Archive for the ‘India’ Category

On the Banks of the Ganges

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

14 – 18 November 2010, India

Leaving Udaipur behind, we boarded an overnight train bound for Delhi. Curious to see how first class compares to second and third, we had purchased tickets for a first class sleeper car. As luck would have it, we were assigned one of only two private berths on the entire train. The train car felt luxurious especially compared to our most recent bus journey. After a restful night of sleep we pulled into one of Delhi’s train stations early in the morning and made our way to a restaurant just outside the entrance. We had hours to kill before our flight to Varanasi so we ordered dosas and chai, doing our best to wake up before heading to the airport.

If there’s any place in India that we had reservations about visiting, it was Varanasi. One of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi is also India’s holiest city. Hindus believe that if they bathe in the river, their sins will be washed away. If they die in Varanasi, they will reach Nirvana. But India’s spiritual epicenter is anything but serene or tranquil. We had been told to prepare ourselves for a chaotic, noisy and filthy place. Some travelers we met loved their time in Varanasi while others couldn’t wait to get out. Regardless of whether or not they enjoyed their visit, people seemed to generally agree that it was a memorable experience and one worth having.

By the time we reached Varanasi, we had been traveling for nearly 24 hours so we were eager to settle in at our hotel. Unfortunately Varanasi’s airport is one of the tiniest airports we have ever encountered.  It was definitely not equipped to handle the two flights that landed at about the same time that afternoon. After landing we learned that we were visiting just days before the new, larger airport was scheduled to open. As I took refuge in a corner, Jason made his way through the sea of people and attempted to locate our bags on the airport’s one and only luggage carousel. Bags in hand, we exited the terminal and spent way too much time trying to negotiate a fair price for the ride to our hotel. Tiring of the negotiations we finally chose one of several eager drivers and settled in for the 45 minute ride into the city. Along the way we encountered something that has never happened to us before. The taxi driver actually pulled over to pick up two of his friends standing on the side of the road. I’m not sure who benefited more: the two men who got a free ride home from work that day or Jason and me who had plenty to keep us entertained as we watched the three men squished into the front seat, talking animatedly.

We intentionally made no plans for our time in Varanasi. Like our visit to Jaisalmer, we wanted to spend our days wandering, eating good food and simply taking it all in. There was certainly more than enough to keep us occupied. The Old City is a maze of alleyways which can be difficult to navigate due to the ridiculous amount of foot traffic in such a narrow space. Pedestrians also have to be mindful of the occasional person flying by on a motorbike, funeral processions, or holy cows that sometimes fill the entire path. Some of the cows have such sharp horns that it makes meeting them in the middle of a dark alley a scary prospect.

Given the Old City’s claustrophobic alleys, we chose to spend most of our time in Varanasi on the river. The atmosphere along the ghats is colorful, bustling and exciting. Walking along the river, we saw pilgrims in the lotus pose sitting quietly with their eyes closed, kids squealing and jumping into the water, and people bathing, brushing their teeth and doing laundry. It’s difficult to imagine a more interesting place to people watch. One of our most intense experiences was a visit to the Manikarnika burning ghat where up to 200 people are cremated each day. The funeral processions we encountered in the alleys all eventually end up here where loved ones are washed in the Ganges and placed on a funeral pyre. Young men hoping to make a little money often stand around the ghat offering to explain the cremation ritual. We learned from one of these men that the price of the cremation is dependent upon the type and amount of wood used. The eldest son, brother or husband sprinkles ghee on the pyre and sets it alight with a torch. Once the burning is complete, the chief mourner and others douse the pyre with water from the river. They then gather the ashes in an urn and empty the remains in the Ganges.

We did not see any women at the burning ghat as they apparently pay their final respects at home. We also found it interesting that a subset of Hindus cannot be cremated here, including sadhus, lepers, children under five, pregnant women and snake-bite victims. Instead their bodies are taken in a boat to the middle of the river, tied to a stone and sunk to the bottom. We did not spend much time at the burning ghat as I felt it was difficult to watch the bodies burning and see the families mourning. It was such a personal moment for them and it felt like a bit of an invasion of their privacy to stand around staring.

Given the crowds along the city’s ghats, the easiest way to see Varanasi is from the water. Twice during our four days in the city, we woke well before sunrise and headed down to the river for a boat ride. As our boat driver paddled, we sat in silence and watched the pilgrims as they gathered along the ghats to partake in their daily prayer rituals. Some remove most of their clothing before immersing themselves in the water while others stand knee deep along the banks, splashing water over their bodies. We saw groups of people chatting and laughing while others quietly went about their business.

These morning rituals were fascinating to watch but it was unsettling to think about the contamination levels in the river. People were not only bathing just steps away from piles of garbage and cows but we also saw people brushing their teeth and drinking the water. It’s been over a year since we were in Varanasi and I still cringe when I remember the bloated animal corpses that we saw floating in the water, only feet away from where people were bathing. According to our trusty Lonely Planet, every day about 60,000 people go down to the Varanasi ghats to take a dip in the river. Along this same stretch of river, 30 large sewers are continuously flowing into the water. As you might expect, bacteria levels in the river are off the charts.

