Burning in Beranas

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The ancient city of Beranas is rumored to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is so old that consorts of Hindu gods are said to have been cremated here. Generations of maharajas have built towering palaces, which served as a sort of retirement homes, on the banks of the Ganges River, affectionately called Mother Ganga. The city is now more commonly called Veranasi, the holiest city in India.

It is a truly magical place, a confluence of spiritual energy. Throngs of pilgrims come here to bathe, cleanse, and purify body and spirit in the filthy water of the holiest river in India. Dying here or being cremated releases a Hindu from the constant cycle of reincarnation, so life meets death on the banks of the Ganges. Funeral pyres burn constantly as male members of family watch quietly. Beggars, sadhu holy men, pilgrims, hawkers, scammers, boatmen, tourists, kids playing cricket, cows, goats, dogs, and buffalo mingle on the concrete steps which line the river. Nevertheless, in spite of all the happening, the banks of the Ganges in Veranasi are quiet and peaceful.

It is one of those strange places which escape description. Words Photos do not capture the motion, and video fails to convey the smell and the vibe, and words do not do it justice. You just have to be there.

In Veranasi we learned a bit about the Hindu religion and ceremonies, concentrating mainly on the ones which come at the end of life. Bodies of the recently deceased are constantly brought out to the bank of the river on simple bamboo stretchers. They are bathed one last time in the river, while worker boys deliver firewood and build a simple pyre. The body is placed on top, covered with more wood, and certain rituals take place. Fire is brought from the eternal flame in the Shivas temple, and everyone quietly watches as the body returns to ashes. As the flames settle down the remains are shuffled to the center of the flame, and the skull is cracked with a stick to help the cremation. Only male family is present, as women tend to weep and there is a danger they may throw themselves into the fire after their husband. The entire process is very casual, somewhat mechanical, strangely un-solemn, and quite mundane. Sitting right there watching, it is difficult to grasp that human bodies are simply burning right there.

While we were there, there was a full moon and a lunar eclipse. We stayed up all night watching larger than usual masses of people celebrating a Shiva festival. People were bathing en-masse. Priests offered blessings, some people slept, others sang. People were in various stages of getting dressed and undressed for their encounter with the holy water of the Ganges. As the night sky turned dark blue, the morning puja cleansing rituals took over the banks of the river. Meanwhile, in the distance, bodies kept burning on the pyre at the burning ghats. It was a quiet subdued carnival of human spirit and devotion.

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Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur

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India, or should I say Indians, are wearing on me. You ask for directions, and everyone gives you an answer. Unfortunately, many of them do not know the way, and instead of saying “I don’t know” or doing the stupid head wobble they make something up on the spot. I was interrupted incessantly while reading a book to answer your standard “What country? How old? Like India?” questions. I understand you are excited to meet a foreigner, but I was also excited to get into a book on a long and hot bus journey. There is the constant idiotic honking which is brought to new levels which in the end serve no purpose whatsoever except to shred everyone’s nerves. There are also memories of the rudeness they exhibit when we met them traveling in earlier countries. And finally, lest not forget the very helpful man who caused us to end up in 2nd class sleeper for a night long trip. Maybe it is the heat and the long and tiring journeys making me grouchy.

Bishnupur was just a day stop along the route from Kolkata to Veranasi. We toured the terracotta temples and took in the small town atmosphere. It was hot, but the temples were beautiful. It was also nice to be out of a city and away from the constant honking.

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We arrived exhausted in New Town, on the periphery of Kolkata. We met with Avneesh, our Couchsurfing host who would be housing us for our two nights in the second largest city in India.

We took it easy here. After sleeping through the first half of the day in order to make up for the sleepless night in a 2nd class train seat, we headed into the city. We strolled the streets and visited the Victoria Memorial.

We spent a lot of time with Avneesh. He was really nice and we spent a lot of time talking about India and being educated about its many eccentricities. Avneesh also shared our love for food, which led us to visit some excellent West Bengali restaurants and let the food put great big smiles on our faces.

The love affair between Indians and their car (or motorcycle) horn is second to none. I thought that in Indonesia or in Vietnam people blared their horn a lot, but Indians take it to a whole new level. In the city, there is constant blaring of the horn. An average driver, I estimate, spends about 20% of his time behind the wheel honking. It serves no purpose. We tried hard to see what caused Indians to honk, but could not find a set answer. In general, as long as there is a car in front of them, Indians will blare their horn.

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Frustrating Travels

We booked our rail tickets from NJP to Kolkata a few days in advance. It’s a 12 hour journey. We booked sleeper bunks, considering the train departs at 8pm. We were number 46 on the waiting list.

