Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Varanasi: City of Life and Death

The smells of this city are so intense. Walking the ghats, the aromas of incense can be smelled everywhere. In one place, the smell of piss is so overpowering I wanted to puke everytime I passed. A multitude of street vendors release sweet and salty scents. And at times the smoke from cremations wafts into your nose.

Kids and young men play cricket games twenty feet from the Holy Ganga. Men strip nearly naked to bathe. Women wash clothing. People pray. Men offer shaves, massages, shoeshines. Nowhere have I seen such a public lifestyle, and it made me mildly ashamed every time I took a picture.

A public shave

I met a kid that totally reminded me of Tom Sawyer. He approached me trying to sell me hashish (as is quite common here), but after I declined he decided he would teach me some Hindi. The first phrase he taught me, "Mooje nahi chahiye," means "I don't want," so I could tell all the hash dealers, boat and rickshaw drivers and silk selling commission guys (like him) to leave me alone. The kid couldn't have been older than 17, and told me he had dropped out of school because he didn't like it, and loved working the commission business in hash and silk. The night I met him, he was planning a 14 km barefoot walk with friends to a temple for some festival. He invited me, but I declined this also. Along with him was a friend who definitely could've played Huck Finn.

An alley of the Old City

A woman sells candle boats for floating in the Ganga

Ghat-side chai shop

One of the best parts about this place is that everyone wants to talk. One day while walking, I asked a guy for directions. He barely spoke English, so couldn't really help me, but instead invited me to his home. I walked with him through small lanes for a few minutes before arriving at his tiny, furnitureless, two room cement home. The whole place, for a family of five, was smaller than my bedroom at home. Lonely Planet says that 41% of Indian families live in one room homes. He had me join him in his Puja (prayers) and then fed me a really tasty spicy rice porridge. We spoke mostly with our hands. He tried to invite me to stay with his family, but honestly, I was afraid of the poverty of their lifestyle. That fear is something I will need to contemplate for a long time. Instead, we agreed to meet the next day, and I would come to temple and shopping with him. Our meeting place was a bit general, and I couldn't find him. I'm so sorry (though I know you'll never read this).

Ganga water

Nearly empty ghats

While walking in the alleys of the old city, you intermittently see a procession pass with a dead body on a stretcher. To be cremated here in Varanasi is one of the greatest honors for a Hindu person. Following a procession, you arrive at one of the two "Burning Ghats" of the city. Here, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, men burn the bodies of the Hindu dead. Stacked around the ghats are huge piles of wood, and scales for calculating the price of wood for a cremation. Standing in the cremation area, with smoke swirling around me was an extremely intense experience. The bodies are placed into the pyres covered, but as they begin to burn, the coverings burn off, exposing charred body parts. I have no photos of the burning ghats, as it's considered disrespectful to take them (unless you're willing to make a hefty donation).

Palaces overlook the ghats

Women on a boat ride

One evening, as I approached the main burning ghat, I heard the sound of far off bass that is so familiar from Burning Man. When I got close I realized a huge sound system was blasting Indian techno onto the burning ghat. The temple above the ghat was lit up with blinking lights. The whole scene totally reminded me of burning man, but it was a strange gaiety for a place that I would expect to be so somber. Really, that's the way things are here, people rejoice in the life they have.

Performing Puja (prayers)

At dawn, the ghats come alive with people bathing, washing clothing, and performing prayers. For six AM, it's unbelievably loud. Bells ring, music plays, people chant and splash around in the water. My last morning I took a boat ride to watch the happenings from the water - The classic Varanasi experience.

Steps scene

Sunrise bathing at the main ghat

Early morning ghat scene

Sunrise boat ride

Today I visited a nearby town called Sarnath, the place Buddha gave his first sermon and one of the four holy places for Buddhism. There were mostly only monastery ruins, but it was cool to be in a place so significant for Buddhism. Tonight I head back to Delhi where I'll get my cold weather clothing and head up to the mountains.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Taj Mahal

Well I saw the Taj Mahal, and it was... exactly the same as in the pictures. It was cool to see the real thing, but really the most important part of actually going to see the Taj is getting the cheesy photo where it looks like you're holding it.

