Published: March 19th 2009March 12th 2009
Well, I'm alive and brighter than ever. The color wars were a wicked battle between the Congregation of the Whites vs. many-headed beast of Banares and the dogs, cows, cats and sleepers were innocent bystanders but not saved from the relentless technicolor bombs from the opposing squads. Bhang and White Mischief saturated in their minds making it a sloppy, but seemingly victorious, campaign for both sides and afterward, remnants of the battle stained the ghats and narrow streets. But, I'm getting ahead of myself so let's get back to where we last left off: Pushkar.
Pushkar - located around central Rajasthan, surrounded by mountains and lining a holy lake. The city is also home to the only Bhrama temple in all of India. The town itself is somewhat small and compact, which makes the run-ins with other tourists commonplace, which is not always a good thing. I prefer the feeling of diving into the culture and not always sticking to the "Lonely Planet" crew. (Lonely Planet is the preferred guidebook for almost any country in the world and many travelers follow their advice on where to go, what to eat, et cetera so by not owning a Lonely Planet, we're
able to find the hidden gems. However, sometimes it's good to find a place where your fellow traveler is likely to be and you'll find out why a bit later.) With the tourists roaming the streets so often, it's not surprising that we were hassled often by "priests" when we tried to view the ghats (stairways leading to the banks of the lake) to view the scenery. I'll give you an example: the day we arrived in Pushkar, we had heard of the Pink Floyd Cafe and wanted to check it out being the Pink Floyd enthusiasts that we are. It really wasn't all that great - overpriced rooms named after albums the band has made and expensive food was all they really had to offer. They weren't even playing Pink Floyd at the restaurant! Shameful!
Anyways, when we left, we walked around a bit and were approached by a ~25 year old guy who gave us a flower and told us to go to the ghats and put it in the lake for good karma. In our minds, we thought, "Hey, we're going to participate in something really holy that has been done for hundreds of years. Sounds good
to me!" When we arrived at the foot of the ghats, we were told to take off our sandals and walk down. Within 30 seconds, we were approached by a second ~25 year old in fake Gucci sunglasses with flowers around his snazzy shirt. They made themselves out to be priests and asked that in order to bless our family with good karma, we should donate. Okay, buddy. I'm sure the "donation" is going straight to the temple. When we said we just wanted to enjoy our time at the lake, he told us to give our flowers back and walked away. (Note: don't get the impression that we didn't want to give good karma to our loving, caring family, because we would love nothing more, but this just seemed so fake.) After about 20 minutes, we ascended the stairs and walked by a group of 4 tourists. They were immediately approached by the same guys and we could do nothing but laugh. This happened a second time after we visited the Bhrama Temple.
It seemed a bit more legit this time as we were given the flowers before entering the temple and then told to go to the nearest
ghat to drop our flowers in. When we went down, all 3 of us were separated by our own "priests". It's like a pack of lions picking out the gazelles they want to prey upon. Jade was immediately asked for a donation and said she would give 10 Rps. When the "priest" began to get upset, she said, to sum up, "it's a donation, a charity, and I'm willing to give, but don't hassle me". My guy made me repeat the prayer he was saying but seemed completely disinterested in the whole thing the entire time. As I was repeating the prayer, he asked me how many brothers I had, if my parents were alive, etc. Then, he said, "I will donate..." to which I responded, "I've actually already donated 20 Rps to the [locked and secure] box at the temple." To which he slipped in, "I will donate 20 Rps for each family member..." trying to get me to repeat that. When I refused to repeat it, he began to get upset with me and at this point, Aaron, Jade and myself said "fuck off", but in a more pleasant way...
The way we were approached and hassled each
time we went to the ghats made the experience and authenticity of Pushkar very difficult to take in. But I digress, the city is very beautiful and is filled with genuine people who, just like every city I've been in, love to talk to foreigners and have extremely big hearts.
