Thursday, November 28, 2013

India - Part 1 - Delhi, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, and Agra

It's true what people say- India does cause sensory overload.  I didn't believe it- I thought we were well traveled at this point and that we'd take to India without breaking our stride.  This however, is not how things turned out.  Even after a few weeks, we're still exhausted every evening but yet excited for more. 

We arrived in the Delhi's new airport on the 18th of November.  India hit us with a curve ball right at the start.  The airport was spotless and run with precision.  The lines moved quickly and before we knew it- we were through customs staring at a sign with my name on it.  What?  My head was spinning...  Where were the bedlam that we had grown accustomed to?  The hundreds of taxi and rickshaw drivers pushing each other out of the way to talk to us?  I should say, that we didn't arrive in the middle of the night either.  No, we had a normal afternoon arrival.  So- as we were whisked into a clowncar-sized van- I was still trying to figure out how it is that India has the most relaxing airport that I've ever flown into.  Preconceived notions be damned- India is a country of order.

That notion lasted for another 20 lovely minutes- and quickly evaporated as the India that I had originally pictured came into view.  We pulled into the Janpath market area, where we'd be living for the next few days.  The Smyle Inn is tucked deep down a narrow alleyway, full of shops, internet cafes, other hotels and the exposed public urnals that mark the entrance to the alley.  But, our hotel was clean, with a comfortable bed and hot water- so when I saw a few bugs, I shrugged and sending them sailing off the bed.  I pointed one out to Nate- thinking they were odd looking- like large ticks that I had seen growing up in Virginia.  We discussed that Nate thought they looked a little more like beetles- and then we sent a few more flying off the bed- with little thought.  Concern didn't arise until Nate had bites all over his neck- we decided that it must have been the extra pillow that I had pulled out of the closet and we tossed it as well.  Done and done... But no.  Nate's anxiety started to grow as he had a growing number of new bites- now all over his arms and stomach as well.  It was late and I had been sound asleep.  I do remember being concerned, checking myself for bites (none) and then falling back asleep.  The next time I woke up, Nate was lying on a tiny chair- miserable as he thrashed around- violently shaking his bed sheets of any visitors.  I, still having no problem, fell back asleep again in the bug infested bed (still thankfully with no bites).  At 6am, Nate hadn't slept at all so went downstairs to get a different room.  There was apparently a language barrier until Nate showed the man the bites that now covered his upper body.  We were given new room- which was bug free.  

The rest of our time in Delhi was spent seeing the Lotus Temple, India Gate, Red Fort and wandering around the city.  The scamers were relentless.  We did fall into this trap shortly after arriving- we started chatting with an 18 year old named Lucky who told us he was in the neighborhood to pick up guavas for his sick uncle.  We told him where we were going and he looked at our map and told us it was an awful map and that we could get a much better one just around the corner at the Government Tourist office.  It was no problem, it was on his way and he'd show it to us.  As we walked into the office- we both briefly thought it was strange that the office was tucked down an alleyway.  Soon enough, the guy at the desk was hammering us about our plans while in India and pressuring us to buy train tickets from him.  After saying (a few times) that we were just there for a map- he conceded and handed us a map that was identical to the one that Lucky just told us was awful.  This same scam would be attempted on us ten or more times a day.  As we would stop at a corner to consult a map- a man dressed in nice clothes would say hi, ask us where we were from, then somehow try to convince us that he was trustworthy.  Next, he'd suggest that we should go to the Government Tourist office and get a map because all the others tourist offices were shams- and then point us to an office- that would of course be another sham office (although it would say it was the Government office on the front door).  We did finally find the "real" Government office which was completely unhelpful in buying train tickets and didn't even have maps... 

We had at least a solid day, day and a half of being happy tourists until it was my turn.  I came down with what I think must have been food poisoning.  Of all our months of healthy travel, my system couldn't manage even a few days in India.  It declared us losers within our first few days.  Thankfully, thus far, that has been our only experience with bed bugs and food poisoning.  

Here are some pictures from our sightseeing in Delhi. 

The Lotus Temple (Baha'i House of Worship)- finished in 1987 by the architect Fariborz Sabah.

The India Gate- built in 1921 to commemorate the 70,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Army in WWI.

The Red Fort (Lal Qila)- built in the 17th century as the home of Mughal emperors.