The tourist's Taj photo - Say cheese-y

The Taj postcard photo

Now I'm in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India, along the banks of the Ganges. The city is best known for being the premier location for a Hindu to be cremated, or their body floated down the holy river.

Walking down to the ghats, the steps down to the river, just after arriving I saw men preparing a body for cremation. This place is very raw, with life and death displayed equally openly. People bathe themselves ten feet from burning funeral pyres. It's going to be intense to stay here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jaisalmer: The Desert

Brace yourself for a long one here...

Upon arriving to Jaisalmer and hearing from a couple of other travelers how good their camel safari was, we decided to leave the next morning. Having opted for the "nontouristic" safari, we drove 45 minutes away from the city and were dropped off on the side of the road with Ram, our guide. The jeep driver rolled our heads up in orange turbans before leaving us to venture into the desert with Ram.


Practicing the Arabian prince look

There were three camels, the biggest Julia rode and the middle one I began on. I had no idea what it was like to get on a camel, but soon learned that as it stands up it feels like riding a mechanical bull. Once standing, the camel trudges along quite tamely. It turned out that after getting a little overexcited about some female camels the day before, Julia's camel had bit my camel in the leg. Eventually the limping of my camel caused me to switch to the youngest. Standing up with that one turned out to be even more of a ride, though I was never bucked off. Camels are quite stubborn, and every time Julia's didn't go the right way (as she was usually leading), Ram would say, "Why like this, Julia? Why like this?" and, "What can do go Kathmandu."

Camel loaded and ready to head off

The obligatory camel shadow photo

The desert scenery was typically just sand and scrubby bush. Scattered around are small villages accessible by jeep tracks and camel. Recently, the government has been building windmills everywhere, creating quite a surreal look. As I watched Julia riding the camel past the windmills, I couldn't help but think that it all seemed like some twisted Don Quijote reality -- with camels replacing horses and steel behemoths the humble windmills of the Don's day, though I suspect the villages may have looked somewhat the same.

Julia gets ready to battle the windmills

Donkey-jote. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

Each night we'd camp on the dunes, and each day we'd stop midday for several hours under the shade of scrubby desert trees. Three times a day, before each meal Ram would cook some chai, saying, "First drinking chai, power coming, then food cooking." Breakfast was boiled eggs and toast, lunch and dinner curried vegetables and chapati (Flatbread made from flour and water). All were cooked over campfires.

"Chai drinking, power coming"

Dawn on the dunes

Two animals are out of place here

Apparently this was just after I brushed the majority of the sand off my face... Morning after a sandstorm on our first night.

The trip was super relaxing and a good time for reflection. I've been thinking a lot about the way Indian people live, and how I live here and at home. It's been difficult to try to understand the privilege that I have, that I am able to come here and live so seemingly inexpensively, and that the local people learn to speak my language while I do not have to learn theirs. This is something I think I'll grapple with for the rest of the trip.

There must be some deeper meaning here

Well it was relaxing until the last night. Around three in the afternoon it got stormy, with rain, dust, lighting and thunder all swirling around. We made camp and did a mad dance of moving the stuff and the tarp around to try to keep the blankets and other things dry. Eventually we strung the tarp up between some bushes and had a decent shelter. As we were camping a few kilometers from Ram's village, several of the local goat herders stopped by to hang out for a while. One man took our pot and returned minutes later with fresh goat milk, which we used for chai. The lightning and thunder continued into the night, and we fell asleep more than eight hours after it started with the sky still flashing every few seconds.

Several goat herders joined us for chai

A goat herder relaxing just after bringing us fresh goat milk for chai.

Drinking that chai.

Desert lightning

The last day we stopped in Ram's village and were caught in a frenzy of excitement for our cameras. For over an hour, the village people, mostly children and some women, swirled around us asking for pictures and excitedly looking at the ones just taken. A few of the women coaxed me to take a picture of one woman, who laughed happily, then harassed me for 10 minutes not believing I had erased the photograph (I had erased it, sadly, as it was a great photo of her throwing her head back in a howl of laughter).

