India

April, 2014

Mumbai Airport

So far, India is the most fantastic place I’ve visited.  Never have I seen such a country of contradictions, extremes, culture, religion, colour, smells and people. We have only touched the surface of this magnificent country and for a change Ray and I are in complete agreement that we will be back.

Almost 20% of the world’s population lives in India – 1.3 billion people.  80% of Indians are Hindus and most of the rest are Muslim. I mention this because religion plays a larger part in the culture here than we are used to in the west, from clothing, food, custom and family.  In Varanasi religion was in our face.

Mumbai

Our Indian adventure began in Mumbai. We booked a “beachfront” hotel The Citizen, because it is close to the airport and our two-day visit here is just a stopover on our way to Nepal.  In our customary fashion we explored Mumbai the way we would explore any other city, on foot.  I woke up early in the morning and took my coffee down to the beach to watch the action. At 6 AM,  Juhu Beach is a very busy place.  I can see hundreds of people, most just walking somewhere but others exercising and school children in uniforms. At no time ever did I see a lounge chair, a swimmer or any other form of relaxation. This isn’t that kind of beach. Ray and I just set off along the beach to explore.

Juhu Beach

It doesn’t take long to find the real India. I don’t know how many times I used that phrase “the real India” because the real India is so many things. It’s what you hear about and then so much more. So it doesn’t take long for us to find all sorts of real Indias today.

At the end of Juhu Beach we walk up onto a local street. You could not call the trash on the beach littering – there are piles of garbage caught by an old boat. Presumably the boat has prevented it from being carried out to sea. One of India’s solution to pollution is still dilution but I think they might be near the end of that little trick. There’s no shortage of people whose job it is to  just sweep trash towards the ocean so the tide can look after it. You will never buy another plastic bottle of water after visiting India.

We thought we were walking through a slum when we first turned inland, but we later saw slums and this was not that.  I believe now this was just a local shopping district. It was a fantastic first impression of India. There were street vendors everywhere selling anything you could imagine. Buckets of spices, fruit, vegetables, electronics, clothes – I couldn’t possibly list it all. In among the vendors are the sacred cows that rule India, cleaning up any edible trash that’s been disposed of. There’s also goats and chickens. Children in well-pressed uniforms are heading to school. We got completely lost.

Commercial Laundry in Mumbai

We turned a corner from this street and everything changed. The buildings were suddenly beautiful, the streets were swept spotlessly clean and there are statues and plaques and other art all honouring famous Bollywood actors and actresses. We walk past the most exclusive hotel in India, with armed guards to keep us out. On the other side of the street there is what looks like miles of trash on the side of the river, but we find out it is actually a commercial laundry. The trash is really the sheets and towels for the fancy hotels across the street. India!

The Mumbai commuter trail

We’ve walked for a long time when we think we must be getting close to downtown. In fact downtown was a train ride away. There are two types of commuter trains in Mumbai, the mixed and the women only.  There’s a lot of sex separation in India for various reasons, sexual assault being only one of them. If Ray and I had separated here I doubt we’d ever see each other again, so I  take the mixed train with him. At first I am the only woman, and then another woman boards with her husband and we nod to each other. Ray and I are the only white people.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj train station

We arrive at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj train station, a Unesco world heritage site and the headquarters of the India railway system. To say its a busy place is an understatement. Outside the traffic is like nothing I’ve seen, and to explore Mumbai we have to cross the street. To cross the street you must just dash out across many lanes of traffic, avoiding both cars and cows.

Downtown Mumbai is like any other large city. Just getting here was exhausting and we walked up and down every street looking for a cold beer. It took a long time, all we found were shops selling everything, just absolutely everything. Many restaurants here didn’t sell alcohol – almost 100% of the population belongs to religions that don’t drink.  We found a beer eventually and it was so good.

rush hour at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj train station

By the time we play Frogbert again to cross back to the train station and line up for our tickets, it was rush hour.  We were in controlled chaos but as we stood looking at our tickets, trying to figure out where to go, a young man came to our aid.  It is the people of India that I loved the most. This young man took us by the arm and deposited us onto our train, going well out of his way. This happened to us time and again in India.

living beside the train tracks

You know those photos of people hanging out the doors of the train? That’s the kind of train that we were on. Here’s a little secret – the train is full of empty seats. People just enjoy hanging out the door and they jostle for position there. Looks impressive but we had plenty of room inside the car.

