Getting Stoned In West Bengal.....nearly

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July 8th 2008
Published: August 1st 2008
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I'm glad to be out of the cold weather.

I left Sikkim and the cold and rain behind on the second day of the bahnd. The first time I was in India, in transit to Bangladesh last February, I was stuck in a bandh where the city of Kolkata closed down for the day, as did the border to Bangladesh! This time the two day strike was all about the rise in petrol prices. Let's just say I don't recommend traveling on strike days. Fact is, traveling is hard cause there is limited -- if any-- transport of any kind. I was traveling out of Sikkim with a couple of people I had met, one from Scotland and one from India. We finally arrived back into West Bengal, to the town of Siliguri where my Indian travels began after leaving Assam a number of weeks ago. Our 9-hour "4-hour no more" jeep trip down the mountains from the town of Pelling to Siliguri was on the first clear day I had seen for the past 17 days. We made really good time, I was told.

I had been warned the jeeps may dump us at the state border or along the side of the road once in West Bengal if problems or riots were taking place on the streets. Jeeps and other transport vehicles often get pelted with stones or bigger rocks, sometimes causing damage to the cars or injuring the passengers. Nobody wanted this, but, ever the adventurous one, I was secretly hoping for some excitement as I thought it might make for an interesting email blast! We encountered nothing of the sort and made it to our guest house for the night with little incident. Thus, sadly, I did not get stoned in West Bengal.

The clouds and rain the past few weeks in Sikkim kept me from ever getting a really good view of Kangchendzonga (the third highest mountain in the world) as well as the rest of the Himalaya range. I decided one day before I left that to really experience the high mountains and the beauty of Sikkim is to come back in a different season. Global warming seems to be taking a big toll on India and Nepal so the monsoons are coming early this year. A month too early in some parts, like Sikkim. Why stay if the trekking and amazing views are not what they could be?

Trains weren't running the day we arrived in Siliguri and were so overpacked with people from waiting out the strike it would have taken days before the first availability to Varanasi so we had to settle on the overnight bus to Patna, still many hours from Varanasi. No sleeper bus was available but we had "luxury seats" with a "push back feature," meaning the seats recline an inch or so for a "restful nights' sleep." HA! My seat didn't budge, but every time I inched forward my seat cushion did too. Guess you would call this a "push forward seat"? Or a floatation devise.

Fast forward to the next day: bus scheduled to leave at 1 leaves Siliguri with us ON IT right on time at 2:30pm. We arrive in the city of Patna at 5:30 the following morning. It had already been light since nearly 4:30 (in Assam and even in Sikkim it was starting to get light at 4am) so once we were dropped on the side of the road in a nondescript area, we flagged down and jumped on the few-and-far-between next public bus to the local bus station and walked nearly 30 minutes down a dusty path to the train station ("4-5 minute walking to the train station," we were told. Never believe anything you hear in this country). There was a train at 10:30 so we waited out the next couple of hours in an air conditioned train station restaurant with surprisingly good lassis (very popular and refreshing Indian drink made with yogurt) and food. The train left closer to 11am than 10:30am, but we still got in to Varanasi that afternoon by 3:15.

Varanasi. Wow...what a city! Nearly a million and a quarter people live here, the city built on the banks of the Ganges River (or, as it is called here, the Ganga). I haven't yet been to Venice, Italy but I can imagine it looks similar (tho there is only one waterway here). Maybe even a bit similar to some places in Greece. The first night here I got a room in a popular tourist guest house and stayed in the dorm, seven floors up the steep staircase with the most amazing view of the city and the river; the river being the equivalent of a couple blocks away. The dorm "room" was one huge place taking up nearly the entire floor, open to the elements, with wire mesh around three sides. It was as if we were in a huge cage and could look out at the million dollar view stretched out below. I watched the unbelievably gorgeous, bright orange sun rise over the Ganges from my bed the next morning and spent a good portion of the morning watching "real life" on all the rooftops spread below me. We tower over all the two or three story buildings in this town. All this for 50 Rupees, or $1.19 a night. Hm, not too bad, though I thought I would feel more comfortable with all my personal gear in a single room so today I moved to a lower floor. Having privacy now costs me much more, around 70 Rupees, or $1.67. I hope this doesn't break the budget.

I spent the day wandering around and getting completely lost in and around the alleyways, but enjoying every bit of it. The smell of incense and cow dung was everywhere. I walked along the ghats to a different section of town and enjoyed some fabulous Middle Eastern food. I got a 2-woman/one hour massage for under $10. Bliss. I drank a 25-cent lassi from a terra cotta cup and watched the old man make it before my very eyes, churning the curd in a big stainless steel pot. I watched bodies being burned in the ritual cremations along the ghats by my guesthouse. I even saw one getting transported on a vhan, a flat three-wheeled wooden cart attached (in some way) to the front part of a bicycle, person-peddled and used for transporting food, people, long sections of rebar, refrigerators and tvs, couches, an occasional animal, and even, well, even dead bodies. I now have seen it all. On occasion we had to use the ever-popular vahns as transportation to job sites in Bangladesh. They aren't new to me. The dbs on top, however, are

I had been told by everyone who had been to Varanasi that a 5am boat ride on the Ganges to watch the sunrise and the colorful early morning ritual bathing was not to be missed. It was indeed a sight to behold.

I am now ready to move on again. This time, China. I think. HODR at this point (keep in mind I started writing this email blast in the second week of June) may or may not deploy, but my friend Tim and I purchased plane tickets anyway, cause we know how devastated this area of Sichuan is and we want to do something to help. Anything. At this point, I don't know what. I will be flying with my friend Tim and possibly another friend or two from past HODR deployments and should be there, barring visa approval, the first week of July. Current day, today, this didn't work out....and at this point there is no foreseeable future with China.

From Varanasi it was off to ugly Agra with it's stunning, majestic Taj Mahal, continuing on farther west to Amritsar with the laid back Sikhs and glorious Golden Temple.


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