We continued checking but our position on the waiting list did not drop quickly. When we arrived in Siliguri, we pretty much knew we would not drop 20 places on the waiting list and wanted to buy a bus ticket instead. However, a well dressed Indian man approached us and spoke very unclear English, choosing awkward and hard to decipher vocabulary.

Man: I overhear you go to Kolkata. Don’t go bus. Foreigner have guaranteed seats on trains. You have guaranteed seats. You understand me?
Me: No. ( I was not sure if he was asking, telling, or offering to help)
Man: Foreigner have guaranteed seats…
Me: (Interrupting) I understand the words, but I do not know what you mean.
Man: Where are you from?
Me: From Poland.
Man: Ah. English is your second language. That is why you do not understand!
Me: No, I….
Man: (Interrupting) I will stop using my American accent. Foreigner have guaranteed seats on trains. (Nothing changed in his accent)
Me:  We have reservation but we are on the waiting list. We called and the man said that we have no guaranteed seats.
Man: He told you wrong information.
Me: Are you 100% sure about this?
Man: Yes, follow me.

And so it started. We followed him to the train station in Siliguri. He ignored the ticket windows and barged right into a back office. He spoke Hindi with the woman there. I glanced at the computer screen to see that we were still on the waiting list. After this exchange, he said “We must go, quickly, to NJP.” So we got an auto-rickshaw and went to the train station from which our train would depart. At about this time also, the bus we inquired about earlier left.

We got to the train station in NJP and hurried over to the station master. Our over-eager stranger spoke with the man in charge, and then turned to us and with a sunken face said “There is bad news.” I told him “We knew we were not getting on the train a long time ago! That is why we wanted to go by bus. You said you were sure!” In a galling attempt to shed responsibility he replied “I have been misinformed. Bus is not a good idea.” “No shit, considering it left 20 minutes ago,” I thought, thanked him for all the help up till now, and refused any additional assistance.

We quickly acquired two dirt cheap 2nd class seater places and our train pulled up. We looked through the cars, but, after not finding any room, placed our bags in the hallway and crouched down. We were mentally getting psyched for the 12 hour overnight journey ahead of us.

A man in a khaki outfit and an ancient rifle slung across his back politely informed us that there is room for our luggage and us. He asked a man sleeping on the luggage rack to take up less space so our bags would have a place to rest. The people filling up the bench also scrunched further together and we now had a place to sit.

The night in 2nd class seater was grueling. Squeezed together on the bench, we shifted from one uncomfortable position to another, trying to eek out precious minutes of sleep. I was envious of the man laying down sleeping on the luggage rack, who only had to contend with our two backpacks. We had four other people on the bench.

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Tea Time in Darjeeling

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Darjeeling is located 2000 meters above sea level. The views of the Himalayas are said to be spectacular, but the weather at this time of the year it was low hanging clouds all around. Tea grows really well here and there is not much else to do other than relax in this former hill station of the British. After our tough trip from Kathmandu this suited us just fine. We relaxed, drank tea and coffee and walked around town. We visited the Himalayan Institute with its fascinating collection of equipment used by Tanzing Norgay during his various Everest climbs The museum also exhibits a widely inacurate diorama of the Himalayas, a telescope gifted by Hitler, and a dead eagle that was found on some mountain expedition. The zoo here is also quite interesting and we enjoyed the beautiful snow leopards, cloud leopards, and the incredbly cute red pandas, which are also known as firefoxes.

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White Water Adventures in the Himalayas

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We recovered sufficiently after trekking to Everest Base Camp and around. We did some sight seeing, a little celebrating, and a whole lot of relaxing and the time came to get up and move around some more.

We booked a two day white water rafting trip down the Trishuli River. We did our due diligence. We walked from agency to agency, compared offers, haggled a bit, and then walked into another tourist agency and blindly booked a two day trip, barely asking any questions.

It started quite fun. After a few hours on the windy and bumpy Nepalese roads, we were piling into two rafts with a bunch of Nepalese college guys. The trip down the river was calm and relaxing and occasionally interrupted by adrenaline pumping rapids, unexpected walls of water drenching everyone, and a hard paddling moment to try to save the guy that fell out of our companion raft.

Unfortunately, after this ended our guide said we would be doing the same stretch of the river the next day. This was crummy as we were quite sure we booked one two-day rafting trip, and not two one-day rafting trips.

We camped out on the river bank. We drank some raksi, ate a nice filling dinner, and drank some more raksi around a bonfire with our new Nepalese friends. Eventually we got tired, they got drunk enough on the weak rice wine to start dancing with their shirts off, and I knew it was time to go to sleep.

The next day, after some arm twisting, our guide relented and instead of doing a deja vu trip down the same river section on the same raft, we were getting an intro lesson in river kayaking.

