Monday, August 31, 2009

Golden Triangle and Varanasi


We finally arrived in Delhi, India after thirteen hours of traveling. We walked off the plane and were immediately confronted with people in masks, swine flu information papers, and a medical check point. We had to fill out a medical history report and noticed that within the last two months, we had traveled through fifteen countries with confirmed cases of swine flu. There were booths set up as well as a large screen showing everyone’s temperature reading as they passed through customs. We waited longer than we ever have before at baggage pick up, apparently it is much cheaper to buy TV’s in Bangkok because we watched at least fifty big screen TV’s pass by us on the conveyer belt. We waited and waited, but Chelsea’s bag never showed up. After filling out a lot of paperwork we were given 3,000 rupees for the inconvenience and were assured our bag would arrive the next day, which it did!

Driving through the streets of Delhi is a much more terrifying experience than it was in Egypt. The streets are filled with cars, rickshaws, bikes, pedestrians, and cows. There is no need for the center line dividing the lanes because the drivers ignore it and cram twice as many vehicles into each lane. Our hotel was located in the Paharganj neighborhood of New Delhi and right outside our door was the main bazaar. The street was filled with shops, dirt, cows, people, food vendors, and stray dogs. Our noisy room was the size of a closet. The lock on the door was sketchy, so we pushed our bed up against the door at night for added security. The room was dirty and the bathroom lacked toilet paper, soap, and a shower stall, so we showered standing between the sink and the toilet, while water sprayed everywhere.

We toured the sights of Delhi with our own personal driver, Mr. Raj. He took us to the Gandhi Smriti, which is a memorial for Mahatma Ghandi and is in the location where he spent the last 144 days of his life and was assassinated. The Raj Ghat is an eternal flame memorial for Mahatma Gandhi. Humayun’s Tomb is a magnificent tomb built for Emperor Humayun by his wife in the mid sixteenth century. We entered the Lakshmi Narayan Temple (Birla Mandir) and observed evening prayer taking place. Safdarjang’s Tomb reminded us of a small Taj Mahal and is one of the last examples of Mughal architecture. We also visited the India Gate, Red Fort, Indira Gandhi Memorial, and the Lodi Garden. The architecture style was very different than what we were used to and made us feel like we really had arrived in India.

Our few days in Delhi were spent figuring out where our future travels in India would take us. We were lucky enough to find a Lonely Planet guide book at our hotel that had been left by another traveler and it became our India bible. We were almost scammed many times by tourist agencies trying to get us to pay for overpriced excursions. Thanks to our guide book, we found the reservation office for tourists at the train station, despite the times people told us it did not exist and we needed to book through a “government office” that they would take us to. We met Fran and Eve from England at the station and Fran suggested a route that we should follow, so we went ahead and booked our train tickets. The girls as well as a couple from Paris, joined us at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant for dinner where we had eaten breakfasts and dinners every day since we had arrived. We were doing everything we could to avoid getting “Delhi Belly”, so as soon as we found a good restaurant, we decided to stick with it. We were excited to leave the busy streets of Delhi and left for Jaipur after spending three days in the capital city.


We took an early morning train to the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan and were delighted to find that after navigating the trains in Europe, India had a very similar set up. The main difference was that the New Delhi train station was littered with trash, people sleeping on the ground and in their rickshaws, and rodents running around. Our train offered us free water, tea, and breakfast, and other than a little dirt and a mouse that ran over Jayme’s foot, it felt a lot like the Eurail.

We took a rickshaw tour of Jaipur with our driver and guide, Nawab Ali. He drove us around the old city which is also called the “pink city” due to the fact that all of the buildings have been painted pink. We climbed the Hawal Mahal tower to view the entire city from the top before driving to the Amber Fort 11km outside of the city. The beautiful fort was built on the hillside and we climbed up to the courtyard where kids were enjoying elephant rides. It started raining, so we took shelter on a bench under a tree where we enjoyed a bag of raisins. We climbed down the steep steps while the locals offered us umbrellas and obviously thought we were crazy to be outside in the rain, although we loved the sudden drop in temperature. We drove through the outskirts of Jaipur along a dirt road where we passed a pig, dog, cow, goat, and monkey all in the span of about a minute. We visited a textile factory and watched as the workers hand printed designs on saris and scarves. We got suckered into the shop where we spent an hour sipping chai and looking through an assortment of merchandise. We finally settled on two identical pillow covers that will forever remind us of India (and will look great in the house we will have to share when we get back in case we have separation anxiety from one another).

