|Thursday, March 1st, day 242 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure, we rolled over the land border-crossing, from Nepal into India, precariously perched on top of our bags, on top of a rickshaw, at 7:00 A.M..
We found a bus that was going to Varanasi. The going rate was 500 Indian Rupee (Rs) for both of us (plus an extra 10 Rs to store our backpacks – which they didn’t tell us about until after we had bought the nonrefundable bus ticket). Unbeknownst to us you can only change U.S. dollars into Nepali Rs on the Indian side off the border and you pick up Indian Rs on the Nepali side. So, in order to exchange some U.S. cash into Indian Rs, we would have to go back across the border into Nepal. This could have proved to be a big problem, except we had noticed that no one really “forced” us to go into both the Nepal and Indian custom and immigration offices. With all the Nepali and Indian traffic going back and forth across the border, we thought it might be possible to “blend in” and walk right through. Joel was able to walk right across the border back into Nepal, exchange money (one U.S. dollar currently gets you about 45 Indian Rs) and walk right back the other way into India. It was amazing! He walked right past armed guards at both the Nepal and Indian custom and immigration offices and no one said a word to him. Now, we are not recommending it, and it could be quite different at other times, but under these circumstances it would be possible for someone to travel into India, from Nepal, at this border crossing and return to Nepal after your travels in India, without an Indian visa. Granted you would have to enter and exit through this one land crossing. Of course the opposite is traveling sequence could be used, India into Nepal, but remember Indian visas are more expensive then Nepali visas (especially if you get ripped off when purchasing them like we did – see Nepal Journal Page). Just a little F.Y.I..
The bus to Varansi left at 8:00 A.M.. The ride took 9 hours. We arrived in Varansi at 5:00 P.M.. Once you get off the bus in Varansi you are swarmed with touts. We took a rickshaw to what we thought was going to be a guesthouse we picked out of the guidebook. During the ride the driver tried to sell us on going to “his” guesthouse instead of the one we desired. When we refused, he decided to drop us off short of our agreed upon destination. We pulled over and he yelled out, over the deafening noise from the traffic, “Your guesthouse just down alley. Rickshaw no fit. Me drop you here.” We naively got out, paid the man, and after he speed away we realized he had dropped us off from the guesthouse we desired. Well, there went 30 Rs down the drain.
Ok, lets try another approach. We tried to determine the correct direction from the guidebook and hired a rowboat driver to take us up the Ganges River to our desired guesthouse, which was located right on the river. Once we finally arrived at the guesthouse, we were greeted with a nasty, “Full, all full!”. Well, there went another 50 Rs down the drain (the fee for the rowboat driver).
Ok, we lets try another approach. We found another rickshaw driver who agreed to take us to the front door of our number 2 choice from the guidebook. The rickshaw driver lied and told us he knew exactly where this guesthouse was – he didn’t have a clue. We drove around for 2 hours, until Joel just happened to spot the sign for the guesthouse. Then the rickshaw driver had the audacity to demand 30 extra Rs over the agreed upon 40 Rs price, because it took so long to find the place, even though the delay was his fault. M He started to make a scene, so we just paid him to get rid of him.
Thankfully, there was a room available at Dr. Maurti’s Guesthouse for 250 Rs a night. Needless to say, after 25 hours od travel (since we left Poon Hill Guesthouse, in Kathmandu), we weren’t up for trying a different place, since “The Dr.”, refused to budge on his asking price. (He could probably sense our desperation.)
Before we were allowed to collapse in our room, we had to go upstairs and fill out the guesthouse log book. We were glad we did. We meet a really nice couple – Emily and Simon – a pair of savvy travelers from New Zealand. We would end up hooking up with them later and traveling together for a while.
Friday, March 2nd, day 243 of our travels, we explored Varansi, one of the holiest places in all of India (probably in all of the world). Nestled on the shore of the sacred Ganges River rests a magical city were the most private rituals of life and death take place, for all to see, on the famous ghats (steps that lead down to the river). Hindu pilgrims use the ghats to bathe in the water and two of the ghats are sacred sights of cremation.
As we walked through the ghats, we came into contact with hundreds of people, who come here to bathe ritually, offer blessings to the gods, practice yoga, buy food, sell things, get massages, exercise, swim, get a shave, or give to beggars (it’s suppose to improve your karma), among many other things.
Of course, it’s impossible to miss the two “burning ghats”. The bodies of deceased Hindu people are carried through the streets by outcasts known as doms, on bamboo stretchers. It’s not a somber march, it’s more festive, like a parade. Once they reach the Holy Ganges, the body is placed on stacks of wood and let on fire. Westerners can watch the burning, but taking photographs is discouraged.
