Imagine being on the most tranquil, remote island where you wake up naturally, no alarms, no Internet or cell service, stroll over to a little cafe and order breakfast. The Indian man only wearing a lungi (a cloth/skirt wrapped around his waist), walks over to coconut & mango trees and 20 minutes later brings you a plate of fresh fruit. All you hear is the ocean and the most difficult decision to make that day is which beach to bike to and what type of fish to order for dinner. Okay, so now picture having that zen mentality and then arriving in the most intense, wild, assault on your senses type of city in the world...this has been my week! I had a head ache for 2 days, although I can't complain because going to the Andaman islands was the best decision. I feel so recharged, fresh and ready to tackle the world again!
The bonus of being on a small island is you really get to know other people staying there. I met an awesome German girl on the island who flew into Culutta two days before I flew there. I have realized the most difficult part of traveling
alone is arriving in a new city without knowing anything or anyone. The BEST thing ever is to see someone you know waiting as you walk out of the airport. So, this girl (Alina) was there with a sign with my name on it (simple things totally make my day) and get this, she had picked me up in a car with a private driver!! A friend of a friend of a friend who lived in the city was hosting her and also invited me to stay. Turns out this very generous man's family owns hotels, and not just any ordinary hotels either. You know if you have to drive through a gate to enter the grounds, you are in for something special! As soon as we entered, someone walked over with a tray of complimentary beverages while we checked in (which was us just basically saying hello, and the receptionist being told we were their honored guests). Coming from a hut with paper thin walls and scooping water out of well with a bucket to have a shower, this was pure bliss! I stood in the room, which had hot water, clean sheets, and electricity (these 3 things really
make my day now...especially if they are available all at the same moment) and just couldn't believe it was for free and how I get myself into these situations! The front desk called at least 3 times to ask if we were comfortable, etc. I honestly love living with not much luxury because once you have experience it again, it is increbile!
Needless to say, my experience in Calcutta was wonderful! I had always been nervous about going to that city, due to its reputation, but I would say if you ever travel to India, start there. I didn't see any dead animals, or people for that matter, the streets are more clean and it felt a tad like a 'normal' city. Most incredible part, I got to drive a car there! You know how tricky it is to drive on the left side of the road, never mind shifting gears with your left hand all the while trying not to hit other cars? I loved it!! The guy even said I'm a good driver (after admitting to being scared also). Maybe because I knew where the horn was and I wasn't afraid to use it. So cool!
Sadly, we only had one night there, and then we were off on a night train to Varanasi. Now, here is a little history lesson for you (which explains why this city is like none other). The Ganges river flows through this city and it is the most holy place to die. Basically, Hindus believe in reincarnation and the whole circle of life...so if you lead a bad life, your going to come back again and again. Everyone is striving to live a perfect life to get out of this endless circle and get to go to heaven, for lack of a better word. If by chance you die while in Varanasi, it's believed you skip this cycle and go directly to heaven! No need to come back as a slug or some nonsense. (this is only my interpretation of part of their beliefs, so don't quote me on it). Also the Ganges river is super duper holy and if you bathe in it, it essentially removes your sin or heals your disease, etc (in my observation, it would give you a disease. SO filthy! Apparently there is so much bacteria in the river, it has started killing itself). Millions
Feeding the masses
I actually ate lunch here with these guys. Such a great experience!
and millions of people come to this city every year to bathe or to bathe then die.Once a person dies, there is a festival of burning the bodies. This is incredibly interesting to see, because it goes on 24 hours a day and it is only in a certain section beside the river. It is like a huge campfire, but oh wait, the feet and head are visible...I can honestly say, I had no urge to go warm my hands or roast marshmallows by any of those fires. I'm not making fun, because it is not a shocking as one would think. It is quite a special event, even though the "untouchables" are the only people who are allowed to cary the dead body (proving that the cast system and hierarchy of people is extremely relevant and sadly still the way of life here)
Lucky me, guess what also was going on? There's a festival that happens only every 12 years, it is called Kumba Mela and it was only 3 hours away from Varanasi. This year, an estimated 100 million people showed up. Seemed silly not to go! Sorry to keep explaining things, but there are hundreds, actually
My hut for 2 weeks
Place was called Coconut Grove.. It will forever be one of my favorite places
probably thousands of Sadhus or Baba's, which are men who have dedicated themselves to being enlightened, and deliberately don't follow any set of rules (and they ALL came to this festival). They don't cut their hair, they live in the mountains or in caves and from what I saw, only about 50% of them wear clothes and 100% of them just smoke a whole bunch of 'herbs' and are flying high as a kite most of the day.
The sadhu's cover themselves in ash (I heard some extra holy ones take the ash from the cremated bodies, but some things I'd prefer to stay ignorant about), so it was quite a shock seeing a brown man with dread locks, huge beard, covered in ash, smoking and chilling naked on the side of the road. Best part was being invited to their tent to share a chai tea... Hahah oh wow! Most surreal moment was sitting in a tent with 6 Sadhus, drinking chai, while they played Brian Adams on some crappy little speakers. I will forever be reminded of that moment whenever I hear his music from now on.
So combine burning dead bodies, millions of pilgrims, crazy
naked men, a holy brown river, a festival where as far as your eye can see is a makeshift tent city, throw in some cows walking down the street and that's Varanasi... On a different note, not all of the Baba's (the really dedicated ones) were crazy. The ones I did take up several offers of chai heard some very insightful things. I guess they should smart because they have dedicated their life to being taught from other wise men.
I have only one week left in India (gasp)... This certainly is one way to end my time in this infuriating, wonderful country!
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