So, next was Johdpur, the Blue City. We took the bus from Pushkar around 7AM and arrived mid-afternoon. When we got off the bus, we were immediately surrounded by about 10 rickshaw drivers trying to get us to go with them into the city as we were dropped off a bit outside. It was absolute insanity. It felt like being a rockstar exiting the tour bus with tons of hot women surrounding you trying to get your attention except in this case, the bus was from 1970 with the transmission about to blow and the hot women happened to be middle-aged men with half their teeth remaining. Oh well, we can dream, can't we?
We got a ride to the Discovery Guest House where we had planned to meet up with our friends Kelly and Leone from Australia whom we met in Goa. The place is pretty nice and
we got upgraded from the bottom floor the first night to the nicest, huge room for the same price the second night. From the top of the roof, where you can relax and eat, drink, whatever, you can see the Johdpur Fort - a massive structure that overlooks the whole city. We went there on the third day and the views from each new vantage point were equally breathtaking.
Each night, we'd have a few drinks followed by card games and laughs. The owner of the guest house, Raj, was involved in each of these activities as well. He wore these outrageously bright pants with crazy designs that we dubbed "dance pants" even though we never witnessed him break a move.
Walking around the city was a bit of a pain in the ass to say the least. It was really, really crowded with rickshaws, motorcycles, cows, cowshit, dogs, dog shit, humans and the buildings high and the streets narrow making the pollution hard to deal with. That's another aspect of India, or any third world country I'd imagine, that you have to accept.
Walking the streets, we found two great little restaurants, if you can call them that, along
the main drag. One, the Omlette Shop which claimed to break 1,000 eggs a day. We went there for a few breakfasts and got some really great omlettes which are mixed with whatever you want and placed between 4 pieces of toast.
Another place didn't have a name exactly. It was right across the street from the Omlette Shop and had a couple of tables with food displays and some pots, pans and a griddle. The guy who ran this shop was named Raj and was the most hospitable man in Johdpur, I'm sure of it. When we arrived the first day, he let us sit behind his shop and left for 20 minutes to go get us Chai tea (free of charge). Behind the table, I made gestures to German tour groups (they had to be German, it's too easy to tell) the way most Indians at shops make gestures to tourists: Putting your hand out, fingers extended with palm to the ground, you bend your fingers downward, and say "Yes, please - my shop. ·Looking is free" to much confusion of the Germans who decided against eating street food from a white guy with clean clothes. Anyway, Raj
Puja in Varanasi
Hindu evening ceremony at the Main Ghat along the Ganges
made us masala dosas, which is essentially a pancake (not the American-style...a flatter, less doughy pancake) with spices, onions and potatoes wrapped up inside of it. After a couple of days of eating dosas and chatting with Raj, he told us that next time we came to Johdpur to avoid the guest houses and stay at his place for free. The Levitt Charm conquers another.
From Johdur went took a bus to Udaipur in southern Rajasthan. Udaipur is most-definitely my favorite city in Rajasthan. The city sits in a valley with mountains surrounding it and a lake in the middle...much like Pushkar but Udaipur is much cleaner and, I feel, a more relaxed environment despite it being a much larger city. There are definitely parts of the city that get a little crazy, but that's what you get with a city verging on a million or so people. Plus, the majority of the guest houses and, in turn, the foreigners are situated in one section of the town. There are book shops, German/French bakeries (which got a lot of our business), temples and a palace each within a 10 minute walk of each other. They also play "Octopussy" at
virtually every restaurant in town around 7PM as this is the city in which it was filmed. To clarify, "Octopussy" is a James Bond flick not another type of movie you sickos.
In Udaipur, I was able to pick up [another] pair of sunglasses as the ones I bought in Jaipur broke on the camel trek...I guess Mr. Desert didn't approve of them. I told the guy running the store I wanted reliable ones, not ones that would break in 3 weeks, to which he pointed me to his other shop. I thought that was pretty funny as he basically admitted that out of his two shops, one contained sunglasses that were bound to break within the first month. I got a pair of Calvin Kliens for a bit more than I wanted to pay, but much less than they would be in the States. (That's how I usually justify spending money here. It's not healthy for my bank account.)
