Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Varanasi--Last India Post

If you like India, you will love Varanasi, and you will certainly never forget it. Possibly the oldest city in the world, Varanasi occupies an especially holy place on the banks of the River Ganges. All Hindus should come here at least once in their lifetime to bathe in the river. Watching the religious rituals (best at sunrise and sunset) and everyday life of this chaotic, crowded, but most fascinating of Indian cities, is a unique and profound experience. The principal attraction of Varanasi is the long string of bathing ghats, which line the west bank of the Ganges. Ghats are the steps which lead down to the river from which pilgrims make their sin-cleansing dip in the holy river and on which bodies are cremated. A boat ride on the Ganges at dawn, when it is full of pilgrims, is an amazing experience.

Erik and I came to the conclusion that Varanasi was the last stop on the trip, because if you went there first, you'd be completely turned off. It is like India on steroids.

What the above description fails to mention is the Ganges is believed to be the most polluted river in the world. Much of the pollution is caused by the tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of bodies (cremated and not) dumped into the river each year. Along the river banks are many crematoriums where we saw bodies being burned, as well as, a funeral procession. There are huge mounds of trash on the banks of the Ganges, but people still bathe in and drink from the river. We took a boat ride at dawn through dense fog. I truly felt as if it was a ride on the River Styx. Old people often make pilgrimages to the Ganges to die in the river. Men like this one are everywhere in Varanasi. A homeless family with three small children living on the beach. Note the piles of trash and the cow eating it in the background. Buddhist pilgrims also flock to Varanasi to visit one of Buddhism’s most important sites 10km away at Sarnath. It was here that Gautama the Buddha preached his first sermon 2,500 years ago. The Archaeological Museum is worth a visit to view unique Buddha masterpieces.

Sarnath was very crowded with monks and nuns, because the Dalai Lama was speaking there the next day. I'll conclude with this short story: I overheard an American tourist striking up a conversation with someone while waiting in line. She said her tour guide told her India stands for, "I'll Never Do It Again!" It is easy to see why this phrase is popular. Erik and I do hope to do it again. It is a fascinating country of sharp contrasts--an amazing experience.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Getting to Varanasi--Train Ride from Hell

Before I discuss Varanasi, I wanted to mention the plethora of animals which are everywhere in India. I expected to see free roaming cows. We’ve all heard about it, but what you can not imagine is the multitudes of them. I thought maybe I'd see two dozen cows in Delhi. No. There are at least 5 on each block! They lie in the roads, eat trash, and shit everywhere. It is quite sad because most look very unhealthy. In addition to the cows, there are hordes of feral dogs, most of whom are lactating females or puppies. I guess about 10 dogs per block, in every city we visited. To add to the mix are monkeys, goats, and wild boars freely roaming the streets and sidewalks. Then there are camels, elephants, sheep, parrots, peacocks, bats and giant beehives. Who needs the zoo?

This one was completely blocked in by the cars:To travel to Varanasi, we had to take an overnight train. Train travel is ubiquitous in India and notoriously off schedule. Luckily, our tour guides helped us navigate the train stations. We took a short train ride upon leaving Agra to get to Khajuraho and Orchha. The journey was 2.5 hours long, but the train was late by about the same time. On this train, each passenger in our class received a liter of bottled water and a meal. We were dreading the overnight train trip which was supposed to take 12 hours, because we did an 8 hour overnight train in Vietnam, so we knew it would be grueling. The train to Varanasi was mediocre at best, but we did OK for the first 10 hours. We stopped at a major station in the morning and more than 50% of the occupants disembarked. Things started to go south when we sat at that station for more than 2 hours with no explanation. The remainder of the trip involved traveling about 20 miles per hour for a 1/2 hour and then stopping on the tracks for at least 30 minutes. We had no idea what the problem was or how long the journey would take. All the while, we were never served any food or water, and there was no snack car. Thank God I jumped off the train at one stop and bought bottled water and 2 teas, and double thank God I had snacks with me. When we hit the 16 hour mark, I had a bit of a breakdown. The whole trip wound up taking over 19 hours with no food or water! To make things worse, we alighted knowing we'd have to repeat the journey in 24 hours to return to Delhi. I was not a happy camper.