Sitting and watching these public cremations is an amazing experience. It becomes immediately apparent that the way the Hindu person of Indian handle and react to the transition from life to death is much different from our own. For the Hindu people death is not a time to mourn or feel remorse, it is a time to celebrate, as a loved one passes on to a better place. Their religious beliefs, their faith, are so strong that there is no question as to the legitimacy of this transition. In our culture, most people tend to believe in “something”, but the Hindu people know what is next. They don’t just believe it, they live it. There is no separation between religion and the rest of daily life. To them religion is life. They act out their religious beliefs every minute of every day. Back home (if someone has their priorities straight – which most don’t), peoples spirituality might rank up their with family and career. Maybe we go to church once a week, or donate some spare cash to a worthy charity. While, the Hindu people we saw on the banks of the holy Ganges were in a whole different stratosphere when it comes to spirituality.
Imagine giving up all your worldly possessions -- your family, your friends, everything -- and setting out on a spiritual quest for enlightenment. The Sadus men who live for a portion of the year on the ghats of the holy Ganges have done just that. Completely nude, except for a covering of ash, locked in the lotus position for hours, they stare out into the Ganges attempting to enter a higher stage of Hindu development. They are incredible, incredible people.
Saturday, March 3, day 244 of our adventure, besides buying a train ticket to our next destination (which was quite an experience), Agra (home of the world famous Taj Mahal), and exchanging some money, we basically hung out at the ghats most of the day.
Buying our train tickets to Agra was a bizarre experience. At the Varanassi train station, there is a small room devoted to reserving trains tickets, specifically for foreigners. When we entered the tiny room jammed full with about thirty Western travelers, there was a “game” of musical chairs taking place. An Indian gentleman behind the desk with his computer would yell out, “Next!”. Everyone would get up and move over one seat in a clockwise fashion. If it wouldn’t’ have been for the two and a half-hour wait, it would have been a totally comical experience. The Indian gentleman behind the desk reminded us of the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. He presented himself as a stern outspoken perfectionist. As one traveler after another moved into “the hot seat”, their demeanor would change into that of a humble school child. Everyone had to hand him your passport, your reservation ticket filled out perfectly, and your encashment receipt (proof that you had changed your money at a government-authorized agent). If you hadn’t dotted every “I” and crossed every “T”, forget about it, you weren’t getting a ticket. He turned away more than one traveler with the “Soup Nazi’s” patented, “Next!”, when he didn’t approve of the presentation of your reservation materials.
One thing that added to the humor of the situation was this goofy looking traveler who was obviously using this trying and frustrating situation as an opportunity to practice his meditation. As we played musical chairs around the room, this “wanna be” mystic would sit with his eyes closed gently rocking back and forth giving off an aura of peace and tranquility. You could even pick up him giving off the slightest humming mantra if you listened closely.
Well, apparently being in a deep enchanted state tuned him out to the frequent yells of, “Next!” from the “Soup Nazi’s” clone, which pushed more than one traveler out the door empty handed because they didn’t have an encashment receipt. When “Ghandi Jr.” reached the “hot seat”, he was immediately cast aside because he couldn’t produce his encashment receipt. When he finally woke up to the situation, and realized he wasn’t going to get a ticket, all the peace and tranquility he had been working so hard to emit quickly melted away. He proceeded to totally lose it. “I’ve been waiting here for two and a half frickin’ hours and I don’t get a ticket! What kind of place are you running here!” He went on and on.
Well, India’s version of the “Soup Nazi” wasn’t going to have any of this. He lashed back at the quickly crumbling mystic with a barrage of verbal assaults. Eventually, “Mr. Meditation” was forced to scurry out the door with his love beads between his legs. It was hilarious.
Thankfully, we had all our documents in order so the Indian “Soup Nazi” granted us our tickets and we were able to leave behind this bizarre scene at the Varanassi train station. Yes, we were frustrated for having to wait two and a half-hours, but at least we were entertained in the process.
Sunday, March 4th, day 245 of our travels, was another day of ghat watching. We even took a boat ride up and down the ghats. We didn’t see any floating dead bodies, but more then one traveler told us they were out there. Apparently, children that die from smallpox, pregnant women that die while carrying, cobra victims and the occasional assassination create a somewhat constant flow of human corpses up and down the Ganges. As we said, we didn’t see one, but we have to admit we were kind of disappointed. We guess it’s like watching a traffic accident as you drive by. It’s just hard not to watch.
Monday, March 5th, day 246, of our adventure, was Joel’s birthday. How did we spend this special day? By traveling – what fun! We had to pack all our gear really early, as Dr. Maurti wanted us out so he could rent it to another traveler. We left our gear at the guesthouse and killed a few hours at a cyber cafe. (The connection was very slow.) We returned to the guesthouse at around 3:00 P.M..
