Welcome to India!

Hi everyone!  So as you read in the last post by Hoch, we had a long and tiring journey into India followed by the initial culture shock that comes with your first visit to this country.  I had read about travel in India before, but I don’t know if you can really prepare yourself for it.  Travelling anywhere is madness due to the condition of the roads and the amounts of vehicles, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows and goats on the roads.  Everyone honks at everyone which doesn’t seem to make a difference and just contributes greatly to the noise pollution.  The poverty is clearly visible along with lack of cleanliness.  All of these things are part of the India experience and don’t really both me that much though if you have a headache, it would surely make it worse.

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Varanasi streets are crazy busy
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Another busy street shot

For me, the worse part of India are the touts (a very persistent person trying to sell a product or service).  They are the absolute worst than any other country we’ve been to.  You cannot walk anywhere without several rickshaw drivers stopping to ask you where you are going.  And forget about walking through a market without shop owners practically begging you to look in their shop.  I get it, they need to make a living, but they do not take NO for an answer which makes them very annoying.  In the beginning, we had a few people come up to make small conversation with us.  Initially we thought they were being friendly, but the conversation always led to some way for them to make money.  It is sad because now when anyone tries to talk to us, we already know where the conversation is going and just stop it before it gets there which makes you feel like a horrible, mean person.

Hoch – Then, when we ignore them or call them out on their bullshit, they cop out by playing the chummy card saying they are our friends just trying to help. Then act all offended when I tell them what they need to do is fuck off. Example: we were hiking up a hill to some cave and a moto taxi driver kept following us, offering a ride up the hill. When it was clear we preferred to walk, he pointed at my sunglasses and said something like “brother, give me goggles.” At first we were both dumbstruck, thinking “this asshole cannot possibly be just asking for a free pair of Ray-Bans” but that’s exactly what he meant. He kept following, repeating the same shit for about 3 minutes until I angrily told him to fuck off, at which point he accused me of being “no good” and fucked off. My blood pressure spikes even now as I think of that fun little Indian experience.

Anyways, I am not trying to deter anyone from visiting India (H – I am), I just want to paint a realistic picture on how difficult things can be and what you have to put up with as a foreigner.  That being said, it all comes down to how you handle it.  You need to pick and choose your battles and if you are trying to haggle the prices from foreigner prices to local prices for every single purchase you are going to really hate it here (unless you love to haggle).  I think a lot of people really dislike India when they first arrive, but once you get acclimated it does get better and there are definitely great things to see in this country.

Bodh Gaya:

As Hoch mentioned in the last post, Air India messed up our initial plans in India by cancelling our flight to Kolkata.  So rather than waiting a few days, we decided to take the one other flight to Gaya which is 17km from Bodh Gaya.  Bodh Gaya is a sacred village and is the site in which Buddha found Enlightenment (nirvana).  There are several temples and monasteries there and a lot of Buddhist tourists come from all over the world to visit this sacred village.

Again, Hoch and I are not Buddhists, but we figured we would at least see what all this small town had to offer.  To be honest, we were not impressed with Bodh Gaya.  It was pretty chaotic for being such a small village and though some of the sightseeing was OK, I am sure we will see much better in other parts of the country.

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Mahabodhi Vihar (Great Awakening Temple) marks the location where Buddha attained enlightenment
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Mahabodhi Vihar
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Bodhi Tree within the temple under which Buddha gained enlightenment
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Decorations at the Mahakala Cave, one of the caves where Buddha meditated and fasted for 6 years

One positive for our Bodh Gaya experience were the people running our guesthouse (minus the guesthouse construction!).  They were pretty nice and wanted to make sure we enjoyed our time there.  They arranged rides for us to see some sites away from the village and we even stopped in a smaller village to visit the home of one of the guesthouse workers.  Yes, that may sound sketchy, but there is more to it.  The guy from the guesthouse name is Islam and he told us a little bit about his background.  He grew up an orphan but luckily had the opportunity to work with Mother Theresa in Kolkata when he was younger.  He decided to return to his home village to start a foundation for orphans. The orphans attend the foundation school with other village students (whose parents can afford to pay tuition) and live in his large home with his wife, mother, daughter, and a few other employees that help take care of the children.  We met everyone including several of the 18 children, had chai tea, and spoke English with some of the kids that were willing to try.  It was a bit awkward because obviously the ultimate goal of showing us his foundation was for us to either sponsor a child or donate money, but he did not say that straight up (which in retrospect is a shock considering the track record of others).

Even though it was a bit awkward, you could tell it was legit and I would feel comfortable donating to this foundation trusting that my donation would be 100% used for the needs of the children.  I had the chance to talk to Islam one on one while Hoch went to get a SIM card and you could tell he really has good intentions.  He informed me of a future goal to start a nursing home foundation for the elderly in his village as well.  Just listening to him describe his goals showed me that he has such a good heart and made me think about how I should make more of an effort to donate, whether it is time or money, to something that I am passionate about when I return home.

Here is the foundation link if you’d like to know more: http://www.sujatachildren.dk/

H – I am always wary of these “foundations” and I urge you thoroughly research before giving anybody a dime. I do believe at least some money will go towards helping out the orphans and Islam seems, in retrospect, infinitely more legitimate than the other “benefactors” we have come across in India. Also, let’s not forget there are neighbors in need nearer to you, wherever you are.