Later we learned the delays were due to dense fog in the region causing massive issues with flights and trains. It made the front page of the newspaper. In retrospect, we were fairly lucky to have arrived at all. Our poor driver waited for us at the train station all day, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The silver lining: the fog and an accident resulted in the cancellation of our return train trip. Imaginative Traveller responded perfectly and booked us a flight and arranged an additional hotel in Varanasi. I have never enjoyed a flight more than the one from Varanasi to Delhi.

On the train: it was freezing due to no heat which is why we are wearing hats.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Khajuraho and Orchha

After Agra, we traveled to Khajuraho and Orchha. It was a long way to travel to see the old temples and ruins, but we did enjoy our time there and stayed in a cool hotel.

Khajuraho is known for its temples, representing the finest art and architecture of medieval India. Today out of eighty-five temples only twenty five remain. These temples were built in a short span of hundred years between 950 to 1050 A.D. Every inch of the exterior, and much of the interior, is covered by superb stone carvings. The sculptures are sublime and sensuous at the same time. They adorn every space of the temple walls depicting several themes of celestial nymphs, ascetics in penance, hunting and war scenes, group dances and royal processions. The most famous are the erotic sculptures. Nothing is left to the imagination, and you will be surprised, shocked, and possibly even impressed.

Scroll down quickly if you are shy or under 18. These are some of the carvings depicting the Kama Sutra.

Our hotel in Orchha:

I fell in love with these three girls. They couldn't speak much English but tried to sell me some bracelets. They were so innocent that they had a hard time focusing on their sales pitch and got distracted by watching other kids play. My heart broke to see how thin, dirty, shoeless, and cold they were. The one in red just wanted to hold my hand.I guess this is as good of time as any to discuss the crippling poverty in India. Before going, I was prepared for it, but the volume is hard to wrap your mind around. In the early morning, virtually every single sidewalk, empty parking space, parks, etc. are covered with homeless sleepers. They are barely clothed (it got near freezing at night), emaciated, dirty, wounded--many were small children and babies. In Varanasi at dawn, we saw a man lying in the middle of the street, completely naked and covered in dirt. The temperature was close to freezing. We seriously questioned if he was dead. At one historic sight, we happened to be there at lunch time, and the workers obviously received free lunch. The "lunch" was a ball of food smaller than a tennis ball. They were fighting and clawing their way to get the food. I am sure it was their only meal of the day. Needless to say, I was in tears more than once. I think everyone, especially Americans, should visit some place like India at least once to gain perspective and gratitude. For me, this horror is a part of why I wanted to visit India.

Monday, January 19, 2009


There is only one reason to visit Agra, the Taj Mahal. It was so incredibly beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes. Everyone should try to see it once in his/her lifetime. It was especially appealing to me because of its symmetry. The building looks the same from each side. There's a Mosque on the left of the Taj, and to maintain the balance, an identical building was constructed on the right side. We arrived at dawn to watch the building reflect the light. It was rather foggy, but we had good views.

The Taj is a mausoleum built by the emperor for his beloved wife who died in childbirth. It is claimed to be the most romantic place on earth. We saw a man propose to his girlfriend, so sweet. Pictures are not allowed inside the Taj. Within the outer walls there is an inner chamber holding the tomb of the emperor's wife. His tomb was added next to hers when he died.

