Craig and Ross in India.

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February 26th 2019
Published: February 26th 2019
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Blog # 6 (February 23, 2019).

India is incredibly diverse. There is a saying here that for every 50 km you travel, the food changes, the language changes, the culture changes! So, as we boarded an overnight train from Agra to Varanasi (several hundred km apart), we expected a change! Gosh, was that true!

But let me backtrack a little. My last blog ended in Agra, when we boarded the train. The extensive rail network in India is amazing – transporting millions of people each day. India Railways is said to be the largest employer in the world (or maybe the second largest, after the Optus complaints department). The best legacy that Britain gave India, it is often said, is its railway network. I think you cannot come to India and not do at least one train trip. In fact, trains are my favourite form of transport. For a number of reasons; seeing the countryside and day-to-day life along the way, having the freedom to stretch your pins, or just getting off if the mood strikes you. Ross, Mayur and I boarded the train at Agra about 9pm and were due to arrive in Varanasi at 10.30am the next day. The trip was an interesting experience but rather exhausting for us. The seats converted into bunk beds as night fell. There was a curtain you could pull across your bunk for privacy, with all sheets, blankets and pillows provided. Guys came through the carriages periodically, offered chai (tea) or snacks. If we needed to go to the loo, we went to the end of the carriage – either Asian squat or Western sit down options. But, when we came back, we had to remember where your bunk bed was located - in the dark. I had to traipse to the loo around 3am. I noted that my upper bunk was about half way down the carriage opposite some random old shoe in the corridor, and immediately after someone’s hairy bare leg hanging into the corridor. LOL.

Well, the train was delayed some 2.5 hours, stopping for whatever reason here and there throughout the night. This included a painful one hour stop just shy of the final Varanasi terminal. When the train finally did inch its way to the train station, for some inane reason it stopped short. So, we all had to lug our gear through many consecutive carriages to get to a carriage that was actually at the platform. At one point, my luggage and I had a tousle with a guy and his big bag of rice. Finally, we made it off the train, some 16 hours after boarding back in Agra. Then followed a 45 minute or so drive in chaotic traffic to our hotel on the bank of the Ganges in the heart of Varanasi. By the time we checked into the hotel – which was lovely – we were both very tired indeed. Hungry, thirsty, and a little sleep deprived. It was by now 2pm on a Friday afternoon and I had agreed to give a talk at the local University later that day at 4pm. However, I felt less than fine. Rat shit, as we would say in Australia. I had to call the professor and cancel, as I was simply too exhausted to contemplate standing on my feet for 1 hour giving a seminar. Certainly I wasn’t thinking clearly and needed re-booting. Ross and I re-fuelled and slept an hour or two at the hotel. By about 6pm, we were back to normal and ready to tackle Varanasi. So, in summary, the Indian train trip was certainly an interesting experience, but we wouldn’t do such a long haul again. Maybe a 4-6 hr train trip would be fine. Younger backpackers no doubt would be fine with it, but we ain’t in that age group any more. As for my talk, well, it never happened, as the next two days were the weekend, with no one at the University.

So, Varanasi. Geez! how do I describe Varanasi ? An intense mind-blowing mix of people, colours, wandering cattle, street vendors, and near naked sadhus (holy men) toking on joints by the Ganges river. A crazy mix of life, death and spirituality. We loved it. Everywhere you looked, there is something going on, day and night. You could not look at any spot where there was not something going on! Much of the action is on the ghats, the long stone steps that lead down to the water. There are many ghats, each associated with a different temple or region of India that attracts its own subset of pilgrims. Along the ghats there were people bathing, water buffalo wallowing, clothes being washed, barbers by the water front, with a backdrop of crumbling havelis, temples and hotels. There were Hindu holy men (Sadhus) naked but smeared with the ashes of dead folks burnt here. There were kids flying kites, there were doped out Westerners who have checked out of modern life, or men draped in brightly orange coloured cloths chanting or young guys on guitars singing, street vendors, touts, beggars, the ubiquitous cows ambling along. Away from the ghats, the activity continued down little twisted alleyways or on main thoroughfares. People everywhere, tuk tuks, dogs asleep under rickshaws. Overhead, rhesus macaques (monkeys), mucked about on the tangle of electrical wiring that looped from building to building. (It’s a wonder they aren’t fried). There were numerous little shrines around every corner, often with statues of Ganesh (the “elephant God”) draped in floral garlands and with incense burning. You name it, we saw it. We have never experienced a city anywhere else in the world like it! Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited places on the planet, as evidenced by all the old, crumbling temples and palaces along the river - and also all the rubbish about the place! The city is Hindu heartland, India’s most spiritual capital. In India, and especially in Varanasi, religion is everywhere around you in everyday life – constantly. Not hidden away behind sombre edifices as in the West. The city was filthy and chaotic, but beautiful, mystical and enthralling. Everything seemed topsy turvy here. For example, while we often spied people openly smoking dope by the Ganges, alcohol is more or less banned along the riverside. So, like dirty addicts, we had to seek it out. We finally found a hotel with a rooftop restaurant that served beer.(“The Dolphin”, if you ever need to know!) We enjoyed a few predictably expensive ales while watching the activity below us.