After four days of doing little more than people watching and eating delicious food, we packed up our bags and headed to the train station for the final leg of our Indian journey. Next time I’m in India, I doubt I’ll rush back to this colorful, crazy city on the Ganges but I definitely appreciated the experiences we had while visiting. Like so many travelers before me, my time in Varanasi certainly left an indelible mark.


India’s Most Romantic City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

10 – 13 November 2010, India

We arrived in Udaipur with no plan and a very limited idea of what the city has to offer. Dubbed India’s Most Romantic City, other travelers had simply told us that it was a beautiful place worth including on our itinerary. Eager to put the bus journey behind us, we checked into our guesthouse, threw our bags down and headed straight for the rooftop restaurant. While the cook prepared our curries, we sipped chai and enjoyed unobstructed views of Lake Pichola.

Surrounded by lakes our whole lives, it takes a pretty impressive body of fresh water to impress us. This particular one was nothing special but the Lake Palace that rises out of the middle and seemingly floats on top of the water is what makes it truly memorable. Built in the 1740’s, this marble palace was once the summer home of Indian royalty. More recently it was seen on the James Bond film, “Octopussy” and is now a luxury hotel. Many of the scenes from Octopussy were shot in Udaipur and the city’s businesses are still trying to capitalize on the movie’s popularity. It’s been more than twenty five years since the movie was released and some restaurants continue to have nightly showings of the film.

After dinner, we briefly ventured out into the city’s narrow alleyways. Less than 10 minutes into our noisy stroll, we hightailed it back to the serenity of our room. The next day was all about sightseeing and we needed to refuel. Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, our first stop in Udaipur was the City Palace. Nearing the ticket office, we should have suspected that our experience was not going to end well. Hordes of tourists were clogging the entrance to the Palace. Reluctantly, we headed inside telling each other that we could always leave if the large crowds detracted too much from the experience.

The palace was laid out like a one way street, meaning that every visitor has to go through each room in order to get to the next. On a typical day, this system probably works just fine. However, we were there at the tail end of Diwali and the palace could simply not handle the immense crowds. Each room was filled to capacity and catching a glimpse of anything meant elbowing your way through a group of hot, sweaty people. As the rooms narrowed and we walked up and down stairs, visitors were forced to form a line and slowly inch their way through the palace. Guards situated every couple hundred feet ensured that no one got out of line and prevented anyone from jumping ahead.  We could only move as fast as the slowest tourist. In many ways, this place embodied everything we had come to dread about the world’s most visited tourist sites. While I have no doubt that the City Palace is a stunning place filled with exquisite architectural details, we saw very little during our visit and couldn’t help but feel trapped as we slowly inched our way through the palace’s many rooms.

Recovering over yet another delicious meal, we brainstormed a plan for the next day. We had read that the countryside outside of Udaipur was beautiful and that there were worthwhile sites just a couple of hours away. Excited to get off the beaten path, we headed back to our hotel and arranged a driver for the next day. Leaving early the next morning, our plan was to visit Kumbhalgarh Fort. Built on a hilltop 3,500 feet high, the fort’s perimeter walls are fifteen feet thick, extend over 36 kilometers and form the world’s second largest continuous wall after the Great Wall of China. Within the fort are 360 temples. An ambitious visitor could explore for days but we had already visited a few forts in India and were content to just spend a couple of hours wandering around and peeking our heads inside some of the temples. We had arrived early so we ran into relatively few people as we climbed up and down the walls of the fort. The highlight of our stop at Kumbhalgarh was the views of the surrounding countryside. Forested hills stretch as far as the eye can see, emphasizing the fort’s ideal defensive location.

Leaving the fort behind we headed for Ranakpur, an elaborate Jain temple carved out of white marble. Jainism is one of the oldest religions in India and stresses nonviolence in all aspects of life. Its followers believe that all living things are sacred. The most devout Jain followers sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so that they don’t squash any insects. Some even wear masks over their mouths so they won’t accidentally swallow any bugs. Ranakpur is one of the most unique temples we have ever visited. It is supported by over 1444 marble pillars, each exquisitely carved and different than the rest. The ceiling of the temple is just as intricately carved and in the very center is a living tree that the roof was built around. After seeing the temple’s incredible details, we weren’t surprised to learn that the building of this temple was a 64 year endeavor.

We decided to call it a day when our necks grew sore from looking up at the carvings. As we drove back to Udaipur through the Rajasthani countryside, we continued to make a number of unscheduled stops. Although we enjoyed our visits to Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranakpur, the most interesting parts of our day were these random stops where we observed people going through the motions of their daily lives. We saw young men crammed onto the roofs of buses and farmers walking down dirt roads with cattle sporting brightly painted horns. Jason even spotted a cow powered water wheel still in use to lift water for irrigation. At each of these stops we pulled out the camera and asked for permission to take photos. In response, we were met with warm smiles and friendly waves. Moments like this are the ones that make up for the motion sickness inducing bus rides and the crowded temples and palaces. Time and time again we learned on this trip that it almost always pays to spend the time and money to get a little bit further off the beaten path and do some exploring in places where other travelers rarely venture. Months later, on days when I’m stuck in my cubicle, eyes blurry from staring at Excel spreadsheets, these unexpected little moments are the ones I remember most fondly.