Here are a few photos from the foundation school and home:

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Foundation Classroom
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One of the bedrooms for the children
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Their home kitchen!
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Some of the children
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Walking through the village

After sightseeing for most of the day, we decided we wanted to walk around town and find a place to eat dinner other than the restaurant beside our guesthouse (that we had already eaten at a couple of times due to convenience).  We looked up some places online that had decent reviews and set out to find one.  Well either the places we looked up closed down or moved locations because they could not be found.  We finally walked into another place to eat and were informed that they were not serving food that evening.  There were several street food places, but we thought it was a bit early to risk getting “Delhi Belly” and ended up eating at the same restaurant from the night before.  So yeah Bodh Gaya food scene = not so good for us.

Our guesthouse arranged train tickets for us to our next destination and before we knew it we were experiencing our first train ride experience in India.  We read a lot about the trains online and though the tickets and routes seem confusing, it really was not as bad as I was expecting.  Living in the greater NY area and using public transportation on the daily probably helped.  We found our car and seats quickly and both slept rather well in our 3rd Class AC sleeper car to Varanasi. 🙂

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Train station
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3rd Class Sleeper
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Tiny space to sleep, but wasn’t too bad!
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Cow on the platform in Varanasi

Varanasi:

We arrived in Varanasi just in time for lunch.  We chose our guesthouse due to its proximity to the train station.  We could just walk there and did not have to worry about dealing with flooded roads.  Yes, India threw another curve ball our way and we are now 0 for 2.  Just before our arrival, heavy monsoon rains caused the River Ganga (Ganges to you colonisers) to flood and several people had to be evacuated!  A little background on Varanasi; the city is considered sacred to Hindus and one of the oldest cities in the world.  Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi will bring them nirvana and several people move to Varanasi as they become older so that they can be cremated by the Ganges River.  The river itself is considered holy and people bathe in it daily (dispite the river also being filthy due to the city sewage being dumped there as well).  One of the largest attractions in Varanasi is to go see the many Ghats (stairs leading down to the river) to see people bathing and to see the cremation of over 300 bodies/day.  So flooded Varanasi = No Bueno, all the Ghats were under water.  We decided to cut our time in Varanasi short and just stay for one night.

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We talked to the family at our guesthouse and they told us about a few places we can visit that have not been affected by the flooding.  After lunch, we decided to head out to one of them, a temple.  Well, the rickshaw driver misunderstood us and took us to another temple (similar name) that was closer to the river.  We were able to see the extent of the flooding and walk through some of the tiny alleyways to find the temple.  These alleyways are not cute and clean, they are rather dirty, but at the same time I really enjoyed walking through and seeing the daily happenings of the locals.  We ended up not going to the temple since bags weren’t allowed and in order for them to guard it, you had to buy flowers for the temple (turned out they are pretty strict and you needed to eventually show your passport and get questioned to even enter).  We then decided to go to the actual temple we had set out to see, the New Vishwanath Temple which is located in the Belarus Hindu University.

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The dirty yet interesting alleyways
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The New Vishwanath Temple
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The New Vishwanath Temple

After visiting the temple, we walked around the campus and ended up walking to another temple, the Durga Temple, on our way back to the guesthouse.

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Durga Temple

(we really should read up on Hinduism in order to really appreciate these temples)

We also purchased beer along the way and of course when you want a rickshaw, you can’t find one so we ended up walking the long walk back while taking turns carrying 6 tall boys of shitty beer in my scarf (they did not have bags).  That evening we ended up hanging out with several people at the guesthouse including 4 Spanish girls, an Italian girl, and the Indian guy that lived there.  The Spanish girls were telling us about their day of sightseeing and how they were able to somewhat see one of the Ghats and the cremating of bodies.  We got the details of where they went about doing this and decided that the next day we would try to do the same before catching our overnight bus to Agra.

We were successful in finding the place, paid a hefty price for a 10 second boat ride, got suckered into donating money to the elders who can’t pay for their own cremation wood, and more importantly saw people bathing in the flooded river and the cremating of bodies from a distance at the Manikarnika Ghat.  You would think it would stink, but they use a certain type of wood that masks the smell of the burning bodies. H – Regardless, when you smell something that means the particles are inside your nostrils. We were covered in the cremation smoke and my eyes were watering. Not the most pleasant thought.

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Boat Ride to View the Cremation
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All that wood
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Boat carrying a body to be cremated
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You can barely see the bodies being cremated in the distance and the people bathing in the river outside of it

After visiting the ghat, we were led around the same alleyway streets we had walked in the day before by a guy seriously trying to make a buck.  He was trying to sell clothing from his shop, which we shot down pretty quickly.  Then he moved on to a henna tattoo kit, which looked like something you would sell to a child.  I told him I did not want the kit, but if he knew anyone that painted Henna Tattoos, that I would do that.  He happily took us to his sister (while still trying to sell other things) and she painted a pretty sweet henna on my hands for a somewhat hefty price and then we were soon on our way back to the guesthouse to get ready for our train. H – His “sister,” yeah. Just like I’m everybody’s “brother.” Such welcoming people. He only stopped trying to sell clothes when I told him if he mentions pants one more time we are going the other way.

So far India has not been the kindest to us, it has been a bit of a rough start with last minute changes and weather issues (and people issues), but things are looking up!

Until next post!

Kimberly

P.S.  ABC Trek Training Journal:

Bodh Gaya – Walked 3 miles while sightseeing, including a short but steep climb of approximately 160 ft at one of the Buddhist monasteries.  I also did a short circuit workout in the room including one-legged surrender squats, plie squats, leg raises, hip thrusters, and planks. H – I didn’t.

Varanasi Day 1 (Travel day) – We walked about 9.5 miles while sightseeing.

Varanasi Day 2 – We walked about 3 miles while sightseeing.

(All distances are taken from the health app on my phone)

Still good so far.  Did not carry a backpack while sightseeing, it was just too hot for that.

 

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