One thing worth mentioning because it will get the blood boiling in some of my audience, namely my parents, is that we almost got arrested. Not in a bar, not on the street, not in any place that you would normally think anyone would be arrested...but in a city garden
in broad daylight. Apparently, we're capable of almost anything. But I assure you, it was all a big mistake due to miscommunication. (Isn't that what they all say?)
Aaron, Jade and I went to Saheliyon-ki-Bari Garden one day to take some pictures and relax. While laying down in a nice grassy area, we decide that it would be nice to have a beer so Aaron heads off to the wine shop across the street and comes back with a beer and some snacks. We play a couple games of chess and decide that, yes, it's that time for another beer. So, I ask Aaron if I need to hide it or anything while I bring it in to which he responds, 'no, it's fine, the guy told me it's fine." As I exit the garden, I tell the guard that I'm leaving for a second to go grab a beer and he responds with an "ok". After I come back, beer in hand, there is a guy at the gate with an extremely unhappy face saying, "no, no, no". (The guy in charge.) He's right next to the guard who I was told "ok" by and I didn't want to get him in trouble so I say, "well, my friends are inside can I go tell them what's going on?" After about 5 minutes of convincing the guy that I'm just going inside for 2 seconds to get Aaron and Jade, he makes me hide the beer outside and then go in. I tell Aaron and Jade the situation and Aaron decides that he's going to try and convince them to let us drink the beer - which fails but he gets the money back for the wine shop. I find out later that it wasn't the guard who told Aaron initially that he could bring the beer in, but the guy running the wine shop. It's no wonder why - he just wanted to make money. Anyways, about an hour later, the boss and the guard approach us and notice the empty beer bottle on the grass. The boss-man begins to get really upset and tells us he's calling the police and we convince him that we'll leave right now. As we're walking out of the garden, Aaron attempts to shake the guy's hand and apologize but he refuses. We walk out to the main road and notice some cops hanging around and do the hand-covering-face move as if that would make any difference in noticing 3 white people exiting the garden at top speed. The first rickshaw we spot we hop in without even negotiating a price and bounce
Later that night, we went to a museum down the street from our place to watch traditional dancing performed by authentic dancers and musicians. It included firedancers, a puppet show, a lady balancing 10 bowls on her head and more.
From there, we ate some dinner and took Jade to the train station where she left us for Agra - our next destination but she was a bit strapped for time. So, it was down to the Levitt brothers again after a few weeks in Rajasthan and Goa with our 3rd partner in crime.
The next night, Aaron and I headed off for Agra via train around midnight scheduled to arrive around noon the next day. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal and the plan was to hang out for a bit in town, grab something to eat and I would go in solo as Aaron has already seen the Taj and it's quite expensive to enter. So, around 5:30PM or so, I left Aaron to get a ticket and head in. After purchasing my ticket, the clerk tells me to hurry and as I glance over to the gate they are closing it! I'm literally the last person let in the south gate - that would've really sucked if I got let out after buying a 750 Rp ticket. Going through security, they make me check my bag at the east gate because of this weird device in my side pocket called an "iPod". I try to explain to them that it plays music but it's pointless. Now bagless and pocketless because the pants I have on don't have pockets, I'm forced to carry: camera, water bottle, ticket and now the key to my locker.
Inside, the Taj is absolutely packed with tourists - mostly Indian. I walk around for a while, go inside but it's getting darker out, so I can't really see what's going in inside exactly.
The story of the Taj is as follows from what I got (don't laugh because I don't know specifics of names, etc!): So, there's a king way back when and he has 14 kids with one of his wife, supposedly his favorite wife. When the 15th child is born, there are complications and the mother is now on her deathbed. At her side, he asks her if there is anything he can do for her to which she responds that she wants him to build a palace so magnificant that people will come from around the world to view it. I guess he followed through, huh? See what lengths we go to to appease our ladies??
My overall impression of the Taj was somewhat veiled because I've seen too many pictures and when you get there, it's exactly how you've seen it before. If I had never seen it before, I would've been in much more awe.
After the Taj, Aaron and I hung out at a restaurant until our next train that night to Varanasi, or Benares, at midnight.