Next, we went to Varanasi (also known as Benares).  The ancient city is on the Ganges River and is one of, if not the oldest, inhabited holy cities.  We stayed just a 5 minute walk from the southern most ghat, Assi Ghat, and from there we could walk the ghats all the way to the old city.  The ancient city continues to thrive with narrow walkways crammed full of people, cows, scooters and bikes.  I still have trouble sorting out all of my experiences there.  Walking the riverbank was completely relaxing- being free from the endless honking and traffic.  We would walk the ghats several times a day while watching locals bathing, doing laundry, playing cricket and praying.  On our first day there, as we reached Hrishchandra Ghat, we heard loud drums.  One drummer was positioned by the river and the others were in the distance and coming closer.  Caught up in the music, we stopped to see what was happening.  As the drummers in the distance came into sight, so did the body that was carried behind them.  We had arrived at the cremation Ghat without realizing it...  The body was covered by a shiny material along with a few balloons.  It made the body look like a present, being offered for his next incarnation.  The body was placed in the Ganges as a final purification in the holy river, before placed on one of the many funeral pyres.  The closest male family member stood with a newly shaved head and dressed in white funeral clothing- as the body of his elder was added to the fire.  We learned that not every cremation is accompanied by the drums- that only those that live to be 100 years old are sent off in this way.  If there is not enough money to afford the large amount of wood needed to burn the entire body- the remaining body parts are put in the river, which will be consumed by river's large snapping turtle population.  Also, those who pass that are under 5 years old, pregnant, were bitten by a snake, have chickenpox or leprosy, committed suicide or those that cannot afford it- are not cremated and instead left to float in the river.  We didn't see any body parts floating in the river but I also tried to not look very closely.

A few highlights from Varanasi.  It's disrespectful to take photos of the cremations- so none are added here.

Kite-flying on the Ganges riverbank.

Walking along the ghats.

From Varanasi, we took another train to Gaya and made our way by riskshaw to Bodh Gaya, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in 530 BC next to the Mahabodhi tree.  It is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site and thus receives a huge number of visitors from all over the world.  It was beautiful to witness so many in such deep meditation/prayer, knowing how far people had come to be there.

We had heard from friends who had just been there that the town of Bodh Gaya is loud, busy and not safe at night.  After being there, I'm so glad we were given this word of caution. So, instead, I found a meditation center called Root Institute for Wistom Culture which is just about a 20 minute walk from the temple.  We were in luck- they had room for us.  So, we spent our days amongst the beautiful gardens, friendly dogs, good food and a meditation hall steps from our room.  It was likely the most relaxed we've been in months and certainly the best that we'd slept in that time as well.  We could even hear the crickets at night (instead of relentless horns as we had grown accustomed to).

The Mahabodhi Temple, built by Emporer Ashoka in 260 BC next to the Bodhi tree.

Giant Buddha in Bodhgaya- it stands 80 feet tall and took 7 years to complete.  The largest Buddha in India was finished in 1989.  

Nate and the sweet dalmation-lab cross who lives at the meditation center where we stayed for a few days.

The prayer wheel at the Root Institute.

Next up was the Taj Mahal in Agra!  Upon arriving, we still had some daylight to explore the city so went for a long walk towards the Taj Mahal to buy tickets for the following day.  On the way, we walked by the Red Fort as well.  Seeing history and beauty like these sites is indescribable!  It's hard to believe that locals grow up knowing these world icons as everyday landmarks.  We generally don't get out of our hotels before 10, but we were so excited to start our sightseeing that day that we were in a rickshaw flying through the streets on a brisk morning by 6:20 with our pre-bought Taj Mahal tickets in hand.  Unfortunately, it still wasn't early enough to be the first in line so we found ourselves at the end of long entrance lines, seperated by males and females (for security pat downs).  Once finally through the first security check, I was told that the Good Luck Bus (an awesome hippy bus given to me by my 5 year old nephew to take pictures with that he's following along with on a world map) was not allowed admission.  Thirty minutes later, after Nate ran the bus and his travel icon to distant lockers- we were finally entering the Taj Mahal.  We took turns wiggling our way through the crowds to get our picture taken with one of the world's most beautiful buildings.  Here's a self-portrait and some other photos that I took.

Up close detail of the inlay

The view of the sunrise from behind the Taj Mahal.

And finally, the cute monkeys that we saw as we were leaving :)

Next, we went to the Red Fort, which was fantastic.  

The Good Luck Bus, finally making it's first appearance in Agra. 

The following day, we took an early train to Rajastan.  More on that soon!