We had another early morning train ride the next day and we wanted to practice walking to the train station to make sure we knew where we were going. It took us fifteen minutes to walk there along busy streets that we were hoping would be less crowded in the early hours of the following morning. We have become accustomed to seeing men urinating on the side of the road and in the urinal stands scattered around the cities. Today however, we made the mistake of walking behind an electrical box to avoid being hit by speeding rickshaws and came face to face with piles of human shit! We immediately decided to retire our flip flops for the rest of our stay in India and wear only our closed toed hiking shoes from then on. Our favorite dinner so far was at the Hotel Pearl Palace on their rooftop garden covered in tropical plants and ornate wrought-iron tables and chairs. We ordered our regular meal which consisted of vegetable spring rolls, two pieces of naan, rice, and vegetable curry. Our dinners average 150 rupees which is about $3.


Our hotel in the Taj Ganj area of Agra provided us amazing views of the Taj Mahal from yet another rooftop restaurant. The guide books give great advice on how to get around in different cities, but they often leave out information on walking. Since we really enjoy walking and personally navigating our way through cities, we decided to walk a couple miles across town to visit the Sadaar Bazaar. We are so glad that we did this because on our way we spotted a group of monkeys playing in the trees on the side of the road. We would have missed this if we would have been speeding down the road in a rickshaw. The monkeys were a bit skittish and hid when we tried to take pictures. All of a sudden, two men on a motorcycle stopped next to us and before we knew what was happening, the monkeys were racing towards us. The men were throwing bananas to them and sped off before we could thank them for providing us with the perfect photo moment. We shared traveling stories with Australians and Germans during dinner at our hotel restaurant as we watched the sun set over the Taj Mahal. The two of us share our traveling frustrations with each other, but it is comforting to meet other travelers and realize that we are all experiencing the same thing. The Australian women put it perfectly, “all foreigners here are viewed as ATM’s on two legs.”

We woke up before sunrise and set off for the west gate entrance to the Taj Mahal to beat the crowds. To our surprise, we were not allowed to bring in our sudoku puzzle book, playing cards, ipod, and cookies, we think this is to discourage loitering. It was amazing to be standing in front of the Taj Mahal, but it was exactly what we had expected. The tomb of Shah Jahan’s second wife (and cousin) who died giving birth to their fourteenth child is massive, built with tons of white marble, and inlaid with precious gem stones. Construction started in 1631 and took more than twenty years to complete. We walked around the entire perimeter of the gardens, viewing the Taj from all directions. This is the first country we have been in where foreigners are charged a different entrance fee than the locals for all of the major sights. It cost us 750 rupees to enter the Taj ($15), while it only costs Indians 20 rupees ($0.40). We thought it was great that locals were able to afford to visit their country’s historical monuments, but it was clear that we were getting ripped off.

Agra’s other main attraction is the Agra Fort and we enjoyed our stroll so much the day before, that we decided to walk through town to the Agra Fort as well. A rickshaw driver stopped us at one point complaining, “You walk. Bad for my business, but good exercise for you!” Only 20 percent of the red sandstone fort is open to visitors and it is hard to imagine how large it really is because we saw so much. The fort was built in 1565 by Emperor Akbar on the bank of the Yamuna River. Shah Jahan (Akbar’s grandson) transformed the fort into a palace and was later imprisoned inside for the last eight years of his life. The fort offers great views of the Taj Mahal and we took a few minutes to admire Agra’s most popular site from the second most popular site. We noticed there was a lovely park near the fort on our walk there and decided to relax in the shade and avoid the busy streets for a while. Looking at a map, we realized there might be a path in the park that would lead us back to the Taj Mahal. We followed the trail through the lush forest where we did not run into any other tourists. What we did run into was another group of playful monkeys. We took pictures of them for a while and laughed when we realized a group of local men had crowded around us and were curiously watching us watch the monkeys. We loved our peaceful walk and the fact that we didn’t have to deal with the pushy rickshaw drivers trying to hassle us. It was extremely hot and humid outside and the only air conditioned building we could think of was the Indian chain restaurant Café. We dried out in the back room sitting on comfy ottomans, drinking frozen coffee, and reading. Sometimes it is really nice to do something that reminds us of the luxuries of home and this hit the spot.