Rajasthan: Land of Kings

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

8 – 10 November 2010, India

Our time in Jaisalmer was well spent but we grew weary of dodging Diwali fireworks and scooters racing through the narrow alleyways. Thankful to escape with all of our limbs intact, we boarded the train bound for Jodhpur. For this second Indian train journey we’d paid a few dollars more and upgraded to air conditioned second class, which was money well spent given all the desert sand that flew in through the open windows on our first trip. The seven hour journey passed quickly as I read and Jason chatted with a friendly local who had been in Jaisalmer for work. Like many of the Indians we encountered, he was eager to chat and offered interesting insight into Indian life and culture. We rolled into Jodhpur’s train station just before midnight and were a bit surprised to find that it was jam packed with people. Stepping over the sea of sleeping bodies, we felt grateful to have a hotel room waiting for us.

Like Jaisalmer, Jodhpur is located in the state of Rajasthan. Known as the Land of Kings, practically every city is home to a medieval fort or Maharaja’s palace. Jodhpur’s Meherangarh Fort is known for being one of India’s best so we set aside one day to visit this scenic fort perched on a cliff 400 feet above the city. Reached by a steep, winding road, the fort is filled with multiple palaces known for their intricate carvings and expansive courtyards. Knowing that we tend to enjoy historic sites more when we actually learn something, we armed ourselves with the optional audio guide and began our journey through the fort. The quality of audio guides tends to vary greatly but we found this particular one to be both informative and entertaining. As we meandered through the massive fort listening to stories about the palace’s former inhabitants, we admired beautiful architecture and a treasure trove of paintings, portraits, weapons, textiles and palanquins. Setting aside time on our whirlwind tour of Rajasthan to visit this historical site was more than worth it.

After leaving the Fort, we set off in search of food. Drawn to a restaurant packed with locals, we refueled with an Indian thali (a selection of different dishes served in small dishes on a round tray) and proceeded to spend the rest of the day getting lost in the city’s winding streets. Known as India’s blue city, Jodhpur has a large number of buildings painted light blue to deter insects and keep them cooler during the hot summer months. I don’t know if there is any scientific evidence to back this up but the blue buildings do contrast nicely with the brightly colored saris worn by many Indian women. At one point when we felt we might go crazy from the incessant honking and constant stream of vehicles, cows and pedestrians, we took refuge in a quiet courtyard. In India especially, these little re-fueling breaks are often what got us through the long days of sightseeing in excessively crowded, noisy places.

After Jodhpur, the next stop on our itinerary was Udaipur, known by many as India’s most romantic city.  Having heard so many good things about this Rajasthani gem, we included it on our itinerary despite the fact that it is not connected to Jodhpur by rail. Other travelers had warned us about bus travel in India and as much as we were hoping to avoid a long, bumpy, crowded and uncomfortable trip, we had no choice. We briefly considered hiring a private driver but couldn’t justify paying nearly ten times as much for a six to eight hour trip. Foolishly we assumed that the bus trip couldn’t possibly be that bad. The morning of our departure, I spoke naively of “experiencing the real India,” while Jason stared at me skeptically.

Cautiously optimistic, we headed for the bus station and climbed aboard the bus. Fortunately our assigned seats actually existed and were not located in the upper level cramped sleeping compartments. Like many bus rides taken throughout our trip, this one quickly went from uncomfortable to miserable. Every time the bus picked up speed and it felt like we had the potential to make progress, it would come to a screeching halt and multiple people would climb aboard. Once the seats filled up, people began to wedge themselves into the aisle and the sleeping compartments. Adding insult to injury was the sight of vomit streaming down the sides of the windows as people in the upper level compartments battled with motion sickness. While we certainly felt bad for them, Jason and I were dealing with issues of our own. That morning, in preparation for the long bus ride, we had limited our water consumption. Despite drinking next to nothing, we both had to use the bathroom and we grimaced every time the overflowing bus hit one of the many bumps in the dirt road.

After nearly four hours of being tossed around, the bus finally made a pit stop and we took turns elbowing our way down the aisle and relieving ourselves behind a bush. Our bladders empty, we threw on our headphones and spent the last four hours of the bus trip trying to escape to the “happy place” in our heads. No matter how annoyed we felt by the bus trip, I couldn’t help but feel even more annoyed with ourselves. The cramped aisle was bursting with young children and older women who were a lot more uncomfortable than us. Despite their situation, no one was complaining; in fact they seemed relaxed and patient. Clearly they were able to look beyond their discomfort and realize that things could be much worse. We had been reminded of this nearly every day on our around the world journey, but we obviously still had a lot to learn.