One of the most well-known places in Varanasi is Manikarnika, the burning ghat, where people are cremated publicly by the Ganges around the clock. Their ashes thrown into the river. Hindus believe that to die and be cremated in Varanasi breaks the otherwise endless cycle of birth and reincarnation, hence the dark face of death is never far away here. For a Hindu to live here is good, but to die here is even better. We saw vast stockpiles of wood and constant fires at Manikarnika Ghat. Quite confronting. We also did several trips along the Ganges in long wooden boats, offering great views of all the activity going on. Dawn was evocative and magical. Watching gulls dance on the water as a pink sun rose above the horizon, spreading soft light across the temples and ghats. Dawn saw many people doing their ritual bathing and devotees dressed in orange sitting in meditation. Also, Varanasi has recently taken to illuminating its waterside buildings and ghats at night. This meant that a night time boat trip was wonderful, with many brightly lit palaces, temples and ghats, throbbing red, then green or blue or yellow. (Carol Anne Brock, you would have loved it!). Every night for millenia, the Ganga Aarti Ceremony is held on the main bustling Dashashwamedh Ghat, honouring the holy Ganges River. Tourists flock to watch it, primarily from boats on the water. We did the same. The ceremony involves lots of music, and guys in robes on a long illuminated stages blowing horns, then some sort or smoking ceremony and then lots of waiving of large candelabra type things. Large numbers of chanting and clapping folks on land and a multitude of boats on the water. It was an amazing experience. There were so many wooden boats on the river that they all abutted each other, forming one mass of interconnected watercraft. Enterprising little girls selling garlands or guys selling chai would swiftly hop from boat to boat, peddling their wares. We even saw two local boys chasing each other across the boats. It was amazing how quick they jumped along. The ceremony itself tended to drag on after about 45 minutes, so we left at 7pm, with Ross commenting: “It was very interesting, but if it was a video, I would have fast forwarded it!”

On our last day in the city, Mayur took us out on the water at dusk to a quiet area with no one else around. He produced about 20 little lovely candles that we were told to light and place on the water. The candles were like those little tea-light candles, but in environmentally friendly little clay holders, each on a dish made of a thickened leaf and with red rose petals around them. They were beautiful.

“Take a candle, light it and make a wish” said Mayur. “Then place the candle into the water and mother Ganges will do her best”. We each carefully lit and placed several little candles into the river, watching as they flickered and gently bobbed away from the boat. Time after time, candle after candle, I made the same wish. By now it was nightfall and the black sky merged with the darkened river, so that the little candles were now a drifting group of yellow flickering lights on a sea of black, slowly drifting away from us. It looked so magical and I again made my same wish. A few tears welled in my eyes at the serene beauty of it, and hoping for that one wish - however futile - to come true.

From Varanasi we caught an efficient flight on IndiGo to Delhi Our luggage came off the carousel basically as we entered the arrivals hall! Very efficient! (In fact, we have caught four internal Indian flights so far and they’ve all been punctual, super-efficient and pleasant experiences. Take note, Tiger Airways!).

Delhi is a massive metropolis – the number of people in the greater Delhi area is equal to the entire population of Australia. About 25 million!! It is much maligned as a chaotic, polluted shit pile. It’s not really true. Well, actually, it is very polluted and there are some slums and filthy areas for sure. And the traffic was horrendous – needs to be seen to be believed. (We thought Jaipur and Varanasi were bad, till we hit Delhi. Holy shit!). Anyway, Delhi has much to offer the tourist and we enjoyed it. Remember that there are two sides to Delhi. On the one hand is New Delhi, charactised by wide, clean, tree-lined boulevards and British colonial era buildings. This is where we stayed, in a lovely peaceful enclave near Kahn Market called Ahuja Residency (You might recall my Facebook images of it). On the other hand is Old Delhi, the original old city of Shanjahanabad - dirty, noisy, crowded streets, bustling but full of character and things to see. On our first day, we looked around Old Delhi. Could not have done it alone – too daunting. Mayur was at hand to show us the largest Mosque in India, wonderful Jama Masjid, which has a busy market beside it and the sky was swarming with kites (birds), due to the meat being sold there. We then visited the massive Red Fort. (Very similar to the red sandstone Fort back in Agra, and I actually thought Agra Fort was better). We also experienced a Sikh temple. Sikhs make up less than 1% of India’s population, but are a well-known group. Went inside one lovely temple and also saw the kitchen, where they prepare meals en masse for anyone who comes along, regardless of religion. Huge vats of curry being made, women rolling and cooking chapatis. Fascinating. We also wandered the tiny narrow streets off bustling Chandni Chowk, checked out the spice markets, where spices have been traded the same way for centuries. In fact, the whole area was like we had been transported back to medieval times! It was here that we tried Delhi’s legendary street food, which was all very yum. (See Food footnote 6 below). Another observation to note about Delhi was the large number of homeless kids or women who wandered among the traffic while cars were stopped at traffic lights, tapping on car windows, hands outstretched, presumably for money. This was sad to see but we were advised to ignore them, But at several traffic lights, we found it hard to ignore some of them, because we suddenly realised that many of the women were Hijra, the gay/intersex or transgender folks who are marginalised here in India. I said to Ross: “Why should Hijra be begging like this? The inescapable conclusion is that they are underprivileged. They must have been rejected by family or employers.” They looked so crestfallen, dressed in saris, with jewellry but with such forlorn faces. Well, everyone has their causes and ours is helping our fellow members of the GLBTIQ family when we can. So, we quickly wound do the window and gave some rupees on a few occasions – saying in English: “We support you.” Did they know English? Not sure, but they beamed with thanks.