These boys insisted I take dozens of photos of them. I love this one.

Julia gives out candy

This kid has a unique look

Showing them their photos

Village kids

Our guide, Ram, and his son

More photo sharing - The kids love seeing their pictures

A village home. The sheet metal is the only thing that betrays this being the 21st century.

Women return from the well with water

Back in Jaisalmer, we spent a day checking out the fort and palace and then went to the home of a schoolteacher I met on the bus from Jodhpur. He and his family were very excited to show us their photo albums, and his children their toys and schoolwork. We enjoyed a great home cooked meal with them.

Fort courtyard

Me on the fort balcony

The only fort in India that people live inside

Julia looks out from a fort balcony

The fort palace is home to more pigeons than royalty these days

The main fort entrance

Fort walls

Wait... What kind of beer?

The next day we visited the Jain temples inside the fort before I left for Delhi. On the train I played cards with a husband and wife who spoke almost no English, though somehow I learned their game. I wanted to try to talk to them more, though when I woke up in the morning they had already gotten off. I'm spending the night here tonight. Tomorrow I take an early morning train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then continue on with an overnight train to Varanasi. Julia is heading to Mumbai to get a flight to Thailand.

Jain temple ceiling

Carved pillars inside the Fort's Jain temples

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jodhpur: The Blue City

This post is dedicated to Jeff Rosen, a great man who I will miss dearly. I love you and send my regards to you and everyone who is mourning your passing.

Jodhpur is a sprawling city in the middle of the Western Indian desert known for its huge Mehrangarh fort and the blue houses of the old city. We spent our first afternoon wandering the streets and bazaars of the old city, tasting various street foods as we went. A very old looking man approached me and asked where I am from, the typical first question from many Indians. When I told him "From USA," he immediately invited us to his home to have chai and talk about. Of course a red flag went up as I'm not accustomed to being invited to someones home within 5 seconds of meeting them. Eventually we decided to take the man, Allen's number and stop by the next day.

When I called the next day, it seemed he hardly remembered us, but we decided to go have a chat with him anyway. He turned out to be 83 years old so it's hard to blame him for the lapse in memory. We ended up spending a few hours with him, learning about Indian culture and trying to explain things like how people fall in love. It was great fun and we definitely made that old guy's day.

Us and Allen

The fort is pretty much the only thing to see in the city, so the morning after we arrived we trekked up the steep streets of the old city to visit it. We arrived to find that the courtyard beyond the first gate had become the set for some movie. After declining the invitation to don a soldier's outfit and be an extra in the film, we got our audio tour setups, me in English and Julia in German and entered the fort. The stone wall by the first gate is splattered with craters of cannonballs from one siege, but the audio tour was excited to tell us that in 500 years the fort was never taken by force. It's an imposing thing, I can't imagine trying to siege the place. We also visited the Jaswant Thada, a cenotaph memorializing some maharaja from the city.

Fort view from the Jaswant Thada

Opulent room in the Mehrangarh fort palace

At the omelet shop; The guy's been cooking eggs here for 30 years

Fort and old city

Fort defenses

Today we took a local bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. We'd arranged with the guy at our guest house in Jodhpur to check out his friend's guest house in Jaisalmer, but when the bus arrived we were assaulted by half a dozen men representing at least as many guest houses. One, a young kid, had our names from the guy in Jodhpur, though as the others saw and heard them they began to use them too, trying to trick us into going with them. It was a crazy scene, and we did end up going with the kid, who took us too a cool guest house inside the fort here in Jaisalmer. There we met two people who are leaving tonight and were raving about the camel safari they'd taken. We decided to go and we will leave tomorrow morning for four days of camel riding through the desert. I'm really excited.

Looking out from the Jaswant Thada cenotaph

A man makes bangles from gum tree resin

Old city doorway

A woman puts her child on a motorbike to pose for the camera

Through old city alleyways looking up to the fort

Decaying motorbike

Man in a workshop

Women buy spices at the bazaar

Bazaar and clocktower

Some kids invited to play in their alleyway game of cricket

Small cenotaph at the Jaswant Thada