in a few weeks!) watching the kites and the setting sun - when much to my surprise the building down the street started shooting off fireworks. One by one, buildings all across town were shooting off fireworks from their rooftops as well, and it continued for the next two hours. Needless to say, I was beside myself (as some of you know, I'm just a little bit obsesses with fireworks).

After Jaipur, we took a train to Agra to visit the famous Taj Mahal. In Agra we also had the good fortune of staying in a fabulous hotel, thanks to a Christmas present from my parents (many thanks to Randy Ney for the suggestion!). Now the places we've been staying have been fine - clean and safe - but at around $10 a night, they've been pretty bare bones - and Indian mattresses are HARD. So we were very happy to see the Amarvillas Hotel, especially the bathroom - which had a shower that was more than a faucet on the wall above the toilet!

It was hard to actually drag ourselves out of the hotel to go see the Taj itself (and conveniently, we could see it from our balcony anyway), but the next morning we did manage to make it there - and it was well worth the trip. I'd seen the Taj in pictures many times of course, but never realized how big it is. It is really an awe inspiring building up close, and the fact that there are no structures behind it for as far as you can see only adds to the image (which wouldn't be quite the same with a few skyscrapers behind it). The Taj was built in the 1600s as a mausoleum by Emperpor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Mumatz died giving birth to her fourteenth child (having had 14 in 18 years, and three miscarriages - here they call that being "permanently pregnant"). It took 20,000 workers and artisans 22 years to build it. Unfortunately, the emperpors plans to build a matching black marble mausoleum never came to fruition because eventually his son put him under house arrest and took over his kingdom. Nonetheless, its a fabulous building and one I highly recommend seeing in person, as I know my pictures won't do it justice.

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Now we are in the ancient city of Varanassi - but after a 16 hour overnight train ride to get here - I'm ready to hit the sack, so I'll have to tell you about this stop in the next post!

Posted by jme75 07:51 Archived in India Comments (0)

My First Encounter With a Leech. . .

After Varkala we took what was supposed to be a four hour taxi ride up to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Now I've seen a lot of crazy driving in Thailand and Cambodia and throughout Latin America - but nothing compares to India. Basically, its just one big game of chicken, but somehow it seems to work. Daniel was sitting in the front seat of the car and likened it to riding on a roller coaster. I was in the back seat, and quickly learned that it was much better to look out the side window (vs the front) - so I would see things only as we passed them - not when we where headed straight for them. For the entire ride I felt like I was in the Grand Theft Auto video game (though noone was shooting at us), which makes sense, because I'd already decided that crossing the street in India was kind of like playing Frogger, only you don't get three tries.

The drive up was beautiful though as we wound through spice and tea plantations. And luckily, six and half hours and a few near collisions with buses and sacred cows later, we made it safely to Periyar. Because Periyar is up in the mountains, it is much cooler than the low lying areas of Kerala and was a welcome reprieve. That night we also had our first "beer in a teapot". Because liquor licenses are so expensive, many restaurants serve beer under the table - its not on the menu, but its always available, and in order to "hide" the fact that they are serving it - they give it to you in a teapot!

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The next morning we set out for a guided trek through the sanctuary, in hopes of seeing some elephants. Unfortunately, we didn't see any elephants (or anything bigger than a monkey for that matter) - but we did find leeches!! Before setting out for the trek the guides gave us "leech socks" - which were essentially canvas sacks that we put on over our socks and tied at the knee. One guy in our group decided not to use them, and not far into the hike we stopped so that he could borrow an extra pair of socks from one of his friends. My new friend Sebastian and I were anxious to see if he actually had leeches on his legs, until Sebastian looked down and realized we had them covering our shoes! It turns out that leeches are much smaller than the ones you see in the movies (at least the Periyar ones are) and look like tiny little worms. They are fast little creatures though, and were steadily working there way through the mesh of my sneakers. Luckily, the leech socks worked, and when we got back to the base we were happy to find our feet leech free!

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After Periyar we spent a few nights in the lovely town of Fort Cochin, which is where the backwaters meet the Arabian Sea. I had the chance to take a cooking class, and now have recipes for many dishes I'll probably never get around to making, but it was great to learn a little more about all the food we have been eating! We also saw a performance of traditional Kathalki dancing, and it was really amazing to see the skill that went into just the facial expressions alone of the dancers as they reenacted traditional stories (in the abridged one hour version for tourists - traditional Kathalki dances last all night).

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Now we are in the beautiful town of Udaipur in Rajastan. Udaipur, in addition to being the setting for the James Bond film "Octupussy", is a wonderful lakeside town filled with hills and alleys and amazing palaces. The nooks and crannies make the maps in our guidebooks pretty useless, and Daniel thinks the people constantly trying to sell us things in the streets would be better off hawking a good map, but I think half the charm of the town is getting lost in these alleys and then trying to find our way out again.

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In the middle of Lake Picchola sits the Lake Palace - which is now a luxury hotel. At $500+ per night, needless to say we won't be visiting that palace, but it makes for a striking site in the middle of the lake. We were able to visit the City Palace on the shore, which is an amazing feat of architecture and design. Built over four centuries, each of the past 22 maharajas has added his own touch (including the reigning king) to the vast complex of buildings. My favorite part were the tourets and walkways high up in the palace which allow for amazing views of the lake and the city.

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We have a few more days here and are looking forward to checking out the Monsoon Palace and other sites before we board our overnight train to Jaipur!

Posted by jme75 19:51 Archived in India Comments (1)

The Backwaters

Well, Kerala definitely cannot be accused of false advertising - everything we have seen here so far has been beatiful, and worthy of their tag line "God's Own Country".