Kayaking looks deceptively simple. You are tightly wedged into a little plastic tub, covered in a waterproof polypropylene skirt, and have a double ended paddle to fend for yourself. The kayak is not as stable as it looks, and flipping it back to the upright position is not as simple as one would think.

We’ve spent a good part of the day doing T-rescue, practicing guitar and skim rolls, and occasionally ejecting from the skirt and swamping the kayak. It seemed like we’ve spent just as much time upside down, with water filling our sinuses with water as we did the right side up. It was part of the necessary training, but learning the new skills of righting a flipped kayak came slowly and painfully.

Eventually I managed to pull off a semi-respectable guitar roll and Weronika was strutting around her half rolls. We were tired, sun burnt, and very satisfied with our day of training.

The next, the suffering started. Everything hurt. Even my legs, which sat motionless stuffed into the plastic body of the kayak were sore. My quads, calves, and hamstrings felt like they got a beating. Various minor muscles in my legs hurt as if someone deliberately bruised them. My forearms could not lift my backpack and my upper back was stiff.

Luckily, we hopped on a bus which after a mere 18 hours would deliver us to the Indian border. The ride was painful, my butt continued to get sore after a few minutes in one cramped position on the uncomfortable seat. The road could not have been more bumpy and still passable. The driver took his turn furiously, overtook everything in his path. Looking through the front windshield all I could see was back of truck, cliff, wall, and so on. The trip was meant to last 18 hours, but through his suicidal driving skills he managed to shave two hours off. I still do not know if this is a good or a bad thing.

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What a city! Walking the streets of old town is an assault on all the senses.

First and foremost, taste.  Food is everywhere. Guys selling small crispy pani puris filled with chick peas and cold broth. Sweets shops which manage to make sweets sweeter than sugar itself. Tandori grills, samosa friers, Indian, Nepali, Newari, Mustang, Tibetan, Chinese, Italian, Israeli restaurants, and quite a passable steakhouse to complete the mix. And then there are the lassie stalls. This sweet yoghurt-like drink is heavenly and can be found in streetside stalls all over the city. We drank many glasses each day and never managed to tire of this ambrosia-like beverage.

The sights match the tastes. The old town is visibly… old. Dusty buildings line the narrow streets. Alleyways lead to hidden courtyards and temples. Ancient statues older than whole western civilizations stands idly embedded in buildings or little shrines. Elaborate wood carvings and priceless religious artifacts grace the streets. Life revolves around this all.

People are everywhere. The women wear colorful clothes. Dirty beggars mingle with men in traditional Newari hats. Red tikka dots adore forehads all around. Standing in a busy market square, you feel surrounded by so much humanity. It almost feels overdone and fake, as if you are on a Hollywood movie set and a director decided to place as much variety of people in one place, and have them mingle and go around doing their business.

The sounds are also there. There is constant honking and bicycle bell ringing as too much foot traffic mixes with too many bikes and motorbikes and the occasional taxi or delivery truck on streets built centuries ago. There are the tourist taunts, the constant chatter between customer and vendor, the revving of an engine, the squeak of worn break pads, and the occasional “om mani padme hum” mantra se to music coming from a knick knack shop.

Surprisingly, touch is also well exercised. You constantly bump into people as you make your way down the crowded streets. You have to lean against a building to avoid a car passing through. And sometimes you are not successful at dodging traffic and a bike gently prods you in your lower back to get you out of the way.

The least pleasant though are the smells. There is a lot of pollution and dust is in the air. Sewers spew fumes and garbage rots in the streets. Occasionally, you get a pleasant whiff of the cooking curry in a nearby kitchen or the aroma of the spices sold by a merchant.

The other thing you notice in Kathmandu is the people. There are so many different kinds of folks going around their daily business it makes your head spin. My favorite was the man who crouched on the quiet side street near our hotel and tried to sell us is wares, which included nail clippers, combs, brushes, lighters and cotton buds. We always answer “No thank you” to which he would always reply “Heh? No business? No business for me?”. And then there was the tour group from Hungary who were all dressed in male monk robes and went around the Swayambhunath temple, feverishly buying every trinket in sight, snapping photos of each other. When asked about their strange and inappropriate attire, they claimed “We come to study. It’s complicated. Difficult to explain.” It was hilarious, but  did feel a bit bad for laughing as I am sure they were conned into this by some tour agency n Budapest promising authentic meditation retreats.

Kathmandu is a very vibrant city. It is loud, polluted and smelly. It is also lively, colorful, and enchanting. Sitting in the Durbar Square on a centuries old temple you watch life go about, just as it has for many hundreds of years before, right before your eyes.

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