We realized the community we had started our day walking through was nowhere near a slum. The people living along train tracks, the squatters at the airport, they are the slums. Our first day in India was wonderful but exhausting. We are off to Nepal tomorrow.

Varanasi

our sanctuary in Varanasi, the Shiva Paying Guesthouse

Varanasi is the Hindu holy city, where Hindus go to die. It is the oldest inhabited city on earth.  Varanasi sits on the Ganges River.  This is where we land after a month of trekking in Nepal. and it is culture shock.

We are staying at the Shiva Paying Guesthouse, and they send a driver to the airport to meet us. On the drive into the city we are in three accidents, one with a motorcycle, one with a cow and another one I barely noticed. We didn’t bother to stop,but our driver had words through the window. It’s really, really hot. The road kept getting narrower as we drove. At one point we heard a strange language bellowing out over the noise of the traffic and the busy street. That was a Muslim prayer service being broadcast, a daily occurrence. Finally the driver stops and this is as far as he can drive. A little boy is there to guide us the rest of the way that we must walk. Thank goodness for backpacks, you would not want to roll anything through these streets. We jostled our way through the narrow streets, squeezing between cows and motorcycles, street vendors, dogs and children playing soccer. It’s almost 40 degrees now.

When we arrive at our hotel, the young boy brings us to the office of a man who says to us “Please, sit down, rest – you have arrived”, and indeed we had. Our room is on the third floor, overlooking the Ganges River. We have air conditioning, a beautiful 4 poster bed with mosquito netting wafting romantically in the breeze, a well equipped private bathroom with both a western and squat toilet, a shower – and cold beer. Ahhh …

Water buffalo

Varanasi has been India’s spiritual city for thousands of years. The waters of the Mother Ganga (Ganges River) is holy, and Hindus cremate their dead on the riverbank here. There are three crematorium pyres in use here all day long, every day. Funeral parades through the streets are a common site. The few people that cannot be cremated, priests or young boys, for instance, still go into the river. Water buffalo come every night to swim. The entire cities laundry is washed in the river.  People travel from all over India to swim in and drink of the waters of the Mother Ganges.

There are many ancient palaces built along the river, abandoned now but still belonging to other cities and districts in India. These were where people near the end of their lives would come to stay, so they could die here.

The main Hindu Temple is located near the cremation area on the river, and a Muslim mosque has been built right beside it, almost touching. There is clearly tension between the two religions here. As you near the temple at prayer time, crowds in the narrow streets thicken. When you get close enough, there are soldiers, with dogs and machine guns on the streets. It would be unimaginable bloodshed if a machine gun were used on these crowded, claustrophobic streets. I don’t know what situation has led to this tension.

One day we stopped at the famous Blue Lassi, for a refreshing yogurt drink. While we enjoy our treat, with other tourists that have wandered in here, we watch body after body carried down the street to the cremation site. You can watch the cremation, but you cannot photograph them.  Varanasi is also famous for silk, and I get to tour a warehouse, and meet with a silk man.

Every night in Varanasi there is a huge Hindu celebration. Thousands of people attend, having traveled from all over India. The celebration takes place on the shore of the Ganges River, and many people are watching from boats. It’s a celebration complete with fire dancers, chanting and street vendors.

Stoopa in Sarnath

Sarnath, a town not far from Varanasi, is whereBuddha delivered his first sermon in 528 BC.  We were able to hire a tuk-tuk to take us there. This is where we first noticed that I am rather famous here. A group of young men fall in love with me and we take many photos together. At one point Ray wants to get in the photo and it becomes clear its me they want.

Before leaving Varanasi we take in the sunrise boat tour of the river. If we thought the river was busy during the day, the crowds at sunrise were amazing. We lit a candle and let it go into the river in a little tin cup. Normally I would consider this littering, but I couldn’t see that it mattered here.