The gate to enter the Taj's courtyard: In the late afternoon, we went to the almost dry river bed behind the Taj to see it at sunset.The whole building, inside and out, is ornately carved and inlaid with semi-precious stones. Along the doorways are scriptures inlaid with onyx. The letters become larger towards the top of the building so from a distance they appear uniform in size.
The Mosque:View from the Taj looking towards the gate:

In Agra, we also visited the Agra Fort for it has great views of the Taj. Unfortunately, the fog was bad in the afternoon and we only saw a white sheet. The Fort itself was very beautiful. More inlaid stone work: Carved ceiling: It may seem like a small detail, but one aspect of India drove us completely crazy—the lack of change. In Frommers and Imaginative Traveller’s trip guide, are repeated suggestions to carry small change such as 5 or 10 rupees to give as tips or to beggars. Many instances arise for the need of small denominations. For example, if you have 4 bags, then 4 bell hops will carry them 10 feet and each expect a tip. In most nice bathrooms, there is an attendant, one whom physically blocked my exit and thrust her open palm at me. I’m OK with a lot of tipping. The problem is that no one had change less than a 100 rupee note. We succeeded in getting change a few times from our hotel, but only after the manager round up the bell hops and made them empty their pockets of small bills. It was so bad that a few times we were forced to overpay at the hotels. Our rooms were pre-paid, but we would charge bottled water, beer, and meals to our room. For example, upon check out, we owed 873 rupees and handed the manager 1000 cash, but only got 100 back because there was no change! Granted we were shorted less than US$1.00, but that’s not the point. Several times, we were forced to stiff people because we had no small bills. We wondered more than once if this was a tourist scam. Towards the end of the trip, I was totally fed up when the hotel tried once again to round up the bill, and I insisted it be rounded down in my favor—I won. We probably should have used that tactic more often. Arriving in India, we changed about US$250 to rupees and here is the stack of bills we received of 100 rupee notes. Note the huge industrial staples holding the wad together. It took quiet awhile to pry the stack apart so as to not rip the bills. Fortunately, we are now able to laugh about the lack change.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fort Madhogarh

After Jaipur, we went to a rural area and stayed in a heritage hotel, once a fort. It would be more apt to call it a crumbling castle. It was very strange, because we were the only guests. The surrounding countryside was beautiful. We took a tour of the village in a camel cart. The experience was a bit uncomfortable, because we felt like the rich westerners being paraded through town. The children could see us coming from far away and would run up to us and chase the cart for long distances. They were adorable and so full of energy and smiles, wanting only to check out the strangers and touch our hands.

The fort looks cool, but it wasn't the most luxurious hotel. There was no hot water, or we weren't able to work it successfully. The toilet flushed out a pipe and right down the side of the hill. Raw sewage is a common occurrence in India. The toilet on the train resembled a normal toilet, but when you looked into the bowl, you could see the train tracks. Everywhere we went, there was a ditch running down the sidewalk with raw sewage. In some places the ditch clogged and overflowed into the street. Many homes didn't have plumbing, and water was accessed by a pump well on every few blocks. It's no wonder the water is non potable. The stink of the sewage is compounded by all the homeless, and non-homeless, who use the bathroom in the street. It appeared normal for men, including our driver, to urinate virtually anywhere.

Madhogarh is a small village situated in the foothills of the Aravali range, renowned for its old havelis and Fort. It is a great place to experience what life is like in a typical Rajasthani village, where we can see the local tradesmen, potters, carpenters and cobblers go about their business using ancient techniques and practices. A very popular attraction at Madhogarh is the breathtaking fort, which has recently been converted into a heritage hotel.Our room:
Watching the sunset: This is an ancient bathing facility and small temple. We had a tour guide, but he only spoke about 10 words of English, so I can't give any other details.
Hand embroidering a sari:

On the way to Agra, we stopped at the deserted Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri, a complex of forts, palaces and mosques built in sandstone. Fatehpur Sikri served as Akbar's capital for only a short period of twelve years before the capital was abandoned, apparently due to a lack of water supply. Today Fatehpur Sikri is a ghost city, its architecture is in a perfect state of preservation, and wandering through the palaces it is easy to imagine that this was once a royal residence and a dynamic cultural centre. The white marble Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti, Akbar's spiritual adviser, is now observed as a Muslim pilgrimage spot.

See those big black things hanging from the ceiling? They are huge, active bee hives--super neat.