After a few missed attempts at finding the right bus, we finally made our way to Allepey, where the river boats depart. The Keralan backwaters are made up of a series of rivers, canals and lakes that serve both as a transportation corridor, but also as a livelihood for the people who live along their banks and off of their waters. Like every other tourist who comes to this region, we spent the night travelling from one city to another aboard one of the traditional riverboats.

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We set off just before noon and spent the day floating down the river, taking in the local countryside. Along the way we passed fishermen diving for mussels, canoes full of children on there way to and from school, and neighbors rowing across the river to visit their neighbors on the other side. For those of you who have read "The God of Small Things" - it is set in the backwaters of Kerala. That afternoon we also passed a flock (and by flock, I mean hundreds and hundreds) of ducks being taken out for a swim. Much like cows are let out to pasture, these ducks had been released from their pens and were being herded into the river for the daily swim. It was hilarious to watch, but unfortunately I can't figure out how to upload the video file!

Unfortunately, we weren't able to go as far as planned on day one, because we weren't able to get through a particularly narrow passage because of the currents - so we tied up along the shore, and spent the night. This actually worked out to our advantage, because it meant we had longer on the boat on day two. The boat was moving again by dawn, which was fine because we'd been woken up at five by the prayer call from the local mosque down the river anyway. It was great to see the river come alive as we sailed through a corridor of large fishing nets (in the picture above) and had our breakfast in the morning mist. (The food by the way was great).

After the riverboat, we carried on to the beach town of Varkala. Now we know where all the other Westerners are (as to date, we hadn't seen many) - hanging out on the beaces of the Arabian Sea. Most of the town is set upon cliffs above the beach, which provides for some amazing views. While it is beatiful here, and we've had a great day and a half loafing on the beach, I'm eager to move on tomorrow because to some degree, I feel like I could be at any beach town in the world.

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Luckily - I think that will change tomorrow as we embark on a five hour drive to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in hopes of seeing some elephants in the wild! I've seen two so far - one on the side of the road as we drove by, and the second giving rides here in a parking lot. Hopefully in the next few days we'll see some in a more natural setting!

Oh, and before I forget, I remembered one more thing I left off of the list of random things I've learned in India that they don't tell you in the guide book. So far, every restaurant we've been in - both in Mumbai and Kerala - in addition to offering standard Indian dishes, and sometimes a few Continental ones as well - also serves Chinese food! It seems rather odd to me. Daniel's response was "well, China is close by" - but I don't remember seeing any Indian food in China. . .

Posted by jme75 08:24 Archived in India Comments (0)

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from Kerala, India. We are on day four of our Indian adventure and are loving it.

We spent our first two days in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) exploring the city. While Mumbai is definitely a crazy city, both Daniel and I have been surprised to find, that at least so far, India is not nearly as intense and overwhelming as we had expected. There are a ton of people, and the extremes between the rich and the poor are, well, extreme - but at the same time its beautiful and intoxicating.

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Our first day we took a ferry boat to the island of Elephanta to visit ancient ruins carved into caves on the hilltop. It was a great way to see Mumbai from the water (though the smog was so bad, it was hard to see much). The carvings of the gods were indeed impressive - but I'll have to say the most entertaining part was the monkeys that definitely run the show on Elephanta - helping themselves to everything they can get their hands on (including water bottles plucked from people's hands - and a bag of potato chips that we saw one monkey eating in a tree!).

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Day two we set out to find a travel agent that I had read about in my guide book, in hopes of booking our flight from Kerala back up north. En route we of course got completely lost - but were so interested in the different neighborhoods that we spent two hours walking around until we finally gave up and asked for directions - and then took a taxi to where we needed to be. Unfortunately, we got there to find that the agency was no more - and so headed off to the train station to book that leg of our journey instead. Luckily we arrived at the central railway just in time to see the daily lunches arriving. Every morning as Indian men set out from the suburbs to their jobs in central Mumbai, their wives/mothers/sisters set about making lunch. When its ready, they pack it up in a tin and hand if off to the local dalwallah (which I know I'm spelling wrong, but dont have my book with me). He then hands it off to someone else in the train, who hands it off to someone at the station, etc, etc - until it finally reaches the husband/son/brother it was intended for. All in all, it may pass through six pairs of hands before finally being eaten, but somehow it happens every day for thousands of workers, and the process is so remarkably accurate that Forbes recently gave it their highest honors for having 99.99% accuracy in delivery.

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Finally, we celebrated New Year's Eve in Mumbai. We had hoped to meet up with our classmate Priya who was also in Mumbai visiting family, but eventually realized that we were staying on opposite ends of town, and would have spent hours in taxis trying to meet up. So instead we ended up going out near our hotel, where we ended up ringing in the New Years with other travellers from around the world.

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We've spent the past two days working our way down South to the state of Kerala. Kerala is the only communist state in India, and is also known as "god's country" because of the lovely riverways and beaches. Tonight we are staying in the small town of Allepey, and tomorrow will set off to spend the day and night on a river boat travelling to Kollam.

So far I've learned a few interesting things about India that you don't pick up from the guide books:
1. Vegetarian restaurants don't serve beer, because they are "only vegetarian". We are still trying to figure out what exactly goes in the beer that makes it not vegetarian.
2. Indians love Christmas. Every where we've been, we've seen Christmas decorations, including a set of fake snowmen (though the temperature is in the 90s) and cotton "snow" in an aracaria tree.
I'm sure there will be many more surprises in the next three weeks!

Posted by jme75 03:29 Archived in India Comments (1)

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