After three wonderful days in Varanasi we begin our Indian train adventure.

The Indian Railway

The Indian Railway

We are now traveling across the country, almost 2000 kilometres, to the resort area of Goa. We spend three nights on the train – cost is about $100 CDN for the both of us. We would have liked a first class ticket, but they were sold out, so we’re traveling 3A – which is 6 people per sleeper.

Our first night on the train is a lot of fun. Our berth mates include 2 Dutch girls, a French girl and a Chinese man. We have a wonderful time that first night. The first thing we did was take out food we’d packed and share it. The conductor came by with the “rules”. The rules were written on a piece of paper in several languages and we all had to sign them to prove we’d read them. The first “rule” was never to take food from another passenger.

Indian Trail

We found this hilarious and didn’t cooperate with the conductor fast enough. He got quite angry and intimidating. We may have been the only white people on this train.  We had a great evening and I slept like a baby on the top of three berths. We arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal in the morning.

We spent the day in Agra, hiring a taxi to hold our backpacks and give us a tour of the Taj Mahal. This worked great but was relatively expensive. I say relative because we call this our hundred-dollar day. For that we got both a taxi driver and a professional guide for the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, plus a fancy lunch.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, and was even a bit of a photographer. We have some great photos of us here. I was still famous, this time with a group of women that insisted on having their photo taken with me. The guide confirmed that it was because I am a white, western woman.

While we were waiting on the platform for our next train, a little boy took a liking to the little compass Ray wears on his belt-loop. Ray took it off and was showing him how to use it. Just then the train came, and Ray gave it to him.  The boy, his father and a small crowd were all just thrilled with this simple gift.

We were boarding the train for 2 more days and nights now, and an entire family had squatted in our seats. They even made up the berth and have a boy pretending to sleep. The train pulls out of the station with us standing there arguing – with no one who speaks English. It takes a while to work things out, but we end up in a private berth for two for the entire trip. We both believe this is instant karma, a gift returned from the little boy on the platform.

For two days we watch the countryside of India go by the window. We were told there would be no food on the train, but the opposite is true. We are almost harassed by vendors selling chai tea, snacks and fried food. Whenever the train  stopped at a station people would jump on and start selling. The chai tea man was always available. No one on the train spoke English so we never knew how long any stop would be. I never got off the train, but Ray did once and I wondered if I’d ever see him again.

There were two bathrooms on the train – one western and one a squat toilet. Both were just a hole on to the track, and you really don’t want to use that western toilet seat. I was reading an English language newspaper, and there was an article about a multi-million dollar lawsuit that had just been settled. The money was going to be paid out to a caste of people whose job it is to clean human waste with their bare hands. These people contract all manner of illnesses from this and have won this major award. The problem is that they are all still doing this. The main employer is the Indian Railway.

Goa

When you picture India I doubt you picture Goa. Goa is a state on the coastal region of India, and we are heading to Patnem Beach, and to a group of beach huts called April 20. A short taxi ride from the train station takes us to the beach, and a short walk down the beach takes us to our hut. We arrive to complete paradise.

After the chaos of Kathmandu, trekking for a month in the Himalayans, the heat and cremations in Varanasi and three nights on the Indian train, we arrive in Patnem Beach and just melt into relaxation. There is nothing to do here but swim, read, stroll the beach and eat. The water is the perfect temperature. Every evening we would head into the water and float for hours until the sun set. We would watch from the water as the restaurants all along the beach pulled their tables out on to the sand, waited till the sun set and candles on these tables were lit. We would then head into our little beach hut and shower the salt and sand off and stroll off to find dinner. I never wore anything but a bathing suit.

 

One day we walk over to Palolem Beach, next door to ours and are a little shocked at the crowds and the vendors. One day we did yoga on the beach at the retreat next door. We adopted a dog and a cat. We booked seven days here, but when our time was up we couldn’t seem to leave. We had to leave our beachfront hut and move a few steps inland, but we stayed until our flight home forced us to leave.

There is nothing else in India we care to see now, but we will be back.

Sunset on the Ganges