Dr. Maurti’s daughter has taken in about 30 street children and teaches them lessons, provides them clothes, etc. We had the opportunity to meet some of them and Lisa handed out some candy and biscuits we picked up for them. We wanted to stay and visit longer but we had a train to catch.
After a combination of cycle and auto rickshaws (which cost 50 Rs total), we arrived at the train station just in the nick of time to catch our 5:15 P.M. train. We got a 2nd class sleeper ticket for 210 Rs each. Basically all it gets you is a hard slab of plastic that you can sort of lay on. There is no closed compartment or anything so everything is just out there and all exposed to the locals. This is a good time to have some chains and padlocks to secure your gear. Trains, specifically night trains, are notorious for theft. We heard that the train station police get at least one report from western travelers of a stole bag every single day.
You really couldn’t sleep at all. It was freezing cold and all around us were the sounds of snoring, sneezing, snorting, spitting (everyone spits in India), crying, bleaching, farting and yelling. What a pleasant welcome to the India train system.
Mercifully the train finally arrived into Agra fort Train Station at about 7:00 A.M., Tuesday, March 6th, day 247 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure.
Once we got off the train we were lucky enough to bump into Simon and Emily, the pair of travelers we had meet back at Dr. Maurti’s. They told us about a place called Fatephur Sikri, which was about 40km west of Agra. They siad this location would be a welcome replacement to staying at the chaotic, scam filled Agra. They were right. We found a nice place to stay, Askhor Guesthouse, in Fatephur Sikri, after a amazingly long 3 ½ hours on another train to cover the 40 km to Fatephur Sikri. The only thing that made it bearable was the pleasant conversation struck up by Simon and Emily. They are very interesting people.
We slept most of the afternoon and then walked to the ruined wall that surrounds the city to watch the sunset. Fatephur Sikri is a magnificent fortified ghost city that was the capital of the Mushal Empire between 1571 and 1585. It has a real ancient feel and an amazing atmosphere.
When we were up on the wall a pack of Indian children surrounded us. They were amazed by seeing their own images in the digital camera. When they followed us back into town, Emily astutely pointed out she felt like the Pied Piper.
After a rood top dinner, with a background of drum music, and great company – provided by Simon, Emily and three hardy female travelers from England, we retired for the evening.
Wednesday, March 7th, day 248 of our travels, we did a day trip, with Simon and Emily, to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. What an amazing structure! It deserves every bit of its world famous reputation. After securing an onward bus ticket to Jaipur, for the following afternoon, we returned to Fatephur Sikri. That evening Lisa, Emily and Simon went up to the fort overlooking the city to see the sunset, while Joel stayed in to work on the journal. (Isn’t he a nice guy?)
Thursday, March 8th, day 248, we got up around 8:00 A.M.. After a breakfast of banana pancakes and coffee, we were off on a one-hour bus ride to Bharatapur, home of Kedadeo Ghana National Park, which boasts of having over 354 species of birds. We saw quite a few, but not that many, in addition to deer, antelope, turtles and a python snake. We rented bicycles and toured the park for about 2 hours. It was nice to get out of the hustle and bustle of the cities for a while.
After our visit to Kedadeo Ghana, and another one-hour bus ride back to Fatephur Sikri, we had lunch and dashed to catch a 3:00 P.M. bus back to Agra. After the hour ride, we grabbed another bus, this one taking us on a 6 hour cruise, to Jaipur. After many hassles with the rickshaw touts, we finally found a guesthouse. Sweet dreams . . .
Friday, March 9th, day 249 of our travels, all four of us were taken into the home of a young Indian boy to meet his family. Then we watched a parade of Elephants file into Ghaugan Stadium and enjoyed an Elephant Festival. After a pizza dinner we crashed back at the Ashyana Guesthouse.
Saturday, March 10th, day 250 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, was a holiday all throughout India. They call it Holy. We are not sure about it’s origins, but what it has turned into is a huge male drunk fest, in which everyone throws colored dye all over each other. We were told it would be all right for Emily and Lisa to go out, even though it is an all male, since they were Western. It was actually kind of tough for them. A few Indian men took advantage of the situation and “felt up” the girls as they covered them in dye. Simon and Joel did a good job of keeping the few bad apples at bay, so it was mostly a lot of fun. We got totally covered in dye, some of which proved very difficult to get off. We spent the rest of the day enjoying a few beers on the rooftop of the guesthouse. Later Emily, Simon and Lisa went for dinner while Joel worked on the web site. (Isn’t he a nice guy?)
Sunday, March 11th, day 251 of our adventure, Simon and Emily joined us as we went to Hawamahal, one of Jaipur’s major landmarks. Then we went to Jantar Mantar, a giant observatory. The complex contains a 27-meter high sundial. Later, we went to Amber Palace before returning to the guesthouse.