We arrive in Varanasi and have a rickshaw set up through the hotel to pick us up at the train station. Leaving the station, we immediately engulfed in traffic. After about 10-15 minutes in the rickshaw, we're told that we need to get out as the rest of the way is too narrow for a rickshaw to get through. So, we all hop out, including driver, and he leads us to the guest house through alleyways that you could imagine were pretty much the same hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago. Tiny shops, restaurants and hostels line the streets and motorcycles try to maneuver through the people, dogs and cows.
A little tidbit about Varanasi: it is one of the oldest cities in the world and an extremely, extremely holy place for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains but especially Hindus. Around 100 ghats line the Ganges River which is situated alongside the city. People from all over the world come to the river to cleanse themselves from their sins by taking a swim among other things. However, tourists like us should avoid taking part in any of that for the following reason: As I mentioned before, people make the journey and congregate here from around the world. One of the reasons they do this is to die here. There are 2 burning ghats, or cremation ghats, that cremate bodies 24/7. I heard from someone that one of them burns 250 bodies a day. After the body is cremated, the ashes are released into the river. However, there are certain conditions to which someone cannot be cremated such as: if they are under 12 years old or bitten by a snake. From what I gathered, if conditions such as these apply, the bodies are released down the river. You can walk along the ghats day in and day out as you please and observe the burning ghats as they outside next to the river. The bodies are not bare but wrapped up in decorative cloth. Watching the funerals was eye-opening. There are no females allowed during the procession because of fear they may attempt to commit suicide by jumping on the fire themselves. The closest male(s) to the deceased shave their heads and wear a simple robe but to my initial astonishment, collectively, do not seem too upset. We were told that they are not saddened because they believe, truly, that they will meet that individual again when they are reincarnated.
Ok, now to explain the opening paragraph. We planned to arrive in Varanasi on the 9th of March for good reason: Holi Festival, or the Festival of Colors. People stock up on colored powder, colored water, booze and bhang for the day. This year, it took place on the 11th. Our guest house was packed with backpackers who all had the same goal: search and destroy Indians! So, the day beforehand, we took a walk to the main drag of the city to get supplies. Whiskey, vodka, rum, dry paint, wet paint, supersoakers, etc. As we walked back to the guest house, we were stared at in fear and astonishment at the size of our supersoakers. We each bought new clothing for the day but on the way back, I got destroyed by an Indian with my Guinness t-shirt and my shorts! So, my outfit had been chosen after I had already bought the designated clothes...oh well. That night, the whole guest house, about 50 people, prepared by filling up balloons for about 5 hours straight. The next morning, the biggest group of white people in all of Varanasi, deployed for the battle. To say we were targeted was an understatement. Everywhere we went, the Indians came after us with balloons and tubes filled with paint. Music was blaring from each main area with Indians (all male) dancing to techno music. To our disappointment, each time we would join the party, the music got shut off and then back on once we left. It was our guess that they did that because there were white women around and the Indians were getting a little feisty. They are so sexually deprived their whole lives, that many of them act like 14 year old boys when they see a Western woman. Plus, when alcohol is mixed in, it's not pretty.
So after the craziness in the ghats, all 40 or so of us headed back to our guest house to continue drinking. Everyone, with the exception of the few girls who decided it wouldn't be safe to go out, along with the others who had just woken up because of the night before, was covered in paint from head to toe. It was a rough day and bedtime was early (around 4 PM for Aaron, 8PM for me...he's getting old).
The next morning, our pillows were covered in pink from our faces and showers didn't get nearly everything out.
So that's that from our first chapter in India. From Varanasi, we took a train to the Indian/Nepalese border and were stuck in a little Nepalese town with no where to go because of strikes that prevented any cars from going anywhere. Our plans changed, but we finally made it to Pokhara. There are forest fires in the mountains so unfortunately we can't see the Himalayas at the moment but we're headed up for our 3 week trek tomorrow to higher elevation so our hopes for clear views are rising like the still-rising peak of Everest!
Hope all is well back in the States!
PS - GO 'CUSE!!! Pictures 1 Pictures 2