We had our first overnight train experience which we were both a little nervous about. We had two beds in a 3-tier AC car. The car is divided into separate rooms with three beds against the two side walls and two more beds parallel to the hallway, but perpendicular to the rest of the beds. We locked our bags at the head of our beds which gave us about ¾ of the bed to actually sleep on. We were rocked to sleep by the shaky train while surrounded by six Indian men. Our train did not arrive to Varanasi until 12:00 pm and we enjoyed a brief conversation with one of our roommates, an Indian professor who teaches animal science. He gave us each cookies and confirmed our stop at the main train station.

Varanasi is a unique city unlike any other. We walked through the old city which is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways filled with shops, feces, animals, people, and motorcycles. We stayed at the Shanti Guest House which is located right next to the Manikarnika Ghat – the main burning ghat. We spent the majority of the day getting lost in the old city and along the 80 plus ghats that line the Ganges River.

Ghats are bathing steps leading down to the Ganges River where we witnessed everything from swimming and bathing, washing clothes, dumping garbage, and burning bodies. Varanasi is one of the holiest places for Hindus and they view it as a crossing between the physical and spiritual world. Families bring the bodies of their dead loved ones to the city to be cremated in public at one of the burning ghats. We saw many funeral processions weaving their way throughout the city carrying the deceased on a bamboo stretcher wrapped in colorful cloth and covered with flowers. Once the body is taken to the burning ghat, it is drenched in water from the Ganges, meant to wash away any sins, and hoisted onto a pile of pre stacked wood. More wood is carefully placed over the body and lit using a flame from the eternal fire. During the ten minutes we stood at the burning ghat, we saw at least four separate fires burning, one body being carried to the river bank, and one woman being placed on a pile of wood. Cremations take place twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Neither of us had seen a dead body before and while it was sad, it wasn’t as horrifying as we thought it would be. Even though we only spent a short amount of time at the burning ghat, the ash in the air and the blowing smoke (throughout the city and even on our rooftop restaurant) was a constant reminder of what was taking place below.

We walked through the crowded streets leading to the Dasaswamedh Ghat which is the most popular and busiest ghat. It was later in the day and because of the cooler temperature, everyone was out and about. People were swimming and bathing and we ventured down along the river passing many of the other ghats. We are obsessed with monkeys and were excited to see a baby monkey playing with a couple of puppies on the river bank. We think he was a pet monkey because there were no other monkeys around and he was not afraid of people. Jayme got within a few inches of him at one point and some of the guys let him crawl onto their shoulders.

We couldn’t leave Varanasi without going for a sunrise boat ride along the Ganges. We left the hotel at 5:00 am and met up with five other people who were on their way to the river as well. We bargained the price down to 50 rupees per person for a one hour ride along the river. Our nineteen year old guide who sleeps in the boat each night took us down past Dasaswamedh Ghat and pointed out interesting buildings along the way. We kept cringing every time we were splashed with even a drop of water knowing how filthy this holy water really is. According to Lonely Planet, 60,000 people go to the Varanasi ghats to take a holy dip every day where thirty large sewers are continuously discharging into the water. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million fecal coli form bacteria per 100mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing, this number should be less than 500. We were all appalled when our guide scooped a generous handful of water straight from the river into his mouth. We do not understand their immune system or their logic. After death, those people who are not permitted to be cremated for religious reasons are dropped into the river wrapped in cloth and attached to a concrete block. These people include babies, pregnant women, people who have been bitten by a snake, those with leprosy, and holy men. Sometimes the bodies do not remain on the bottom of the river and if they float to the west side of the river (along the ghats), they are thrown back in, but if the body floats to the east side of the river, it is left there and often devoured by wild animals. We crossed the river to the east side and bared witness to the skeletal remains of at least six people on a fifty foot stretch of the shore. We were literally stepping over skulls, vertebrae, femurs, and pelvic bones. Death is regarded in such a different way here and our guide didn’t think twice before chucking a skull at the group of us, thinking it was funny to watch us squirm. As we crossed back to the west side where the fires from the burning ghat were in full force, we saw a bloated body floating down the river between our boat and a group of bathing men. Needless to say, our eyes have been opened to a lot in Varanasi.

We will be spending the next week in northern India away from the big cities.


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