In New Delhi, we checked out India Gate – a monument very reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. We then caught the fast, clean and efficient Delhi Metro south to see Qutb Minar, a 73m high 12th century ancient Minaret and associated buildings. It looked like a huge ornately decorated chimney stack. It was actually very impressive and well worth seeing if you are in Delhi. On the train trip back, it was quite crowded, and we had to stand up. There were periodic announcements over the PA and at one point the genteel female voice said: “Please stand clear of the doors. Please vacate your seat for the physically challenged, for the elderly or for ladies.” Not long after that, a local guy who was sitting down caught my attention and offered me his seat. I motioned that it was fine, I was OK standing. I said to Ross: “Did you see that? That was really nice of that guy, offering his seat to a Western tourist.” Ross replied: “I think you’ll find he was just following instructions, offering his seat to (a) the physically challenged (b) the elderly, (c) a lady, or, in your case (d) all of the above.”

After three days in Delhi, it was time to bid farewell to Mayur. He was a great travel companion and guide over the previous two weeks. He saw us off at the airport, where we caught another efficient IndiGo flight to Nagpur, central India, there to seek tigers and other Indian beasts. When we arrived in Nagpur, it was quite hot. Our pre-organised driver was there waiting, with “Crack Smith” printed on his placard. Close enough. He drove as some 2.5 hours North, to Tadoba National Park, where we were to stay in an eco-lodge for the next several days. The driver’s English was fragmentary, but he did manage to ask, you guessed it: “Are you married, sir?”

Ross rolled his eyes as I said: “ No, but I am here in India to look for a wife. I like long walks on the beach, reading, eating out at restaurants, stamp collecting and menage e trio – if you are interested.” He then seemed to shut up till the end of the trip, whereupon he hastily saw us out of his car and into the eco-lodge.

Food footnote 6: If you are going to get “Delhi Belly” in India, it is apparently most likely to occur in Varanasi – primarily due to the food. Yet we continued to feel fine, largely thanks, we think, due to the Travelan tablets we take before eating. So, I was emboldened by now to eat what I wanted. (Though always using only bottled water, of course). One day, we went along to the famous Varanasi Blue Lassi Shop, a grimy hole-in-the-wall place where the walla (seller) was sitting cross-legged in bare feet among some old battered pots and pans. Nevertheless, the small joint was crowded and I enjoyed a delicious banana and coconut lassi served in a clay re-cyclable mug. One day in Varanasi for lunch, Mayur took us to a very unobtrusive little eatery that looked grubby on the outside and that we would have normally walked straight past. A faded sign proclaimed it as “The New Bread Of Life”. The owner - known to Mayur - was a charming older guy. Well, blow me away, the food was fantastic .We had the best hot and sour soup ever, and we loved the large and spicy spring rolls, and vegetable jalfrezi. We loved it so much, we begged to go back for lunch again the next day! Subsequently, in Old Delhi, we sampled such street food delights as pani puri (a hollowed out crisp thing, with tamarind flavoured water, spicy onion and potato inside), kachori (spicy and delicious potato, chilli, chaat mix), excellent samosa in chilli-mint sauce, and jalebi (an orange curly sweet doughnut tasting thingy). As for Western food, we have had some excellent pizzas here, but also one or two shit ones. Club sandwiches for a quick lunch – one (back at Udaipur) was excellent, but the rest were forgettable. So, this may sound obvious, but our advice is stick to the Indian food. It is divine anyway.

So, the aim of this last leg of the trip is to spot tigers and other exotic critters here at Tadoba. I will post that experience as our final blog later this week.

Hope all is well back home. And hopefully it is still warm !

Bye for now,

Craig (and Ross).

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