Monday, March 12th, day 252 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, we posted some items back home and worked on the web site most of the day. That night we got on a 8:00 PM bus going to Jaisalmer. As the clock struck 12 we were somewhere in the darkness, bouncing around like a pinball, desperately trying to get some sleep. (We were not successful.)
March 13th, day 253 of our travels, we finally arrived in Jaisalmer around 11:00 AM. We checked into the Swastika Guesthouse and tried to recover from our 15 hour bus ride by sleeping most of the day. (The Swastika, or Swastik as it is more often called, is an ancient Hindu symbol for good luck. The Nazis stole it but turned in around backwards. Maybe that is why Hitler lost – in Hindu a backward Swastik is bad luck.)
March 14th, day 254 of our adventure, we walked around the inner fort area of Jaisalmer, did some shopping and then bought some food and beers, before returning to the guesthouse. We ate and drank beer on the rooftop as the sunset over the horizon of the Thar Desert.
March 15th, day 255 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, we set out on a camel safari. It started in the early afternoon, with a Jeep ride into the desert, to a place near the Khuri Sand Dunes. Unfortunately, Emily and Simon got really sick (almost everyone who travels in India gets sick at least once) so they couldn’t go with us on the camels. As we set out on camel to see the sunset at the dunes, Simon and Emily were forced to stay in their hut, puking and shitting their guts out all night. It was a real bummer they couldn’t go with. It would have been much more fun with them – but it was still really cool.
March 16th, day 256 of our travels, Simon and Emily were still so sick that they had to be driven back to Jaisalmer in the jeep. We set out on camel for further exploration of the Thar Desert. Again, we missed our new traveling buddies, but we made the most of it. We saw an 800-year-old cemetery for people of royal families, enjoyed lunch under the shade of a tree, and enjoyed just riding the camels and looking around at the vast landscape.
At one point we got within 60km of the Pakistan/India border. That is about as close as you can get. There is a military zone that runs up and down the border. Indian jet fighters often flew over our heads and Indian Army personnel and equipment were everywhere.
Late that afternoon, we rode our camels’ right back into town and checked on Emily and Simon back at the guesthouse. A day of rest had done them good and both were feeling much better.
March 17th, day 257 of our adventure, we got up at 6:00 AM, so we could get on a 7:30 AM bus to Jodhpur. We arrived in Jodhpur at around 1:00 PM. From there we separated, temporarily, from Simon and Emily. They went to check into a guesthouse and have lunch, we grabbed a rickshaw to the train station.
We were wait listed for a 3:15 PM train from Jodhpur to Mumbai. We needed to get to the train station early, to find out if we could get on the train. Our strategy was to find a conductor for our train, slip him a little baksheesh if necessary, and get on the train no matter what. While we were waiting for the train, Emily and Simon came to see us off. It was a sad farewell. We had a blast traveling with these savvy travelers and we plan on visiting them in England towards the end of our trip, before they move back to New Zealand.
Getting on the train was not as easy as we had hoped. The conductor for every compartment kept saying, “No, No, To Full!” Joel kept running around frantically from conductor to conductor, until finally one said ok, gave us two seat numbers and pointed to a compartment. We gave our final hugs and good-byes to Emily and Simon and jumped on the train just as it was pulling away.
When we got on the train we were amazed! We were on a first class AC sleeper – definitely a step up from our last train ride. Our enthusiasm was short lived. After about 45 minutes of luxury, the same conductor who told us to get on, sat down in on our sleeper and asked for 1,920 Rs (the difference between what we paid for our second class sleeper ticket – 450 Rs – and the price to ride in the luxury compartment. It would have been nice if he would have told us this before we got on, but hey that’s traveling in India. When we refused to pay, we were escorted of the luxury compartment.
Once in the second class compartment we realized we had a serious problem. There were no seats available anywhere! We basically played a game of musical chairs for two hours – lugging our packs around from compartment to compartment as people with reserved seats bumped us out of any empty seat we tried to occupy. Eventually we were forced to lie on the floor in the area between two compartments. Surrounded by a family of Indians, who also didn’t have reserved seats, as one day turned into the next, we tried the best we could to find a comfortable position and get some sleep – unsuccessfully of course.
Mercifully the train pulled into Mumbai and around 1:00 PM, on day 258 of our adventure, March 18th. From the train station we shared a rickshaw with 3 locals to the local train station. At the local train station we bought a ticket to the Victoria Terminal (VT). (We had to change trains have way to get there). From VT we took a taxi to Shelly’s Guesthouse. When we finally collapsed on our bed, we had just completed 33 hours of straight travel, from guesthouse to guesthouse – now that’s traveling!
March 19th, day 259 of our travels, we checked out The Gateway to India, which was close to our guesthouse.
We said our goodbyes to India and flew out of Mumbai, heading west, at 7:00 PM, on March 20th, day 260 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure.
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